Vivian Gornick: "Injected like dye into the nervous system of my emotions"

I was going through a stack of books at the literary agency today when a slim volume by Vivian Gornick caught my eye. I had heard of her before, perhaps b/c she once blurbed a title I worked on at Random House. I flipped through her collection of essays and stopped at “What Feminism Means to Me,” thinking that maybe I’d find something to recommend to Ariella. Instead, I fell upon the following passage, which is so good that I typed it up by hand in an effort to “write” it myself:

“Loving a man, I vowed, would not again be primary. Love-as-I-had-known-it was something I might have to do without. I approached this thought blithely, as though it would be the easiest thing in the world to accomodate. After all, I’d always been an easy belligerent, one of those women forever complaining that men were afraid of “women like me.” I was no good at flirting, it was a relief to be done with it. If love between equals was impossible–and it looked as though it probably was–who needed it? I pressed myself against my newly hardened heart. The thrill and excitement of feminist reality made me glad to give up sentimentality, take pleasure in tough-mindedness. The only important thing, I told myself, was work. I must teach myself to work. If I worked, I’d have what I needed. I’d be a person in the world. What would it matter then that I was giving up ‘love’?
As it turned out: it mattered. More than I had ever dreamed it would…The idea of love, if not the reality, was impossible to give up. As the years went on, I saw that romantic love was injected like dye into the nervous system of my emotions, laced through the entire fabric of longing, fantasy, and sentiment. It haunted the psyche, was an ache in the bones; so deeply embedded in the make-up of the spirit it hurt the eyes to look directly into its influence. It would be a cause of pain and conflict for the rest of my life. I love my hardened heart–I have loved it all these years– but the loss of romantic love can still tear at it.”
–Vivian Gornick, “What Feminism Means to Me”

I relish her resigned acceptance of the impossibility of renouncing the dream of romantic love. We can give up the reality of love–we may have no choice in the matter–but the idea will forever haunt us. The ability to romanticize is akin to the ability to imagine, to speak in counterfactuals, to say “what if.” If we could not conceive of a reality other than the one we know, we would all go insane. It is our curse and our salvation as human beings who have a “dimension too many” (Hermann Hesse); it is the lifeline we are “ever un-reeling, every tirelessly speeding” (Whitman). And though the bridge may never be formed, and though the gossamer thread may never catch, we will continue to fling out filament, filament, filament. It is ironic that the essence of our humanity is best captured in animal metaphors: We are like the noiseless patient spider, and we are like the bird with the thorn in its breast. Still we do it. Still we do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.