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.

Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.

Nick Drake’s ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ and Urban Melancholia

I discovered Nick Drake late, very late. Back in 2007, Scott Dexter and I were busy dealing with the release of our book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software; mainly, this involved engaging in some spirited discussions online with other folks interested in free software, the creative commons, free culture, and all of the rest. One of our interlocutors was a young man from–I think–Reading, UK. His name was–I think–Tom Chance. As is an internet voyeur’s wont, I moseyed on over to his webpage and spent some time poking around through his various links. One link led to a playlist. One track on that playlist was Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock.

I’m not sure why I played the track. But once I did,  and as the opening picks on the strings of Drake’s guitar floated out, accompanied by ‘A city freeze/Get on your knees/Pray for warmth and green paper/A city drought/You’re down and out/,’ I was hooked. Not as in ‘I played that track incessantly.’ ATCOACC isn’t really the kind of song that can be played again and again, at least, not at the same sitting. Rather I was hooked as in ‘it got under my skin,’ ‘spooked me out,’ ‘induced melancholia,’ ‘conjured up a rich panoply of images,’ ‘stirred up long-forgotten memories,’ ‘was strangely calming,’ ‘intrigued me with its orchestration,’ ‘haunted me,’ and so on. It was, and is, that kind of song, simultaneously simple and complex, one that almost immediately provokes in its listeners a curiosity about its provenance and meaning.

ATCOACC’s lyrics are alternately straightforward and cryptic, but they never stop being suggestive, leaving themselves open to the varied interpretations that its listeners might bring to it. (It has been suggested  that Drake’s lyrics in general show the influence of William BlakeWilliam Butler Yeats and Henry Vaughan, poets that he studied, and expressed an affinity for, during his days at Cambridge.) When I first listened to ATCOACC, New York was in the grip of a unseasonably cool summer day, gray and overcast, with faint leftover smatterings of the morning’s rain beating against my apartment windows; I felt I had discovered the perfect soundtrack to a day that is all-too familiar on the East Coast. And strangely enough, even though none of the lines in the song are explicitly about urban blight, I somehow felt that images of torn-down city blocks, sidewalks with grass poking up through them, deserted parking lots, and old grimy theaters were easily evoked by it. That was because of my particular history on the US East Coast and it spoke volumes of ATCOACC’s ability to reach into me.

If there is a miniscule weakness in ATCOACC’s lyrics it is that Drake mentions London in one line (Saddle up/Kick your feet/Ride the range of a London street/); they might have worked better without explicit mention of any particular city. And that is precisely because Drake’s melancholia should be familiar to anyone that has ever found themselves confronted with that particular irony of the modern life: to be frighteningly, devastatingly alone, in the middle of humanity’s most crowded spaces.