Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction
By Robert Cohen
Published by Scribner
February 2002; 0-743-22962-2 ; 224 pages
Read a Short Story:
Good morning. It appears we have quite a turnout.
This is an elective course, as you know from the catalogue, and as such it is forced to compete with several other offerings by our department, a great many of which are, as you've no doubt heard, scandalously shopworn and dull, and so may I take a moment to say that I am personally gratified to see so many of you enrolled here in Psych 308. So many new faces. I look forward to getting to know you ea --
Yes, there are seats I believe in the last few rows, if the people, if the people there would kindly hold up a hand to indicate a vacancy beside them, yes, there, thank you...
Very well then. No doubt some of you have been attracted by the title listed in the catalogue, a title that is, as many of you surely know, a play on that estimable work by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a subject very close indeed to the one at hand. I assume that is why you are here. Because, as you see, I am neither a brilliant nor a charismatic lecturer. I am merely an average one. An average-looking specimen of what to most of you must seem an average middle age, teaching at an average educational institution attended by, you'll forgive me, average students. Are there enough syllabi going around? Good. You will note right away that I subscribe to many of the informal, consensually determined rules of academic conduct and dress. I favor tweeds and denims and the occasional tie. My syntax is formal. My watch is cheap. You may well catch me in odd moments -- and there will be, I assure you, no shortage of them -- fiddling with this watch of mine in a nervous, abstracted way, or staring pensively out the window into the parking lot, with its perfect grid of white, dutiful lines, in a manner that suggests deep thought. You may well wonder what is the nature of these deep thoughts of mine. Am I parsing out some arcane bit of theory? Reflecting on the dualities of consciousness? Or am I simply meandering through the maze of some private sexual fantasy, as, statistics tell us, so many of us do so much of the time? Yes, there will be much to wonder about, once we get started. Much to discuss. Admittedly you may find me somewhat more forthcoming than the average tenured professor -- more "upfront" as you undergraduates like to say -- but that, I submit, is in the nature of my researches, and in the nature of the field itself. One must develop in our work a certain ruthlessness in regard to truths, be they truths of behavior or personality, be they quote-unquote private or public. The fact is, There are no private truths in our world. If you learn nothing else this semester, I trust you will learn that.
I ask, by the way, that all assignments be neatly typed. I have no teaching assistant this term. I had one last spring, a very able one at that. Perhaps some of you met her. Her name was Emily. Emily Crane.
I say was though of course she, Emily, Emily Crane, isn't dead. Still, I think of her as a was, not the is she surely still must be. This is one of the most common and predictable tricks of the unconscious, to suggest to us the opposite of the real, to avoid the truth when the truth will cause us pain. We will discuss such matters in the weeks ahead. We will discuss the lessons, the often hard and painful lessons, of the wounded psyche in its search for wholeness. We will seek to gain insight and understanding into our worst humiliations, not because there is implicit value in such knowledge -- this is perhaps open to debate -- but because as a practical matter we are conditioned more deeply by our failures than our successes, and it is vital to gain insight into what conditions us, in order that we may operate more freely.
Many of you have been led to believe just the opposite. You have been fed by the media a vulgar caricature of our profession, one that claims we are all imprinted at an early age by forces of such deterministic magnitude that we are forever thereafter obliged to repeat the same few patterns, perform endless variations on the same thin script. This is an attractive idea, of course. Like all such mystical notions, it frees us from the burden of choice and responsibility, and lays the blame instead at the feet of our parents and culture. We can surrender the struggle for well-being and console ourselves with the idea that it was never in fact available to us.
But this is nonsense. Opportunities for transformation are as plentiful as the stars, as the paintings in a museum, as you yourselves. Look around you. It's September, and I know you can all feel, as I do, the rushing of the blood that comes in with the first Canadian winds. If one breathes deeply enough one can almost feel oneself swell, become larger, less imperfect. I quite love September. I look forward to it all summer, I savor it while it's here, I mourn it when it's gone. I experience this as a personal love, but of course this is sheer narcissism -- the lonely ego seeking an escape into vastness.
Those of you who have had sexual intercourse know approximately what I mean. One feels oneself changing temperature, contours; one feels an immanence; and finally one feels oneself arrive, if you will, in a larger, more generous space. One feels a good many other things too, of course, if one is fortunate.
I myself was fortunate, very fortunate, when the teaching assistantships were designated last year, and I was paired with Emily, Emily Crane. Allow me to remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that your teaching assistants should never be taken for granted. They work hard in the service of distant ideals, and are rewarded with long nights, headaches, and minimal pay. One must treat them well at all times -- even, or perhaps especially, when they fail to treat you well in return. One must listen; one must attend. Certainly I tried to pay attention to Emily, to her various needs, and so forth. Her singularities. These are after all what make us interesting. Our little tics. Emily, for example, had a most irregular way of groaning to herself in moments of stress. They were very odd, involuntary, delirious little groans, and they would emerge from her at the most unexpected times. She'd groan in the car, parallel parking, or at the grocery, squeezing limes. In bed, she'd groan as she plumped the pillows, she'd groan getting under the sheets, she'd groan as she pulled off her nightshirt, she'd groan all the way through foreplay and up to the point of penetration, and then, then she'd fall magically silent, as if the presence of this new element, my penis, required of her a greater discretion than its absence. I found it disconcerting, at first. My wife Lisa, whom we will discuss later in the term -- you'll find copies of her letters and diaries on reserve at the library -- used to make a fair bit of noise during lovemaking, so when Emily fell quiet I had the suspicion, common among males of a sensitive nature, that I was somehow failing to please her. Apparently this was not the case, though one can never be sure. My own ego, overnourished by a doting mother -- see the attached handout, "Individuation and Its Discontents: A Case Study" -- is all too readily at work in such instances. But now, thinking back on Emily, Emily Crane, I find myself wondering what were, what are, the mechanisms that govern her responses. I wonder approximately how many small ways my perception, clouded by defenses, failed her.
Of course she failed me too. Emily was, is, a highly moody and capricious young woman, capable of acting out her aggressions in a variety of childish, wholly inappropriate ways. The night of the dean's birthday party last April, for example. We arrived separately of course, with our respective partners -- I with Lisa, who abhorred parties, and Emily with Evan Searle, a first-year graduate student from the Deep South. Evan was tall, taller than I am, and thin, thinner than I am, a remarkably amiable and intelligent young man in every way, and so perhaps it's ungenerous of me to feel that if there were the merest bit of justice in the world he'd have long ago been the victim of a random, brutal accident. But back to the party. It was tiresome, as these things normally are, with much of the comradely backslapping that alcohol often inspires among people who don't particularly like each other. As you will no doubt observe over time, our faculty is not a close one. It is riddled with cliques and factions, with gossips and schemers and gross incompetents, and if there is anything that unites us at all, other than our dislike for teaching undergraduates, it is our dislike for the dean and his interminable parties.
This one appeared to be adhering to the typical flat trajectory. Standing between us and the liquor table was Arthur Paplow, the last Behaviorist, who subjected us to the latest in his ongoing series of full-bore ideological rants. Then Frida Nattanson -- some of you may have had Frida last year for Psych 202 -- came over, Frida who back in her distant, now quite inconceivable youth made something of a reputation for herself by spilling a drink on Anna Freud at a party not unlike this one -- anyway, Frida launched into a rather tragic litany detailing the various ongoing health issues of her wretched cat Sparky. Then Earl Stevens, our boy wonder, strode up and tried to enlist us in one of his terribly earnest games of Twister, a game cut short when our distinguished emeritus, Ludwig Stramm, fell into his customary stupor in the middle of the room and had to be circumnavigated on tiptoe, as no one had the courage to wake him. All this time, understand, I was watching Emily Crane out of the corner of my eye.
May I have the first slide please?
I have not spoken of her looks, but you will observe that she wasn't beautiful, in the classic sense, not beautiful by any means. She had a hormonal condition that kept her very thin, too thin really -- note the bony shoulders -- and made her skin somewhat warmer than most people's, so that she dressed in loose, floppy cotton dresses without sleeves -- dresses that reveal, if you look closely, a little more of Emily than she seemed to realize. Her face was long and her mouth quite small, and this smallness of the mouth limited the range of her expressions somewhat, so that one had to know her fairly well, as I thought I did, to read her. I saw her nodding absently along with some story Evan Searle was telling to the dean's secretary. I could see that she was bored, restless, and hoping to leave early. But with whom?
I had come to the party with Lisa, who was after all my wife. We had been married for close to sixteen years. This must sound like a long time to you. And yet, when you are no longer quite so bound up in your youth, you may experience Time in a different way. You may see a diminishment in the particularities, the textures, of lived time that may well come as a relief. One could argue that this diminishment I speak of is really an intensification or heightening, closer to the Eastern notion of time as an eternal present, an unbounded horizon. Perhaps time is not the burden we think it is. Perhaps it is in fact a very light, mutable thing.
Speaking of burdens, let us return to the salient fact here, my marriage to Lisa, a commitment central to my life. I had no intention of leaving Lisa for Emily. I knew it and Emily knew it. Moreover she claimed to be perfectly satisfied with this state of affairs. She knew the score, she liked to say. I was twice her age and married, to say nothing of being her thesis adviser, and it required no special sophistication to regard what we were doing together as the predictable embodiment of an academic cliché. Of course this did nothing to diminish our excitement. Far from it. Indeed, one might argue that in our media-saturated age, eroticism is incomplete without its corresponding mirror in one popular cultural cliché or another. Has it become a cliché, then, to engage in oral sex on one's office carpet, five minutes before one's three-thirty seminar in Advanced Cognition? Of course it has. And is it a cliché to find oneself, during a recess in the Admissions Committee meeting, licking the hot, unshaven armpit of a twenty-four-year-old Phi Beta Kappa? Of course it is. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to say that I wish such clichés on all of you. Let me say too that if they have already come your way, you will have ample opportunity to make use of them, either in class discussion or in one of the three written papers I will ask of you this term.
To continue our inquiry, then, into the events of the party: Sometime later, close to midnight, I saw Emily disengage herself from Evan Searle and wander off by herself in the direction of the kitchen. It so happened we had not been alone together in some time. Emily was busy studying for orals, and claimed to have an infection of some sort that rendered her unfit for sex. It was difficult to imagine any germ so virulent, but never mind. I did not press the point, even when the days became a week, the week ripened and then withered into a month. Oh, I called a few times, to be sure, merely to check on her health. In truth she sounded rather wan. Several times I had the distinct impression that I had woken her up, or perhaps interrupted some strenuous bit of exercise. Afterwards I would sit in my study, pour myself a finger of scotch -- sometimes a whole handful -- and stew in the darkness, utterly miserable, thinking of Emily, Emily Crane. The lunatic's visions of horror, wrote the great William James, are all drawn from the material of daily fact. All my daily facts had been reduced to this: I sat there alone, in a darkened room cluttered with books, a darkened mind cluttered with Emily. Emily with Evan Searle. Emily with Earl Stevens. Emily with the director of off-campus housing. Emily with delivery boys, meter maids, movie stars. Emily with everyone and everyone with Emily and nowhere a place for me.
But perhaps I have strayed from our topic.
We were still at the party, as I recall. Emily had gone into the kitchen, and I had followed. The kitchen was gleaming, immaculate, empty of people. For that matter it was empty of food. The dean, famous for his thrifty way with a budget, had hired a rather puritanical catering crew whose specialty, if you could call it that, was crustless cucumber and avocado sandwiches. Apparently Emily had not had her fill. The refrigerator was open and she had bent down to rummage through its sparse contents. She did not hear me approach. I stopped mid-step, content to watch her at work -- her pale bare shoulders, her tangled coif, her air of concentrated appetite. At that moment, class, it struck me with a profound and singular force: I loved Emily Crane, loved her in a way that both included and transcended desire, loved her in a way that brought all the blockish, unruly, and disreputable passions of the self into perfect, lasting proportion. Feeling as I did, it seemed incumbent upon me to let Emily know, that we might validate together this breakthrough into a higher, headier plane of affection. And so I stepped forward.
Perhaps I should say I lurched forward. Apparently I'd had a bit more to drink than was strictly necessary. Apparently I'd had quite a bit more to drink than was strictly necessary. I'm certain a good many of you know how that feels, don't you, when you get good and ripped, and that very pleasant little brass band begins its evening concert in your head, and the baton begins to wave, and the timpani begin to roll, and one feels oneself swell into a kind of living crescendo. There's nothing quite like it. It's different than the rush one experiences on very good marijuana, say, or opiated hashish. It lacks the vague, speedy flavor of the hallucinogens. No, if it can be compared to anything I'd say it's closer, in my opinion, to fine cocaine.
Do you young people still do cocaine? It's lovely, isn't it? Emily and I liked to snort it off a moon rock she'd bought from the Museum of Natural History in New York. The dear girl was absurdly superstitious about it. We had to be in the bathtub, Mahler had to be on the stereo, the bill we used had to be a fresh twenty, etcetera etcetera. As you can see, she displayed a marked predilection for controlled behavior, did Emily. Alas, my own predilections run in rather the opposite direction.
As I said, I lurched forward. Emily crouched before the white infertile landscape of the dean's refrigerator, unsuspecting. All I wished to do, you see, was press my lips against the fuzzy layer of down that ran like an untended lawn across the chiseled topography of her shoulder. That was all. There must have been some form of internal miscommunication, however, some sort of synaptic firing among the brain receptors that went awry, because what proceeded to happen was something quite different. What proceeded to happen was that I stumbled over some warped, wayward tile of linoleum, and went hurtling into Emily, and the point of my chin cracked -- hard -- against the top of her head, which sent her flying into the refrigerator. I might mention, too, that at some point in the proceedings my pants were no longer fastened at the waist but had slipped a good deal closer to my ankles, revealing a rather horrific erection I'm at a loss to account for. Where do they come from, these erections? Does anyone know? Why do they come upon one during bus rides, for instance, but not on the train? It's a subject worthy of exploration. Some of you may well decide to undertake it, in fact, for your first paper.
Emily, for her part, began to scream. One could hardly blame her, of course: I'd caught her off guard; I'd clumsily assaulted her; I'd invaded her space, as she liked to say. I'd done everything wrong, everything. She stood there, crimson-faced, fingering the teeth marks in her skirt, her mouth --
Oh yes, I seemed to have bitten her skirt. Did I leave that out? An odd involuntary response, but there you have it. I still have a piece of it somewhere. A light, summery cotton material, as I remember. Sometimes I'll pick it up and pop it in my mouth again, and the effect, if I may make so grand a claim, is not unlike Proust and his madeleine, conjuring up Emily in great rushing tides of sensory detail. Remembrance of Flings Past, if you will. Yes, a wonderful souvenir, that bit of skirt, to say nothing of its usefulness and durability as a masturbatory aid. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Emily was screaming. That was unfortunate, of course, but not unreasonable. The disconcerting part was that even after she had turned around, one lip fattening and starting to bleed; even after she had seen that it was only me, that it had obviously all been an accident, only an accident, one that had caused me too a great deal of pain; even after I had begun to stammer out a lengthy and perhaps in retrospect not entirely coherent apology; even after, class, even after -- Emily continued to scream. In fact she screamed louder. It was a scream without words, without inflection, as insensate and maddening as a siren. It appeared to come from some hot, awful, violent place inside Emily that I had not as yet explored...a place that I'll confess intrigued me. For a moment I had the completely insupportable idea that it bore some relation to her muteness during the love act, a place of inverted pleasures and projected pain, a place where all of Emily's emotional dysfunctions had sought out a refuge. Ladies and gentlemen, can you blame me for my interest in this young woman? She was fascinating, neurotic, convoluted, thoroughly extraordinary. No, I don't believe I can be blamed, not in this case, not with Emily Crane. My intentions were innocent ones, therapeutic ones. I wish to establish this point, my essential innocence, right here at the outset, because I will in all likelihood be making reference to it as the semester goes on.
There will be -- did I mention? -- a midterm and a final.
Of course they all came running at once, the entire faculty, including spouses, secretaries, and administrators, all came at once to the kitchen to see what had happened. For all they knew there had been a murder, a fire. How could they have known it was only a brief, botched kiss?
In time she began to calm down. Emily Crane, she calmed down. The vein at her temple softened and receded, her hands unclenched, her color assumed a normal shade. For the benefit of the onlookers she attempted a shrug of casualness, but her shoulders remained tight, unnaturally so, where I'd tried to kiss them, so that she appeared to have frozen midway through some strange, inelegant dance step. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. Frida, cooing, stroked Emily's forehead. The room hushed. Emily looked at me softly, inquiringly, as she used to look at me during our Special Topics seminar only a year ago, her brow creased, her head cocked at a steep angle, her eyes wide and damp, and when she opened her mouth again I heard a whole robed choir of ardent angels rising to their feet.
"You're disgusting," she said. This in a loud and brittle voice. The sort of voice, class, one should never use on one's lover -- and yet in the end one always does, it seems.
My tenured colleagues slipped away at once, grateful for the chance to escape and preoccupied, no doubt, with dramas of their own. But the junior faculty looked on greedily, their faces lit by the kind of ghoulish pleasure with which small children attend the dismemberment of insects. They'd be dining out on this for weeks. Already I could hear the first rough whispers, the first conspiratorial murmurs. Emily, if she heard them, paid no mind; she stood proud, a high priestess conducting a ritual sacrifice, slitting the throat of our love on the party's altar. "You're disgusting," she said again, perhaps for the benefit of Herr Stramm, who had missed it the first time. And then she wheeled, grabbed Evan Searle by the elbow, and commenced what I judged to be a rather theatrical exit.
Excuse me, but there are, I believe, a few minutes left.
Emily, Emily Crane, left this university soon afterward. I cannot tell you where she went because no one will tell me. It was the end of the term and I was left without a teaching assistant, left to grade one hundred seventeen undergraduate papers, which I read, quite alone, on the floor of the unfurnished apartment that Lisa insisted I sublet the week after the dean's party. No doubt in a few weeks I will be grading your papers on that same floor. Sometimes it is all I can do to rise from that floor. Sometimes it is all I can do.
"There are persons," wrote the great William James, "whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes."
Who are these persons, you ask? You see one of them before you. If you take a moment and look to your left and your right, you will see two more. And by the time you are older, and not so very much older at that, you will begin to see him or her in the places you have not as yet been looking: in the reflection of a glass, say, or an intimate's stare, or a barren refrigerator. Ultimately, you see, the private will win out. The axis of reality, James tells us, runs solely through the private, egotistic places -- they are strung upon it like so many beads. We are all in this together, ladies and gentlemen, in a way that would be horrible were it not so comic, but in a way that manages to be quite horrible anyway. We are all students of desire. We arrive at class eager as puppies, earnest, clumsy, groping for love. That is what brought you here this morning. You have caught the scent of possibility. You have begun to gnaw at your leashes, and they have begun to fray, and soon, soon, you will go scampering off in search of new ones.
Very well then. We are out of time. Next week, according to the syllabus, we will turn our attention to Janice, Janice Rodolfo, who left me for the captain of the golf squad in my junior year of high school. Among other issues, we will explore the theoretical implications of submissive behavior -- mine -- and analyze the phenomenon known as "dry humping" for its content of latent aggression. Until then, I ask only that you keep up with your reading and, of course, your journal, which I intend to review periodically. I ask that you keep your writing neat.
Are there any questions?
I thought I saw a hand up...there, in the back row, the young lady with the red blouse, with the --
I thought I saw your hand.
Perhaps I have already answered your question. Or perhaps you're somewhat shy. There's something inhibiting, isn't there, about a forum such as this, all these narrow desks in their rigid lines. If I had my way in things, if it were up to me, this class would not be a lecture at all, but a succession of individual consultations in some small, comfortable room. A room like my office, for instance, on the third floor of this building, to the left of the stairs. Room 323. If it were up to me, young lady, you would ask your questions there. You would put down your pen and take off your shoes. There would be music, something chastened and reflective, to facilitate our inquiries. In the end we might choose not to speak at all, but merely to gaze into a flickering candle, attending to the gyrations of the light, to the dance of its shadow up the wall and to the small elusive effects of our own breath...
Right, right, by all means, mustn't run over. It's only...
I thought, I thought there was...
I saw her hand.
© 2002 Robert Cohen
For years Robert Cohen has been praised by reviewers and readers alike for his masterful prose and his exuberant and penetrating comic vision. The New York Times has even called his writing redemptive -- so satisfying as to "remind readers why they continue to cast their lines into the shrinking lake of contemporary fiction...his prose is not merely gorgeous, it's also terrifically funny; his humor is the ghastly variety embedded in everyday life."
Now, the critically acclaimed and bestselling author of Inspired Sleep delivers a collection of ten dazzling stories that not only show off Cohen's exhilarating prose and startling ironic humor but also provide a platform for his virtuoso range of tone and style and his ongoing investigation of the hazy, bedraggled American sensibility.
In "Oscillations," a man verbally paralyzed by his obsession with language retreats to a special institute, where he will relearn the art of communication. "Points of Interest" is an ingenious and timely exploration of the boundaries between life and art, as told through the revolving -- and dizzyingly revealing -- perspectives of its three self-absorbed protagonists. The title story features a hilariously out-of-touch psychology professor whose introductory lecture becomes an inadvertent confession of his own long, disastrous career of sexual mistakes. And in the more somber, moving "The Boys at Night," a suburban teenager, on the fringes of a family crisis, makes his first tentative forays into maturity, discovering how accidents at once reveal, imperil, and sustain us.
In each of these stories, the characters must wrestle with the slippery, invisible curtain between the world and their own fevered misapprehensions of it. What results is the urgently serious comedy we call Romanticism -- the yearning of the mind for contact with the actual, which is always receding from view. That these characters' desires and anxieties are familiar to us is the second thing we realize upon reading these stories. The first is how much we're laughing.
Robert Cohen currently lives in Cambridge MA with his wife and sons. His short fiction has been published in GQ, Harper's, The Paris Review, Antaeius as well as anthologized in the Pushcart Prize and Editor's Choice: New American Stories. He is the winner of a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award. He has taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and University of Houston and currently teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont.