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  • Sasha Durakov Warren

Fortress of Longing

Emma Hauck, "Briefe an den Ehemann," 1909.

"No one can desire to be blessed, to act well and to live well, unless one at the same time desires to be, to act, and to live, that is, to actually exist." Spinoza, Ethics IV, P21.

Once, at 15, I was broken up with immediately before a show I was scheduled to play. It's silly now, but back then I felt splayed out over an infinite, dreadful expanse of yearning. I wandered bleary-eyed and raving to whoever would listen about unrequited love and what went wrong. The solitude of that yearning only made me yearn all the more; the more I expressed what I wanted, the lonelier I felt.

We are in the habit of only saying "unrequited" when we speak of romance, but who has not had an unrequited friendship, an unrequited passion, an unrequited ambition? Untethered longing is simply despair, unrequited. Perpetual movement soon feels like void. So we spend our time fashioning structures to hold that longing, to give it room to move and a face we can conceive. Lacking in imagination, we tend to make temples to appease it, towers to exalt it, great markets where its value will be ascertained. Most of the time, we do this without a second thought. Knowledge of these fragile structures is granted only to those whose comforts have been shattered, like Spinoza in exile or Emma Hauck in confinement.

Before February, 1909, Hauck seemed to have everything a young woman of her standing was expected to want: a husband, two children, a stable job at her mother's millinery. But she couldn't shake the suspicion that something was off and came to believe her husband's kiss had poisoned her. During her second hospitalization in 1909 at the University of Heidelberg's psychiatric clinic, she wrote letters to her Herzensshazli, her sweetheart, that are like blueprints for the structures of longing. Outwardly and in her early letters, she expressed a wish to be rejoined with the family, to be a good housewife. But to staff, she said she wanted to live in the forest alone as she sank further downcast into a saturnine, unreachable abyss. Likely considered evidence of her pathology, the letters were kept on file, unposted, dead letters of the clinic.

I wonder if the thought dawned on her one day that she wouldn't receive a reply or if it grew over time. After a few straightforward pleas, the letters came to say little more than the words "komm," "Herzenschatzli komm," "komm komm komm," come, sweetheart come, come come come. Hauck wrote and scraped these words into the paper, imprinting desire onto the page until they could be felt with a finger, until the words ceased to look like words at all, until she had shaped them into soft textures in wavering black graphite columns or steeply sloping and forested mountains spanning the length of the sheets. It is a mistake to see these as documents of despair when her letters are her sole means of defense against it, a fortress to protect her and a forest to hide from her own dreadful longing.

After less than a year in observation, Hauck was termed incurable and transferred to Wiesloch Asylum, where she died 11 years later. Records suggest her husband Michael—the key to her two children, her home, and all things familiar—visited once and never sent a letter. Maybe after all is said and done, only we answer our call to worship at our temples of desire; perhaps when we finally climb to the top of our towers of ambition, we see only empty plains in the distance; and, maybe, underneath the apparent dynamism of the markets where all our efforts are finally requited, we are both buyer and seller and all goods are marked return to sender.

The illusion of being the last ant in an empty field is a nice thought sometimes. It might be that "each thing, so far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being" (Spinoza Ethics III, P6), but this thing that strives is a composite thing. Unfortunately, we only realize it when longing goes on the errant warpath of a catastrophic no, vicious silence, or the simple apocalypse of the bullet. Let's be honest: a sufficiently strong gust of wind could penetrate our havens.

You will only learn how destructive passion can be when you too are poisoned by a lover's kiss. Hauck's letters devastate because she shapes the empty husks of her loss into a sanctuary. Here is a simple image of desire: a letter clearly and cleanly dated and addressed, filled solely and completely with the incantation "come," never sent, forever unrequited.


Emma Hauck's letters are part of the Prinzhorn Sammlung, or Prinzhorn Collection, of art held in Heidelberg, Germany. The Prinzhorn Collection was a significant early collection of psychiatric patient art and objects, and Prinzhorn's 1922 Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) was a major work of interpretation that read into these pieces first and foremost as works of art as opposed to diagnostic materials. Unfortunately, he was unable to decipher Hauck's script, read them upside down and included them in the part of the book dedicated to unintelligible, though graphically interesting, scribbles.

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