I’ve been thinking a lot about desire lately, and the different forms it takes. How, if you are a male homosexual, you can never know what it is to desire a woman. And if you are a female homosexual, you can never know what it’s like to desire a man. Even though you might “desire” to desire differently, you can’t. And conversely, though the way you desire is the only way that you can be, the fact is that others do not feel at all the same way, and they can’t feel any other way either. These thoughts fill me with a deep reverence for the truth of feelings.
I have a friend who was an illegitimate child and never knew her father. She does not know what it feels like to have a father. Imagine…. not simply having no father of your own to attach your feelings to, but having no feelings at all about a father. “Father” is just an abstract word like “democracy.” And when she talks of her father, it’s like she is imitating the way someone sings a song. She’s not singing the song herself, just repeating the words. For her, no matter how hard she might desire to, there’s a wall that she can never get through. Most of us can’t even imagine that wall, which for her is an impenetrable fact of her life. It awes me to realize that people can live in such different realities. And yet we manage to come to each other and connect to each other even though some of us live with walls we can’t get through and others can’t see those same walls.
Another desire of mine for many years has been to understand the people of the past, to desire myself back into their time. I try to understand Karl Kraus of Austria, and Oscar Wilde of England, and Beydrich Smetana of Czechoslovakia, and Friedrich Nietzsche of Germany. When I learn about them, though, I focus on each one separately. It never occurred to me until recently that they could have known each other. Why, they could even have had dinner together, and Wilde could have recommended a doctor to Smetana to consult about the oncoming deafness that was making him frantic. I have to make conscious mental adjustments in order to think of them as living people living their mostly ordinary lives. What was extraordinary about them, after all, was a small part of the whole life. The kicker comes when I think of them trying to think about us, the future generations. What strikes me is that my time, including me in all my aliveness, was an impenetrable wall for them, just like my friend’s fatherlessness is a wall for her. No matter how hard they thought or desired, we, so alive to ourselves, remained totally un-alive to them, totally the unconnected yet-to-come.
Chiseled into a tombstone in a small cemetery outside of beautiful Colmar, in France I saw: “What you are, we were. What we are, you will be.” The words stopped me in my tracks. They reached out, friendly and gentle, and took me by the hand. Connection. Big time.