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How Can I Open Myself Up to New Romantic Relationships?

By Ligaya Mishan

Jean François de Troy’s “The Declaration of Love” (ca. 1724).
Courtesy of The Met Museum
Jean François de Troy’s “The Declaration of Love” (ca. 1724).

In T’s advice column Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at advice@nytimes.com.

Q: Can you help with art suggestions for my severe fear of engulfment when it comes to being involved with someone romantically? This leads me to miss out on opportunities to be with really great guys with whom I connect initially. — Elizabeth, New York City

A: In some ways I am the wrong person to answer this question, as all my life I have willingly gone headlong in search of engulfment. Of course there’s fear. If nothing is at stake — if there’s no risk of grief and desolation when you come out the other side — how can you ever really feel anything? To be wholly dissolved and lost, whether in another person or in the presence of a work of art, in a spiritual encounter or in a greater cause: This can be dangerous, but also freeing — an escape from the prison of the self. You should not be able to walk away unscathed, which is to say, unchanged.

For a moment, even against your better judgment, try being a hopeless romantic — in the sense of embracing big, unwieldy, turbulent feelings. Let yourself swoon. Remember being a teenager and blocking out the world with headphones, so that nothing existed but your song, the beat rewriting your pulse. Listen to the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter playing the 19th-century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin’s “Revolutionary Étude” as if unleashing a demon within, or the American pianist Cecil Taylor making the same instrument speak a language entirely his own, one that’s labyrinthine, beyond music. Read the American poet Jorie Graham, her long lines sprawling and spilling down the page, carrying you with them, refusing restraint, choosing excess — and forging out of loss a voice, as in the astonishing “What the End is For” (1987).

A still from Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953), which is available via the Criterion Collection.
A still from Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953), which is available via the Criterion Collection.


Part of the rapture of losing yourself is gaining another: entering a different consciousness and learning a new way of being. Sometimes this is devastating. I cried for half an hour after I saw the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story,” an exceedingly quiet film about utterly ordinary lives, in which an elderly couple visits their children, who are busy and ignore them. It would seem almost the opposite of engulfment: Emotions are kept under the surface; social conventions are maintained. And yet the film makes you want to change your life.

I recognise that in an age that privileges irony and cynicism, it can seem naïve and a little retrograde to desire to be engulfed, swept away, overcome — breathless language that in the context of a romantic relationship suggests a problematic vacating of agency. (More on that in a bit.) Intellectually, it’s not unlike being in thrall to something as obvious as beauty. For years, I was embarrassed to admit that, in college, I had a poster of the French painter Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” (1914-26) on my dorm-room wall. I was afraid that my affection (dare I say love?) for the painting revealed an intellectual shallowness; why wasn’t I drawn to more challenging art?

© The Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Kurt HeumillerInstallation view of Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Installation view of Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But when I asked the American curator Emily Braun, distinguished professor of art at Hunter College in New York, what came to mind with the word “engulfment,” this was the painting she named. “Engulfment in light,” she explained. Monet’s images of water lilies, so dishevelled and vaporous they’re nearly one with the reflected, drowning clouds, are so familiar, so cliché, that it’s easy to forget how radical they once were, forcing the viewer to see in a different way, to let the light in and swamp everything: erase borders, make a lie of solidity and certainty, insist on the limits of knowing. Sit with the painting a while at the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, where it’s set apart in a gallery of its own, nearly 42 feet long, three panels angled on three sides. As Braun put it: “Engulfment in engulfment.”

Engulfment requires submission — which may take getting used to, especially when we’re expressly warned, as women, not to submit; to be wary of our historical role in putting the wants of others before our own. In June, the American composer Missy Mazzoli’s opera “Breaking the Waves,” based on the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s 1996 movie of the same title, will have a brief run in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Disclosure: My husband is on BAM’s board of trustees.) I found the original film almost unwatchable in its voyeuristic vision of a woman driven to degrade herself to save the man she loves. Mazzoli brings a subtle shift in focus, examining the struggle of the heroine, Bess, against the religious community that condemns her, and addressing the question of how to claim agency in a world determined to strip you of it.

James GlossopMissy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves,” which opens at BAM this summer.
Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves,” which opens at BAM this summer.

All of this advice may seem wildly impractical. Relationships flounder for many reasons, and it’s not your sole responsibility to learn to be more vulnerable. Indeed, it may have been wise in the past to avoid opening up; certainly your partners should have made you feel safer to do so. And there’s always the chance that however open you are, things will end badly — or simply mundanely, which sometimes is worse. In the 1963 poem “Mystic,” the American writer Sylvia Plath asks what is left after the ecstasy of revelation:

Once one has been seized up
Without a part left over,
Not a toe, not a finger, and used,
Used utterly…
What is the remedy?

Still, Plath, perhaps our pre-eminent artist of the melancholy, offers a rare gesture of hope. The end, it turns out, is not the end. The last line: “The heart has not stopped.”