Pan came out of the woods one day,– / His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray, / The gray of the moss of walls were they,– / And stood in the sun and looked his fill / At wooded valley and wooded hill.
He stood in the zephyr, pipes in hand, / On a height of naked pasture land; / In all the country he did command / He saw no smoke and he saw no roof. / That was well! and he stamped a hoof.
His heart knew peace, for none came here / To this lean feeding save once a year / Someone to salt the half-wild steer, / Or homespun children with clicking pails / Who see so little they tell no tales.
He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach / A new-world song, far out of reach, / For sylvan sign that the blue jay’s screech / And the whimper of hawks beside the sun / Were music enough for him, for one.
Times were changed from what they were: / Such pipes kept less of power to stir / The fruited bough of the juniper / And the fragile bluets clustered there / Than the merest aimless breath of air.
They were pipes of pagan mirth, / And the world had found new terms of worth. / He laid him down on the sun-burned earth / And raveled a flower and looked away– / Play? Play?–What should he play?
[Robert Frost, “Pan With Us”]
Without our preferences – our desires – there is no such a thing as morality, ethics or religion. Set in ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, morality implies a set of preferences, such as life over death, as in “Thou shalt not kill.” Similarly, ethics implies an evaluation of conduct that either serves or disserves desires. The entire field of religion is a set of narratives and prescriptions for everything desired, from the desire for rain to the desire for a sense of peace. Messy though they are, our preferences are inescapable. They form a necessary bridge into moral, ethical, religious and spiritual development.
Our preferences have their foundations in our character as human beings. The organic brain is to ethics as chemistry is to biology: its essential foundation.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010).
- Ogi Ogus and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (Dutton, 2011): “The concentrated essence of this curious book is contained in its 11th chapter, which attempts to explain what the ‘Mona Lisa’ has in common with Chicken McNuggets, vampire novels and the concluding scene of most pornographic videos. Each of these works of human creativity . . . exploits perceptual trickery to arouse and gratify our desires.”
- Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Crown Publishers, 2013): “ . . . psychologist Paul Bloom draws from his research at the Yale Infant Cognition Center to argue that ‘certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.’”
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.): a new translation “addresses modern well-being”.
- In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling), Harry discovers a mysterious mirror in a back corridor. On it are letters that at first appear unintelligible, though they are arranged and separated like words. When Harry realizes that, read backward, they say "I show not your face but your heart's desire," he gains the inspiration and self-knowledge he needs to triumph. The reversed letters are a metaphor for unawareness of our deepest longings. Harry's discovery of their meaning is a metaphor for our discovery of meaning in any phase or aspect of life.
Barry Hannah "could at gunpoint write the life story of a telephone pole." He lived an inner life large. His fictional works fairly drip with unsentimental longing.
- Barry Hannah, Long, Last Happy: New and Selected Stories (Grove Press, 2010).
- Barry Hannah, Geronimo Rex (Viking, 1972).
- Barry Hannah, Airships (Knopf, 1978).
- Barry Hannah, Bats Out of Hell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993).
- Barry Hannah, Ray (Knopf, 1980).
- Barry Hannah, Boomerang (1989).
- Barry Hannah, High Lonesome (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996).
- Emma Donoghue, Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
- Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2012): an interpretation of The Arabian Nights “as an overgrown garden of delights and hazards of desire.”
- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arugments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books, 2010): “ . . . philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel.”
- Christos Ikonomou, Good Will Come from the Sea: A Novella (Archipelago Books, 2019): “A novella consisting of four connected stories, the first installment of a projected trilogy, ‘Good Will Come From the Sea’ is set on an imaginary island in the Aegean that serves as a proxy for Greece — a place to which displaced Athenians are forced by unemployment and other economic necessities to flee and start their lives again.”
- Jean-Philippe Blondel, Exposed: A Novel (New Vessel Press, 2019): “The increasingly intense relationship between older muse and younger artist takes a turn, however, when Alexandre hesitantly asks that for the final portrait Louis pose in the nude. ‘Exposed’ leaves open to the last minute whether that concluding canvas will be more Lucian Freud or David Hockney, and who, exactly, is undressing whom.”
- Amanda Popkey, Topics of Conversation: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): “How Much Power Do Women Want?”
- Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility: A Novel (Knopf, 2022): a “feeling of something lovely glimpsed and lost is everywhere in these pages — which makes sense considering that the exiles, grieving friends, lonely authors and lonelier time travelers Mandel sets in motion . . . are all trying, with varying degrees of success, to catch hold of what keeps eluding them.”
Film and Stage
- Like Water for Chocolate, a fable about a woman whose mother tried to repress her desire
- Fire: a story of “two beautiful women, one . . . married to a cad, the other to a fool,” who fall in love with each other. To the film-maker Deepa Mehta, the film is about women having choices and so it is but to me the most moving moment in the film is when one of the women tells her husband, whose religion leads him to renounce desire, that she wishes to love and live.
- Black Orpheus, a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which a man tries to reclaim his murdered lover by following her into hell
- Mademoiselle Chambon, about an intelligent and plain but attractive schoolteacher who is mutually attracted to the father of one of her elementary school students, a carpenter: her violin playing is a metaphor for “a lonely soul adrift, yearning for an elusive inner peace.”
- Claire’s Knee: a man is taken with two teenaged girls
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Giaccomo Puccini (composer), O Mio Babbino Caro, from the opera Gianni Schicchi
- Franz Schubert (composer), La Pastorella al Prato (The Shepherdess in the Meadow), D. 513: a young woman dreams that her love may one day be hers.
- Paul Simon, “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns”
- Paul Simon, “Proof of Love”
- Franz Schubert (composer), Sehnschucht (Longing), D. 52 (1813)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Egyptian singer Oum Kolthoum, said to be the one thing all Egyptians agree on, was a voice of barely restrained desire.
- Hagartak (I Left You)
- Al Atlal (The Ruins)
- Siret el Hob (Talk of Love)
- Enta Omri (You Are My Life) (1964)
- Ba’eed Annak (Far from You)
- Howa Sahih el Hawa Ghallab (It’s True That Love Conquers All)
- Min Ajle Aineke (In Favour of Your Eyes)
- Enta el Hob (Take My Life)
- El Hob Kedah (Love Is Like This)
- Aghare Min Nesmat Aljanoubi (?)
- Hadeeth el Roh (lyrics)
- Leilat Hob (A Night of Love)
- Raq el Habib (The Servitude of Love)
- Awedt Ainy (I Habituated My Eyes)
- Alf Leila We Leila (1001 Nights)
- La Ya Habeeby (No, My Love)
- Daret el Ayam (Days Have Passed)
- Hob Eh (What Love?)
- Who knows this title?
In emotional appeal, Natalia Lafourcade is a contemporary Mexican version of Oum Kolthoum, with less dramatic flair. In style, they are worlds apart, Lafourcade offering traditional-length songs, in contrast to Kolthoum’s extended pieces. Natalia’s heartfelt singing conveys “an artful simplicity that transcends the bounds of time”. Her albums include:
- “Hu Hu Hu” (2009)
- “Mujer Divina – Homenage a Agustín Lara” (Divine Woman – Tribute to Agustín Lara) (2012)
- “Hasta la Raíz” (To the Root) (2015)
- “Musas, Volume 1” (Muses: An Homage to Latin American Folklore in the Hands of Los Macorinos) (2017)
- “Musas, Volume 2” (Muses: An Homage to Latin American Folklore in the Hands of Los Macorinos) (2018)
- “Un Canto por México, Volume 1” (A Song for Mexico) (2020)
- “Un Canto por México, Volume 2” (A Song for Mexico) (2021)
- The First Book of Madrigals
- The Second Book of Madrigals
- The Third Book of Madrigals
- The Fourth Book of Madrigals
- The Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611)
- The Sixth Book of Madrigals (1611)
- First and second books, conducted by Agnew
- Third and fourth books, conducted by Agnew
- Brahms, Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869)
- Berenguer de Palol, consort works: this 12th-century composer wrote about the longing for love and joy.
- Though he composed entirely during the classical era, Hyacinthe Jadin captured the unashamed longing of Romanticism in his fortepiano sonatas.
- Liszt, Orpheus, S. 98 (Poème symphonique No. 4) (1854)
- Fauré, Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13 (1876), is a pinnacle of nineteenth-century Romanticism.
- Rimsky-Korsakov, May Night (1879): dreams of romantic love, and a happy future.
- Saariaho, L'Amour de loin (Love from Afar) (2000): is longing for an ideal human love the same as or different from a longing for God?
- Orff, Der Mond (The Moon) (1938): the characters steal the moon, because there country does not have one.
- John Adams, The Dharma at Big Sur (2003)
- Bantock, Sappho (1906)
- Bernstein, Trouble in Tahiti (1952)
- Nordheim, Evening Land (Aftonland), for soprano or tenor & chamber ensemble (1959)
- Dieren, Symphony No. 1, “Chinese Symphony”, Op. 6 (1914)
- Raga Bihag, a Hindustani classical raag for late evening (performances by Banerjee, Amir Khan, Rashid Khan and Shankar)
- Raga Gauri, a Hindustani classical raag for late afternoon (performances by Joshi and Sharafat Hussain Khan)
- Kate Reid, “The Heart Already Knows”
- The Crossing, “Moonstrung Air”: choral and vocal works of Gregory W. Brown
- Aphrodite’s Child, “666” (1971), is named after the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty.
- I Fagiolini, “Draw On Sweet Night” (2022), a collection of choral pieces by John Willbye
From the dark side:
Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), WD 86 (1848): Wagner intended this opera as an allegory for the end of the (old) world, prefacing a new one. Unfortunately, Wager’s worldview was so one-dimensional that taking the opera seriously as a story is nearly impossible, though Wagner by all accounts was entirely serious. This opera is better seen as an allegory for the dark side of desire, in keeping with Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”: “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.” The penultimate scene in the opera is an immolation scene, which predicates the restoration of the world to its original state. Top audio performances were conducted by Krauss in 1953, Furtwängler in 1953, Keilberth in 1955, and Knappertsbusch in 1958. Here are links to video-recorded performances conducted by Mehta and Fischer).
- Walt Whitman, “I Am He That Aches with Love”
- Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCV
- John Keats, “Fill for Me a Brimming Bowl”
- John Keats, “On a Dream”
- Theodore Roethke, “The Long Waters”
- W.B. Yeats, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”
Books of poems: