by Gerardo Garcia
I was on the phone one night with someone I knew I wouldn’t marry, and as she hastily came up with a reason to hang up, I realized I had lost myself. I had been suppressing the urge to throw myself at her feet; every third thought was her. I was also taking Shakespeare that semester and in my early modern romanticization of love, I welcomed the baseless daydreams as I pined and devoted myself to another.
Whenever I read a comedy with unrequited love, or mispaired lovers, I turn to reflection. The yearning, though ridiculous, is also all too familiar and my sympathies usually lie with the unrequited. I find it tragic to not receive the affection one gives, to suffer the humiliation of rejection, to elicit the disgust of the person one loves, and to absurdly continue loving in return; but now I know the real tragedy is one’s misplaced self-respect.
It is exhilarating to be in love, and like a flattering mirror in a well lit room, to be loved in return makes it easier, obvious even, to see one’s own self-worth. However, with the thousands of hours spent in intrinsic solitude, living alone in one’s mind and body, in the absence of love and the sobriety of reality—what would become of us without self-respect?
[TREPLEV comes in without a hat on, carrying a gun and a dead seagull.]
“Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power,” was first published in Vogue in 1961. The essay was later republished as “On Self-Respect” in Joan Didion’s 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In it, she explores self-respect in terms of the seemingly trivial to the crushingly irrevocable; she shares with us personal experiences of vulnerability, defining self-respect by deconstructing aspects of not only herself, but human nature in general. Didion argues that without introspection, an awareness of self—warts and all—we cannot begin to come to terms with who and what we are. Try as we might, she continues, it is impossible to deceive oneself, to delude ourselves with the same tactics we employ on others. Whether or not we can stand to live with ourselves then depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.
TREPLEV: Personally I am nothing, nobody. I pulled through my third year at college by the skin of my teeth, as they say…When the celebrities that frequent my mother’s drawing-room deign to notice me at all, I know they only look at me to measure my insignificance; I read their thoughts, and suffer from humiliation.
Throughout the essay, Didion also represses the desire to acknowledge romantic love, yet it anxiously seeps into her writing, referred to exclusively in subordinate clauses, secondary, but still looming over us. She does not offer dating advice. Instead, she tries to get us to understand that which governs all forms of love:
To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
Without it, she continues, our self-image is blurred; we find ourselves doubtful of our identity, unsure of who we are as we eagerly allow ourselves to be cast into any role demanded or expected of us. Of course I will play Silvius to your Pheobe, Ophelia to anyone’s Hamlet: “no exception is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous.”
TREPLEV: How well I can understand your feelings! And that understanding is to me like a dagger in the brain. May it be accursed, together with my stupidity, which sucks my life-blood like a snake! [He sees TRIGORIN, who approaches reading a book] There comes real genius, striding along like another Hamlet, and with a book, too. [Mockingly] “Words, words, words.” You feel the warmth of that sun already, you smile, your eyes melt and glow liquid in its rays. I shall not disturb you. [He goes out.]
“At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt,” unrequited love is a kind of human sacrifice. Like Dante, one offers themselves up entirely in religious devotion to the other. The object of affection is idealized, mythologized, while interactions with them are completely one-sided, painful, often humiliating (running into Dante on the street one day, Beatrice greeted him causing him to become visibly ill, and flee without saying a word). It is unglamorous, pathetic, and something to be suffered in silence among the public haunt of men, in banal social settings, be it school or the virtual landscape of an ex’s Instagram page. Now especially, unrequited love is unromantic, off-putting, potentially cringeworthy. It is ultimately something to be endured or dispassionately and pragmatically “torn out by the roots,” and a sign of someone that cannot possibly respect themselves.
The Seagull brings this agony to the stage. Confessions of love are shushed, dismissed as mere nonsense, appreciated, but not returned. Vacationing on Pyotr Sorin’s estate, isolated in the country, characters are in the constant presence of each other’s company where, bound by social propriety, they are unable to express their suffering as they witness unbearable displays of misplaced affection. There are ten guests at the estate—six are in love with another who does not love them back. The action in the first three acts takes place over the course of several weeks while the final act takes place two years later where we observe how each lover has endured their grief in the face of reality as they return to the estate.
It is also a comedy.
The play does not romanticize unrequited love—it is a funny valentine ridiculed with surmounting bleakness. Characters are inevitably forced to endure reality; in the face of modernity, love is complicated, corrupted, no longer purely romantic. Chekhov’s cheeky subtitle, “A Comedy In Four Acts”, reminds us of the absurdity at the forefront of it all: to lack self-respect and to love those who do not love us back, who are cruel in return even, and to know it.
I’m a seagull. No, that's not it…
There is for instance, Nina, the aspiring young actress who is taken advantage of by the acclaimed writer Boris Trigorin. Knowing that he is romantically involved with Treplev’s mother, she is still bound by what Didion refers to as the “compulsiuon to please,” a submission of self to the demands of others and apparent “evidence of our willingness to give”. Nina plays into Trigorin’s fantasy, casting herself in his fetishization of innocence—youthful, pure, submissive, naive, a subordinate in nature better left undisturbed, but ultimately meant to be conquered and destroyed—with complete disregard for herself. This type of unrequited love is one we see again in the play between Medevenko, the schoolmaster, and Masha, the steward’s daughter (she agrees to marry him out of practicality, since Treplev will never love her): it is the delusion of love, artificially returned but truly withheld, and an inherent rejection of the knowledge of what one deserves. At the heart of the play however, is Treplev and his seagull.
[TREPLEV lays the sea-gull at her feet.]
Treplev gives Nina a dead seagull as a grotesque symbol of his love. It is a confession that cannot be dismissed by either vodka or snuff. This seagull becomes an elusive presence throughout the remainder of the play as characters reference the bird, or attempt to discern the meaning of the bizarre gesture.
NINA: This seagull I suppose is another symbol but forgive me I don’t seem to understand TRIGORIN: Nothing much, only an idea that occurred to me. [He puts the book back in his pocket] An idea for a short story. A young girl grows up on the shores of a lake, as you have. She loves the lake as the gulls do, and is as happy and free as they. But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness, as this gull here has been destroyed. SHAMRAYV: Here is the stuffed sea-gull I was telling you about. [He takes the sea-gull out of the cupboard] You told me to have it done. TRIGORIN: [looking at the bird] I don’t remember a thing about it, not a thing. [A shot is heard. Every one jumps.]
The seagull comes to mean freedom, youth, and beauty, undisturbed—an identity that Nina clings to in the final act—but it is also a symbol of Treplev’s maimed self-respect, offered as devotion when it is really blood tribute. In two years time, Treplev becomes a published writer yet is still unhappy and what little self-respect he has left to preserve himself, is still something to be offered up and maimed. It is Didion’s final turn of the screw: he has projected his identity and self-fulfillment onto Nina. Without her, he cannot stand his writing, cannot stand to live with himself, alone, and in the final moments of the play, shoots himself off stage with the Chekhovian rifle of Act II: “one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”
[The curtain falls.]
And I, too, have lain seagulls at the feet of another. I have given myself up to unmoving parties, blank and pitiless as the sun—and, in my recent stint with self-respect, like many before me, I read and reread Didion’s sobering words, thinking back on all those lovers, and Treplev’s tragedy of loving absurd. Unrequited love is an uncanny valley. It bears a human likeness, but it is a stark and barren country where writers like Chekhov and Didion are born. From their stony sleep they seem to tell us, that while we can’t help who we fall in love with, no misery is greater than loathing oneself.