On The Desire to Write

I have taken a break from Montaigne for about a month, and I felt the urge to return to it today. However, I also feel an anti-urge to avoid the subject matter that dominated my previous series of essays. With the benefit of some time and space, I have found peace from some of the emotions that were top of mind (tormenting is probably too strong of a word, but just barely) at that time.

I am also fighting a destructive urge to go back and destroy that series, and pretend that it never existed. Perhaps no one would even notice or care, but to me it seems like a false ending. A better way to reframe that series might be to step back and explain why I had such a desire to express myself in such a fashion. To reach that destination, I’m going to write about writing while referring to a Montaigne essay about sex, because why not?

The interesting thing for me about the new essays in the Montaigne Project is that I have very little idea who read it or what conclusions they drew from it. It might be better that way. Many issues I addressed in it revolved around subjects I had recently explored in therapy, which was risky for me. Why put myself out there like that? The ready answer that if you’re going to write about Montaigne you have to adopt Montaigne-like self reflection, and that has some truth. But the real reason is that I had no one in particular to whom I could tell my story, so I figured the “message in a bottle” approach was my next best option.

Montaigne begins his essay “That difficulty increases desire” with a quote from Seneca:

Sorrow for something lost is equal to the fear of losing it.

This is a wonderful quote that well captures the mindset of someone who struggles with a fear of abandonment. I don’t need to give a human example either — I can see it every minute of every day with my dog Bogie. He has this intense fear that I’m going to walk away and not come back. This is reinforced every time I leave the house, but the real sorrow for something lost came earlier in his life, when Bogie was abandoned by his first human and taken to an animal shelter. Bogie’s sorrow never enters the past, it is his constant companion and I know that I need to soothe that sorrow as I comfort him.

Sometimes the loss is not for a living breathing thing either. For me, the original Montaigne project from 2011 is something that was immediate and alive in me for the more than three months it took to write it and for the next six months as I attempted to sell it for publication. The fact that it did not sell was a loss, but even more so was the loss of not writing it, of not discovering something new in Montaigne every day. And so I feared that if I could not find new material in Montaigne during a trying time in my life — and the world’s life — then perhaps it was permanently lost to me. This fear drove me to bring it back.

So what are our desires? Montaigne makes the case that it is yearning itself that summons our desires, which then take shape based on their novelty and difficulty to acquire:

Our appetite scorns and passes over what it holds in its hand, so as to run after what it does not have. To forbid us something is to make us want it.

But here’s the interesting part — Montaigne argues that it is the loss, the failure to acquire or to hold, that makes an object of desire alluring. So while Montaigne held my interest long enough to complete my project and take my best shot at pitching a book, if I had succeeded in getting it published, I would likely have no interest at all in returning to the subject now.  It would just be another line item on my resume by now:

We are equally troubled by desiring something and by possessing it. Coldness in mistresses is most painful, but in very truth compliance and availability are even more so; that is because the yearning which is born in us from the high opinion in which we hold the object of our love sharpens our love, and the choler similarly make it hot: but satiety engenders a feeling of insipidness; our passion then is blunted, hesitant, weary and half-asleep.

Which brings me to the subject matter of many of these new essays, which just happened to touch on desire. That object of desire was, in fact, no different than a desire to acquire literary fame or to get to call oneself a published author. To desire a closeness with a therapist in the context of a transference relationship is perfectly normal, no different than a writer desiring an audience for his work. What makes the closeness so appealing is the impossibility of it being anything more than what it is — a professional relationship with strict ethical boundaries drawn around it.

Severing such a relationship prematurely, therefore, is no different than a dog losing its human companion or a writer receiving his final rejection letter from a publishing house. This loss, inevitably, makes whatever relationship that existed before seem more beautiful, perfect and impossible to live without.

These are all illusions, of course. Bogie has never had a better friend than me, regardless of the loss he carries around with him from his previous abandonment. My original Montaigne Project was an interesting collection of writing, but it wasn’t the last word on things I can express — even as it relates to Montaigne. And there was nothing magical about my last therapy relationship, it just ended too soon for me to fully process what I was feeling, so those feelings took on an operatic scale.

And human beings have an endless capacity to make the impossible and lost seem magical, which has applications to religion as well.  To drive home this point, Montaigne quotes Ovid:

What is allowed has no charm: what is not allowed, we burn to do.

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