By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

Desire in the Cave

We seem to be both wanting and reflection.

Mary Townsend

Plato’s Cave (detail) by Miha Sarani; courtesy of the artist.

“If something is rotten or broken in me, it is my mind,” remarks philosopher Agnes Callard, recounting the story of her worst romance—an email-driven cycle of continual rejection she found herself unable to quit for several years. Quoting Socrates’s failed attempt to praise the love of someone who does not love, she locates her own problem in the madness of an Eros that is unreasoning yet violently intellectualized, the “perpetual thought” of obsession. Strung out by alternating periods of constant contact and unexplained absence from the beloved, she finds herself turning to charts, graphs, Internet stalking, PowerPoint, in order to thoroughly map and understand what on earth went wrong.11xAgnes Callard, “The Eros Monster,” Harper’s,

It sounds like a truly terrible sort of love affair—if love is the name of the phenomenon Callard has in mind. Sitting in a broken-down train during a snowstorm, she finds relief in Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s fundamental sense of distance from other people: She determines to foster in herself a “cocoon of distant politesse,” cutting short the spring of erotic energy with cold civility. This withdrawal from the romance finally allows her to recover. The burden of Callard’s tale is one with a venerable history, in which peaceful rational existence is overturned by dangerous loves; Callard’s Pessoan twist is to politely remove herself only so far lest complete absence push her back into obsession. The moral of her story, however, is clear: Eros is a monster, and there’s no way out on Eros’s terms.

But whether this is all of the story, or the only story, remains in doubt. “Rationality” as such is a notoriously untrustworthy narrator, and surely, part of the rational pleasure of calling Eros a monster is to have something definite to blame. Name-calling ought to raise our suspicions, since after all, monstrosity is not emotively neutral. And what do you do when the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of, as of course it often will? There must be a story about our human loves in which neither reason nor Eros is the hero of the tale, exactly—but what would that tale look like? And under what circumstances would we allow ourselves to tell it?

Richard Velkley’s recent novella Sarastro’s Cave: Letters From a Recent Past is another retelling of the story of the thinking soul in trouble.22xRichard Velkley, Sarastro’s Cave: Letters From a Recent Past (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2021). Clovis Mendling, a history professor at a large university in New Orleans (not unlike Velkley himself, a philosopher at Tulane), has after major surgery suddenly become unsure whether he is living or dead. Echoing the baroque framing of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Velkley presents the story as his discovery of a cache of letters from Mendling to a motley collection of his friends, to whom he gradually gives more and more details of his strange dilemma. Written to a translator, a poet, a composer, and a handful of others, the letters seem at first to puzzle over everything from Freemasonry to Leibnizian metaphysics. But gradually a plot emerges: Mendling becomes jealous when a bright student of his begins an intense friendship with the translator in London, and the story ends with Mendling’s mysterious death in an Arkansas cavern.

It is well that Sarastro’s Cave, often more puzzle than tale, is a novella: The story relies on its tight size to balance out its intellectual twists and turns. There is a Stefan-Zweig-like, fin-de-siècle quality, to the bafflement of the main character as the world becomes ever more foreign to him. Dated from the onset of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and ending just before his election, the letters detail how the unraveling of politics provokes Mendling’s growing sense of abandonment by, and lack of legacy in, the world. There is a haunting honesty to the professor’s calmly stated and oft-repeated concern that he might really be a machine, a ghost on the battlements, that he might be undead, be living in an alternate universe. But detailing this concern to his friends (whose letters are never included) provides him little relief. He contends that letter writing maintains a necessary, desirable distance between himself and the recipient: “Perhaps all writing, all language, is meant to assure the absence of its addressees. ‘Don’t get very close—that would be unspeakable!’” Each dispatch closes with an apology to its reader for taking too much of his time.

The fear of obsolescence, death, or eventual reputational obscurity is no stranger to the professorial protagonists of the American academic novel. In Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Professor Jack Gladney’s obsessive fear of death takes place against the sense that campus life will go on just as it is, endlessly fueled by a stream of identically bland undergraduates. This mirage fuels “Hitler studies” professor Jack Gladney’s terror that the individual thinker matters less than he had supposed, that all his hard-won prestige will vanish once he himself has died—as indeed is often the case in academia. But in Sarastro’s Cave, Mendling’s anguish over the ravages of the body politic, and for the financial and moral unraveling of his university, allows his individual woes to be more than self-seriousness. While many academic novels allow their problems to bottom out in the boredom, vanity, and misplaced sense of self-importance of the professor—think John Edward Williams’s Stoner—the hero of Sarastro’s Cave is a model of plaintive, heart-rending humility. Rather than death, it is living that seems to him to be endless and without depth: “I have the strange sense,” he writes, “that the current spectacle I call living may be permanent and inescapable…what I see ‘out there’ is a mode of living that is not living, resisting articulation.” Art and especially music briefly give him some sort of hope for retrieval of meaning; but they lack sufficient motive force to draw him past the endlessly still, endlessly eternal surface of appearances others seem to acknowledge as “life.”

A long time ago, Aristotle remarked that the nature of the human being is either desiring reason or thinking desire. The funny way he flips the phrase back and forth points to something of a paradox: We seem to be both wanting and reflection, reflection and wanting at once, such that neither one is obviously the leading force or the passive substrate underlying the whole. If you are tempted to ask, well, which are we?—the answer seems to be, unsatisfyingly, both. With the Greeks, there’s an integrity and wholeness to the marriage of these aspects within our nature—which is why Socrates can claim, without being completely obtuse, that true philosophy is true erotic desire for being or beings that lie somewhere—or somehow—beyond our immediate selves. To put it in modern terms: Is there a foundational way to reconcile the chasm between the smooth surface of our observing, objective, self-effacing reason and even our most complicated yearnings?

But these days, something in our ability to reflect on ourselves in this way usually goes amiss. Blame it on Cartesian dualism, the alienation of labor, the death of God, or whatever you wish, the fact is that we do not easily hold desire and reason together very well. It is too easy for us to think of ourselves as some mixture of drive and analysis, of force, will, and utilitarian calculation. And so we paint desire as fundamentally unreasonable, and reason as thoroughly cold. Successful careerists instrumentalize themselves through their work, leaving the finer points of their real longings for another time, never to be realized; workers, caught in the throes of wage labor, unable to get ahead, without the leisure to hunt in the morning and philosophize in the afternoon, are ground to dust; college students have no time to ask themselves what it’s all for, because to do so might open the terrifying possibility that what it’s for is not worth the cost. Waking and sleeping, in the middle of the night, we know too well we have missed something of the life we assumed we were living. But we still keep insisting desire cannot be the answer, lest its dangerous unruliness spoil our dreams for optimization once and for all.

One may think of Mendling’s correspondence or Callard’s PowerPoint slides as something of the canary in the coal mine to our common dilemma. “What is wrong with the professors?” we may ask—in which life circumstances I must unfortunately include myself. If we, the erstwhile thinkers of the tale, charged in some way to be at least partially able to explain what’s going on—if we are not simply bored with the ease of campus life, and if we can claim to be at least partially representative of the dangers of a life instrumentalized to thought or deed, can we offer a clue here to a more largely human trouble? One must, it seems, imagine the professor in love, to look for clues toward the nature of our human fracture and its Sisyphean temptations.

Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice opens in Munich when Gustav von Aschenbach’s rigid daily work schedule has been interrupted by insomnia, which he deplores not because it signals poor health but because it deprives him of the brief rest that would allow him to work more intensely in the evening. Taking a walk in hope exercise will serve an analogous purpose, he spots a traveler who is out of place in Munich, and suddenly becomes aware of the unfamiliar desire for travel. Journeying to Venice, Aschenbach falls in love with a handsome fourteen-year-old boy; even as a cholera epidemic spreads he chooses to stay on rather than lose sight of his desire, following the boy and his family at ever greater risk through the rotting streets of Venice, dyeing his hair, putting on rouge, losing his dignity, his reason—and ultimately dying of the disease, on the beach, with the beloved in view. For Aschenbach, there is an inevitability to the arrival of deathly erotic madness that overthrows the life laboriously devoted to renouncing the murky depths of “the abyss”—the abyss where desire is ugly, and makes you ugly in turn.

The descent into madness of Velkley’s Mendling takes place in calmer, more dignified, but still dangerous circumstances, where the action remains at a distance right up until the end. Mendling admits to his composer friend that he has become “bewitched by a certain beauty,” which the reader is to understand is that of his student Myrna—but immediately follows this confession with an insistence that his desire is ultimately of no importance, remarking that “other things press on my mind more immediately.” Indeed, he is at pains to let his friends know that his desire is platonic—that is, platonic in the sense of the sort of sexless purity Callard dismisses as tame: the uninteresting, non-mad variety of Eros, seemingly indistinguishable from calm friendship. Unlike Aschenbach, Mendling maintains poise and distance. But it remains unclear just how much this attitude is to be preferred. In one of the most riveting passages in Sarastro’s Cave, Mendling becomes disturbed by Myrna’s insistence that he must look in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for an image of his soul. Infamously, this is the story where a murderer in deranged anxiety comes to believe that his visitors must already be aware of his crime and are taunting him with it. In the denouement, he screams out for them to “Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Myrna is on to something. As an image of Mendling’s dilemma, “The Tell-Tale Heart” dramatizes the moment where one’s own heart is not one’s own, but can only be imagined as the heart of someone else you brutally killed; where the sudden intensity of this guilt leads to the tortured self-admission of a howling inner void. It is an extraordinary image of the pain of self-estrangement, the cost of carefully maintaining distance from others and self until the end. Mendling’s death completes his distance. Journeying to a cavern in just the wrong sort of weather, accompanied by Myrna, he falls to his death and drowns without being able to catch hold of her proffered hand. Like Guido Anselmi, the hero of Fellini’s 8 ½, whom Mendling says he admires, he finds ultimately absurd the idea that Eros—or for that matter, any person—could be of any help to his ruminations or his despair. For some people, losing five dollars will cause more distress than the loss of one’s sense of self; Mendling’s destruction, however, sends up a flare, to him, and to us. Perhaps a murdered heart will always cry out, some way or another.

If there’s a thread to the professor’s dilemma—the conundrum shared by Mendling, Callard, and Aschenbach—it seems to be an unwillingness to look directly in the face of the possibility that love and thinking could be reconciled without disaster, joined to an insistence that the world-historical severance of wanting and reflection are final, without appeal. But if this fractured existence is the assumption from the beginning, how can the tragedy avoid simply writing itself? Each of the stories I have collected contains a rejection of what the thinker-protagonist believes to be love in the classical Greek sense; but in doing so, each thinker distorts the nature of the Socratic tale past its moral. For Callard, since monster-Eros is not the love of truth but intellectualized unreason that bottoms out in superstition, it must be cordoned off with no hope of persuasion. As Pessoa describes it, one must attempt to remain perfectly still within the hangman’s noose that relating to other people creates for you. For Aschenbach, who shamelessly rewrites the Phaedrus as tragedy, the Eros that accompanies beauty will always be fatal, and therefore has no place in moral or pedagogical life. And for Mendling, even the smallest slip in the dark night of Plato’s cave proves fatal. But all these examples beg the question: They already begin from a place where the human is already either reason or wanting but never both, without any view of the good in sight, and therefore without hope that desire might be drawn or redirected towards better things. It stands to reason, then, that their view of platonic Eros is either bloodless or too warm for comfort. But what happens if we go back to Socrates’s version, which at least attempts to find reconciliation in this seeming opposition?

Socrates is infamous for his imperfect relationship to absolute knowing: “I neither know,” he tells his Athenian accusers in the Apology, “nor think that I know.” But in the Phaedrus, he lets slip that he remains unknown even to himself, and is therefore unable to tell whether he is a creature more twisted and filled with desire than a monster with one hundred heads, or some gentler and simpler animal. In some sense, this indeterminacy of the self is just what the pursuit of knowledge gives us: Seeking to learn things about the world points us outward from ourselves, in the same way our very eyes and ears point us forward and to the side of us, so that we leave ourselves behind even in the first moments of our exploration. But as Kierkegaard reminds us, the pursuit of knowing that is not accompanied by a simultaneous search for ourselves is immediately dehumanizing, and we become “squandered in the same way that workers were squandered in the building of the Egyptian pyramids,” ever more lost in abstractions, our lives used up in misguided fealty to misdirected thought. The sudden discovery of a tendril of desire within ourselves startles us back, however, into the presence of our concrete self—and, ultimately, what it lacks. No wonder, then, that this moment is so painful: We seem to lose ourselves to others in the very moment of self-rediscovery.

But Socrates has a vision whereby we might gain both reason and desire at once. At first tempted by the admiring presence of his companion Phaedrus to praise the calmness of the absence of love, Socrates is soon forced by his conscience to recant. He has been impious, he says; he has forgotten that love is a god, and that the greatest of good things comes to us through its madness, when, that is, its madness is given as a divine gift. Socrates then paints a tale in which our souls are scattered through with winged horses and one who holds the reins. If we allow ourselves to move forward while pulling ourselves back, if we can have restraint, goodwill, and an almost holy sense of awe toward the beloved, each will come to wish to behold the wholeness of the cosmos together, a viewing that takes place with both self-knowledge and knowledge, while holding hands.

But here is the catch. Despite the intimacy of the lovers as they philosophize together, and despite lying down together, kissing, and being at the mercy of each other’s touch, they do not even speak to one another of Aphroditean gratification. Sex, it seems, is out of the question. This is the halfway point that bothers readers to death, because Socrates’s vision seems at once too much and too little to everyone at once. As solution, it manages to please neither the lover nor the nonlover. Who, after all, could bear to live like Socrates, without knowledge, without love’s consummation, without equal and without peer? Nor does it seem right to take his myth as the same sort of thing as practical advice or even prohibition, especially from one who has already admitted he fails to understand the nature of his own desire. But like Aristotle’s thinking desire and/or desiring reason, Socrates’s tale contains a sense of wholeness, however brief—and as such, it discloses a hopefulness that is most certainly not professorial. Thinking that prides itself on distance, whether through manic professionalism, specious objectivity, or the almost demonic preservation of a polite removal from the messiness of human entanglement, cannot see the benefit of being drawn to that which it desires to know, but does not know yet. Nor can it see the dissolution of its treasured absence from others as other than tragic. But what if a rationality that presents itself as fundamentally peaceful, stable, and static were not thinking at all, but just a shadow version of it? And what if madness really could remain divine? The success of Sarastro’s Cave is in the quality of its tragedy: It offers a playful yet arresting warning to those attempting to live life on the grounds of thought alone. It is able to serve this purpose, however, only because of the complex frame Richard Velkley has given to his protagonist’s letters. Unlike Clovis Mendling, whose desperate attempt to inject meaning into his life ultimately proved a failure, Velkley offers the reader this story in the hope that Mendling will be more intelligible to us readers than he was to himself.

And yet I am struck that Socrates’s attempt to reconcile thinking and loving—and as such, to find a way past the twin disasters of solipsism and madness—seems to be the one story we currently refuse to tell ourselves, whether to avoid the brokenness of our minds, the strenuousness of our work, or the flusteringly obvious flaws in our life choices. And the question remains: What does the story of Eros look like where we don’t fall into caves, drowning in our own desire? And why do we remain so intensely committed to our own despair? As sometime professor, I can only confess that I do not know. But I do think our reasonable fear of desire’s totality becomes unreasonable when it concludes that no small tendril of true desire is safe; that once loosed, we would never be able to find a moment to pull back on the reins—and so from cowardice abandon the attempt altogether, falling back on stoicism, solipsism, exhaustion, or whatever variety of distance we prefer.

The moment when you demand of yourself that you turn, and drag your outward-looking gaze back around inside is indeed terrifying: It takes all your strength to pull yourself back into yourself with both hands, and you have to put your back into it. But it is only there, waiting in the center of your heart for some kind of tug on the line, some shift in the weather of the soul, that you can find the true path back out of yourself—the sudden awareness that while you are not facing north you know now how to find it, sitting there with the wanting that comes from the inside out. Terrifying. But also the only way to live. As Velkley’s story suggests, to have avoided his own death, Mendling need have but held out his hand.