Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Thematic: Reality and Its Alternatives

The Loss of Longing in the Age of Curated Reality

Desire has become longing’s counterfeit.

Christopher Yates

Plato’s Cave, by Cveto Vidovic; courtesy of the artist.

During the 2018 Christmas shopping season, a revealing blip appeared on the consumer radar when Payless Shoesource surreptitiously opened a Beverly Hills boutique under the Italianized label Palessi. They invited a group of sixty select fashion “influencers” to attend the launch and give on-camera testimonials about the new line of designer shoes. (An influencer, if you are new to the term, is like the social media version of the cool kids in high school—the ones who taught us to listen to Depeche Mode and trade in our Velcro sneaks for Doc Martens; both groups have followers, but influencers can get paid for product name-dropping by advertisers, who stick like ticks on their posts.) The twist with Palessi was that the shoes were nothing more than Payless’s latest line of low-budget products. The social media sophisticates bestowed their enthusiastic blessings on what were, as the shoe company soon revealed, thirty-dollar faux-leather poseurs listed at a gargantuan markup. It was an egg-on-the-face prank that won a nod of approval from the broader media audience. Having already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Payless had nothing to lose.

To lick their wounds, some of the influencers went to New York City in February to attend Fashion Week, an event at which the fetish for designer wares is annually consecrated into a cult of the brand. It’s true that the spectacle isn’t for normal people per se. It’s for fashion culture itself. But as it fortifies its own image, Fashion Week grossly aestheticizes the fantasyland of desire in our social imaginary. And in come the influencers to set the trends a-trending with real-time Tweet-storming, Instagramming, and emoji-winking commentary on all the gaudy swank of live-streamed runway shows parading outfits that often climb north of $100,000. No one pretends we are going to buy this ridiculous stuff. It’s a strategic calculation to stoke consumer desire by provoking our sense of alienation from stylized satisfaction. Lend us your screens and the fantasy will be yours.

But all the hoopla was itself indirectly pranked by an off-runway product coming out of New York at the same time. A different sort of influencer, the Pushcart Prize–winning writer Melissa Broder, published an unusual personal reflection in the New York Times, “Life without Longing.” In the article, Broder relates how she came to realize that her adventures in search of stylized romantic love were at root a “yearning for yearning itself.” What had been driving her was the hope of “making meaning in this life” and sustaining “the sensation of a forward motion…a reason for being.” But when the “illusion” of finding erotic “completion” gave out, she found herself with a “spiritual longing…for some kind of eternal beauty or ineffable truth” that was “more nebulous, always just out of reach.”11xMelissa Broder, “Life without Longing,” New York Times, February 9, 2019,

Broder’s testimony reveals more than she may have realized. Although they seem synonymous, longing wants something different from what desire wants—and not just in the sphere of fashion or romantic love. Desire is the particularizing and possessive agenda of self-creation—the self in the mode of a performance aesthetic. Longing is the self’s yearning to be grounded in something irreducible to the object in front of it or the designs within it—the self in the mode of a storied aesthetic in which it is not the primary author and satisfaction is not its ultimate endgame. But the trouble today is that longing must vie with a state of affairs in which desire is shaped by those influences of commercial finery and technologically mediated fantasies that supervene on the very ways we sort out who and how we are in the world. Although desire appears to be that which is most our own, it tends to be cultivated in us and places us at a distance from the true experience of longing. Desire has become longing’s counterfeit.

It’s time to pull a Palessi and call desire’s bluff. To do that, we need to work our way through a formative paradox: The nature of desire is expansive and the nature of longing is restrictive, but longing is the better influencer in our authentication of identity and truth.

Anxiety of Influence

Influencer is the perfect word for what our advertising and marketing cultures have wanted to devise all along, and in an obsessively technological age their strategies are all too effective. The term owns up to the larger paradigm of commodification that shapes our relationships to commercial objects, ideas, and even ourselves. I needn’t rehearse the well-documented perils attendant upon our penchant for materialism and greed, digital dwelling, or device addiction, and all the spine-bending and psychological debts these accrue. Historian William Leach named all this the “culture of desire.”22xWilliam Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994), xiii. Political theorist Sheldon Wolin called it a “whirl” in which the world is “continuously redefined by contemporary science, technology, corporate capitalism, and its media.”33xSheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 128. One does not have to be glued to digital marketing or fashion trends or Internet porn to come under influencer sway. When a click-baiting signal, message notification, or neatly packaged podcast courses through the wires and pumps a little dopamine into our brains, or when our minds spin with the estimated 5,000 ads we take in daily (to the tune of nearly 200 billion marketing dollars in the United States), these are just the latest pointillist strokes of a deeper figuration of who we are and how we perform the “reality” that is curated for us.

Before terms like branding, targeting, and influencer entered our parlance, the keyword was propaganda. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays published a book by that name that famously began with this psychosocial observation:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.44xEdward Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2005), 37. First published 1928.

As a descriptive account, Bernays’s point is not wrong. But one expects a discussion of ethics to follow. It doesn’t. What does, rather, is an earnest proto–Mad Men case for how advertising could “bind and guide” the demos in a helpful way by shouldering the burden of complicated life decisions. Unsurprisingly, the case was a slippery slope, and before long Bernays was envisioning how what he called “the engineering of consent”55xEdward Bernays, The Engineering of Consent (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955). First published 1947. could infuse our (often unconscious) desire function with a faith in vigorous acquisition. Advertising could effectively become the “invisible government” and profitably relieve us of the duty of seeking Aristotle’s “good life” on the feeble basis of what our minds, tastes, and ideas might sort out on their own. Among his clients were General Electric, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, CBS, and President Calvin Coolidge.

David Ogilvy solidified this vision in a cut-to-the-chase way when he built what would by 1964 be the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency. You know their work if you’ve ever felt your heartstrings pulled by the likes of Dove, American Express, Merrill Lynch, or IBM. Today the firm is in eighty-three countries, with 132 offices, and Ogilvy’s strategies for engineering consent are lauded as “timeless in marketing” and well suited to “the new challenges of the era of Social Media.” Advertising, he declared, “is a message for a single purpose: to sell.” How to do this? Make the product irresistibly interesting by using customers’ language, “the language in which they think.” That is another way of saying that advertising’s goal is to win over the inner grammar of our minds, tastes, and ideas. Apple, for example, as blogger and Ogilvy fan Camila Villafañe puts it, “knows how to whisper their beliefs into the ears of their audience.… Apple’s positioning strategy focuses primarily on emotions and the consumer’s lifestyle, their imagination, passions, dreams, hopes, aspirations.”66xCamila Villafañe, “David Ogilvy: His 7 Commandments on Advertising and Quotes,” Social Media Marketing Blog and Digital Marketing Blog (blog), June 27, 2014,

Business school students today learn how to whisper on the basis of the “integrative marketing” model of consumption outlined by George Belch and Michael Belch in their textbook Advertising and Promotion (1997).7George E. Belch and Michael A. Belch, Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017). First published 1997. The science identifies a sequence of psychological stages in the consumer’s makeup that advertising can appeal to and catalyze on its own terms: shaping motivation, perception, and attitude, then formation, integration, and learning. Integration is the moment of a “purchase decision,” and presumably “learning” involves realizing that I will have a more integrated life if I purchase more and more.88xVillafañe, “David Ogilvy.”

The integrative marketing strategy has a sincerity about it, almost like a vocational calling. Brian Martin, CEO of Brand Connections, has implored his sector’s leaders to invest more wisely by serving consumers’ aspirations to be cared for and connected with others, their desires to “feel that they matter” and “believe there is a higher purpose.”9Brian Martin, “Remember to Give Them What They Want (It’s Really Very Simple),” AdAge, February 10, 2010, Martin lists American Express, Lexus, Rolex, Starbucks, Twitter, and Facebook as brands that help us integrate our personhood. Bernays would be impressed. Integrative marketing plays into our core existential project and what has become our late-modern inclination to, according to Buddhist scholar David Loy, “make ourselves feel more real by reorganizing the whole world until we can see our own image everywhere, reflected in the ‘resources’ with which we try to manipulate and secure the material conditions of our existence.”1010xDavid R. Loy, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory (Boston, MA: Wisdom, 2003), 165.

Wanting to feel more real, I think Loy would agree, is not the problem. Rather, it’s the illusion of “making” this be so—securing it on our terms and giving it the bottom-line sheen of goods and services. We are just so good at making things. Why not the self? Why not the world? Why not the fundamental truth of both, wrought in the self’s aspirational image? It’s almost irresistible. But making assumes, among other things, an outcome-based calculus and narrowly utilitarian means. What if the real conditions of reality exceeded the reach of human production, and the real life of purpose could not be contained on a grid? What if the inconclusive, ever-unfolding scope of meaning sounded in our ears or flashed its own faint figure beyond the territory of self-imaging? What then would become of desire?

Going Out of Fashion

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard saw these dilemmas coming. He flagged a deeper feature of ourselves that is all too “integrated” by the many illusions that affirm our desire to live in the land of possibility and skirt the edges of a constraining actuality. Kierkegaard looked around at the pietistic, pseudointellectual, social-climbing Copenhagen of the mid-nineteenth century (and even at his own tendencies) and lamented an age that was “putting on a veritable clearance sale” of tastes and convictions.1111xSøren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 3. First published 1843. He saw smug deliberation without real action, “amusement” and “talkativeness” without real passion, and, in general, an “age of advertisement and publicity” that was full of “flattery” and “committees.” The problem was the primacy of “reflection”—in the sense of both being obsessed with one’s image and being complacent in one’s thinking. What’s dangerous about reflection is that it accelerates an inverse relation between scope and intensity, where the carousel of desires bends us so far outward that “inwardness is lost.” The tendency is inevitable in some ways, maybe even necessary; we need to experience being out of sync in order to imagine being in sync with something priceless. He likened the predicament to a confused and “curiously abstract” old grandfather clock that “struck once all through the day at regular intervals,” but of course “never gave a definite time.”1212xSøren Kierkegaard, The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion, trans. Alexander Dru (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2010), 40, 43, 60, 7, 16, 3, 42, 15, 46. First published 1846. Desire patterns itself in the same abstract and indefinite way. It amounts to a matter of being moored, Kierkegaard concluded, in life’s “aesthetic stage.”

Kierkegaard satirizes this condition in his 1845 work Stages on Life’s Way. Pulling something of a Palessi, he tells the story of a troupe of influencers who gather together to drink and discourse on the subject of Eros, the Greek god of love and desire and mythical son of Aphrodite. The most entertaining member of the group is a figure called the “Fashion Designer,” a man who “has conjured himself into an almost silly character.” Taking his turn in the speeches, he gleefully explains how fashion is becoming “more and more extravagantly mad”—profitably mad, of course. His ideal client is the woman for whom fashion is the “one and only thought,” and he defends his own function as a “high priest” in the boutique of “idol worship.” As though directing the fashion runway traffic in New York, he says of his prey, “Now she puckers her lips apriorally, then gesticulates aposteriorally; now she wriggles her hips, then looks in the mirror and sees my admiring face; now she lisps, walks with a mincing gait, then hardly seems to touch the floor.” In short, he takes the desire that draws clients into his shop and gives it a liturgy of satisfaction that will keep them coming back for more. After all, “everything in life is a matter of fashion; the fear of God is a matter of fashion, and love and hoopskirts and a ring in the nose.”1313xSøren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard, eds. Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 176, 178, 179, 182. What did Bernays resolve to fashion? Our minds, tastes, and ideas.

In Either/Or, A Fragment of a Life (1843), Kierkegaard explains how the aesthetic stage consists in living at a distance from real commitment, from life’s real plot. One flits about in the realms of all that is interesting and seductive, focuses his attention on what is pleasurable, and all the while directs his desire away from accountability. This would be a life lived “in the wild blue yonder,” where, like the works of the old clock, one is an “abstract self that fits everywhere and therefore nowhere.”1414xIbid., 81–82. This characterization of life could apply to the Fashion Designer or his clients, and applies to all of us much of the time. One area where it could obtain today is in what Loy calls our “preoccupation with new technological powers and possibilities”—possibilities that nevertheless leave us “trapped in the future.”1515xDavid R. Loy, “The Lack of Technological Progress,” ReVision 24, no. 4 (Spring 2002), 32. What Kierkegaard’s reflective Aesthete is primarily averse to is entering the “ethical stage,” the sphere that would require him to choose to choose between this opportunistic practice of desire or a morally coordinated one invested in fidelity to the real “order of things.”1616xKierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard, 82.

Kierkegaard in fact believes that his Aesthete is, deep down, already disappointed with desire and has begun to feel a driving sense of lack. He is ensnared in “a chain formed of gloomy fancies, of alarming dreams, of troubled thoughts, of fearful presentiments, of inexplicable anxieties,” and in turn wants “a faithfulness…an enthusiasm that [has] endured everything”—a desire not to be “bound” by desire but bent on a different story. “And what could divert me?” Something like what Melissa Broder wants: to, in Kierkegaard’s formulation, “become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.”1717xIbid., 43. This amounts to a tall order. But Kierkegaard places the diversion right on the doorstep of desire. Venturing out onto the streets of the town and taking in the warmth and sounds of the afternoon, the Aesthete is “filled with longing…of longing only for my first longing”1818xIbid., 45. (emphasis added). The feeling shows a turn toward lack, not away from it. Today the turn would be where desire, according to Loy, begins to “disinvest from the economic and technological projects whereby it hoped to become real.”1919xLoy, “The Lack of Technological Progress,” 32. But swapping superficial expansiveness for faithful restriction involves much more than simply leaving the boutique.

Kierkegaard’s critique of the aesthetic stage was also meant to unloose us from the chains of Hegelian desire (die Begierde). Hegel says that what the self fundamentally wants is a fully realized “self-consciousness.”2020xGeorg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2013). First published 1807. To get it, we try to make objects and other people confirm our powers of transformation by conforming to what we do with them; otherwise, we’re just hypothetical selves, like a river without a channel. If I make you or your products my servant, then I can call myself a master and be secure in that. In other words, I have to brand the world so that it credits me with a working identity. The problem is that the cycle goes on and on. But for Hegel, the saving grace was that—thanks to the evolutionary agenda of what he called “Spirit” (Geist, history’s logical force)—the friction of desire will eventually smooth the edges of who we are and what we know.

For Kierkegaard, this thinking concedes too much to the aesthetic stage and depends on the naive belief that Spirit will cover our bets. The thing to do with desire, rather, is to tame it—to let lack lead it into a deeper longing that is willing to risk the certain kind of irrational (not “extravagant”) madness that goes with being good and hoping for grace and wisdom. (The Fashion Designer, after all, is “a silly character.”) Plato was the first to lay claim to this madness and show how lack could in fact inspire longing as a practice, not just a condition.

Keeping Watch on the Boundary

Plato’s versions of the Fashion Designer were the poets and sophists. He believed that, as the base layer in the soul—desire (eros)—was usually the stew pot of our appetites and passions, our lusts and anarchic tendencies. It needed to be ordered by the highest part of the soul—reason (logos)—which would really be eros of a different, wisdom-seeking kind. For such ordering to happen, influencers had to be kept at bay. Plato imagined the process in his well-known Allegory of the Cave, in which people are freed of their chains in the darkness of status quo opinions and drawn toward the enlightening realm of real truth, justice, and goodness.2121xPlato, Republic, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2004). It amounts to a matter, says Simone Weil, of “turning the soul in the direction in which it should look, of delivering the soul from the passions.”2222xSimone Weil, Lectures on Philosophy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 220. But Plato feared that the poets and dramatists of his day, ones like Homer and Aristophanes, stood in the way. Their stories cast the gods in a negative light by rendering them as creatures of passions and appetites, and their lessons peddled base imitations far removed from real truth. Plato worried that young souls would fashion their lives in accordance with these performances. It is not the case that he hated the arts, but rather that he knew and respected their sheer power to cultivate the imagination. He simply felt that the products of poets were sloppy and fantastic, too unpredictable in their outcomes. Essentially the poets would engineer a species of consent that threatened the viability of a just state and soul. And so, “we would…be justified in not admitting [them] into a city that is to be well governed.”2323xPlato, Republic, 309, 605b. There is an important caveat here. After warning that “if you admit the honeyed Muse…pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law and the thing that has always been believed to be best—reason,” he says that “we would certainly profit if poetry were shown to be not only pleasant but also beneficial.”2424xIbid., 311, 607a; 312, 607d–e.

In a way, Plato answers his own invitation by planting poetry in the “beneficial” imagination of Socrates. He does this in order to suggest how self-seeking desire could be redirected toward a longing for wisdom. In the Symposium—the precursor to Kierkegaard’s gathering of influencers—men give boozy speeches in praise of eros. Here, the handsome and forlorn figure of Alcibiades represents passionate lust and the beauties of the flesh. Socrates, by contrast, represents sober-minded self-control and a passion for training up the soul in the pursuit of true beauty—the kind of beauty beheld in “a wondrous vision” of the real order of things, the real story, reality.2525xPlato, Symposium, 210e; see also A History of Aesthetics, eds. and trans. Katherine Everett Gilbert and Helmut Kuhn (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954), 43. Beauty of this kind is by nature interlocked with goodness and truth. And vision does not imply full possession of the seen (nor seeing the self everywhere reflected) so much as participation in something partially eclipsed that, as it brightens our minds and trains our souls, eclipses the promiscuity of thought. The case for such a vision, we learn in Plato’s Phaedrus, remains “erotic” in a profound way, but not as the performative desire for conquest seen in the second band of influencers who so worried Plato—the sophists and their sexy rhetoric. Socrates asks his young friend, Phaedrus, What should possess us? Should it be a passion that is “all-conquering in its forceful drive” and a prideful “desire for pleasures”? Or could it be a form of “madness” that is given as “a gift of the God”? He favors the madness and characterizes it as a matter of “at last seeing what is real and watching what is true”—concentrating not on designer truths, but on the figure of things like self-control, justice, and the emerging knowledge “of what really is what it is.” Philosophy is this watchfulness. It isn’t easy, but it is a matter of being “wisdom’s lover.”26Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1995), 18, 238c; 17, 237d; 27, 244c; 34, 247d–e; 85, 278a. This may be what Kierkegaard meant by his “first longing.” First, that is, in order of importance. None of this is a matter of ditching the world and relocating to some eternal realm of “ideal forms.” It is a matter of rooting out the influencers around us, shutting out the sweet nothings that Apple’s sophists “whisper” in our ears, and posting ourselves on watch for stories that might help us go off-screen, off-runway, and out of the boutique.

One doesn’t have to subscribe to Plato’s ladder of ascent or gift of the gods to appreciate his point that the realm of selfish desire is the futile and corrupting alternative to more genuine longing. And one doesn’t have to be a philosopher to see how longing can open up a different logic of meaning in our contemporary aesthetic stage. What is needed is a redirection of our personal and social imaginations back to the place where longing marks our first and best efforts to know ourselves and the world.

Notice that I have begun to trace the problem of desire’s pliability not just in relation to consumer satisfaction and ethical commitment, but also into the area of how knowledge works. It should be clear by now that this is not an esoteric issue. It’s practical, a matter of praxis. As Weil explains, “We would not search for truth at all if it were something that did not concern us.”2727xWeil, Lectures on Philosophy, 195. Plato’s disarming of the poets and sophists can likewise be taken as a practical caution against treating intellectual understanding in the manner of a well-packaged commodity for us to consume or reject. Today this habit takes shape in how we readily assume that truth is reducible to scientific facts, subjective opinions, and/or the curiosity shows put on by TED Talk “thought leaders.” I say “and/or” to signal not only the incongruence of these approaches, but also the performativity that makes truth a matter of our possession; if our “minds” and “ideas” (recall Bernays) like the feel of the performance, we buy in. Can retrieving the full reality of longing mitigate this epistemic order of influence?

Long after Plato banished desire’s foolishness, and right before Hegel tried to work with desire as it worked against the world, an almost forgotten German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, explained how longing concerns the ways we simultaneously feel reality and seek to know it. His ambition was to discover the grounding principle for knowing how the reality of the world and our understanding of this reality could coalesce. The principle, if it existed at all, would have to be something “unconditioned” by human desires and reason, yet somehow knowable. It would have to be something like the immanent source-point for the Socratic vision of beauty and wisdom. It would have to be an “intuition.” This intuition, it turns out, is approachable only through an experience of longing. Fichte says, almost to his own surprise, that our “very drive” to know things “alone finds expression in longing,” and indeed all of “life” and “consciousness” depend on longing.2828xJohann Gottlieb Fichte, The Science of Knowledge, eds. Peter Heath and John Lachs, trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 269–70. That is quite a superlative. Longing is not a mood that lands on us. It defines us and is the genesis of understanding. But there’s a catch: Longing is decidedly not something to be “satisfied.”

The German word for longing is Sehnsucht, something distinct from Hegel’s die Begierde—from which we get our contemporary notion of desire. An affiliate term is Streben, “striving.” Striving makes sense (and finds sense) only if something is resisting it. For Fichte, that summary something is our finitude. Sehnsucht is the encounter with the feeling of “lack” that haunts the aesthetic stage and beguiles our cycles of desire. I can know that there is truth, but I can’t know it in full. I can know that I am a self, but I can’t know myself, or fashion myself, in full. Longing puts us in a paradoxical—one could say dispossessive—place. Driven as it is, longing may only “effect what it can.” The self that knows its limits but still desires expansion can’t have it both ways. It “cannot feel in two ways at once,” and so longing must live on what Fichte calls “the boundary.” We can find contentment for a while, but it “lasts only a moment…since longing necessarily recurs.”2929xIbid., 267, 283, 286. This is a tough but important lesson. If longing got everything it wanted, then it would no longer have anything to act on. We’d lose our core Streben drive and be finished, literally. So, owning up to finitude—living life on the boundary between longing and satisfaction, is a good and preserving thing. Desire mishandles the boundary. It won’t acknowledge the fact that, in our wanting things and knowing things, we are restricted, even though the abiding feeling of “lack” in all our “progress” already suggests as much. In desire, we cry out “mine”; in longing, we draw a deep, quiet breath.

Can we find ways to live on this boundary today? We could begin by placing a question mark beside the cultivation of desire and making those who would engineer the expansive consent of our minds, tastes, and ideas answer for themselves. Walt Whitman, a poet Plato might have welcomed to his republic, could be a good “influencer” in this regard. Whitman sought to regain the space of longing by following the trail of lack left in him by the culture of desire. “Trippers and askers surround me,” he writes in Song of Myself, “The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new.… These come to me days and nights and go from me again, / But they are not the Me myself.” The report is intensely personal by way of running through items that are thoroughly social. And then this “‘Me” that remains, almost surprisingly. What to do with this creature caught in the crosshairs of lack and resolve? Post it on watch. “Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders, / I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”30Walt Whitman, Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman, ed. Robert Hass (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 74–75. “Song of Myself” first published 1855.

That kind of avowed attention conveys a hard-won stillness and promises a practice of longing, a Socratic turn away from the “honeyed muse” of influencers and into the boundary space of finitude and madness. Are we prepared to make the same turn?