(Utopian) Fantasies of Loss: Impossibilities of Retrieval / Attainment

[Here are the links to A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young” and W.B. Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” for your convenience.]

“… all our dreams come true”
– Tom Waits, Yesterday Is Here

“… it was my fate to pursue only phantoms, creatures whose reality existed to a great extent in my imagination; for there are people – and this had been my case since youth – for whom all things have a fixed value, assessable by others, fortune, success, high positions, do not count; what they must have is phantoms. They sacrifice all the rest, devote all their efforts, make everything else subservient to the pursuit of some phantom.”
– Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

“… ice must melt in order for it to be desirable.”
– Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet

Lost object – utopian fantasy. Incest. The lost object is the subject’s fusion with one of its previous incarnations (father / mother). The utopian fantasy is the subject’s fusion with one of its future incarnations (son / daughter). The lost object becomes lost as the subject acquires language – the utopian fantasy is achieved when the language of the subject is elevated to the “meta” level, that is, the state of lack that utopia implies is filled by the subject’s ability to enunciate that lack. Of course, it must be remembered that to retrieve the lost object or to realize the utopian fantasy is to realize that one never possessed that object in the first place or that completion – the ability of a language to describe itself (i.e. to become a “meta-language”) – is impossible. Lost objects are constructed after the inscription of language in the subject – therefore their construction is always in retrospect; in a similar way, the utopian fantasy is based upon this retrospective construction: fusion with a future incarnation is constructed in “protospect” – in other words, one prospects.

Incest allows us to place the idea of loss not only in the register of the tragic, but also at the locus of the celebratory insofar as taboos on incestuous relationships, although not actually broken, are symbolically broken. One of many such examples is when a man, during sexual intercourse, asks his (willing) partner “Who’s your Daddy!” and the partner answers “You are!” When violation occurs on any level other than the symbolic, of fantasy – outside the register of events like a celebration or a tragedy (i.e. non-mediated encounters with the Real) – they constitute utterly irreversible trauma; for example, when a boy or girl is actually raped by a parent, it is not a celebratory transgression, nor a tragic perversion – it is simply criminal. That being said, incestuous fantasies as utopian or lost objects provide a source of relief from, and desire for, the impossible: relief because the object, but for the prohibition, appears accessible – not impossible; desire because the object, insofar as it appears accessible, is so only through the violation of a prohibition.

Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” and Yeats’ “When You Are Old” represent the desire to reclaim something lost and / or attain what was never possessed; as lost object and utopian fantasy. The two converge in the present but diverge: the former is a reaching out towards the imaginary and perfect past in order to secure a sense of relief in the present; the latter is a projection of the anxious present towards an imaginary and perfect future. In Housman, for life and youth to be desirable, they must “be briefer than a girl’s” (l. 28): it is the dying of the Athlete that becomes a desired (i.e. lost) event / object in order to create the (im)possibility for reclaiming the glory of life and youth. In Yeats’ poem, for the persona / speaker to be desired by the one he desires, she must be old: the poem symbolizes the time when his fantasy will (not) be realized, when he (his love) becomes the lost object of her desire. The poems are both constructions of impossibilities that, nevertheless, also create desire for the impossible through the substitute event / object of some particularity (athlete dying young / her love).

Both poems represent a lost object: Housman’s represents the lost object proper; Yeats’ represents a variant of the lost object, namely the utopian fantasy. What differentiates the lost object from the utopian fantasy is their aspect in time: the lost object is embedded in the past; the utopian fantasy is anticipated in the future. The two ideas share an obverse relationship insofar as the lost object structures the utopian fantasy and the utopian fantasy is the search for a lost object; similarly, the two poems attest to this relationship in which the lost object, for Housman, is celebrated; and in which the utopian fantasy, for Yeats, is tragic (i.e. its advent is always-already too late, similar to Kafka’s Christ).

Housman’s poem traces out the objects of a loss: life in general and youth in particular; the poem is filled in and disturbs by the paradoxical comparison between the Athlete’s victory celebration (life and youth) and his funeral. The very form of the poem is a gesture towards the past:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man (Housman, l. 17-20).

Here is a line of iambic trimeter followed by iambic tetrameter, rhymed aabb. The form is intimately linked to the content: it is the tradition of heroism that is represented in the form that is lost, expressed and emphasized by the narrative content of the experience of the Athlete dying young. In addition, this passage ensures and preserves the Athlete’s youth and glory in the perfect virginity of the lost object.

The form of Housman’s poem is a monument to the past glories of tradition in its youth – just as the death of the Athlete is the supreme marker of his glory: there is a temporal split between “the time” (l. 1) and “today” (l. 5). ‘The time’ is when, in the terminology of the lost object, there was fusion between the speaker of the poem and the Athlete’s youth and glory; the thing that prohibits that time, that makes it the object of an impossible desire on part of the persona is ‘today.’ Henceforth the only way to retrieve that loss is through similar events: the death of more young athletes; and this is what disturbs about Housman”s poem: its proximity to the First World War, in which millions of young lives, alas! were lost, perhaps, in an attempt to reclaim the glory of a bygone fantasy era … death became necessary to realize – no, not to realize – to fantasize the value of life, and death is the focus of desire in this poem.

Turning to Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” we know that its “point of departure is a sonnet by the French poet Pierre de Ronsard … but is a free adaptation rather than a translation” (note from Norton Short Anthology, p. 676). Indeed, the poem resembles a sonnet; it is neither English nor Italian but a kind of blending of the two: quatrains are reminiscent of the former, but the poem’s rhyme scheme is, partially, of the latter. Visually, the poem is an English sonnet with the ending couplet – the turn / volta – missing. Insofar as the omission is intentional, it is also part of the speaker’s fantasy, it represents loss on the formal level: the poem itself is complete, the (sonnet) form is not. The absence should be read as his addressee’s loss; when she is old she begins to read a book before going to bed than starts to think of her lovers, “false or true” (l. 6), and the one man who “loved [her] pilgrim soul” (l. 7) and “hid his face amid a crowd of stars” (l. 12). She finally, in his fantasy, sees his face and his loss is registered – end of poem; if the poem did go on, to follow the ‘rules’ of the sonnet, there would have to be a change of thought on part of the speaker. A change of thought, after he has brought her to the point of registering “how [his] love fled” (l. 10), could only ruin his fantasy: it is through omission that the fantasy attains perfection.

The rhyme scheme Yeats’ uses, abba, cddc, effe resembles the structure of a utopian fantasy: rhymes a, c, e followed by bb, dd, ff and then return to a, c, e. The first rhyming sound represents the utopian fantasy / the object lacking, constructed in the present as such; it is followed by two rhyming words, whose difference in sound represents the anxiety concomitant with lack; and, finally, we are returned to the original rhyme, which would be the fantasy achieved – except the word itself has changed and, therefore, does not complete the fantasy. As mentioned in the above paragraph, the missing couplet – if it did not have to be a change in thought – would be the absolute identity between the utopian fantasy and utopia achieved: gg – preceded and followed by white space, differing in meaning, but identical in sound – would be a state with no memories / lost objects (because the object has been found) and no plans / utopian fantasies (because utopia has been achieved). Truly, a state of speechless bliss where “silence sounds no worse than cheers” (Housman, l. 15) … except it is absent.

Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” and Yeats’ “When You Are Old” exemplify the universality of desire that is the human condition. It is through the lack of a particular object that a phantasmic utopian universality is inscribed, and is necessary. Reality, in its particularity, gives rise to fantasy, in its universality. Whether this fantasy is nostalgia for the past or anticipation of the future, it is desire to make the particular universal that structures human conduct in the present: for Housman, it is nostalgia; for Yeats, it is anticipation – hence the present tense of reading / writing (about) poetry. The present, in both the poems is a state of lack that reaches back, or forward, to a time when there was no lack, or when that lack will be filled. Not unlike Housman’s poem, Yeats’ fantasy relies not so much on a loss of his own – indeed, an object / state he never possessed – but on the loss of his would-be lover: his lack of her love, in the present, is reversed in his fantasy when, in the future, she realizes exactly who it is she lost / never possessed and now utterly lacks.

As creatures of desire, these two poets show how objects (that they never possessed) are lost and how fantasies of a future are constructed around a lack in the present. There is no inherent danger in either of these fantasies, no matter how perverse: the danger comes then Reality is forced to correspond to the fantasy because the two are incompatible. Fantasy is closed, symbolic, perfect; Reality, on the other hand, is open, arbitrary, and partial: when the one is superimposed upon the other, outside the boundaries of the symbolic, disaster is ineluctable because the finitude of the fantasy can in no way contain the excessive, destructive infinitude of Reality.

The lost object and utopian fantasy are both analogous to the taboo on incest. Retrieving the lost object or utopia achieved would mean attaining a condition in which we did not lack what we desire; however, to achieve this state of fusion with the desired object we would have to give up language, which we cannot do. In fact, it is language itself that allows us to posit this prior state of fullness and to project onto the future a condition of completeness at all. What the two poems show us are ways in which the desire for a lost object or the fulfillment of a utopian fantasy create necessary substitutes for our always-already unattainable desires; the negative character of existence is what makes such substitute objects necessary:

… all of us strive to negate the negative … in human existence it is the negative in that existence which makes the idea of utopia necessary (Paul Tillich).

“Lost” and “yet to come” are better than “impossible” and “absolutely negative;” likewise, the taboo on incest changes a logical impossibility into a moral prohibition and the fantasy of utopia achieved changes the negative character of existence into an object worth striving for.

This is not at all to say: ‘Do not try to realize your dreams / fantasies.’ One cannot desire without doing so, unless desire’s relationship to humanity is revised by anti-humanism: to embrace the lack and loss as the fundamental human condition, not to posit some imaginary past or future as a state of potential completion or wholeness. But this would also be a utopian fantasy, a strict necessity if one is to lose and find again – and keep losing and keep finding! -all the lost objects that are scattered in “fields where glory does not stay” (Housman, l. 10), like “his face amidst a crowd of stars” (Yeats, l. 12).

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