Desire is Complicated


in Beyond Words


The truth is, almost all of us want more than just one thing. The child who wants water also wants to share it with his mother. The mother wants her child to have water and also food.

Take a look at Chekhov’s stories. Maybe you already have and are already acquainted with his distinctively realistic stories. Anton Chekhov was a doctor and a writer. His writing included four plays and many short stories, almost all of which are justifiably described as great. He had a particular ability to capture the Russian culture in the second half of the 19th century: Its mixed mood of melancholy and ennui, of longing and not being willing to do anything about it. Sometimes his work approaches satire — there is a long tradition of satire in Russian fiction — and indeed he wrote satirical pieces to earn money for his college tuition, but far more often, as he begins to write longer stories, his work is leavened by the delicacy of his descriptions and the efficiency of his narratives. His characters are so real that one remembers them as one remembers people in one’s own life. Most of us in this country have to read his work in translation, and we are fortunate that excellent translations are available.

One of his best-known stories is “Gooseberries,” and from it the following somewhat-ominous passage is often deployed as an epigraph. Ivan Ivanovich, a veterinary surgeon, is talking; the “happy man” he mentions is his younger brother, Nikolay:

“There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying. . . . Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes… Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition… And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man someone standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him — disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree — and all goes well.”

That is a longish excerpt, but it pays its way by delving into a darkness by which we are all surrounded and which we usually keep at bay. Nikolay, the younger brother, now fat and satisfied, wants gooseberries. But Ivan wants something else, and it is something hard to define. He has a feeling of revulsion: A sense that we are all lying to ourselves and avoiding the “unhappy people” who, for the most part, suffer in silence. Does he really want everyone to be awakened by a blow of the hammer? Yes. At least sort of. But what is he doing besides complaining?

Cherry on Style

Part of what he wants, apparently, is to wake us up; that’s the author’s doing. Chekhov’s ethic was remarkable. He often treated his patients for no charge. He supported his siblings. His father was a tyrant who had rages that terrified the rest of the family. Chekhov not only took care of the family, he wrote good-humored and sweet-tempered letters to brighten their lives. In “Gooseberries,” we learn something of Chekhov’s attention to the poor, the ignored, the uneducated, the ill, and, correspondingly, something of his distaste for the Russian class system.

All this we hear through Ivan Ivanovich. But beyond that, I think, is a weariness so deep that Ivan Ivanovich can barely scratch it, because it’s in the author’s bones, not Ivan’s.

That semi-melancholic tone, that mix of action and description, of story and reflection, of a character who wants something that is somewhat opaque even to himself or herself, takes us a long, long way from the detective story.

At this juncture, we’ve examined one character who wants something (e.g. Hamlet, who wants justice for his father, which is his princely duty) while also not wanting it (committing murder), another who is destroying himself by wanting what is not good for him (Nikolay), and another who wants something that cannot be obtained (Ivan Ivanovich).

Chekhov’s “The Kiss” is one of my favorite stories. Ryabovitch, a rather unprepossessing officer — a bombardier — shy and unworldly, finds himself a guest at the house of Lieutenant-General von Rabbek, along with the rest of the Reserve Artillery Brigade. Unaccustomed to dancing, reluctant to speak lest he say the wrong thing, he wanders around by himself in the large house:

“. . .he noticed he had taken a wrong turning. He distinctly remembered that he ought to meet three sleepy footmen on his way, but he had passed five or six rooms, and those sleepy figures seemed to have vanished into the earth. Noticing his mistake, he walked back a little way and turned to the right; he found himself in a little dark room which he had not seen on his way to the billiard-room. After standing there a little while, he resolutely opened the first door that met his eyes and walked into an absolutely dark room. Straight in front could be seen the crack in the doorway through which there was a gleam of vivid light; from the other side of the door came the muffled sound of a melancholy mazurka. Here, too, as in the drawing-room, the windows were wide open and there was a smell of poplars, lilac and roses. . . .”

Very much to his surprise, someone else enters the room. Someone in a dress, someone who throws her arms around him, says “At last!” puts her cheek to his, and kisses him. She follows the kiss with a short shriek, no doubt realizing that the man she has kissed is not the man she intended to kiss. Ryabovitch himself recognizes this as the likeliest scenario.

But Ryabovitch cannot stop thinking about it. Remembering her lips, her arms, the rustle of her skirts, her aromatic smell. Nothing like this has ever before happened to him. He tries to sort out which woman it might have been and comes up with nothing. All the way to a camp ground, and all the time he’s there, Ryabovitch relives the remarkable encounter. By the time they are moving back to Myestetchki, the village where it occurred, he has convinced himself that he is desirable, loved — a man of import. What’s more, he and others are again invited to dinner at Von Rabbek’s. Surely he will be delighted to go.

But no. He is too busy thinking about going to Von Rabbek’s house to notice that the Von Rabbek’s messenger has arrived. Not noticing, he thinks there’s no invitation. He’s unwanted. Soon he has spoken sharply to himself about the odds against the woman being there, the odds against her wanting him to marry her, the odds against her wanting to bear a family for him. No, nobody wants him. But then —

“When he went back to his hut he did not find one of his comrades. The orderly informed him that they had all gone to ‘General von Rabbek’s, who had sent a messenger on horseback to invite them. . . .’

For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.”

What does Ryabovitch want? At first he wants a normal life with a wife and children and believes it possible. By the end of the story, he wants to rage at fate, to establish that he is indeed inadequate. He gives himself over to self-pity and turns his back on the possibility of ever attaining what he wants. He has persuaded himself that he wants nothing, but what he wants is to avoid taking action to change his life. The real problem is that he is afraid. What can an author do with a character who thinks he wants nothing? The author can end the story. That is all he can do.

Ryabovitch breaks our hearts, because we want him to know the happiness for which he longs. Moreover, we all know what it is to reject before we are rejected. We have all done that at one time or another. So now we have met a character who wants but, out of fear, refuses to want. How slippery our emotions are! How often we make the wrong choices between wanting this or that, and wanting this and that, and wanting not to want. Human character is complicated. The best stories and novels show us those complications. The more effectively they are shown, the more involved the reader becomes.

What can an author do with a character who thinks he wants nothing? The author can end the story. That is all he can do.

And then there are characters who know that they want something but cannot decide what it is. The gifted, youngish writer ZZ Packer delineates two such characters in her well-known story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” They are college girls. Yale girls. The narrator, Dina, is black and from Baltimore, smart but aware she shouldn’t let her friends back home know that. A large white girl from Canada, Heidi, seeks her out, having noticed Dina in a class they share. Dina looks at Heidi and calls her a lesbian. Heidi denies this.

Dina is defensive and sarcastic. She’s determined to refuse friendship with anyone. “I am a misanthrope,” she warns Heidi. Heidi persists. She recites a Frank O’Hara poem. It’s a poem that Dina wishes she had written. They begin to move toward friendship, mostly because of Heidi’s persistence. “Did you notice that I put my arm around you?” asks Heidi. Dina did and knows that she liked having Heidi’s arm around her, but this is her response: “Next time, I’ll have to chop it off.”

Dina and Heidi also get jobs in the cafeteria. They work as cleaners, which means throwing out the leftovers, mopping the floors, and, sometimes, killing a mouse. Dina remembers that her “mother had died slowly. At the hospital, they’d said it was kidney failure, but I knew that, in the end, it was my father. He made her scared to live in her own home, until she was finally driven away from it in an ambulance.” She wants the mouse killed cleanly and quickly, not slowly, and that’s how she kills it.

Meanwhile, as a result of one of her smartass remarks, Dina has been seeing a school psychiatrist. Dr. Raeburn tells her that he thinks she’s having “a crisis of identity.” This is true, but Dina denies it. Denying it, she says she has made out with a boy. Inwardly, she tells herself, “You never kissed anyone. The words slid from my brain, and knotted in my stomach.”

Dina keeps her distance from Heidi for a while. When she finally goes to Heidi’s dormitory, Dina discovers that Heidi has come out, although she has still not had sex with a woman. Heidi’s dorm room is crowded with collegiate lesbians helping Heidi pack. Heidi’s mother has died and the funeral will be in Vancouver. Dina makes another of her sarcastic comments, and for Heidi it is the last straw. Dina moves back to Baltimore to live with her aunt. We last see her reading outside her aunt’s apartment, wishing she could rewrite the entire narrative.

What we have here, I believe, are two characters who don’t yet know what they want. Does Heidi really want to have sex with a woman? Then why hasn’t she had it? She certainly has gay friends; she’s identified herself as gay. Yet her feeling that she is too heavy, too large, too unattractive, has kept her celibate. Dina is even more clearly uncertain of what she wants. Dina is ashamed of her background, of her hometown, her friends and relatives. Her way of disguising her past is to be brittle and “tough,” although we know she’s not as tough as she pretends to be.

It seems to me completely realistic that these girls cannot name their desires. Both have lost their mothers, both are young, both are in college and confused about how they should behave, how they should be. Is this not exactly like freshman year anywhere? Young students want — what? Some may have specific destinations in mind, some (fewer now) may be looking for a husband or wife, but there are always those who have not yet defined themselves and thrash around in search of a self. ZZ Packer’s story makes us aware of this kind of person, of this kind of character. It would be much more difficult to locate an older character at such a loss. Packer’s acutely sensitive awareness of the young women in “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” allows her to combine humor and sadness, not exactly in the same way Chekhov did — her story is more indoors than his, which has a country flavor, hints and whiffs of nature, and her characters make no expansive comments on the nature of life — but it is vivid, focused, and moving. We end our reading of it wishing we could do something for both girls. We would like to save them, place them on a path to fulfillment, but we cannot do so. As involved as we are, we are outside the story and cannot revise it. That’s why this humorous tale is so sad.

In short, desire is not simple. It has layers and levels. The object of desire may be singular or several. A defined desire may be weighed against another defined desire. One’s desire may make one’s other desire impossible to fulfill. One may long for something without knowing what it is that one longs for. The desire of one person may collide with someone else’s desire for better or for worse. Desire may lead to great things or to disaster. In other words, desire is complicated, and that is what makes it so useful for writers. •