This article first appeared in the 'Saturday Extra', The Age, March 30, 2002
'Dear Madam. I long to hold my child again and look into his eyes and see the spark of life in them. This will heal me of the terrible sadness I have felt since he was taken from me. Faithfully yours etc.'
This letter is from the 'Collected Longing' exhibition, held recently at the Museum of Modern Oddities. Brazilian artist and curator, Gabriella Zitsk has been collecting letters on the subject for almost forty years. Some of these letters are exhibited, and responses are elicited, from around the world. Zitsk's concept is exceedingly simple. The museum provides a book, as well as sending letters out, inviting people to answer this question: 'What is that you long for?'
People's answers ranged widely. The variousness of their responses suggests that it is the intensity of the feeling that defines a thing as something you long for rather than the object itself. Answers included 'A job', 'World peace', 'Integrity', 'A passion beyond the sexual', 'Love', 'Someone to do the dishes all the time', 'A husband', 'Chooks for fresh eggs', 'arms, all wrapped around me', 'Long legs'.
The most commonly expressed longing was about children: to have them, to protect them or, as in the letter above, to bring them back to life. Children themselves seem to be the physical embodiment of longing, of the wish to continue in the world. To quote Gibran Kahlil, 'Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.'
Every October, as the days get longer and warmer, I think I see a close friend, Tim Conigrave, in the distance. Inevitably I begin to walk towards him before I remember he died 7 years ago, and I have spun him out of Spring: the smell of the air, the warmth of the slow, lengthening days before he died. I do not think of him a lot between times, but every year this happens. People who have had people close to them die suffer terribly on anniversaries partly because of this: the power of the senses to recreate memories, both fabulous and painful.
This kind of physical ache, this intensity, we call 'longing'. We often long for something we have been separated from, by death, geography, or the ravages of time. There is an image a friend of mine uses which helps me conceptualise this distance, or stretch, in the emotion. My friend tells me he feels an acute sense of longing when he is sitting on the beach at Bondi looking to the lights on the other side of the bay. He says he doesn't even know what it is he is pining for, but that looking at the sea, looking at the uncrossable space between him and the lights and all that they might mean, is like looking at longing itself.
All emotions are hard to pin down, but longing is particularly elusive. When people talk about longing what they describe often seems to be the same as desire. What is the difference between the two emotions? If we imagine we are in love with someone and miss them keenly, is that longing, or desire? If we find ourselves waiting anxiously on the beginning of the mango season, which emotion is that? Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on this: longing hurts more and the feeling endures over time. In German, the word, die Sehne, tendon or sinew, comes from the same etymology as the word for longing, Sehnsucht . The relationship between these words captures this sense of longing being in the body, of it stretching us, pulling us taut, like the string of an arrow. (The word for which is also related: Bogensehne). So, longing is an intensely physical feeling, one which makes us ache. Luke Davies, a poet and novelist who writes about love, and addiction, puts it this way: 'Desire can occur in the brain, the mind, as well as elsewhere, whereas longing, true yearning, tends to bypass the rational centres and take place in the limbs. It's even beyond the heart, quite possibly.'
While longing and desire both cause physical pangs, it is often easier to figure out what makes us feel desire and then to reduce the distance between us and and the object of desire: we eat, we drink, we have sex. The experience of longing is both more shapeless and more passive. We often do not know exactly what we long for and even if we figure it out it is harder to resolve: we cannot bring dead loved ones back to life or force someone who has left us to return. Longing is often a looking back to something we have once had and desire a reaching out to the future and all that is new.
Writer Fiona Giles talks of a wish to go back in time, which would take her closer to the brother she still longs for. 'An experience of longing I've had is for my dead brother, but this is in the form of a fantasy that he has just gone away, and is living safely somewhere. A longing that he did not die - a reversal of time and an undoing of events... I recently had a spooky email from someone asking if I was related to a Tim Giles (my brother's name) who now lives in Newcastle. . . . I was clearly a different Fiona Giles from the one they'd met, but still, it reminded me how often I'd hoped for just this scenario to emerge. That of course must the nature of the unbearable longing of people who lose family members who simply disappear without trace.'
Marcel Proust's novel In search of Lost Time is also about the relationship between the past and longing. The book's hero, Swann, painstakingly manufactures his unrequited longing for Odette out of remembered paintings, phrases of music, and echoes of his first love affair, which are themselves an echo of his love for his mother. In effect he makes Odette up out of the past. But just as we can long for the undoing of time, and the damage the years have wrought, we can also long for the future to hurry up and arrive. Helen Garner put it this way: 'I recall that as a girl I longed to be 17, - I thought that then something wonderful would happen.'
Whether one wants to go back in time, or is waiting for the future, there is still this sense that we are powerless, that we must wait for fate to play its hand. Tom Bishop, an Australian academic who teaches literature at Ohio university looked the word up 'longing' for me in the OED and discovered that it was 'originally an impersonal verb with an accusative of the person.' So although longing can be intense, 'it's also oddly passive and agentless by comparison with desire, which seems so much more direct, and urgent, and active. The verb says it all: longing is a sort of intense awareness of distance, more diffused into the landscape than desire.'
Journalist and cultural theorist Ken Wark describes the passivity of longing in this way. 'Desire is for something immediate, something you can see, or feel, a voice you hear. A longing is for something a very 'long' way off, and it's a more melancholy, less assertive feeling. You wallow in the hollow of the self. Homesickness is the classic form of longing.'
This is not to say longing does not drive us to action, to movement. What we long for may be impossible to have but the intensity of the emotion still drives us: towards an imagined safe place for our children, if we are from a country at war. Overseas, towards the possibility of a lover. It leads the parents of children who have died to set up support and research groups to try and save others from the fate that has befallen them and their child. It can drive us to constant travel, to find places in the world where we feel at home. It also can drive us mad.
Is longing a western construct? Is it something that we do, along with therapy and buying white goods? While you could argue that westerners are less tolerant of the pain caused by longing and attempt to deal with it using quick fixes, the emotion itself seems to cross cultures and millenia. There is the evidence of thousands of years of literature, back to Celtic myths, Greek and Roman mythology, the bible in the West, or Buddhist sutras in the East. Seneca's Oedipus, written at the beginning of the first century is one long cry of agony and longing. In medieval tales of Knights and courtly love longing is the reason for existence. Shakespeare's characters lurch from desire to longing to agony to joy in a way which is totally recognisable to a modern audience.
More recently, the German poet Rilke has captured longing's power and elusiveness, as have all great song writers: 'I can't see my reflection in the waters/ I can't speak the sounds that show no pain/I can't hear the echo of my footsteps/Or remember the sound of my own name.' (Bob Dylan)
You would be hard pressed to find any artist who didn't tackle the emotion. As well as being the subject of their work it is also the force that impels many to create. 'Wisdom /clarity / transcendence - this is the longing that drives me to write.' Fiona McGregor, (writer).
If language is any guide, different cultures afford longing varying intensity and privilege. The slippage between longing and desire apparent in any discussion of these emotions is more pronounced in some languages than it is in English. In Italian the word for longing, is anelare (verb) or anelito (noun) but a common way of expressing the idea of longing in Italian is to use the word 'voglia' (wish) or 'desiderio' (desire) then to qualify the noun with adjectives to express the degree of intensity.
In looking the Indonesian word up in the dictionary, 'Kangen', the sentences used to explain the word suggest what it is one may long for, such as, 'I long for the homeland' and ' I miss jackfruit stew'. Almost the next entry in the dictionary is 'Kangkang' meaning 'wide apart (of legs)' which suggests how quickly the word can slip from the metaphysical to the physical.
The French words are similar to the Italian - 'desir', 'envie' - but there is the expression 'se languir de quelqu'un' (to languish after someone) which is how you would translate 'to long for someone' which seems to provide another dimension beyond the Italian possibilities.
In Italian there is a word, 'brama' which is translated as intense or fervent desire, (Dante: una lupa,che di tutte brame/sembrava carca nella sua magrezza - a female wolf, which in her leanness seemed burdened by longing). There is also the word 'agognare' which means 'to yearn for' and has the underlying sense of torment and suffering, which brings it closer to the German word for longing, Sehnsucht, which features heavily in German literature and has more intensity, is full of angst and yearning.
Everyone I spoke to for this article talked about long distance and unrequited love affairs as one of their most bitter-sweet experience of longing. Certainly it has been mine, and I have spent the last two years attempting to write a novel on the subject, trying to make sense of an emotion which felt so intense, but reduced me to such passivity. Ken Wark again, 'Long distance relationships are more about longing than desire, which is why sometime they don't work when you get to be with the person you long for.' Longing has this effect on us, we call it other names, like love or desire. Or we tell ourselves 'we are meant to be together', when it is the state of longing, rather than the person, we are hooked on.
In Aristophane's speech in Plato's Symposium he talks about a third sex, the hermaphrodite, and how we all long to be reunited, with 'our actual other half'. In this analysis, love is an attempt to dissolve difference and overcome separation. A completely primal emotion. Kathryn Harrison wrote on this subject in a recent article, 'Connubial Abyss' (Harpers Magazine, February 2000). 'What we've all had with Mother are undrawn boundaries, individuality that is, as yet, unrealised. We began not knowing where we left off and the loved one began; our flesh was one, and this absolute togetherness still has the power to compel and to terrify.' Harrison does not romanticise lack of boundaries. Her longing to know the father she had not seen since she was a baby led her into a four year affair with him when she met him as an adult, and discovered, in this world with no boundaries, horror.
Most of us long for, rather than experience such primal love. Perhaps this is why many of us secretly yearn for that lover who eluded us when we were younger, or for people we hardly know. The act of longing becomes a pulse that seems as essential to us as our heartbeat. Perhaps for this reason the pain of longing is soothed, but not cured, by being in a happy relationship.
This attraction to remaining in a state of longing can become a craving, something we might call addiction. We can be addicted to many things: romance, sex, coffee, alcohol, chocolate and drugs. Addiction, like longing, can be both psychological and physiological. 'Chocolate longings loom large in my life and though these were readily appeased this longing is a recurring one, rather than something that can be fulfilled in one act of reunion or union. Addiction longing is a longing to heal a wound, or fill a gap, that is unhealable or unfillable, except through the hard personal work of self-love.' Fiona Giles
I have a theory that longing, like addiction, is related to depression. It is nostalgic, it is melancholy. The physical feeling of it is that sadness has moved into the very cells of your body. It makes you cry, it makes you tired, it makes you feel as if you have to drag your body to move around. My own experience is that when I am depressed I experience longing acutely, which leads me to wonder whether the two are chemically similar. As Andrew Solomon argues in his recent remarkable book The Noonday Demon: an anatomy of depression, all emotions are chemically based.
My longing for a child in my early thirties was intense beyond imagining - I would gasp in pain, or cry whenever I saw a baby - an experience which is prosaically described as the biological clock. That, for me, was a form of longing that felt driven by chemistry. I did not feel I could choose to long, or not long, for a child. We discuss the body's impact on emotion freely when it comes to desire. Women ride the ebbs and flows of their sexual desire each month as their hormones shift and changes. Men (and women) with more testosterone are randier, a fact that I was reminded of in the very official atmosphere of the Commerce theatre at Melbourne University at the recent Sexconf 2001 'Belief Systems and the Place of Desire'.
At the same conference Dr Deborah Bird Rose talked about landscape and desire, speaking of landscape as a more profound place to search for self identity than sexuality. She argued that sexuality, often the focus of our desire and our longing, is forced to carry an existential load it was never meant to carry, that we invest in sexuality in ways historically unprecedented. She spoke too of cultural differences in engagement with the land, about the fact, for example, that Aboriginal languages construct country as human: 'country knows', 'country smells', 'country hears.' If we think of country like this, we have a way into understanding the intensity of homesickness, of longing for place. People who leave Australia desperate to get away from the place are often shocked by the hold they discover it has on them. 'I was in Cambridge, England, in front of the fire with a cup of tea when I made the mistake of putting the Go-Betweens on the stereo. Up until then I had been perfectly happy. I started weeping with homesickness halfway through "Cattle and Cane". . . I can only play the Go Betweens in Australia now, it's too dangerous in London.' Astrologer, and author of the best-selling Single White Email, Jessica Adams has it bad, longing for both the country of her youth (Australia) and the country of her birth (England). She has over the years spent fearsome amounts of money, time and energy attempting to live in both countries. ' I was one of the "ten pound Poms" who came out in 1973. . . . It took years for The Goodies to arrive in Tasmania, and when it did, I would not leave the TV set. When I got older, I longed for rain (true) and English punk bands like The Damned, and The Stranglers. Then I longed for stuff you can't get in Australia, like steak and kidney pudding.'
Then there is the longing for places we have never been and that may not even exist. One friend, a journalist called Deborah, called this 'beachhouse longing'. 'I have always longed for a beach house, not for the house, but for what being in a house by the sea represents; memories of childhood, having a place in the world; of the sheer joy of catchy scary waves and having no doubt that my father would catch me and that I'd be safe. Beachhouse longing is a longing for a perfect world, safe, warm, supported, happy.'
Religion has a confused relationship to longing. Yearning is many people's experience of faith as it is of love. The desire for both spiritual and physical fulfilment seems to arise from the same longing: to merge with or back into some sense of original unity. We search for God in sex and love while we demand celibacy of our religious practitioners. Longing is inherently conservative. It is a desire to return, to hold onto. What is truly radical about many spiritual paths - Buddhism being the one I know the best - is it's encouragement to let go of how one has imagined ones life would or should be. While idealism can be visionary, and fuelled by a longing for positive things, its dark side is a sense of moral superiority which can become ugly. It is what starts wars.
Many religions encourage us to rise above longing and desire, in part because these emotions are the cause of suffering. In Buddhism this is known as the Truth of Suffering and is the first of the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of all Buddhist teachings. Several key meditations in Tibetan Buddhism are on the nature of attachment: it's transcience, for example, or it's erratic nature, which leads us to divide our world into friends and enemies.
To set aside such emotions strikes many as to life-defeating and just plain boring. One friend tells me he could not imagine a life, does not want a life, without it: it is what fuels him. Sometimes I agree with him, but other times, when I am fully engaged with the world, in the present, I feel the greatest peace. I love friends and family better, live better, work better, make smarter and more generous choices.
'I find that my western friends consider attachment to be something very important. It is as if without attachment their lives would be colourless. I think we have to make a distinction between negative desire, or attachment, and the positive quality of love that wishes another person's happiness.' The Dalai Lama.
There is a poem I have read at weddings, and that a dear friend recently read at her father's funeral. It is one of the last poems Raymond Carver's wrote before he died. It takes our endless questioning on such matters and distils it:
And did you get what You wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
Put like that, it suddenly seems like the simplest thing in the world. This is what we long for. We long to be-long. To the people we love and to the land we come from.