“A Stubborn Desire” by Maud Casey

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In “A Stubborn Desire,” Casey deftly weaves personal, scientific, and literary anecdotes into well framed essay.  She studies (and reflects) on how individuals like the wandering Dadas, the filmmaker Herzog, and writers Kosztoláyani, Babel, and Millhauser proceed in searching for, or creating a sense of wonder and awe.  We span hundreds of years and thousands of miles examining how mankind has made it possible to marvel and to be amazed.

While perusing “A Stubborn Desire,” I couldn’t help but to feel, at some points, as if I were reading fiction.  Casey’s portrayal of Albert Dadas’ wanderings—and her subsequent exploration into the meaning and search for wonder—seemed almost fantastical in its description, and beautiful in ways that I did not expect from an essay.  Lines such as, “Dadas was undone and undone and undone again” and “It is an echo in the chamber of feeling in which the poignancy of the foolhardy bravery required…resounds” seem to belong more in the realm of the story, not the essay.  Casey utilizes lyricism and repetition to lure us into a state of mind that I believe is key in works of magical realism and the fantastic—a state of mind that is prepared and ready to accept wonder.

In some ways, I struggle to write about the meaning here, because the questions Casey leaves us with are unanswerable: What is wonder?  And how can we achieve it?  Like the documentary director Herzog, we rely on our innocence (whether it be forced or real), sacrificing our natural skepticism for the ability to be amazed.  We must sacrifice outside, expert opinion, and perhaps even our very sanity (as in the case of Dadas) in order to obtain that sense of awe.

In the end, we are left with a vague sense of despair.  The last historical reference that Casey cites is that of Dadas’ daughter, who mysteriously vanished without a trace.  This loss reflects the loss we feel as we come to the end of the essay, in which we feel we have just missed something special.  Like Casey struggling to define her brief moment of…what?…in the church, readers are also left unable to quite articulate or completely comprehend the fleeting sensation of awe, leaving us “jonesing for the next hit of wonder, willing to do anything to get it.”

(As a final note, I did some research and found an audio excerpt from The Drum Literary Magazine in which Casey reads from her “upcoming novel” Fugueur.  However, this was published in 2010, and Casey’s biography provides no information as the future of this work, leaving me to wonder if this essay was perhaps born out of the framework and research for the intended novel).

Maud Casey is a professor of creative writing at the University of Maryland, and has written two novels along with a collection of short stories.  She received a New York Times Notable Book of the Year award for her work The Shape of Things to Come.  She wears appropriately stylish glasses and looks especially sharp in black and white photos.

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