Longing defines the storied heart. Contentment is pleasant enough, but it kills story. “And they lived happily ever after.” Fukuyama arrived at this realization, though his dystopia — unlike those of Orwell or Huxley — was unintended. But he knew it: the end of striving is the End of History. The End of His Story.
The thing longed for may itself be contentment. It may be escape therefrom. It may be power or freedom from power’s yoke. It may be passion, or thrill, or love. It may be water or fire, air or earth. It may be utterly intangible. It doesn’t matter. Narrative demands it. A character’s existence occupies a mere point in the cosmos. Without longing, without want, there is only that solipsistic point in isolation. Need turns the focus outward. From need springs awareness of the distance between the character and the thing for which the character longs. Narrative maps the path the character trods toward the object of its desire.
This weekend marks a year since I moved to Los Angeles. I run down streets hemmed in with buildings, each turn a right angle, a grid imposed on my old dendritic life. It has been worth it, for the most part. I have tasted things I could not have found in the desert, food and companionship and love among them. I can now tell myself I’ve lived here. Still, on too many of those days I’ve sulked here, my desert just an hour away. I have been resentful of the desert, of its remaining across that range of burning mountains. Longing can immobilize as easily as motivate. Twenty-six centuries ago the Greek soldier-poet Archilochos wrote
Miserable with desire
I lie lifeless,
my bones shot through
with thorny anguish
sent by the gods.
Archilochos was the earliest lyric poet of whom evidence has survived, and in those lines he anticipated much of the work composed in that poetic form in the millennia since. Nonetheless, a journey through an interior landscape is still a journey. Archilochos’ text implies that among the desires shot through his bones is the desire to find the will to move. Thus we have the writer, the thing he desires, and an implied path between the two.
Analyze a piece of writing. Pull it apart into its component pieces. Peel away the conceit, the exposition, the formulaic reversals and reveals. Eventually what you have left is a entwining of strands, the paths each character takes between where they are and what they want.
The writers call these paths “desire lines.” The character may never get what he wants. The character may not even be a character. In non-fiction, the character may well exist only by implication: the reader, the writer, the landscape. No matter. Desire lines make the pages turn. They engender, in the character and in the reader, the will to move.
Last year my paths were arcs, the lines of least resistance flood-carved into the desert plain. Or I walked among the anguished thorns, my paths ragged dances to connect the open places between the spines. I saw where I wanted to be and traveled there in the way that seemed best. It was never the straightest way. A year ago The Raven and I walked out of my little house in the desert into the storm. Sheets of water on the desert floor reflected a firmament of dusty nimbus. Sky and earth were inverted: clouds billowed where we would have liked to step. These days, my path constrained, I walk where planners long dead would have had me walk: due south, then due west.
There are places where that grid has faltered, where the careful platting has given way, Jericho before the howling of entropy. The houses fall to ruin. They burn or are carted away as scrap. If there is rain enough, grass grows green in the void. If not, the dust and dried awns accumulate. In either case those who walk nearby will venture across the new-freed lands. Certain routes will make more sense than others; feet will build new paths across the land.
The planners call these emerging trails “desire lines.” They lead through those places where the pavement falters.