Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Advantages of Remaining Parallel

In his short story “The Form of Space," Italo Calvino describes three celestial “characters”—Qfwfq, Ursula H’x, and Lieutenant Fenimore—who find themselves falling down parallel trajectories within the infinite reaches of outer space. Qfwfq, longing for intimacy with the beautiful Ursula, laments,

I too, naturally, dreamed only of meeting Ursula H’x, but since, in my fall, I was following a straight line absolutely parallel to the one she followed, it seemed inappropriate to reveal such an unattainable desire.

Because his orbit runs parallel to the object of his love and consequently dashes any hope that they will ever intersect, Qfwfq tries to conceal his amorous affection from Ursula. Why, after all, reveal to her a wish that can never be granted, a desire that can never be fulfilled? Qfwfq cannot bear to reveal his love to Ursula, for fear of making known to her a desire that is ultimately impossible. His passion is thus disguised, masked in his belief that it is impractical and unattainable. Better, Qfwfq believes, to remain content with the parallel relationship he has with Ursula, learning to adjust his self to the continuous space that lies between their respective bodies.

= =

In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes remains ambivalent about the ability of the subject, through either sacrificial chivalry or masochistic impulse, to completely disguise his feelings for the object of his love, since the very act of disguising always refers to the desire itself. As Barthes himself so aptly puts it,

Yet to hide a passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, that is the active paradox I must resolve: at one and the same time it must be known and not known: I want you to know that I don’t want to show my feelings: that is the message I address to the other.

The subject, even in his repression (such as in Qfwfq’s concealment of his love for Ursula), must nevertheless make his repression known—his repression is not really an action but a sign. The subject, in other words, wants to communicate to his secret love how much he is sacrificing in not communicating his passion, as contradictory as this statement may be:
You must know how much I am giving up by my refusal to let you know how much I feel for you.

In order to make known what is concealed, to establish a presence of love through its very absence, the subject finds ways to communicate his feelings outside of the direct route, perhaps by exhibiting a new personality or by withdrawing longer than usual from his beloved’s company. He may, for example, refuse to answer messages from his beloved, waiting to see how she will react to his absence. (Will she care? If so, how much will she care? Will it be as much as I care when she herself, out of admittedly no ill will, delays responses to my own messages?)

Fortunately, the creative subject need not go to such rash extremes—he may hide his passion in his work, his paintings, his music, or his writing. (Calvino hides in metaphors; Barthes in poststructuralism.) In this modern and increasingly indiscreet age, blogs are an agreeable choice for simultaneous disclosure/nondisclosure of one’s secret passion, since in this medium the subject may intimately address his beloved in a manner disguised as public forum: I pretend this is merely another post in a long series of other innocuous posts, but if only you knew the truth. I put on a show as if it were intended for an entire audience, but in my performance I can never manage to keep myself from addressing you alone. Or, to defer once again to Barthes:

Larvatus prodeo: I advance pointing to my mask: I set a mask upon my passion, but with a discreet (and wily) finger I designate this mask. Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator: […] no amorous oblation without a final theater: the sign is always victorious.

= =

Secretly, Qfwfq anticipates a meeting with Ursula in the distant future, believing “there was always the possibility that, if our two parallels continued to infinity, the moment would come when they would touch.” It is his longing for this glorious “touch” with Ursula that motivates Qfwfq in his present state:

This eventuality gave me some hope; indeed, it kept me in a state of constant excitement. I don’t mind telling you I had dreamed so much of a meeting of our parallels, in great detail, that it was no part of my experience, as if I had actually lived it.

Is Qfwfq’s hope for an eventual “meeting of our parallels” false? In Euclidean geometry, certainly, but subsequent mathematical theory tells us that in hyperbolic space two parallel geodesics may actually intersect as their limits approach infinity. A cause for celebration? Perhaps, but infinity is still infinity, and there is no telling how long it may take these two lovers to reach their eventual connection—it may very well last a number of human lifetimes (it’s a good thing these aren’t mortal beings Calvino is discussing).

Still, Qfwfq hopes, and it is this very hope that sustains him. He anticipates the intersection, which—like the use of foreshadowing in a novel—pushes his movement forward to a predetermined ending, no matter how far away this ending may be. Qfwfq is motivated by his expectation of the intersecting climax, perhaps slightly aware of this climax’s inability to equal its own anticipation. A self-fulfilling prophecy, after all, is not fulfilled in its eventual occurrence but rather in its initial projection.

= =

In his structuralist study Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method,
Gérard Genette remarks on Vladimir Jankélévitch’s notion of the “primultimateness” of the anticipated first time:

[T]hat is, the fact that the first time, to the very extent to which one experiences its inaugural value intensely, is at the same time always (already) a last time—if only because it is forever the last to have been the first, and after it, inevitably, the sway of repetition and habit begins.

Genette applies Jankélévitch’s idea to Swann and Odette’s first kiss in Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past, particularly to the following passage from the novel, in which Swann briefly hesitates just as he is about to fulfill his long-anticipated desire of claiming Odette:

Perhaps, moreover, Swann himself was fixing upon these features of an Odette not yet possessed, not even kissed by him, on whom he was looking now for the last time, that comprehensive gaze with which, on the day of his departure, a traveller strives to bear away with him in memory the view of a country to which he many never return.

In finally gaining the physical Odette, Swann also loses a part of the Odette he loved: the Odette whose far-reaching proximity motivated Swann to pursue her; the Odette who, in some sense, walked parallel to Swann, ever distant yet constantly near.

= =

Although Qfwfq is somewhat jealous in his suspicion that Ursula and Fenimore might have once intersected in their past, he finds some relief in the geometrical relativity of the situation:

On reflecting, however, I reasoned that if Ursula and the Lieutenant had once occupied the same point in space, this meant that their respective lines of fall had since been moving apart and presumably were still moving apart. Now, in this slow but constant removal from the Lieutenant, it was more than likely that Ursula was coming closer to me; so the Lieutenant had little to boast of in his past conjunctions: I was the one at whom the future smiled.

Indeed, even if Qfwfq and Ursula are continuously parallel to one another, this will at least allow Qfwfq to retain a closer distance to his beloved than all of Ursula’s previous intersecting lovers—despite the momentary bliss of touch they felt in their direct contact with Ursula, these former lovers will overtime only drift further and further apart from her. Qfwfq and Ursula, on the other hand, although seemingly separate until infinity, will never lose the closeness they possess within their stable, parallel trajectory. By staying apart, they will remain, in a very real sense, always together.

And who knows? Maybe infinity is just around the corner.