Monday, May 24, 2010

The perils of friendship

{Photo by rocketlass, whose generally benign intentions I'm perhaps impugning by linking this photo to a post that's largely about the joys of misanthropy.}

In the most intense friendships of childhood, we want our friends to be just like us: we're looking for a twin, someone who reflects ourselves back to us with the added glow of both acknowledgment and appreciation. In adult life, however, we are willing to settle for--or, more accurately, prefer--significant, rather than total, overlap in tastes, opinions, and habits. More than that, and you get this:
I once had a friend who, over the long course of many years, gradually began to take on, as if by a process of osmosis, all of those quirks, opinions, and traits of character that I had always considered to be most deeply my own.

When I first made his acquaintance, for example, he had shown a marked preference for the sentimental excesses of the films of Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age” over the headier intellectual pleasures that characterize Italian neorealist cinema. After several years, however, he began to espouse, with equal fervor, precisely the opposite opinion; that is, a preference for Antonioni and Visconti over Capra, Hawks, and Sturges—an opinion that I had myself defended against all comers on occasions too numerous to mention.

Indeed, it would not be exaggerating the point to say that my friend’s entire worldview incrementally conformed itself to my own.
That's from Joseph Clayton Mills's "Insult," which I published a couple of years ago at Joyland. I selected "Insult" from a sheaf of stories, all about difficult, wayward, and/or recently dead friends, and I'm pleased to announce that the whole batch has now been published in a chapbook, Zyxt, by Entr'acte. The stories, which are all quite brief, most of them running to less than a page, are reminiscent of Borges in their playfulness, Calvino in their precision and concision, and, most important, Bernhard in their wry misanthropy. For, like those friends we invented when we had to describe our symptoms to the school nurse, these friends have problems, and--because their problems lie less with themselves as individuals than with humanity as an excrescence, suicide is frequently the only solution. Yet nearly as frequently as they are attempted, these suicides are botched, though, for better or for worse, more often in some aesthetic sense than in their basic, and thus final, execution.

The very short story "Ennui" is a good example:
I have a friend who, having hurled himself from a great height, was annoyed to discover that, in marked contrast to what he had been led to expect, the brief moments in which the ground hurtled up with ever greater clarity to greet him were marked by neither a heightened intensity of sensorial experience nor by a mystical epiphany of the preciousness of life. Rather, the rapid seconds of his fall were quite as suffused with boredom and ennui--and passed just as slowly--as every other moment in his short, yet interminable, existence.
"Graduate School," on the other hand, despite beginning with all the frustration and failure embodied in its titular subject--
On the verge of earning a PhD in economics from one of the more prestigious of the second-tier universities, having assiduously devoted himself entirely to academic study for a dozen years to the exclusion of all else, and indeed having sacrificed any semblance of a so-called personal life for the sake of his scholarly pursuits, a close friend of mine was struck a severe blow when his mentor--to whose groundbreaking theories my friend had long been a fanatical adherent and to the defense of whom all of my friend's own work was slavishly devoted--committed suicide at the age of eighty-three by placing his head in an oven.

Compounding my friend's misfortune, his beloved mentor had left for posterity a lengthy suicide note in which he completely repudiated all of his former work,demonstrating with the aid of recent insights derived from game theory that the ostensibly groundbreaking work to which he owed his considerable fame in academic circles was completely nonsensical.
--ultimately ends on a note of successful defiance. That said defiance involves yet another suicide is, though perhaps deplorable from a human point of view, ultimately only to be expected.

The book fairly runs over with the under-appreciated joys of misanthropy mixed with a fundamental love of human strangeness. The Randall Jarrell of Pictures from an Institution would have loved this book.There is no escape: these are our friends, trouble though they may be, and what are we without our friends? "I once had a friend with whom I found myself in complete agreement on every subject," says the narrator, but you can trust that things don't end well. At the same time, the friend who "was regarded by even his closest acquaintances as a horrible specimen of misanthropy" feels misapprehended; like Swift, his misanthropy comes from the disjunction between his idealistic vision of mankind's capacity and
what he invariably characterized as "humanity's beastly propensity for the base and vile" so difficult to endure in silence.
The disjunction does not end well.

The back cover of Zyxt is taken up by an index. If I haven't yet convinced you to order a copy, perhaps the index's four subdivisions of "Suicide" or its nine subdivisions of "Murder" will. Or its entries for Spinoza and Preston Sturges--if those twin brilliants of the pantheon, wild opposites even at the same time as they are both utterly indispensable, don't do it, then perhaps the misanthropists have the right idea after all.

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