LONGING, IN THE SENSE OF SEPARATION ENDURED, BECOMES ALMOST HEROIC
THOSE industries it hasn’t eviscerated, the internet seems to have transformed for the better. This was brought home to me recently at the offices of a prosperous architectural firm with its HQ in Sydney: the computer allows architects in different cities — in different countries — to brainstorm ideas in real time; to send video of a concept drawing, as it is being executed, to clients and collaborators.
There’s a big wow factor to all this. It’s fun. It’s empowering. It hastens and deepens the design process. In fact it’s hard to imagine a downside. I don’t see anyone calling for an architectural equivalent of the retro slow-food movement.
You have to wonder, though, about the impact of this geographical and spatial compression on other aspects of life. Distance has been tamed by Skype, geography domesticated by Google Earth, and history archived by Wiki. Absence, meanwhile, has become an anachronism. And it’s this, I think, that needs to be noted.
I remember the first time I received an SMS while travelling overseas: I’d barely stepped off the plane and friends were asking about the weather in Barcelona. Now it’s all about pictures and videos: press a few buttons, peck in an address, and your smiling mug enjoying a beer in Munich is being viewed at home in Bateman’s Bay.
But the obsolescence of absence runs deeper. By depriving us of its bitter-sweet tang we lose a taste that was known keenly, and that shaped the interior lives. The pain of absence gave rise to the experience of longing that lies at the heart of romantic love. But do we really know longing as an emotion? Our loved ones, or at least their simulacra, are never that far away.
Parting, for Shakespeare’s Juliet, was a ‘‘ sweet sorrow’’. The sorrow is in the separation, the sweetness in the heightened reunion. But if those two over-heated Veronese teens had been in possession of iphones they would have been texting till dawn, and there’s no telling where that would lead. But more to the point, how do you create a love story when there are no impediments to that shameless dialogue between lovers that is the very stuff of true love: its fabric, its essence.
The word longing has a rather lovely etymology entwined in those Germanic tongues that we find unfashionable, despite the fact they nourish so much of our own language. Variations on longing pop up in old English, Norse and high German.
If you drop longing into Babel fish you get as the French equivalent desir ardent, which just goes to show what a linguistic wonder our longing is, managing as it does to convey separation (as length of time or spatial distance), and, through layers of emotional association, absence and the unrequited desire it provokes in the lover.
Of course longing, in English, can also simply mean the more limited ardent desire, as in the French, or impatient desire (‘‘I’m longing to have a go’’).
I’m not trying to suggest that longing is an entirely positive emotion, or that it is necessarily good for us. There is something rather sickly about Matthew Arnold’s passive yearning in the lines:
Come to me in my dreams, and then By day I shall be well again! For then the night will more than pay The hopeless longing of the day.
And nostalgia, of course, is a special form of pathological longing: longing for home.
But it’s well to remember that desire under the strain of separation is the mainstay of Jane Austen’s fiction. It saturates George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Thomas Hardy’s fictional oeuvre, as well as the Bronte sisters’ two masterpieces.
In the work of these canonical English novelists longing, in the sense of separation endured, becomes almost heroic. Romance, by this process, is transfigured. It becomes tragedy. Longing also plays a part in the classical and Romantic music repertoire, in the work of Beethoven, Schubert and especially Schumann.
I’m sure that we’ll be able to produce art of great feeling, even when we’ve abolished longing. And yet we do seem in danger of losing a taste for Juliet’s ‘‘ sweet sorrow’’. If absence makes the heart grow fonder what happens to the heart when we are never really absent? It doesn’t, I suspect, grow.