Being young sometimes feels like being an amateur translator. You have little life experience, but you read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, and so you try to transfer what you see on the screen or the page to your experiences. You don’t know yet that translators don’t transfer, they reconvey. So the result is often clunky. You think you do something for one reason, and it turns out you did it for something else altogether.
As a young man, this sense of clunkiness spread to almost everything I did, including my youthful attempts at romantic affairs. I often found myself surrounded by images of love and romance that split emotions from sex without realizing how influential they were to a psyche still very much in formation. On the one hand, you would be told or shown, in a myriad of ways both direct and indirect, that emotional bonds need not impede the satisfaction of sexual desire. And, on the other, you were also made to understand that emotional connections should be sought as precursors to sex. It was enough to confuse any kid, especially one growing up in an immigrant household in which these kinds of concerns weren’t even on the radar.
Sex and emotion, which were supposed to bring these wonderfully sublime experiences, often led to anger and pain, mine or my partner’s, as these realms created friction between them and resisted rational understanding. When I was in high school I remember being with a girl who was more experienced than I was. We were lying in bed after my first experiences giving and receiving oral sex, which was exhilarating but also difficult to process. From today’s perspective I think I’d say I was overwhelmed by the intimacy of the act, especially considering that we had not yet established strong emotional bonds. I felt guilty, but I didn’t have the words to describe what I felt, so I just said, “This was nice, but I want to be open and say that, with us, I don’t have forever feelings.” I had never used that phrase before. I didn’t even know exactly what I meant — since neither one of us was trying to pronounce our never-ending love and devotion. I was trying to be honest. But I hurt her. She was embarrassed, covered herself, and asked, “Then why did you just do all this?”
I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to answer her, and concepts like toxic masculinity were way out of my adolescent reach. But I wasn’t trying to avoid trying to answer — so she drove us to a diner and we spent a couple of hours talking. I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I remember very clearly trying to justify myself by saying I was doing what people did in movies. It wasn’t a totally honest answer: I was also driven to have a sexual experience. And I’d assumed we shared the same goals. I thought we were experimenting, engaging sexually as part of finding out whether or not we had “forever feelings” for each other. She admitted that she wasn’t sure how she felt about me either — that she didn’t know what she was looking for or why. I asked her why she had done all this, and she didn’t have an answer either. We left the diner in silence, she drove me back to where I’d parked my car, and as I got out she said she appreciated my talking about what had happened. I said I was happy that we talked too and that I was sorry. But I saw, as I left, that she was still angry.
I learned from movies. And as I grew up, I began to watch movies that complicated — rather than magnified — my assumptions about the confluence of sex and emotions. These included, in particular, the films of Éric Rohmer and Catherine Breillat. In them I found representations of sex and emotions that both recalled some of my experiences and also explored their complexities in ways that were way beyond what I was able to understand as a young person just setting out on adulthood. More than anything else, their two opposing approaches to sex — which in her films was always the starting point for any relationship and which in his films was always the end — expressed similarly radical perspectives on the complex confluence of sex and emotions. Their films revealed the human underbelly of assumptions about love and romance, each taken from the opposite extreme of sex or abstinence, yet both placing sexuality at the center of how emotional bonds develop between people. It didn’t matter whether or not you were engaging in sexual activity. And it didn’t matter whether or not you thought you were becoming emotionally attached. You were always — but always — caught by surprise.
Actually, separation of sex and emotion in movies was not the only cultural input that confused me — or that I mistranslated — as a young man. There were also books, many of which reflected a romantic mindset equally devastating, especially in their representations of unrequited love or idealization of loneliness. I remember reading books like This Side of Paradise (1920), The Sun Also Rises (1926), Franny and Zooey (1961), or The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), all written by men, and all dealing more or less obliquely with the problem of romance in reality: how to survive the gaps between our forever feelings and our fleeting desires. I wanted to love a concrete person — but I didn’t know how to square reality, which was filled with real people, with the emotional constitution of a young man like me who was gleaning most of his emotional intelligence from books and films. With time, I came to learn about feminist critiques exposing both the angelic and monstrous female ideal as an invention or projection of male fears and anxieties – leading me to invent a character I conceptualized as an “unadulterated projectionist,” both because he was constantly projecting his fantasies onto other people and because he worked as an actual projectionist in a movie theater. And as the images and ideas I got from books and movies began to be slowly appended by images, reflections, or conclusions of my own creation — drawn from personal experience which was sometimes wonderful and at other times quite awful — I also began to feel like I was becoming better at translating between the feelings I read on the page and the feelings I experienced in reality.
A lot of things happened: relationships, one-nighters, one-weekers, cross-Atlantic romances, near-engagements. And, with each one, my relationship to what I read and watched also began to change. I sensed this very strongly when reading Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries (1892) about seven or eight years ago. Hamsun is a strange figure, and his delusions about human relations extended to everything from romance to politics. I had read his most famous book, Hunger (1890), while living in New York, and could easily identify with his description of an alienated young writer trying to find a welcoming home in the big city for his wandering textual impulses. But by the time I came to Mysteries, I was reading in a completely different way, which had emerged from increasing immersion in the emotional layers of experience. And, as I read certain sections of Mysteries, I was struck by an ability to see both how I might have read the section before, as a young man without much experience, and how it read to me now, after I had experienced both the highs and the lows of love.
You don’t have to know much about the novel itself to understand the scene. A young lovelorn man named Nagel — infatuated with a certain young woman but repeatedly embarrassing himself in front of her, signaling that he actually hates her — sits in his room in an erratic feverish fit, his mind and heart swinging back and forth between thoughts and feelings that don’t seem to add up to anything that might serve the development of coherent human relations.
“Dagny,” thinks Nagel, calling out the young woman’s name, “I don’t love you. . . . I don’t love your name; it throws me into turmoil. . . . God protect me from you now and forever. . . . But I’m asking myself, what good would it do? I would still love you; I’ll always love you. Dagny — you know that, and that I regret my bitter words.” The confusion is palpable. Here is someone who cannot stand the anxiety of intimacy and its ever-present specter of rejection. The name of the person he supposedly loves brings up in him great hope, but also utter despair, and so he pushes the thought of her away, seeking relief from this mental and emotional distress. But this relief doesn’t resolve his infatuated desire, and so, despite himself, he says that he loves her, throwing him back into the same emotionally volatile cycle.
I felt a powerful shock when reading this because I could sense that, as a young man, I would have probably identified with the male character in this situation, and invoked my own feelings of confusion and rejection to relate to the state in which the character finds himself. I would have felt the mental pain and emotional anguish involved in experiencing conflicting feelings and thoughts about someone to whom I’m ultimately attracted — even if I did not ever feel or think those things so violently. I might have attributed his violence to the text’s status as literary fiction, an exaggeration meant to make an impression, without really taking it seriously. And I would have felt validated by – rather than critical about – the portrayal of those emotions and thoughts that arise when our desire to unite with another person is interrupted. I thought about some of the people with whom I had been infatuated and was suddenly filled with shame over the powerful emotions I had projected onto our potential union. Those feelings were mine, I was solely responsible for them, no matter how connected they were with the figure of another person.
But now — after my personal experience had brought me into intimate contact not only with sublime union but also with incoherent states of mind — I found myself identifying with the female character. The readerly move I undertook wasn’t, in the Woolfian sense used by Gilbert and Gubar, to “kill” the demon-angel. It was to put myself in the position of a person onto whom another person throws their inaccurate and self-invented projection — to become the person who is misrepresented and mistreated. What I saw, now, was a young man so wrapped up in himself that he was unable to see that his violent expression might cause the other person pain — and, when he did, he did not ask for forgiveness but rather presumed that the other person, to whom he spoke in his head and not in reality, would understand that he was sorry. The entire relational dynamic, the whole oscillation between lying and not loving, was taking place without the actual participation of the woman. And suddenly I thought of that moment when I talked about forever feelings, which was something that the girl with whom I was lying in bed hadn’t even had in her mind. I had involved her in a conversation that was happening in my head — and that essentially had nothing to do with her. And I did so thinking I was being honest.
What’s interesting about this passage in Mysteries, though, is that it’s not just about the idealized or demonized representation of invented literary female figures. What it actually represents is the frightening fact that, in the background of that young character’s consciousness, there is a real person in the storyworld who is being assailed in that fictional reality. This is because Hamsun isn’t a simplistic writer — and he shows in his literary text that the young man is aware that this interaction is taking place in his head. “What is the use of making all these conjectures,” he asks himself, “of setting up imaginary premises?” And this point, when he is momentarily honest with himself, he reveals what’s actually at stake for him in this whole infatuation: “You would never break with the world, and you would never accept me.” What he wants, ultimately, is acceptance — and he has set up this whole fantasy just to serve this feeling. This isn’t a passage about love per se. It’s about being accepted.
It’s true that Dagny is not a person for him. But she’s not an object or possession either. She’s a means, a medium, a way for him to feel accepted — if not by the world, which is beyond reach, then at least by a single person who, for him, will replace the world. It’s obviously a fantasy — and if we wanted clinical approaches for such affective presentations, we’d find that such states are being discussed as personality difficulties rather than disorders. But, if we’ve honest with ourselves, it is fantasy that is common in the experience of love and intimacy. And if, for a moment, we step back from reactively judging the young man’s character, we can also look at this fantasy from a more pragmatic perspective, as Kurt Vonnegut did when he said that, no matter how much we might want to love any single potential partner, they’re just not enough people to replace the world. Our desire for acceptance cannot be supplied by any single person — regardless of the presence or absence of forever feelings.
This understanding, I would argue, is rooted in the simultaneous identification with both the young man and the young woman who is presumed to exist just beyond his fantasy. We, readers, can become the conveyors of these two positions, like translators working between two internal languages, understanding this complex reality without rejecting either part of ourselves. The young man in the book, for his part, also seems to understand this reality. But he responds aggressively. “You’re stupid and vain to think that I love you,” he says, but we readers know that it isn’t that simple. And as Hamsun’s novel makes painfully obvious, the only person stupid and vain enough to think that he loves Dagny is the young man himself.
Reading these pages, I experienced them doubly, identifying with both the young man and the young woman, though more sympathetically with the latter, and critically with the former. But, either way, I had to find the connection between the two, and despite my desire to split the two figures apart — rejecting the male’s fantasy and revealing the nonexistence of the female — I had to admit that a connection, however problematic, did in fact exist between the two. I kept thinking of those forever feelings I talked about with that girl in high school — and suddenly felt angry with my younger self. I knew I’d tried to be honest with what I’d said to her, but I also recognized that I knew a lot less about forever feelings then than I thought I did. Or that I even really know now.
The conversation around forever feelings wasn’t bad per se. But it didn’t cover all the complex emotions involved in intimacy, which are constantly being developed with each new experience. Forever feelings are important, but they’re bound up with lots of other aspects of our emotional life, many of which involve not just feelings and thoughts but also desires and actions. What was important about recalling that experience, I now realized, wasn’t just the shame I felt at hurting my sexual partner, but also the pride I felt at talking it out with her. Because, in the end, the only means we have for coming into relations with all these different elements of intimacy is our communication.
I’m still haunted by this experience. But Hamsum’s novel clarified for me at least one little part: my youthful yearning for love as “forever feelings” was also a yearning for something much larger — the need for acceptance by others. I’d hoped, when I was young, that the feeling of love for one person, shared and guaranteed forever, would give me the place in the world that I so lacked and so needed. And I can’t deny that finding a partner for one’s life can contribute to addressing that need. But I’d also say, today, that this need for acceptance has slowly developed into something else: a sense of belonging. Because there is so much more than love — everything from social engagement to cultural production and civil responsibilities — that contributes to our sense of belonging and that, no less than our love relations, could use a good dose of forever feelings.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem