James Thurber on Longing, Unrequited Love, and the Power of a Kiss
By Maria Popova
“The person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in his magnificent treatise on the paradoxical psychology of how we fall in love. “You have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing — nothing comes of nothing — but out of prior experience, both real and wished for.”
Two centuries earlier, Stendhal outlined the psychological machinery of this dreaming-up in his timelessly insightful 1822 treatise on love, describing the seven stages of “crystallization” — the process by which we fall in love with a fantasy that we project onto a prospective lover, only to end up gravely disappointed and heartbroken when the real person fails to live up to the fantasy.
Some degree of “crystallization,” of course, is necessary for lasting love — the very premise of falling in love, to say nothing of the myth of “the one,” is predicated on surrendering to a universe of hopeful possibility based on very little evidence of who the other person actually is, how they resonate with our core values, and what they can bring to our lives. The line between projection and possibility is the line between infatuation and love, and the failure to walk it with clarity and grace is perhaps the most ancient anguish of the human heart — the raw material of our greatest tragedies and ballads of heartbreak and poems of unrequited love.
When he was twenty-five, beloved cartoonist, writer, and humorist James Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961) found himself hopelessly caught in that line when he fell for a young singer and actress named Eva Prout — his former grade-school sweetheart, with whom he reconnected by semi-serendipity eleven years later, after seeing an advertisement for one of her performances.
In a lengthy 1920 letter to his college best friend, found in the altogether delectable The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom and Surprising Life of James Thurber (public library), Thurber writes:
I’ll never know the right answer to sex and marriage, sense and mirage.
I love her, always have, always will. I loved her when I saw her. There were the “rapid heart-beats” and all. I sat and stared at her as I never sat and stared at anyone. I didn’t give one damn at first about talking. I didn’t know what I said or what she said…
I don’t know what it is, or was to begin with, but there was the same sensation after eleven years that I had when, as a kid, I told her good-bye, pulled my cap to pieces, and felt an ache and an urge in my heart too old for my years, but too eternal and atavistically strong ever to be classed as “puppy love” or any other thing. She was the One Girl. And I felt it again, that unexplainable thing. When sitting opposite her, after dinner in her home, we were for the first time solidly alone. I wanted her. That’s all.
But by two weeks later, Thurber comes to see how much of his desire is a constructed fantasy quite removed from the real Eva. With an eye to Henry James, he writes:
There is no use in denying that, after all, this Eva girl is not the girl of all my dreams, that I really did manage through the years to build up a glittering image based upon a pretty little bob-haired girl, an image which was so wonderful that she couldn’t, I suppose, live up to it. And since she couldn’t, there is still what Henry J. would call a “drop”, something big has gone out of my life. Maybe after a while something bigger will take its place, but the little princess of mine who played about willow trees on Yarrow is still there. I have never found her, I never will. There’s something in this story of mine that would have delighted old Henry [James] who loved to play with psychological and social and imaginative difficulties. And he would have seen in it as you do something higher than emotionalism and stronger than fancy and sincerer than sentimentalism, something rather wonderful and big… I won’t let it take up all of my life or warp my perspectives, but it must always be bigger to me than most things, I am formed not to be able to let career or business become more to me than friendship and love.
And yet despite this intellectual awareness of the ill-fated infatuation, Thurber remains emotionally ensnared by Eva — a testament to the interplay of frustration and satisfaction in romance. A month later, he writes to her in exasperation:
I’m awfully badly in love with you, Eva.
He continues agonizing over the disconnect between his feelings and his rational recognition that Eva simply can’t reciprocate his affection in a workable form. In his next letter to her, he oscillates between longing, vexation, and indignant resignation:
Do you think it is a simple matter to give one’s whole heart away, his whole being, his entire self — to a girl who may be a little amused, somewhat pleased, and only on occasions seriously realizing what she has had given to her?
I intend to revolt against you every darn week, or oftener, until you LOVE ME — so that if you never do I can say, well I had a good time, you didn’t seal my heart up and toss all joy away with it.
A woman is often a wonderful thing. And you are. But in you, as in all of them, is the indifference of Carmen, the joy in cruelty of Cleopatra, the tyrannical marble-heartedness of Katherine De Medici, and the cold glitter of all the passionless despots of men’s warm souls since sex first originated — since Eve broke the heart of humanity forever and laughed with sadistic joy at Adam sweating blood on the rack she made for him. All those things are most in you now. They are always predominant in a woman who is passionately loved but who loves not at all herself. Women like that are greatly interested in the lover’s sufferings, but to her they are a spectacle, a Roman holiday — a pageant of exciting emotions, nothing else.
A man’s real and only love is a sensitive thing. It curdles easily, and when it does, it spoils all good and all everything.
Possessed as he is by the temporary madness of infatuation, Thurber is able to make one rather lucid point — a call for the true test of things, which must necessarily integrate the mental with the physical, especially since theirs was a primarily epistolary and thus disembodied romance:
Many a man who loves spiritually is a weakling — a professor. Many a one who loves physically is a brute. But when the two are mixed, he loves with all the fire and passion of a poet and a cave-man… If I ever kiss you you’ll know that — and you’ll know what a wonderful thing my love is. Kissing seems not a great matter, in a way. And yet in one way it speaks the million things which words can’t… A real girl doesn’t care to be kissed, much, unless real love goes with it.
He issues one last plaintive cry for reciprocity:
You see I love you better each time and I want you worse each time, and I bruise more heart strings each new time I go away, until finally you’ll just have to realize my life means you always near, and I can’t be nice and unsarcastic and happy when you aren’t near…
When I sometimes think that someday you may be married to someone else and I may be lying awake at night when it’s dark and still and deep and thinking of you, I wonder how I can stand to realize your blue eyes belong to someone else and that I can’t even have so much as the touch of your hand… Please don’t be mad at me, Eve, and like me more than a little bit. Please, please, please, please, Eve.
But Eve was never able to transmute the mutual longing between them into a real relationship of reciprocity. She eventually wrote Thurber a letter telling him that they were wrong for each other, which he promptly tore up in anger.
Writing to his best friend three weeks later, he captures the anguish familiar to anyone who has ever experienced the grief of relinquishing a romantic fantasy in the face of a disenchanting reality:
Write for me when I am dead, “Here lies one who died of dreams.”
He didn’t, of course, die of dreams — we never do. But he learned an invaluable lesson about the difference between longing and love. Nine years later, he collaborated with E.B. White on a playful and poignant guide to telling the two apart.
Complement with John Steinbeck’s beautiful letter of advice to his teenage son — perhaps the wisest, sanest thing ever said about falling in love — then revisit Nabokov’s love letters and philosopher Erich Fromm on what is keeping is from mastering the art of loving.
Published December 8, 2015