By Crystal Hurd
Desire, says National Book Award finalist Lauren Groff, is not the act, but the anticipation of the act. It is the “intensity of potential pleasure,” a prelude born of the heart and nourished by the imagination. This interim between seeing and embracing, the prolonged pull toward a pleasure we wish to possess, requires diligence and patience. In last night’s keynote John Hersey Memorial Address to launch the 2022 Key West Literary Seminar, resuming after last year’s cancellation due to Covid-19, Groff made a timely observation: All of us gathered here are brimming with anticipation.
Crediting Emily Dickinson’s poem “Who never wanted—maddest Joy” for the title of her talk—“The Banquet of Abstemiousness”—Groff notes that Desire is often an estimation, forecasting a pleasure we hope to receive. Throughout her talk, subtitled “On Art and Desire,” she references a feast: the banquet of literature chronicling our long and tangled history of Desire.
She begins with a rousing retelling of Psyche and Eros, from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Groff expertly unravels the story to reveal Psyche’s true desires: consummation with her lover (physical connection), and later, an impulse to uncover his true identity (spiritual connection). Satisfaction is the meeting of Psyche (Soul) and Eros (Desire) for the creation of Voluptas (Pleasure).
Groff then expands to include Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and the Old Testament book Song of Songs. In the act of consummation, Groff says, “singular becomes plural.” Erotic rapture tempts us out of ourselves and into the wider world that is starved for connection (still a luxury for many of us in a culture of “quarantines”).
However, Desire is more than merely human yearning for sexual delight. The metaphor extends to the act of creative expression. Procreation and artistic creation are indeed the same function. Works of literature are like seeds buried deep in the soil of our souls. Forming ideas, Groff says, is like “plant[ing] those glimmers in a human mind.” Literary art requires a writer and a reader, one who generously gives and another to gratefully receive.
This yearning is also holy, a soul stretching for communion with God, Groff observes—as in the Bible’s Song of Songs, a book characterized by erotic imagery. Even our deepest carnal desires are derived from spiritual longing. Thus our own experience of Desire, of delight in connection, is ultimately a holistic experience that extends beyond the body to the soul. Readers should “remain enthralled,” says Groff, delighting in the ideas and words we love and admire.
Crystal Hurd is a poet, high school educator, and Visiting Professor of Romantic Theology and Inkling Studies at Northwind Theological Seminary. She serves as Reviews Editor for “Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal.” Her book “The Leadership of C. S. Lewis” releases in spring 2022.