The Literature of Longing
Our longings are beyond us, yet they take root deep in our being
I have longing on my mind because I recently interviewed Madelaine Lucas about her debut novel, Thirst for Salt, which is a novel of longing for love, longing for a place, and longing to understand. It’s a beautiful, lyrical book, and it made me think about the place longing has in our lives. Longing is almost a genre unto itself.
We think of longing as being wrapped up in romance and desire, but it’s broader than that. I think of how an intense longing for the past, a person, an experience, or a life drives a story or a character. And the kind of longing I’m thinking about is different than desire. Desire is an itch that wants to be scratched, but longing is the ache that accompanies a deep love that lives in your heart.
Desires are achievable, but the things we long for are often unattainable, or there are complicated obstacles in place. Longing is also deeper than desire. Desire exists in the realm of choice, but longing takes root deep in your being. It’s existential. You can’t just turn it off or chase it away.
Longing carries with it an idea of a type of utopia lost. Or a utopia searched for. It’s painful, yet somehow pleasurable at the same time. We’re mythologizing something, making it larger than life through our longing, so we’re fictionalizing it, living through a projected story, and creating an idea of life that is really impossible in the end.
Perhaps this is why longing is such a part of storytelling and fiction — the only way to experience the reality of longing is through the act of the imagination. And that imagination helps us travel through distances.
I think of some of the great novels of longing. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby spends his entire life longing for Daisy, not only to return to their early, idyllic days of love, but because she represents a better life, a perfect life, a life that he’s never had and really can’t have.
I remember being overwhelmed by the longing in Love in the Time of Cholera. For fifty-one years, nine months, and four days, Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza don’t speak a word to one another. Then, following the death of Fermina’s husband, Florentino decides to remind her…