“I need a life”. A wish that is sometimes voiced (with a sigh, to a friend, in a bar) and sometimes thought (repeatedly, quietly, in solitude). We all have a hunch of what “a life” means, or at least of what it involves: other people. Lauren Berlant, a writer and teacher from the USA, writes of this notion in the journal Critical Inquiry 24 : Intimacy, A Special Issue. She writes about intimacy as an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, as a story about both oneself and others.
I learned to think about these questions in the contexts of feminist/queer pedagogy; and how many times have I asked my own students to explain why, when there are so many people, only one plot counts as "life" (first comes love, then . . )? Those who don't or can't find their way in that story - the queers, the single, the something else - can become so easily unimaginable, even often to themselves. Yet it is hard not to see lying about everywhere the detritus and the amputations that come from attempts to fit into the fold (…)
The desire for “a life” involves a hope of intimate relations that are both beautiful and lasting. The inwardness of these relations are met by a corresponding publicness, Berlant writes. Though relationships are intimate and private, they are seen. In many cases we want them to be seen. Through literature and cinema we have gotten used to experience internal lives theatrically, as though oriented towards an audience. We long for this audience to approve and applaud, and in aiming for approval we are wishing for normalcy. Many people whom Berlant calls ‘the something else’ struggle with a wish not to have to push so hard in order to have “a life”, or in other words, in order to have a life that is approved of as a life – by the audience and therefore by oneself.
“A life” or in other words a life including intimate relationships with others, is revealed by Berlant to be a story, a narrative, a plot, theatrical and inspired by cinema. “A life” is what is seen as an appropriate life in our collective memory, in our popular culture. “A life” is not what the single, the queer, the something else live.
The kinds of connections that impact on people, and on which they depend for living (if not "a life"), do not always respect the predictable forms: nations and citizens, churches and the faithful, workers at work, writers and readers, memorizers of songs, people who walk dogs or swim at the same time each day, fetishists and their objects, teachers and students, serial lovers, sports lovers, listeners to voices who explain things manageably (on the radio, at conferences, on television screens, online, in therapy), fans and celebrities - I (or you) could go on.
In summing up these connections Berlant gives a strong sense of what life is and can be apart from the ‘first comes love, then ...’ plot. Fulfillment can be found in a variety of ways, many kinds of lives can be very much worth living without qualifying as “a life”.
In the book The Master Irish novelist Colm Toibin portrays the author Henry James, focusing on James’ creative process and his personal life, providing insight in the creation of his literature as well as in his intimate day-to-day existence. The Master is a book that stands out for its integrity and subtlety, mirroring key qualities of the protagonist. The Henry James that took shape in Colm Toibin’s hands is a man who can be social, fitting the context of his intellectual nineteenth century milieu, but much more he is a man who is solitary. The book is filled with scenes in which James longs for solitude, expressed in sentences like this: (…) he wanted to be alone in his room with the night coming down and a book close by and pen and paper and the knowledge that the door would remain shut until the morning came and he would not be disturbed. James wishes to observe people, for they are the inspiration and sometimes very directly the models for the characters in his books. And then, he wishes to retreat, not to be disturbed. Furthermore, he is attracted to men and his sexuality and the secrecy surrounding it make his appearances and disappearances in society more layered.
He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment. Sometimes the dullness came to the fore with a strange and insistent ache which he would entertain briefly, but learn to keep at bay. Mostly, however, it was the contentment he entertained; the slow ease and the silence could, once night had fallen, fill him with a happiness that nothing, no society nor the company of any individual, no glamour or glitter, could equal.
Henry James, at least the version of him that is depicted in Colm Toibin’s novel, is an example of some one who does not fit in the “a life” fantasy that Lauren Berlant writes about. This seems to be due to his artistry, his devotion to his work. His whole life revolves around his writing. He does not fit the ‘first comes love, then…’ plot either. His work comes first. Though, this might have been rather different if he had lived in a time and place where homosexuality was embraced. Being queer forces people (back in James’ nineteenth century, and still today) to veil their story about themselves and others in subtlety and secrecy.
Isn’t it absurd that even in the most intimate realm of life most people are telling a story to others? Consciously or unconsciously, we are ever aware of the eyes upon us. So many people are afraid to be judged or misunderstood, terrified to be found either abnormal on the one hand or boring on the other, busy trying to fit exactly in the middle of that scale. In intimate relationships, in how one spends free time, in where one sleeps and with whom, there is a pressure to perform. There is a standard to live up to. Interestingly, this standard chiefly comes from art. Cinema, as well as novels and pop songs, provides a blueprint that many people try to live up to in their day-to-day lives. Therefore it is so important that there are works of art of many different shapes and kinds, so that people mirror themselves not only on a handsome couple in a Hollywood blockbuster, but also on a thoughtful, queer character such as Henry James in Colm Toibin’s book. If we are confronted with layered, varying stories we might become more capable of telling more layered and varying stories about ourselves.
Lauren Berlant, Intimacy : A Special Issue, Critical Enquiry #24, 1998
Colm Toibin, The Master, McClelland & Stewart, 2004