The Desires of the Heart Are as Crooked as Corkscrews: John Kaag Interviews David Shields

April 16, 2019   •   By John Kaag

I READ David Shields’s new book, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, and asked Shields what kind of toll writing the book must have taken. Shields feigned incomprehension: “What toll?” Thus began this discussion.


JOHN KAAG: I want to start this by saying something about The Trouble with Men, but I don’t know where to begin. I can only imagine how it was for you. Every time I start, I just end up revealing “the trouble with me,” which I’m sure is half the point. (The subtitle — hell, I was scared before I even cracked the book.)

I hate “takedowns” or revenge memoirs, the sort that leave casualties in their wake and only one person, the author, standing. Your book isn’t like that, at all. Here’s Nietzsche:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.

I wonder if you will endure the publication of the book. I endured reading it, but just barely. The brilliance of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground comes from the way it demands that the reader say things that he or she has thought but never vocalized. It’s devastating when you’re forced to admit, as his narrator does, “I am a sick man.” The admissions you ask of us are similar but more pointed — about sex, love, marriage, porn, and power. Am I a sadist? A masochist? Both? Is this love? Some books you hope will never end. This wasn’t one of those. Some books you wish you never began reading. This wasn’t one of those, either. “Do you love this book? Do you hate it?” you ask in the closing pages. Yes, I do.

DAVID SHIELDS: I admire how your most recent book, Hiking with Nietzsche, confronts the abyssal within yourself, but the abyss is somewhat generalized. I wanted to be more specific, to fill in the blanks as well as I can. I say what I “like.” I say what “you” — the addressee of my book — likes. I try to get to the instrumentality of this marriage — the instrumentality of, I think, any relationship. I love what a Lacanian psychoanalyst said to me about the book: “Its profoundly counterintuitive, amoral perspective on love is actually the only approach that works, and is so much in contrast to what we hear all around us these days.” It’s so old it’s new. Love is sadness. Pain is the proof of life. Et cetera. It’s all stuff that you’re not supposed to talk about, especially now. Love is supposed to “win.” But Cioran says: “Only one thing matters: learning to be the loser.” That’s the core of the book for me — exploring what that means — for me, for “you,” and for the reader.

Will students picket my classes? Will reviewers call me x or y or z? I honestly don’t see any of that affecting me that much. It was a book that I had to write and that I spent at least 20 years taking notes for, thinking about, trying to write. At one point, it was 3,000 pages long, believe it or not. It’s now fewer than 140 pages. The book’s timing is either exactly wrong or exactly right. Probably exactly wrong, but I’m loyal to Emerson’s dictum: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.” That’s almost literally what I did here. I’ve never had a more corporeal experience writing a book or recovering from writing a book. What’s about the book that you hate, John? Is it that it “forces” you to engage with the “toxicity” of “masculinity”?

No. It isn’t the book’s toxic masculinity I hate. Masculinity is most toxic when it’s in denial. Your book denies nothing. It’s the fidelity of the mirror that it offers to a reader like me: that’s what I both love and hate. “At a deeper level I want to disappear, to shrink myself into the carpet’s deep pile” — that sort of clarity about your inner life and mine. But since we’re trying to be more specific: “I’m married to someone who either has nothing or wants nothing, rendering me in possession of nothing.” This slim book is a love letter to your wife. A real letter about love — full of all the rancor and insecurity and climaxes and tendernesses. It’s an incredibly raw book and raw reading experience.

We never talk about the underlying fears, but you seem to: “I reach for you. You lean away from me. It is like falling […] You once said something to the effect that you weren’t sure what was keeping us together other than our daughter. You weren’t saying it in a nasty way…” We don’t talk about the longing for power and self-destruction that accompanies this fear. The book is, in your words, an

acknowledgment of my masochistic tendencies. Biological psychological, and philosophical sources. Manifestation in our marriage. The sense that all there is in the author’s life/heart is suffering. The sense that for all human beings, existence is suffering.

Or, without the gravity, you summarize it as a tale of “being one’s own bitch.” 

You might be mobbed by people who don’t understand the book — liberals who are worried about it being anti-feminist, conservatives who have concerns about prurience. You wrote it, I assume, with a full awareness of the reaction of the thought-police. No, I wonder if you will endure publication in an existential sense. Will the book mark the end of your relationship? The true beginning of it? This is the question that circulates at the end of your reflections. As you say, the book has a “putative goal” — “greater intimacy between us.”

How do you feel about the possibility of (f)laying yourself naked in a book like this and then being summarily ignored? Also, why is candor, this sort of candor, “beneficial” (that is the wrong word) in a relationship?

My wife doesn’t object to the publication of the book. She’s read it a couple of times, but she didn’t have any particularly strong reaction to it. And she doesn’t have any comment for publication. More like: “You can publish it if you want. I don’t get why you’d want to publish it, but it’s okay with me, if you want to. I think it’s more about you than me, and in many ways I don’t even think it’s about me.” Which I think is somewhat true. I told a few writer-friends that I was writing a book about a marriage. I tried to write it as a novel, as a memoir, as this, as that. It came out this way — as a meditation and quotation-curation, but above all I see it as an investigation of my own internal weather.

I’m fascinated by my wife’s reaction to the book because even though the “you” figure is something of an abstract, generalized figure — a projection of sorts — I still see/saw the book as a love letter to her, to my wife, and I thought, sure, the book would generate this amazing conversation between her and me. Either our marriage would deepen or our marriage would end. Instead, in a way that feels quite consistent with the book’s psychic energy, nothing changed. Lol, as the kids say.

It’s my wife’s reluctance to discuss these things that, I think, animated the book. As I say in the book, if she were Catherine Millet, I’d have felt very little desire or need to write it. On the other hand, the dirty little secret — or a dirty little secret — of the book is that I really, really like/need/want to discuss all this stuff. The book is in a way a discourse about a non-discourse. Am I answering your questions, John, or am I avoiding them?

Probably both: answering and avoiding, but I’m finding it more interesting than if you picked only one. I’m reminded of the liar’s paradox: when an inveterate liar tells us that he or she is about to tell another lie. Do you believe this claim? Yes and no. Is it truth or a lie? Both. I think there is another way to frame the liar’s paradox, in which we reveal so much about ourselves that it seems that we have achieved full disclosure: there are no more questions to ask. This, too, is a way to lie through honesty. Where the truth lies. I think these are the ways that many of us, most of the time, talk about sex and love: “I am telling you everything. I’m lying to you. Really.” 

I was a stutterer for much of my early life. Brutally so when I was very young. But would I write this? “Stuttering is not so much an issue for me now as it was in my teens and twenties; still, it’s why I need sex to be so intimate, why I care so much about sex, especially oral sex. — 69 with me beneath you.” Would I think this? Would I write this? Jesus. I’ve been thinking hard about the difference between cowardice and good judgment in writing. What does that distinction mean for you?  

You say that this book is in part a “quotation-curation” and I didn’t realize until maybe 40 pages in that a little less than half the book are the words of other writers. This isn’t a shortcoming. The quotes matter a great deal. The Trouble with Men is deadly serious: a chronicle of the way men and women have tried (and maybe failed?) to love and/or get off over the last century: Daphne Merkin, Sallie Tisdale, Salinger, Auden, Yeats, Eliot (“Human kind cannot / bear very much reality.”) You seem to disagree. We also cannot bear this lack of honesty about what keeps us up at night. Reality hunger — but is there a point of overconsumption? Maybe this is where the suffering of existence comes in and remains.

And what of your wife’s reluctance to get into the weeds of this? You say, quite explicitly, that you hoped the book would open something between the two of you, that it was meant to be an extension of the relationship, but that it has, to this point, been an interesting roadblock, nothing more. Sorry, I am being direct. Or trying to be. I just wonder what’s the point of other people reading into this roadblock. I think I see a point, but I would like you to articulate it.

I’m probably still quoting too many people, but that’s how I think. Jill Soloway says, “There’s a lot of self-hatred in sharing your own story.” I think that’s a great insight. The “masochism” and writing and all writers being bottoms and somehow wanting and needing to write this book — to get all of myself down on the page before I die — is all bound up with the same impulse. Picasso says, “Good taste is the enemy of great art.” Ooh, do I love that line. I quote it to myself and my students all the time. As Lorrie Moore used to tell her students at the University of Wisconsin: I know one thing — if you want to become a writer, you have to stop worrying about making your parents happy and proud. That’s it, for me. So many of the lines in this book I wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted. The oral sex/stuttering line is one that I thought about a million times, but it’s “too real” to me. I knew I was getting at something irreducibly true for myself and therefore, I hope, for the reader.

Which gets us to your larger question: Why bother with this project at all? Why write down these disturbing thoughts? Why publish these discomfiting confessions? Hmm. Why not? It’s an ancient tradition, ain’t it — from Augustine to Simon Gray. It’s also an incredibly French tradition, to me: Cioran, Barthes, Montaigne, Rochefoucauld, Leiris, Rousseau, Ernaux, Millet, Boullier, Duras, et al. What’s my point? It’s the Yeatsian “mirror turn lamp” — by turning a brutal mirror on myself, I’ll illuminate for you your psychic condition and even the state of your marriage. I even think, rather grandiosely, that the book — per the Lacanian psychoanalyst’s comment above — is a weirdly good self-help book/sex manual/marriage guide. Understand how broken you are. How broken your marriage is. That is what makes it/us so real, so exciting.

I also think, if I’m being (more) honest, that the book has deepened my marriage. I thought it would end it or transform it into something very dramatic. I think the effect has been more subtle than that. The marriage has a tragic weight that it didn’t have before. I think my wife is astonished that I wrote all this down. There is a certain, baffled respect for my being willing to topple my own patriarchy (to paraphrase Soloway in another context). I might be wrong. But the marriage seems built now on a visible bedrock of relatively unignorable candor. Schopenhauer: “Let truth reign, even if the world should perish.”

Yes, and maybe it isn’t just about truth, but something deeper or at least more satisfying: a type of communion through horrible revelation — the notion that commiseration is actually possible, if we can just be more honest. I think this is what Schopenhauer has in mind when he writes, at the end of the Studies in Pessimism: “[F]rom this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Socî malorum, compagnon de miseres!” Your book is an invitation: shall we be companions in misery? Of course some readers won’t accept the invitation, but I suspect that is their loss. The Trouble with Men is not for polite company, but the company that actually sustains us is rarely polite since it turns on being frank.

When I was growing up, my mother would say, “A messy mortal is my friend. Come walk with me in the mud.” I realized only later that it was a quote from Hugh Prather, the crunchy self-help guru from the ’70s. The image that usually accompanies the slogan, however, isn’t muddy at all — majestic mountains towering above serene beaches strewn with clean rocks. Very few books contain real mud, the sort that defies my best effort to clean it up, the sort that seeps into my most private places and never fully dries. The Trouble with Men is utterly messy: blood, tears, shit, semen. Real mud. 

It’s difficult for me to think of more meaningful praise. Thanks for engaging with this book so seriously. I can’t help but think of E. M. Forster saying that Ulysses is a “dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud.” I don’t especially love Ulysses, and what Forster thinks of it doesn’t especially matter to me, but it’s a great line, I’ve always thought — the key being how the “d” sound in “dogged” sets up the “d” sound in “mud.” Why am I focused on this? I’m trying to avoid thinking about being in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, my girlfriend and I deciding we wanted to go see something advertised every day in the Los Angeles Times sports section called “mud wrestling.” Why did I want to go see it? Why did she want to go see it? Did we go see it? What did we learn? Why would such a thing be popular? What does that tell us about ourselves? That’s what the book is about. The desires of the heart are reportedly as crooked as corkscrews.


John Kaag is the 2019 Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute and is professor and chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (2018).