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.

The Visible but Ignored Life Around Us

Yesterday’s post was about death, and how it surrounds us, while being invisible. Today’s is about how life surrounds us too, all the while visible, and yet, somehow, for all that, all too easily ignored.

Once, on a hike in the Indian Garhwal with my brother, I headed back downhill to our camp after bad weather cut our onward progress short. My brother, moving along at his usual steady, mile-eating pace, brought up the rear, while I moved on, eager to dump my backpack and brew up a cup of hot, sweet tea. The day had worn on, and as I descended into the valley that was my destination, the sun started to dip low, its rays lighting up the pine forests my trail wound through.

As I walked on, quickening my pace as I sensed rest and relief after a long day’s hiking, I became less aware of my body: I barely felt the blisters on my feet, the sweat collecting under my sweatshirt and jacket, the soreness in my shoulders and neck muscles.  I became progressively more oblivious too, to my environs. I was walking on a narrow path bedecked with pine needles and cones, cut up by icy streams that came rolling down the hillsides around me, and marked every so often by the signature footprints of the forests’ four-footed residents. But I paid little heed. 

And then, finally, thirst and weariness catching up with me, I stopped to take a swig of water from my trusted canteen. As I gulped down the cooling liquid, I became aware of where I was: surrounded by hundreds of pine trees, their branches and dark green canopies gently swayed by a breeze that seemed to be making its way up the slopes from the valley below.

At that moment, I realized too, I was standing amidst hundreds of living things, each individually dwarfing me, each having stood witness, on that wild slope, to thousands of gorgeous evenings like this one. They stood there, breathing in the same air I was, their ‘bodies” engaged in the homeostatic processes similar to mine, maintaining their structural and functional integrity, their delicately poised and balanced relationships with their immediate environment.

I was in the middle of a crowd. A reticent and partially silent one if you discounted the murmurings and rustlings emanating from the tree-tops as the evening breeze moved through them, but no less impressive for that. Suddenly, I felt self-conscious, almost shy, as if I had become aware of a hundred eyes trained on me, curious and questioning. I almost felt the need to be circumspect, to not disturb the gentle calm that pervaded this sylvan setting, this inhabited space that belonged to its long-term residents.

I had let myself forget life came in many forms, shapes and sizes; as I stood among those trees I was reminded how narrow that vision was.

I moved on eventually, but for the rest of my walk back down to camp I didn’t feel alone any more.

The Hidden Death Around Us

Approximately 150 people die every day in New York City; the three most common causes are heart disease, cancer, and influenza/pneumonia. I’ve lived in New York City for almost twenty years now, so a rough calculation tells me that in the time I’ve lived here, more than a million New Yorkers have passed away. I’ve seen precisely one of them: a homeless man caught between a train and a subway platform, crushed to death, still standing, his face oddly peaceful as he seemed to lean over drowsily. I looked away quickly and kept walking.

There is death all around us but we rarely see it. Humans and animals share our cities, our towns, our streets; they die all the time but they die out of sight.

In The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher Lewis Thomas wrote:

Everything in the world dies, but we only know about it as a kind of abstraction. If you stand in a meadow, at the edge of a hillside, and look around carefully, almost everything you can catch sight of is in the process of dying, and most things will be dead long before you are. If it were not for the constant renewal and replacement going on before your eyes, the whole place would turn to stone and sand under your feet….

Animals seem to have an instinct for performing death alone, hidden. Even the largest, most conspicuous ones find ways to conceal themselves in time….

It is a natural marvel. All of the life of the earth dies, all of the time, in the same volume as the new life that dazzles us each morning, each spring. All we see of this is the odd stump, the fly struggling on the porch floor of the summer house in October, the fragment on the highway….

I suppose it is just as well. If the earth were otherwise, and all the dying were done in the open, with the dead there to be  looked at, we would never have it out of our minds. We can forget about it much of the time, or think of it as an accident to  be avoided, somehow. But it does make the process of dying seem more exceptional than it really is, and harder to engage in at the times when we must ourselves engage….

There are 3 billion of us on the earth, and all 3 billion must be dead, on a schedule, within  this lifetime. The vast mortality, involving something over 50 million of us each year, takes place in relative secrecy. We can only really know of the deaths in our households, or among our friends. These, detached in our minds from all the rest, we take to be unnatural events, anomalies, outrages.

As the numbers indicate, death is commonplace, mundane, weekday. We know how to keep it discreet, most of the time. It happens in closed rooms, behind curtains; when it is over, sheets are drawn over the dead so they may be hidden away. It is bad manners to die publicly; when death takes place in visible spaces it is the most disruptive event of all, reminding us of a fate whose thoughts we normally consign to the margins.

The world is a vast charnel house; animal and humans have somehow found a way to diminish the discomfort that might be caused by knowledge of this fact, to co-exist and sometimes even flourish with the remains it stores.