In Hoke’s last letter, Wuck, you glimpsed a rabbit hole near the term “denial.” Tantalizing as it was—“is [denial] a necessary ingredient of health?” you wondered—you needed little more than a reminder of the time to move along.
It was, I think, your description of denial as “the weakest form of hope,” Hoke, that drew us both in. Still, I don’t think any of us would argue that the word’s foremost connotations are negative. What could be worse than to be “in denial?”
I was, for that reason, surprised to find that the word’s oldest definition—“refusal of anything […] desired”—is more in line with Wuck’s and my intuition that denial need not feel so unhealthy. The more pejorative understanding of the word—“the denying of the existence or reality of a thing”—<quote-01>first appears fifty years later, in 1576<quote-01>. Denial has roughly ten definitions, by the way, including “disowning,” as in Peter’s denial of Jesus. Man. What extraordinary courage and willpower it would have taken for Peter to cast his lot with Jesus that night. Then again, what good is he on a fourth cross atop that hill?
Peter, like an animal, could not master—could not deny—his desire to live. He fared better some years later, of course, boldly denying his most primal animalistic urge in the names of human love and loyalty. As far as disciples go, I think Peter is my favorite.
<quote-02>Then there’s Dylan<quote-02>.
“I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you,” he croons again and again in that fragile, drowsy rasp of his, at least six times in six-and-a-half minutes. It is, to be sure, no ordinary love song, not a tune about the throes of infatuation or the impossible promises young lovers make. As lovely as it is—you imagined, Wuck, Dylan fans dancing to the melody at their wedding—the song implies, I think, the very austere opportunity cost of matrimony. Of course, for a man of Dylan’s advanced age and experience, the opportunity cost is minimal, but—like Peter—he gets it right in the end.
Alongside artistic expression, one of the most remarkable things we can do, I believe, is pledge the whole of our romantic love to another person. I might go so far as to say these two qualities define us as “human” beyond all others. And what is such a pledge if not an awesome expression of willpower—of denial? I mean, think of what man forgoes in the name of devotion! The electric excitement of new attraction, different shades and contours of undressed loveliness, kissable lips—falling in love! And that’s not all; we also routinely deny our ego in the name of love, our pride, our unabashed self-interests, sometimes our dreams.
Really, we deny ourselves a lifetime of future pleasures—self-serving and exhilarating—so that a present pleasure might develop into something rich and rare. In a sense, we pledge to deny the rest of the world, to master our reality, to not only ignore the advances of, say, a mysterious girl after a show, but to decidedly not fall out of love. <quote-03>No one, you know, has ever fallen out of love without letting themselves<quote-03>. <quote-11>Falling out of love is a failure of denial, a failure to successfully deny the rest of the world<quote-11>. Committing ourselves to such an existence indeed demands, as Dylan suggests, “thinking it […] all through.” We resolve not to let desire—small and animalistic—supplant our <quote-04>uniquely human vow<quote-04>.
Animals, after all, have no talent for restraint, for denial. They can be conditioned to parrot the trappings, sure, but beasts in their natural state do nothing but heed their predilections and desires.
Does, say, a red squirrel deny himself a meal by stockpiling acorns and hazelnuts? Does a feral cat deny herself a meal by toying with a dying mouse?
I’d say no in both cases. The red squirrel has likely eaten his fill and is saving up for a time when he’ll be hungry again; the impulse to hoard exists in every fiber of his being. The cat, by “playing with her food,” not only reduces chances for injury by tiring her quarry but hones hunting skills she’ll need to survive when her prey grow few and crafty. This impulse exists in every fiber of her being, as well. The squirrel and cat don’t contemplate this stuff, of course; they simply act in a way their biology demands.
Humans are different—dare I say, special—because we do contemplate stuff, and our imminent deaths most uniquely of all (but we’ll save that for another day).
Man playing with his kill is cruel, stockpiling beyond necessity greedy. Are there inherent urges within us all that yearn for such cruelty, such selfishness? Absolutely. But we have the ability to deny these urges. And how better to justify the denial of our baser urges—urges that when realized harm ourselves and others—<quote-05>than with a story<quote-05>, something we fabricate to perfectly express what we know is difficult but good.
Still, there exists a meaningful distinction, I suppose, in denying ourselves something painful as opposed to something pleasurable. Hoke, you speak of denial in your last letter in the same way Jenkins does in “Earl”: <quote-06>denial as a survival mechanism. The naked truth of your inner turmoil—“self-doubt, anxiety, mounting sadness”—is so painful that you deny its existence<quote-06>. So too the seal-loving residents of Sitka celebrate Earl the Undying to shield themselves from the harsh realities of life. Maybe this “survival denial” is less harmful when everyone’s in on the fiction: we know there’s no singular Earl out there in the icy deep, but it’s nice to pretend. This too is an illustration of that other thing we humans are uniquely great at: creating narratives and numbers to make sense of our reality, to make it all a bit more bearable. It’s lovably human and entirely understandable, a gift that must well please our maker.
And so, at the end of this same letter, Hoke, in the midst of your <quote-07>dazzling meaning-making<quote-07>, you see fit to deny us—your readers—something we desire.
“Just you wait,” you tell us.
Here’s yet another face on the twenty-sided dice that is denial: a way we humans wield denial for pleasure.
The equation is simple enough: as our pain—spreading and festering like an infection—intensifies in denial, so might our pleasure. Need we look further than the human orgasm for proof? Forestall the moment of climax without diminishing desire and—at the very least—prolong the pleasure; amplify it, if you’re doing it right. For some, looking forward to a thing can be as satisfying as the thing itself—for Proust, even more so; his foremost wish was that the gulf between desire and action remain ever impassable.
In the last bout of comments, Wuck, you made a valiant effort at summarizing all of <quote-08>Proust’s million or so words<quote-08>: “the entirety of [The Recherche],” you wrote, “oscillates between disappointment at the arrival of the expected event, and thrill at the profundity of the unexpected.” Honestly, you’re pretty damn spot on.
I won’t for a second argue that Proust’s narrator’s purest bliss derives from anything but the unexpected, from those sublime flickers of involuntary memory that whisk him away to a treasured but forgotten moment. But such surprises are few and far between; there are only a handful of them—maybe five?—in 3,400 pages. And they certainly don’t account for the novel’s sum total of pleasure.
Indeed, Proust’s narrator enjoys a secondary pleasure more often throughout the Recherche—that of <quote-09>anticipation<quote-09>. And to prolong that pleasure, he routinely and rigorously denies himself the objects of his desire. Sure, as Wuck above attests, the realization of his desires is almost always a disappointment, but this fact never deters him in his future anticipations, never dampens his anticipatory delights. Really, every prolonged narrative arc in the novel is at least underscored if not sustained by anticipation. In one of my favorite sections—“Within a Budding Grove”—Proust’s narrator spends nearly two-hundred pages romanticizing a group of girls—“the little band,” he calls them—with whom he longs to acquaint himself. The mere notion of their “inaccessible, unknown world” thrills him; he speaks of the distance between them and himself as “stretching out before” him, offering him a “prolongation […] and multiplication of oneself which is happiness.” Day after summer day he sets out along the boardwalk at Balbec for a glimpse of them, and time and time again he ensures they do not meet. After finally making their acquaintance, he realizes why they allure him so: the girls embody anticipation. Like budding flowers, they have yet to develop fully into fruit; they are not yet ripe for collection. In fact, Proust’s narrator foresees a latent unpleasantness in each of them, but it is a distant reality: “beneath the rosy inflorescence of Albertine, Rosemonde, Andrée, unknown to themselves, held in reserve until the occasion should arise a coarse nose, a protruding jaw, a paunch which would create a sensation when it appeared, but which was actually in the wings, ready to ‘come on,’ unforeseen, inevitable.” In the present, each is the very picture of budding loveliness—beautiful, fleeting embodiments of anticipation.
This is the effect your cliffhanger has had on me, Hoke; I await eagerly, blissfully from “l’intervalle impossible” of Proust’s description. What do you have in store for us? Will it deliver or—as you’ve implied about your long anticipated first time with Sharon, Wuck—disappoint?
I won’t lie to either of you. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about my first time with Kristen on our wedding night. And yet, I cannot begin to do justice to the countless pleasures of our seven-years’ anticipation—not to mention the myriad other benefits to our relationship.
<quote-10>In the end, none of us can ensure surprise<quote-10>, much less involuntary memory. We are, at best, at the mercy of invisible forces. But we can effect anticipation, wield our powers of denial for good.
What is happiness if not a life filled with things to look forward to?
I’ve been thinking it all over, and I’ve thought it all through. I look forward to what comes next.
All yours, bud.
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