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.

Shyness, Introverts, And Receding To Older Personas

A few days ago, I wrote on my occasional avoidance of company and/or conversation–with friends, acquaintances, and implicitly, of course, with strangers. In concluding, I wrote:

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human.

This “shy person” was far more visible when I was a child. Then, I was considerably uninterested in entering my peer groups, and was also reluctant to spend much time in the company of adults other than my parents. My friendships were almost invariably made, not with groups, but with other lads who seemed similarly afflicted with a case of shy-itis. Two years spent in a boarding school forced me to emerge from this self-imposed shell, inducing a change that was visible to many who had previously known me as  a tongue-tied resident of social margins. (c.f the stuttering phase of my life.)

Moving out from home and migrating–two events that were rolled into one for me–further imposed a veneer of extroversion upon the older introverted self. I was forced to advocate for myself, to seek new relationships, and of course, I responded, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to explicit and implicit pressures to assimilate.

But I don’t think I ever felt wholly comfortable with these changes. Even if the transformation which they seemed to have induced was so comprehensive that my suggestion that I was ‘essentially’ a shy person was invariably greeted with skepticism and disbelief. And more unkindly, as a kind of posturing.

Over the years, I have noticed a creeping exhaustion with the effort required to maintain this persona–which you would only describe as being ‘inauthentic’ if you insisted on being reductive–of the gregarious extrovert. Even if that maintenance brought in its wake many goods. For instance, I have made some very good friends, relationships with whom have endured over the years;  I have been able to enter into a long-term, stable romantic relationship (which is, obviously, challenging, as these things invariably are); and of course, I have been enriched a great deal,  intellectually and emotionally, by the many conversations and personal encounters that I have experienced over the years. (Almost all of my academic work is co-authored; my collaborations were essential to my work. I find myself thinking aloud, in company, in ways unknown to my solitary self.)

But these ‘gains’ have not been earned easily. And much like an athlete might find it hard to persist with high levels of excellence in her performances over the years, so do I find myself disinclined to push myself as hard as I  once did, to persist with an older energy, in a kind of ‘social performance.’ I look, occasionally, at the sidelines, at the benches, where some relief from the burdens of social expectation awaits. I feel, ever so gradually and yet distinctly, an ebbing, a receding, a return, to an older place of repose and comfort.

This does not mean, again, that I disdain human company. I think it just means that I’ve become more selective about the avenues where I will expend my social energies.

On Avoiding Company And Conversation

Yesterday afternoon, after I had finished teaching, as I hurried to the Flatbush Avenue subway station to catch a train for my evening workout, I saw a Brooklyn College colleague out of the corner of my eye. I walked on; I did not want to say hello; I did not want to stop and talk. This was not because I disdain the perfectly pleasant company of my fellow academic; rather, I simply did not have the energy to engage in conversation. Conversation would entail: first, the exchange of pleasantries and niceties, and then later, quite possibly, an intellectual engagement on which I would have to stay on my toes. Conversations can be exhausting. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sink into a seat on the subway and read a book. I meant no insult or rejection to my colleague. I just wanted to be alone.

I indulge in this sort of ‘anti-social’ behavior  quite often. Sometimes, I will see a neighbor on the street, and will walk past them if they have not seen me. Sometimes, I will carry out the same avoidance on campus, briskly threading my way through a gaggle of students that now provides cover for my escape. Sometimes, at that same Flatbush Avenue subway station, I will see a colleague sitting in a subway car, and will walk on to the next one. (Not always, of course; often, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time.) This avoidance behavior seems to occur the most often on trains; I suspect this is because my time on trains affords me some precious reading time and I’m loath to spend it on conversation. On occasion, it’s easier to justify this shrinking from social encounters: I enjoy varying degrees of comfort with the many acquaintances in my life, and with some of them conversations can suffer from some awkwardness, some shuffling of the feet, some looking for a quick way out. In those cases, it’s easy to justify my turning away, my pressing on.

I feel some guilt about this behavior. I seem to be disdaining encounters with fellow human beings, preferring my own company; I seem to prefer remaining lost in my own thoughts, my own reveries; I seem to prefer solipsism. It’s entirely possible that some of the folks I ‘ignore’ have seen me despite my attempts to remain incognito and have been offended. I may have insulted and slighted the more sensitive of my friends. I mean no harm, no offense. I’m a man of limited resources–emotional and intellectual–and conservation comes easily to me in these circumstances.

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to talk, too tired to navigate the shoals of social encounters. Sometimes I’d much rather read.

Once again, no offense intended.