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Who You Love- Erik and Miranda

amoskowi's picture
Who You Love

The curious part is, I didn’t find Miranda particularly engaging. After re-reading her appearances in Sorrows of an American, I still don’t. I’m fairly indifferent about what we know of her as a character. And yet, regardless, I eagerly anticipated her scenes, found myself compelled by how she was seen through Erik’s eyes. This discrepancy is only possible because of the disconnect between Erik’s feelings for her and his actual knowledge of her. His investment in her is based on the role he envisions her playing: in his subjective reality, she is defined by her potential future as his loving partner. Miranda and, to a certain degree, Eglantine, become a crucial part of his desired future, his interactions with them consequently contribute to his understanding of himself.   
While discussing her own past and present romantic entanglements with her brother, Inga says to Erik: “You should know, Mr. Psychoanalyst, that reality isn’t the problem” (130). And indeed, in accordance with her statement, it is individuals’ perspectives of reality that define their understanding, expectations, and desires. Erik’s interest in Miranda, his understanding of their situation, centers around his understanding of what they could be together. That potential defines his reality with Miranda. Erik himself is not oblivious to this wishful understanding of what is to come. He declares that:

The ache I’d felt during Miranda’s speech didn’t leave me. I understood that I had projected myself into a future that included her and Eggy, and without that imaginary time-yet-to-come, I was cast into the far bleaker mode of the loveless present (122).

He admits, inwardly, at least, to shifting his focus from his current status to a future state that relies on Miranda. Everyone’s reality and sense of self is defined in part by their goals and visions of the future, and Miranda becomes central to Erik’s.
Eggy too, as stated here, is an important part of Erik’s fantasy future. Erik rarely spends time with Miranda without Eggy nearby; she is either interacting with the two adults directly or just distracted by something else and in a position to enter into the conversation at any moment. Erik never expresses any frustration with Eggy’s presence, even though Miranda does not share personal details when her daughter is with them and listening. In fact, some of the memories he describes as his happiest are those with the three of them together, among them a simple but nevertheless memorable trip to the park to draw pictures. While much of Erik’s description does feature Miranda, a significant portion is devoted Eggy’s behavior as well, solidly incorporating her into his “memory” of that day (141). He includes in his “collection of fragments:”
Miranda’s bare brown legs on the blanket and her shoeless feet with red toenails. Eggy on my lap as she examined my ears, her face close to mine…The sound of the eraser. Eggy humming. Miranda in sunglasses (141).

They are both crucial to his experience of the afternoon, to his feeling “hopeful” afterwards (141).
His descriptions of his desired interactions with each of them are also noticeably parallel in this scene. Greeting Eggy, he says: “as I looked down at the child’s upturned face, her brown hair looked soft, and I had a sudden urge to put my fingers on those curls and pat her head, but I resisted” (140). He instinctually wants to respond with a display of affection appropriate for an adult of a particular degree of familiarity. The only reason for him to “resist” is if he see this gesture as a significant, and his decision therefore proves that he does. Since she is later “on [his] lap…her face close to [his],” it is clear that this is not a source of inner struggle for long that afternoon. Erik wants a relationship with Miranda’s daughter that he doesn’t always feel comfortable initiating, but Eggy, innocent of the related inner turmoil, acts herself to create a bond with Erik that he can treasure.
Erik’s desired interactions with Miranda during their afternoon in the park are also varieties of physical affection: “I had daydreamed of reaching out and putting my hand on her thigh, or rolling over on that plaid blanket and taking her into my arms” (142). There are, of course, distinctly more barriers to achieving this parallel closeness with the mother compared the daughter. It would be false though to say that he is only interested in obtaining Miranda’s affections, her’s is simply the relationship that is harder to obtain as opposed to Eggy’s relatively uninhibited displays of affection.
I propose, then, that what Erik is seeking is not Miranda but a life with Miranda and Eggy, not the person but the reality he could have with them. He moves beyond his desire for this only after an “evening with Miranda [that] had reconfigured that vague country we refer to as the future, a place inhabited exclusively by fears and wishes” (278). Only by changing his vision of the future can he get over her, so to speak. He has, up until this point: “hoped to ‘win’ Miranda and lead her and Eggy up the stairs into the domain of family happiness” (278). Acknowledging that he will never be Miranda’s boyfriend, lover, or husband, requires him to alter his wishes for the future, and inevitably with that his understanding of his life’s direction and purpose.
Miranda’s impact on Erik’s life is, in effect, quite separate from any understanding we have of her past or present as an independent character. Much more central to the story is the importance Erik places on her, and his understanding of her role in his life. It is a self-generated, holistic understanding of Miranda that he falls in love with. The defining characteristic of Erik’s Miranda is that she is perfect for him. All other traits and facts are secondary: they are ways of better understanding his perfect woman, not what make her that woman. I was taken with what I felt to be a realistic portrayal of falling in love with someone from a relative distance, by the acknowledgement of the disconnect between who he knows Miranda to be and who he understand her to be. The Sorrows of an American reveals that his love relies on an illusion, but shows that the subjectivity of that reality does not negate his feelings or the effect they have on his life. As Inga says: “We all love our figments” (55). Erik loves his figment of Miranda, and the image of a life with her and her daughter. And that was compelling.

Hustvedt, Siri. Sorrows of An American. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2008.


Anne Dalke's picture

what we love

You’ll certainly have to read, now, Hustvedt’s earlier novel, What I Loved, which traces a process even more complicated than the one you identify here. You are talking about Erik (though I think really “our”—all our?) tendency to love a project, a fantasy, rather than the woman, the love object, herself. In What I Loved, the counter action occurs: a young man makes himself over into a fantasy that others can love; he projects someone he is not, in order to be loved by others….with devastating consequences.

Oh, the complexities of the unconscious!

What strikes me most about this paper is your repeated use of the word “understanding”—as in, “Erik’s interest in Miranda centers around his understanding of what they could be together.” In each case, I found myself substituting the word “fantasy” for what you were calling “understanding.” So maybe that’s the place where we can go on talking about this book, and the questions it raises for both of us: what is understanding? What does it mean, how does one get it, and how possible is it for any of us to understand another?

That’s related, of course, to the question of what it means to love, how one does it, and how it is related to our understanding one another. It occurred to me, finishing your paper—in particular your description of Hustvedt’s novel as “a realistic portrayal of falling in love with someone from a relative distance”—that distance actually enables falling in love. Getting too up close might very well inhibit the fantasy-making that is necessary for the “falling,” for the idealizing that is necessary—not for loving, but for “being in love.” What do you think?