As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy most about reading literature is spotting patterns across genres, cultures and times. It’s fascinating to see how great writers and poets, separated by wide chasms of every manner, are struck by the same abstract thought, and then crystallise into words, depending upon the dictates of their own personal voice. Yesterday, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s bitingly funny The Importance of Being Ernest, when I came across this line:
“It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.”
When spoken by a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, these words are more than half-jest. I’ve found that quite a few of Wilde’s most profound insights are delivered in the language of jest. In any event, this immediately reminded me of two other writers, each as different from the other as they are from Wilde.
In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” These words are written (or perhaps more accurately, spoken) about a woman he has met, quite literally, on the road, two minutes before. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose is a world away from Wilde’s clipped, manicured and elegantly-constructed lines, and yet the sentiment is quite identical.
The unique tragedy of a transient meeting, where – paradoxically – the depth of feeling depends upon its very transience (because of the supreme scope it leaves to the imagination!), is – in my view – most beautifully described by Baudelaire, in the famous A Une Passante (‘To a Passerby”). The last six lines of the sonnet – which is about a single glimpse of a woman, which the poet catches in a passing crowd – are:
A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?
Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
Previously, I’ve discussed how this poem’s sentiment resembles the troubadour concept of “amor de lonh” (“love from afar”), where the very strength of desire is founded upon the impossibility of its fulfillment. Walter Benjamin, writing about this poem, says that “this is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment”, and that “the never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.”
Benjamin also says that “it is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.” The idea of an eternal parting, that follows upon a moment’s communion, is the other, dominant sentiment of A Une Passante, and this is where the obvious similarities with Kerouac and Wilde come in. In many ways, this is akin to non-fulfillment. Both situations involve a paradox – things that we think are antithetical to love or desire here become their apotheoses. Both are, ultimately, about the failure of passion to achieve its goal – and that is exactly the point. And yet, the sentiment is subtly different. In amor de lonh, and the first reading of A Une Passante, desire is defined by the very impossibility of fulfillment. In Wilde, Kerouac, and the second reading of A Une Passante, it is, on the other hand, the tantalising possibilities that a moment’s meeting allow the imagination to play with, that form the core of the feeling. Both, in their own way, count pain as an essential component of true depth of feeling.
The richness of A Une Passante – and how it gives one new things to think about on each reading, and how so many diverse writings seem to lead back to it – never ceases to amaze me!