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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

Strangers and Melancholy

We’re in a line at the supermarket; we’re in the reading room at the library; we’re in a corner seat of a train carriage, we’re standing at the lights at a busy city intersection and, without warning, it happens: the immediate recognition, the sense of certainty, the start of the longing. Unobserved, we take in every detail: their earlobes, the way their hair falls, the colour of their eyes, their wrists. We can imagine so much more: the stumbling but delighted first hello, the early dates, a walk in the park, the hesitant first touch of our hands, the initial tender kiss, a trip to the seaside, moving in, marriage, two sparky yet always adorable children. We sense the tenor of their soul: their kindness, sense of adventure, playfulness and good nature. We feel how much we would agree on other people, on politics, interior design, ways of travelling and handling finances. We know they would share our joys and sympathise with our sorrows. Sometimes they would tease us or upbraid us a little but we would know how right they were and how much we wanted to improve for them. We love the thoughtful way they are leaning slightly forward now, and imagine lifting their hair and caressing the nape of their neck. We would so enjoy helping them with their difficulties, perhaps a troublesome parent or a worry at work – and would let them into our own struggles in turn. We worry that someone might be able to open our minds but there is (as yet) no law against the silent work of our insane imaginations. We’re keeping a very blank expression, if anything we look almost emphatically disinterested in the world around us – even as, deep in our frontal lobe, we picture how we and our lover would together decorate the living room of our new apartment or log cabin. Then, as quickly as it began, the lights change, the train pulls into a station, they get up from the reading room desk, they swerve into the bagged salad aisle – and our hearts break.

There is plenty of paradox, and a high degree of madness at play. Firstly, that we would do so little to approach a stranger that we felt so intensely might be our destiny. Wouldn’t it be normal to try to smile at them? Shouldn’t we at least attempt to look at them directly? But we would prefer to be thrown into a boiling cauldron. We dwell in permanent terror of bothering anyone, hardwired into us is an advanced dread of causing the most remote inconvenience to another and beneath this, a conviction of how unacceptable we essentially are. We love the stranger far too much to burden them with our fundamentally crooked selves.

Secondly, there is madness in spinning baroque tales around the outward form of an unknown being. We need to get to know someone slowly, refuse to project our longings onto a blank canvas and accept that love isn’t an immoderate hope foisted onto the charming exterior of an unwitting innocent, but a process of slowly understanding a person’s actual character with realism and downbeat patience. We understand that this habit of ours must spring from a very broken part of our nature: it must be a symptom of a fear of intimacy and a sign of an incapacity for true fulfilment. It’s ultimately just a fancy way of staying very lonely.

But this is the true madness: though we know all this, and would always proclaim as much in sensible company, we don’t – in our heart of hearts – believe any of it. When we can be honest with ourselves, we insist, against all the evidence, that the sensation we experienced on the train or in the supermarket, in the library or on the city street was not a delirious adolescent fantasy or an unreliable hormonal rush based on our traumatised early lives: it was love. 

We know a lot about the mature forms of love that psychologists lecture us about; we may even have tried very hard to believe in them and put them into practice. We might be in a very sensible relationship already. But what we experience in the face of the entrancing stranger tells us that we remain, despite hours of emotional education, boundlessly romantic and entirely impervious to the call of logic or maturity. We know we should love only those we know well, only those who requite our desires and match our personality profiles. Yet we can’t stop aching for the stranger we last saw on the platform, we’re still thinking of them days later, we would still now be able to evoke their facial features and personalities as we knew them to be from looking at the back of their shoes. We feel closer to love with these people – after a minute at the bus stop – than we do with many we’ve known for decades. With the others, we pretend. Here we are spontaneously and exquisitely overwhelmed.

We’re too familiar with the demands of respectable life to let on. When people ask us where we’ve been, we’ll report on the external movements, not the peregrinations of our demented minds. There are plenty of grave people lined up to tell us how silly all this is. It may well be – and a lot worse, but a resistant part of us wants to hold on to a more stubborn, beautiful and melancholy truth: that, despite everything, this belonged to the truest love we have ever known. We are members of a strange and shameful private minority: those whose most profound and intense love affairs have been with people they never spoke to.

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