On Languishing

On Languishing by Mandy Shunnarah

I’m lying naked in the middle of my lover’s bed on a Wednesday morning. While he types away at his desk across the room, wearing the green robe I bought him, my legs are together: the left outstretched and the right bent just so, the knee cresting delicately over the other leg. My toes are pointed and I drape my arms in a way I intend to look effortless, one palm upturned above my head. Being of average height, I try to elongate myself. Is it possible to languish without an effort at elongating the body? 

I recall a painting we studied in art history: The Grande Odalisque. The subject—a woman, of course; we seem to be best at languishing—is nude and reclining on a bed or chaise, it’s unclear which, with her back to the viewer. She’s glancing over her shoulder with a look that says she’s not attempting seductiveness, but achieving it. Like me, one leg is stretched out farther than the other and, like the bed I’m in, the blankets are rumpled, blue sheets hopelessly untucked.

With a feather fan in her hand and a decorative scarf on her head, the odalisque appears unconcerned with anything but rest, pleasure, and whatever ponderings she might pursue with hours unfettered before her. Time is elongated like her body, an artistic technique. The painter, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, gave his model several extra vertebrae, stretching the length of her spine to distortion. At the time of the painting’s completion in 1814, this imperfection was considered careless, inexpert. Today, art historians say Ingres hoped to convey sensuality, a body stretched with pleasure.

Odalisque is a fancy word for concubine, or in a polygamous relationship, a woman who has relations with a man but is below the status of his wife. Though the dictionary says “mistress” is the archaic definition of odalisque, it’s the one most easily understood—and pertinent to my unwitting replication of the painted odalisque’s pose. I’m a full-time writer, and while it’s true I need a room of my own, I must also acknowledge that I do some of my best thinking here, in the presence of my lover. One could say he’s my muse.

As it stands, he has work to do and is mostly immune to my languishing, though I catch him looking longingly my way from time to time. Ignored, I can’t help noticing how—if I can attempt a false etymology like the way I attempt to elongate myself—“languish” sounds like a portmanteau of “liquid” and “language.” And if anything is liquid language, it’s poetry.

My lover wasn’t much for poetry before he met me, though we now make a habit of reading poems to one another in bed. It’s simply what happens when a writer takes a lover. Now my lover has a stack of poetry books on his nightstand: some Ross Gay, some Saeed Jones, and a whole mess of poets neither of us had heard of before finding their books on clearance at a local used bookstore.

I’ve been writing more poems myself lately—lovers will do that to you.  It’s not his responsibility to keep my creative juices flowing—those aren’t the juices that should concern him—but I find there’s creativity in the luxury of free time. It’s here in the languishing that my liquid language flows best.

On this particular morning, I consider the failures of English and how it’s a miracle anyone is able to write with such a limited language, however liquid, at all. I consider bed as a noun and realize there may not be a single synonym for a permanent piece of sleeping furniture for an adult that is intended purely for sleeping and not attached to or intended to hold multiple, separately sleeping people. Pallet won’t do, neither will trundle, cot doesn’t do it, and bunk falls short. A mattress is only part of a bed and by the time you get to davenport and divan people have started to wonder what sort of furniture those even are. Meanwhile, babies can sleep in cribs, bassinets, and cradles.

It’s a privilege to spend a morning lying around and thinking about the annoyance of the thesaurus, as opposed to having what some might call “a real job.” I am grateful for it. So many of life’s privileges are a function of systemic oppression and pure luck. Sometimes, self-aware, I feel my embarrassment of riches. Not all privileges are delights, though languishing is. At least in this context. I wish for the universality of languishing and the end of capitalism. Everyone deserves access to time and space for art-making, life-making, and love-making—for which languishing provides and capitalism claws back.

There are many definitions for languishing and the one I use most is to pine with desire or longing. The majority of the definitions are negative, misfortune enacted on the body against one’s will:

  • To become weak or feeble; 
  • droop; 
  • fade; 
  • undergo neglect or experience prolonged inactivity; 
  • suffer hardship and distress: i.e., to languish in prison for ten years and to be subjected to delay or disregard; 
  • be ignored: i.e., a petition that languished on the warden’s desk for a year.

It’s only my preferred definition and the one after—to assume an expression of tender, sentimental melancholy—that allows the languisher agency. 

Still: Is it possible to love and not be brought low by the sensation that another is driving the steering wheel of your heart? Is that not a kind of weakness, even if a welcome, humbling one?

My lover is aware of my languishing, but sensible, responsible man that he is, he continues working. Which means, lucky me, there is still the whiff of neglect and prolonged inactivity. After all, I wouldn’t be languishing if my lover abandoned his laptop and returned to bed—he’s subjecting me to delay and disregard, though not cruelly. As I lie here, I don’t know whether I should try to take a nap or read a book or write another one of the poems my lover inspires or wait patiently in hopes he’ll come back to bed or damn it all and go home to my cats and proper writing desk. I don’t mean to say that I languish adversely in the same way that someone who has been neglected in prison has languished. That sort of languishing isn’t a privilege. That sort of languishing should be abolished.

Another type I’d like to vanquish: the one articulated by sociologist Dr. Corey Keyes in the early aughts. Keyes calls languishing the mental state of not being depressed while also not being fully activated by life; a general feeling of complacency and blah. More recently in the Times, Adam Grant suggested that languishing has been pandemic during the pandemic, evidenced by widespread feelings of the “dulling of delight” and “the dwindling of drive.” During the pandemic, my lover wasn’t yet my lover, but a man who made me understand the many definitions of “crush”—as both the object of my longing and the visceral feeling of not knowing if or when I’d ever see him again. I languished then, though not in my preferred fashion. I pined, not happily, but with a kind of lonely desperation. 

I consider another of the English language’s failures: “beauty.” Nowhere in the definition is there anything about desire, yet is it possible to find something—or someone—beautiful and not desire in some way? It’s inconceivable to me to find a butterfly beautiful and not want to pin it in a shadowbox, even if I quell the desire to actually do so. Impossible to see beauty in a person and not want to be them or fuck them, at least a little. Preposterous to notice the beauty of a work of art and not imagine on what wall you’d hang the painting or on what table you’d put the vase. The titular woman of The Grande Odalisque was beautiful enough to paint and desirable enough to be a mistress—capturing so viscerally the dance between beauty and desire.

I’ve often thought, as I’m sure many have, that such a combination of beauty and desire in an actual, living, breathing, non-celebrity who doesn’t have a team dedicated to the daily maintenance of their physical beauty to be largely unattainable. By the time my legs (and other parts) are freshly waxed, I notice a zit on my back. I get my nails done to keep from picking my cuticles to bleeding and cut my hair, and by the time I’ve done all that and the zit is healed, everything I waxed is hairy again, and on and on I go. And somewhere in there, I’m supposed to apply makeup and wear trendy clothes and work out every day. Conventional beauty standards are a moving target I don’t care to exhaust myself with. I do the bare minimum for my husband and lover, and they can take it or leave it.

Even if I languish like The Grande Odalisque, my version includes hairy legs, no makeup, mussed hair, belly fat, and pimples in various stages of forming and healing. I could allow popular media to make me feel bad about this as if my body is an unruly animal in need of domesticating, or I can remember what art historians have said about the painted odalisque: her body is unnatural and unreplicable.

This is not a jab against Ingres’s model, but a mathematical and anatomical fact. Since the earliest showings of “The Grande Odalisque,” critics have remarked on the anatomical distortion of her body. One said her figure had “neither bones nor muscle, neither blood, nor life, nor relief, indeed nothing that constitutes imitation.” The “imitation” in question is that of a living, breathing woman. A study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine concluded that when compared to the measurements of nine models who consented to the study, “The deformation of the figure in Ingres’ painting is associated with a sideways curve of the trunk and a rotation of the pelvis which proved impossible to reproduce in the models. The visual effect of the excess length is to place the head further away from the pelvis. This impression is enhanced by the fact that the left arm of the Odalisque is shorter than the right.” Furthermore, the study proved that while art critics estimated the odalisque had been drawn with two or three extra vertebrae, she was actually given five.

Ingres painted his odalisque the way he wanted her: impossibly. It seems some men are always wanting the impossible from women—at least until women demand their men come correct; understand the reality of women’s lived experiences in their unadorned corporeal bodies. Writers, too, want the impossible: an exact, right word in their preferred language for every gradient on the full spectrum of human emotion and action. That’s the beauty of languishing at its best: the privilege of unfettered hours allows us the time to think and consider how the bodies we’ve been told to aspire to and the language we’ve been given to communicate are serving us and, if they are not, how we might make them both a little better.

If my pining and longing are successful, my lover might decide to come back to bed. In that way, languishing cannot last. I’m no odalisque, nothing so desirous about my body to be worthy of a painting, but my lover doesn’t mind. If I languish well enough or long enough, he will slide over the rumpled bedclothes, past the stack of poetry books on the nightstand, and pull me to make another kind of poetry with the liquid language of our bodies.

Mandy Shunnarah (they/them) is an Alabama-born Appalachian and Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Their essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skating Through America’s Heartland, is forthcoming from Belt Publishing. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.