Imperfect ‘Acquaintances’: Our Companions In Life

In Journey Without Maps (Penguin, New York, 1936:1978, p. 28) Graham Greene writes:

There are places when one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common: he may be cheap but he knew Annette; he may be dishonest but he once lodged with George; even if the acquaintance is very dim indeed and takes a lot of recognizing.

Greene wrote these words in response to his encountering Orient Express–an undistinguished, “cheap banal film” that was the cinematic version of his Stamboul Train–in Tenerife, and which forced uncomfortable introspection:

It had been an instructive and painful experience to see it shown….If there was any truth in the original it had been carefully altered, if anything was left unchanged it was because it was untrue. By what was unchanged I could judge and condemn my own novel: I could see clearly what was cheap and banal….There remained a connection between it and me….even into a book of that kind had gone a certain amount of experience, nine months of one’s life, it was tied up in the mind with a particular countryside, particular anxieties; one couldn’t disconnect oneself entirely, and it was curious, rather pleasing to find it there in the hot bright flowery town.

Given Greene’s inclination to flirt with the spiritual and the transcendent in his writings, he invites a more ‘cosmic’ reading of the claim quoted at the beginning of this piece.

One ‘place,’ of course, where ‘one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common’ is this world, this waking life. We are lonely, cast adrift from birth; we, strangers each and every one of us, need fellow travelers through this strange land. We clasp the hands of those we encounter, hoping for succor, for companionship; on birth, we had been fortunate enough to find parents, our first acquaintances, shepherds that helped us navigate the many shoals through which we had to pass. Later, we sought friends; then, lovers; hoping to find partners for our various journeys. The ‘memories in common’ here are shared remembrances of that terrible loneliness which we have known which we sense will never desert us, and which afflicts others too; we sense a need like ours exists on the ‘other side’ too; the companionship we offer will be gratefully accepted too. There are flaws and blemishes here in our possible companions beyond counting but we are willing to take them on board; for the monumental ‘task’ at hand, many imperfections will be tolerated and looked past; there is just enough familiarity here to serve as the foundation for a lasting relationship. It need not be a lifelong one; company till the next station will be good enough.

Note: Our need for companionship of any kind may, in the right circumstances, be exceedingly great; explorers of all stripes who have been forced to travel alone will even hallucinate companions during their extended sojourns. Memorably, during his famed 1953 pioneering ascent of Nanga Parbat, the Austrian alpinist Hermann Buhl spent the night standing upright on a icy rock ledge some twenty-five thousand feet above sea level; at night, his backpack became his ‘companion’ and protagonist for extended conversations.

4 thoughts on “Imperfect ‘Acquaintances’: Our Companions In Life

  1. Re the backpack companion, Wilson also comes immediately to mind😄

    I really can connect with this post. It reminds me of the (for me) very poignant ending of Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye,” where the novel’s protagonist is so sad upon seeing two old women friends putting their heads together and giggling. Because that’s what she misses the most about her “friend” Cordelia, who bullied her (but who was also bullied in turn by her father, something I discerned upon reading the story again about 15 years after my first run-through): the lost opportunity to have had a lifelong friend to share memories with. Even though I’m feeling sort of sad myself now for similar lost friendships and missed opportunities, I am also suddenly especially grateful for the people who ARE still in my life. Thank you for prompting me to think about all this.

    1. Katherine, thanks for this comment, and sorry for the late reply. I’m not getting the ‘Wilson’ reference – who do you have in mind?

      That’s a very perceptive reading of ‘Cats Eye’! I feel a melancholy accumulate as I sense some friendships fading and becoming distant but I also feel thankful for what I have and honestly and genuinely excited by the possibility of making new friendships down the line. I don’t doubt that I will.

      1. Sorry! That was a bit oblique. I was thinking of the Tom Hanks movie, “Cast Away.” After he’s stranded on a deserted South Pacific island, Hanks’s only friend is a Wilson volleyball that washed up on shore from his FedEx plane’s cargo, which he names “Wilson.” I’d better not say much more than that in case you ever decide to watch that film. But there’s no doubt about the emotional bond of friendship between man and volleyball. Your essay made me think of how much Hanks relies on and even loves Wilson and how desperately we all need a confidante 😄

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