K would be an inaccurate eavesdropper. It’s part of his essential, sweet, and often infuriating innocence of spirit. He’d see all tension as misunderstanding, readily resolvable if only they both understood how each was getting the other wrong. But of course K doesn’t eavesdrop.
R invariably does the right thing. Her actions always manifest her integrity and her valiance for truth. There’s nothing of the toady in her. It’s inevitable that the way she plumbs her own depths would make her question everything, even (or especially) her own motives. So that she is the only person to be skeptical of her absolutely reliable integrity. She is reliable: you can count on her judgments to be disinterested. But you end up having to defend her to herself, after the fact, when she wonders about possible other cases. She lacks the convictions of her courage.
There’s a particular kind of anecdote that A tells well. It culminates with someone laughing, good-humoredly, at some incident or remark that we thought would vex them. The anecdote is usually about someone we find scary or fierce or grim, so that in A’s telling the laughter is the surprising climax, not the adverb or gerundive it would be in another person’s story. These anecdotes are almost always about moments from many years earlier. I don’t know anyone else who tells stories like this, nor anyone else who savors so fully and remembers so long that little moment of relaxed clarity. I love it when A gets to the sunny point where “He just laughed and said…” That patch of sun helps reconcile me to realities.
E is always relaxed. At first that makes her relaxing to be with, but when you get to know her a little better you can see that it’s willed. There’s a kind of isometric exercise there: she holds herself in check and part of what she holds in check are the expressions that would ordinarily indicate the effort she’s making to do so. Her face is always tranquil. So knowing her a little better you relax less. Or maybe more. If you’re the type who gets anxious around serene people, the discovery that she isn’t actually serene can come as a relief.
It may be a relief in more ways than one. The initial impression she makes — for me at a lovely outdoor party on a summer’s evening where she was the hostess and I was the friend of a friend — might be remembered later as a little psychotic. A couple of genuinely psychotic people I knew had a similar aura of sheer self-possession. I think this was because when they weren’t dealing with their monsters, they had no anxiety at all about dealing with all the stresses of ordinary life. They knew how trivial such stresses were. They were genuinely at ease. But E never is, and this makes me like her much more, and is one of the cures for my own attraction to unfathomable charisma.
I ran into O, who asked with his usual air of superior humane concern after a friend of ours (more mine than his) who’d been ill. Our friend was okay now, and I told O that. For the briefest instant, intense disappointment flickered on his face. It was unmistakable, though he recovered almost immediately and converted his look to one of satisfaction with the news.
Why was O disappointed? Because he wanted to indulge his sympathy? Because our friend’s illness might have been good to think with? Might have confirmed the horror of the world and the comparative safety from which O viewed it? Did he wish to feel sympathy for me or for our friend? Or perhaps for himself most of all — that would cover the most motivational ground.
I could not speak to O after that encounter. It was striking how unambiguous his reaction was. And yet I think O did me a service. He showed me what such a reaction looked like — one I haven’t seen in anyone else. I think better of everyone else, thanks to O.
When I first met P his rationality was refreshing. I am always attracted to troubled people. No one else seems deep to me. P was no exception to this rule: he was deep. No, what was refreshing about him was the way he understood his own emotions. He was as moody as anyone, but he didn’t blame me for whatever it was his mood was blaming me for. I like to put myself in the line of fire of other people’s moods — this is a weakness of mine (or maybe a strength): it’s a kind of pride in thinking that I can be helpful to them (and win their love) if I can be a kind of toreador of their emotions, showing them that there’s nothing to hate behind the discrete red flag I use to attract their attention, their anger. But I found when I met P a kind of unexpected pleasure, an unexpected shortcut to serenity, in the way he never did think there was anything behind the flag.
Alas, this peace was false. P didn’t blame me, but ultimately this meant that P didn’t care (about me, about anyone, I think). There was nothing behind the flag — and nothing beside it either. I was just another version of it: nothing to get exercised about. P knew it was all within him and so for him I was trivial. If I angered him at all, as I sometimes think I did, it was only for being trivial.
I thought I could be friends with P forever, but it turned out I was never friends with him at all.
H, I, J and me
There are a very few people whom I judge by using myself as a touchstone. What I mean by this is that given their declared interests, their declared intellectual and emotional character, they should want to be friends with me. I don’t mean interests as in an online profile; I mean that if they really are interested in what they purport to be interested in, if they really are able to think seriously about what they purport to be interested in, they should be interested in me. This sounds much more arrogant or obnoxious than it should. It’s just a way of saying there are certain people you should click with, and don’t, and in that set a subset defined by the fact that it’s their fault, not yours.
It’s really about whether a certain kind of friendship could happen, which I think would depend on whether they would have the same somewhat unusual attitude towards that kind of friendship’s happening that I do.
Well, then: H disappoints me, because he should be the kind of person who would get me (as for example B does), and he just doesn’t. Whereas I (elle), who at first glance would seem to have very little in common with me, and who could easily and legitimately be even more haughtily uninterested in me than H is, is tireless in her friendship (and I’m usually the tireless one). It seems to me that much of what I know about I is characterized by her friendship; and much of the much less, but still adequate, knowledge that I have of H is characterized by his lack of interest in it.
Which brings me to J, one of the very few friends to whom I could describe this, knowing that he’d get it immediately. Which he did.
Q is very charming, enthusiastic, candid and frank. He’s genuinely interested in you. His face lights up when he sees you, and I feel the same when I see him. And yet one of the things that he’s candid about is just how superficial his interest and his pleasure are. It’s all there for you, he’s unreserved — which means there’s nothing in reserve. He’s a pure consumer, and his frankness is a mode of consumption, a gusto in being with you that just means that he’s enjoying the moment and nothing more. And he’s enjoying it selfishly, which is part of the pleasure. He evokes by contrast that odd anxiety in real friendship about when you’ll see each other again. (Here we are now, let’s anticipate our next meeting.) But Q feels none of that anxiety, and you realize it’s because he’ll take away nothing from your encounter. The condition of his charm and enthusiasm, of his frank and candid and selfish pleasure, is that none of this will make a difference to him, he won’t think about it again. He can give you all his radiant attention for the moment because it’s so mobile — and then it will move away. He’s a pleasure to be with, but in the end I always wish that I’d been watching TV instead.
Let us assume that Homer was a drunkard, that Vergil was a flatterer, that Horace was a coward, that Tasso was a madman, that Lord Bacon was a speculator, that Raphael was a libertine, that Spenser was a poet laureate. It is inconsistent with this division of our subject to cite living poets, but posterity has done ample justice to the great names now referred to. Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins “were as scarlet, they are now white as snow”; they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time.
S has helped cure me of my desire to meet and get to know writers. But is this a loss or a gain?
U is a crony. You might think cronyism or being a crony is a relation to others. Simmel might think that being a crony is a sociological facet of human existence. But U is like the sound of one hand clapping. He’s a crony even when alone. He shows that cronyism is a Platonic and not just an Aristotelian characteristic. Somewhere there exists the form of the crony pure and simple, and U instantiates it. I like him.
AA is amazing with those younger than he is. More energetic, faster, more delighted by the world. He draws everyone into his own incessant vitalism, and makes everyone feel happy. He had this effect on me for years. But it became clear, alas, that the energy he drew and returned to us went through the circuit of his insatiable greed. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for you if he loved you. There was nothing he would do for you if he stopped. He had no idea how much damage he could do by stopping. Or perhaps he didn’t care. It was then that you felt how deeply he’d insinuated himself into the network of your own energies, how brightly he lit up the world, made it his own. When you were his own too, that was fine. But when you weren’t, you lost more — you lost the world he’d remade for you when you lost his love. His love? The illusion that it was love, vital and generous, the illusion that things could be vital and generous.
Because FF has exquisite manners he believes himself to be impregnable in all human relation. He cannot be in the wrong because his manners are better — more deferential, more delicate, more sublimely agreeable — than those of anyone he is ever in contact with. He is the embodiment of class, of a class of one, the class of which he is the sole member. To interact with him at all is to be treated with extraordinary and unending graciousness, which has the effect of making you feel that you should feel gratitude for the grace which accepts you as adequate (though of course you’re not) to its tact and generosity. So when you fall out with FF, there is no way that the breach will ever be healed. Of course he will accept instantaneously any petition you make to return to good terms with him, without a beat of hesitation. But hesitation is where friendship lies, the sense that someone is pondering your meaning, then accepting it; it’s in the feel of resistance overcome by recognition. The breach isn’t healed, with all the work that healing would entail. It’s treated as manners require: it surrenders any claim to polite notice and disappears entirely.
There is no possibility of the recognition that lays down the rhythm of friendship with FF — he cannot be in the wrong and therefore he cannot recognize another point of view. And he also works so hard to be in the right, in his own mind (he doesn’t let you see the work, but I’ve known him for a long time and I do see it). Yes, he recognizes the points of view of others in general — his manners compel it, the substance of his manners is just such recognition. But you, whoever you are, are for him only part of that general otherness, and you never become the object of a specific attitude. (Indeed the fact that I am not the object of any specific attitude, resentment, regret, contempt, is for me the emblem of our break.) He is above intending any harm, and yet I do feel made somehow less substantial. It was easy to float in the buoyant, unflagging, unfocussed thoughtfulness of his attention, but just as easy to float away, softly and forever. All that thoughtfulness, and none of it a thought about you.
To resent him for any of this would seem like bad manners, and I don’t.
BB is a holy, sophisticated naïf. When her otherworldly saintliness misfires, when her moral judgments are crushingly wrong, carelessly oppressive, you can see the narcissism that has to be part of her commitment to saintliness. What else could protect her from the scorn of the worldly, the this-worldly? Her narcissism is also half-divine, part of her goodness, the condition for her goodness. I hate my own exasperation with her. I wish I liked her less, or that I liked her more.
Who knows anything about X? Me least of all.
GG has a stentorian voice. Somehow it hits enough tones and overtones that it causes noisy reverberation in any room he’s in. Something rattles, and buzzes and fuzzes what he’s saying. So I always resolve his words an instant too late, as in a badly dubbed movie. Hearing him is like hearing my own annoying echo on a bad cell-phone connection. But the asynchrony is deeper: what he says is difficult enough to understand that it would take me a second to catch up anyhow. He’s one of those people who fill the buffer of short-term memory when you try to attend to what they’re saying. And my buffer overflows when I have to pay attention to his voice, his words, his meanings, and the noise they elicit from the objects whose multiplicity they highlight, all at once. I try to look into his eyes as he speaks, so as not to be distracted by his out-of-synch mouth. It’s like hearing Picasso but looking at Rembrandt. He really means what he’s saying. He cares and it’s deep. But I have to remember this at just the right level, remember it without noticing it, so that I don’t get entangled in yet another loop. Sometimes it works, like falling down stairs but finding your feet are right there after all, falling as fast as you are. Then the noise becomes beautiful, and I catch up with the meaning, and I can see all that his beautiful eyes are trying to convey.
DV can be perfectly proud of others, of those close to him, and of his family pre-eminently. He will talk with great, alert, enthusiastic tenderness of all the achievement, all the mastery, all the subtlety, all the refreshing, surprising, invigorating quirkiness of those he loves. His pride in them more than compensates for his sublimely unsubtle failure to see that he is going on, at a length so great as to pass the ludicrousness that would set a natural limit to it, about how much of their endless promise they’ve attained to, how wonderfully self-coincident they have made themselves.
I used to appreciate this in him, was sufficiently affected by it as to take some pride myself in enjoying his excessive and generalized uxoriousness (as though his whole social circle were the spouse of his dreams). Sure, you could find him annoying, even criminally annoying, with his endless willingness to waste your time. But then, you were a friend of his too, so it was a good thing, a generous thing in you to reciprocate his friendship by appreciating his general generosity of sentiment. And it was a way to be equally generous to those he loved.
But then it turned out that this really was just boasting on his part. Not quite the way you’d think, not the kind of boasting that’s pretty familiar, boasting that someone amazing loves or esteems one. That kind of boasting has a mildly flattering thread wound into the cable of its superiority: “I am boasting to you, and want you to think well of me, I who have the ear of the Prince of Wales.” It’s nice, in a dim, distant way that the friend of the Prince of Wales cares what I think; nice too that I can allow myself a little mild contempt for this person who, despite being a friend of the Prince of Wales, has shown himself just a bit vulgar.
But DV’s boasting isn’t like that. It hardly feels like boasting at all. He’s not talking about himself — at least that’s how it feels. It’s as though those he boasts of are his possessions, as though, by virtue of being his friends’ qualities, those qualities are his also, but that this so goes without saying that he doesn’t have to refer to himself at all. This is why his friends don’t come out in his anecdotes as interesting, independent personalities and people. They’re just a bundle of talent or achievement, a bundle he can sling over his back and claim ownership of.
I would not have noticed this, I don’t think, except for the way I have seen him drop people. He finds others with similar talents to those he drops, maybe even superior ones, and since such talents are fungible for him, it doesn’t matter whose he owns, hence whom he owns, whom he owns. He is capable of walking out on a lifetime of friendship, of love, of community, without a second, or a second’s, thought.
This is what he did not long ago, but long enough ago that he really did it. He didn’t walk out on me; this isn’t personal; I think he still thinks that we’re friends, and I have no interest whatever in discussing any of this, or anything at all, with him. Which it’s really easy not to do, since I’m just another credit in another ledger of the qualities he enjoys in the world. His narcissism is so perfect, so unanxious, that it doesn’t occur to him to care what other people think. That’s why his boasting can be so charming and so inoffensive. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks: he likes thinking about them not as people but as goods. He likes the commodity that his friends offer him, constituting as they do a kind of extended phenotype that allows a wider scope for self-enjoyment.
He’s serene as a monkey, and I can’t even resent it, though I resent myself for all the work I did defending him to myself against the charge of his being a monstrous bore and boor. I thought that love fueled his boorishness, and I liked that. I was wrong.
HH and II
HH and II are fascinating people, smart, thoughtful, engaged, involved, serious. They work together very well as a couple: HH is a narcissist, and II is what Freud analyzed as an efflorescence of narcissism: his narcissism is devoted to hers, and gratified by it. And this is what makes them work well together: her narcissism is gratified by his praise of her commitments, which she can adjust and model on his commitments to her. They think really hard about things; they dive (as Melville said), and they can dive because they have each other and the interesting configuration of praise that having each other gives them: he praises her, and his own virtues are shown in that the palpable help and succor that his praise gives her fortifies him as well: she is the evidence of his selfless devotion, her achievement is the evidence of his selfless devotion and is also his achievement. I mean he makes it possible for her to work and to love. That’s his work and love. So they have made something great of their characters. The very thing that makes so many people go so far in the wrong direction, when balanced as they’ve balanced it, makes them go very far (dive very deep) in the right direction.
But all this requires a kind of protectiveness on their part which admits very few people. That protectiveness is a kind of intelligence like the outer sanctuaries of the Mormon Temple. You’re invited into the precincts, made to feel surrounded by their sensitivity and insight and understanding, seasoned with a kind of tender dryness, a kind of confiding sardonic attitude towards those outside. But that attitude also prevents you from going deeper. You’re within it with respect to outsiders, everyone else, but outside of a more formidable version of it with respect to real friendship with them. They’re ungenerous to those who they don’t trust absolutely. They miss things, they miss people that way. Or rather I miss them, miss what they could be in my life if they would let me be what I could be in theirs. But it would probably be demanding too much of them to ask them to do the triage with so many people attracted to their charismatic intellects. If they were easier in their own lucidities and depths, if they didn’t have to spend so much time balancing narcissism with understanding, they would have the energy to be fairer to others. But their virtue isn’t fairness, and fairness would disable them. They’re not disabled, but I’m disabled in relation to them. We could be friends if we could be friends.
MM’s charisma is contagious, or at least what makes him charismatic is the way his charisma feels contagious. He’s ebulliently witty, fast, sharply ironic but always in a way that makes you feel part of the small and privileged population of his friends — you never imagine that you could be the object of his irony. It’s exhilarating, the relief you feel in that exemption. All the pleasure of irony is still available to you, but without any of background anxiety that you might one day find yourself on the receiving end of it.
And the great thing about MM is that you never are. His sharpness is matched by his loyalty. I’ve never heard him turn against a friend. He’s amused by his friends, as amused by them as if they were ineffectually trying to get away with being silly or venal or self-dealing. But his glee is appreciative, loving, energizing, and if you were trying to get away with something, some petty vanity, you immediately find yourself meaning it as play instead, for his amusement and for your own. It makes you a better person.
Everyone around him sounds like him, or tries to. Being with him is like being one of the stars of a Cole Porter musical. It’s better by far than any petty vanity you could come up with yourself.
And yet no one ever quite sounds like him. I can see them trying — trying too hard, though it doesn’t feel too hard for them. For them it’s a pleasure. But sad to say, their pleasure blights my own. They think they sound as much like him as I think I do. I want him to direct his irony at them, too. I want some acknowledgement of everyone else’s slavish imitation. The acknowledgement can be kind, fine, but I want some hint of it.
When I’m with him, I forget my resentment, which certainly comes from my pride, though I’m not proud of it. We’re so witty together! He makes me eloquent, he understands what I mean to say and somehow listens with such responsiveness to eloquence that the eloquence just fits into his hearing like puzzle pieces when the jigsaw is almost done. How I wish other people would realize that he doesn’t take quite the same pleasure in their transparent emulations and imitations. But I think, alas, that he may.
I have always liked guarded people. They have a certain kind of discretion that is straightforward in itself. With such people I never have to feel that there’s something about me that they’re turning away from, that they’re more relaxed elsewhere, around other people. I find them charismatic. Their charisma comes partly out of their combination of frailty and a self-knowledge that more than matches their frailty. They are in command of themselves, and unaffected by their frailty, which makes them serenely self-possessed. They’re guarded because they expect so little from extraversion, and therefore demand very little. They’ve cultivated subtlety and so their own resources for living in the region of thought they inhabit are more than ample, are almost princely, but for their discretion. I like being able to see their subtlety and to be allowed to partake in it with them. I like their trust, their sense, warranted by their subtle apprehension of my own character, that I’ll never trespass, never go too far. I like being trusted by the preternaturally guarded.
I guess that paragraph’s really about me, but I thought about these things with respect to NN, who’s an example of someone whose guardedness goes wrong. He’s been so guarded, for so long, that it’s not clear that there’s anything left that he’s guarding anymore. I don’t mean it’s not clear what he’s guarding — it never is among the kind of guarded people I like. But with NN it feels as though his guardedness has become a pure and empty habit. He doesn’t trust me, and I neither want him to nor think he should.
And yet I know he’s unhappy. Maybe that’s the problem. His guardedness doesn’t get him anything. It’s not life-affirming. Life-affirming? Yes. Their contrast with NN makes me see how what I like in guarded people is that they are generally life-affirming. The world is so full of possible interest that they see it everywhere, in almost overwhelming profusion. I like their intense look of anxious curiosity as they watch the world, with the curiosity winning out, though protected by the anxiety. And there’s enough that’s really interesting that they can afford to protect themselves from most things, can afford their own frailty, their capacity to feel hurt. But NN isn’t frail. He’s sad. Whatever was frail about him has been shattered. He couldn’t afford it. And I am sorry to say that I couldn’t afford him.
Yesterday was L’s birthday. He turned 76. He was cheerfully gloomy when I talked to him on the phone. He told me he’d been born at dawn, after his mother had been in labor all night. Of course she had, but he rarely talks of his mother, so I mention it. Yesterday morning he was up at dawn, and saw day coming in, and there was something powerful in his sense that dawn is dawn, yesterday’s and the dawn of 76 years ago.
L is stunned by old age, which doesn’t bode well. We quoted Stevens’s “The Rock” to each other. But L is also endlessly curious about human experience. He’s willing to try anything to know what it’s like. And so his curiosity gets the better of him, and he likes old age the better for it, since he now knows it from the inside. For him it’s an experience of perpetual novelty: he keeps getting older; he keeps being old. That may bode somewhat better. It’s like the lost freshness of youth, again. But L was always like that.
W is the best person in the world for me to tell a story to. When we talk I am quick, economical, inventive — he riffs better than anyone I know and he loves the way I riff too, the way I can keep up with him, which no one else can. I can keep up with him because he loves it. But (even here! just look!) I can’t get up to speed without him. I’m ashamed of this, not only for the obvious reasons — the way I’m selling myself short — but also because it might indicate a strange, involuntary arrogance on my part, as though no one else could bring this talent out in me because no one else were worth it. I hope it’s not really arrogance, though, but narcissism, a desire to make myself understood in a way that I can rely only on W to get intuitively. But I wish I could trust everyone else more.
I like being able to tell when V is loving the book he’s reading. When it’s time to stop, he’ll put a bookmark in and then hold the book for a second over his head and gaze up at the top of the pages of the closed book, tilted down at him from above, to see where the bookmark is. He can feel the pleasure he’d take of blood rushing to his head if he were in the attitude he’s holding the book in. And I can feel the way the book weighs on his arm, balanced now as it isn’t when it’s open and he’s reading it, held up by the nearly locked forearm, balanced with a slight pleasant sway centered at the shoulder. Because his arm’s extended he’s looking at the book from a greater distance than when it’s open and he’s reading it.
It’s real love you can see in his eyes: he likes seeing how much he’s read, and how much he has yet to read. He loves what he’s read, and he loves how much he has left to read. He gazes at the book searchingly, the way you look at someone you love, always glad to think that you can keep looking, that there’s so much pleasure to be had in the looking. He can keep reading; he’s happy with what he’s read; he’s happy with how much there is to read; and his love is a kind of confidence that the book will last, even when he’s done, that the part that he’s read is still a part of the book, which is a part of his life; that the part that’s to come will be the fulfillment of the promise that the part that he’s read has made. So that the promise will be fulfilled, and nothing will be lost, because what’s coming ratifies what’s gone, so that what’s gone is still coming, is still going to be taken up by the future. Just as when you love someone, the present feels like it’s part of the future, and there’s hurry and no hurry at once — you’re hurrying to the leisure of the present. That’s what V gets out of reading and remembering reading and anticipating reading a book that he loves.