In Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch there are a wife and husband, Talita and Traveler. When they wake up in the mornings, they tell each other their dreams, “head to head, caressing each other, mingling hands and feet.” In the retelling, Traveler sifts over the dreams like a priest examining entrails, compulsively searching for “correspondences” between their two nights. Unsurprisingly, Traveler is disappointed, frustrated again and again by “the impassable barrier, the dizzy distance that not even love could leap.”
One morning, he finds a small similarity. In her dream, Talita had been in a hotel where she had to bring her own chair. In his, Traveler, also in a hotel, had been forced to bring his own towel. Talita laughs at him, rightly: his evidence is laughable. Firmly in the realm of the conspiracy theorist and statistician, Traveler aches for patterns to function as proof.
“Traveler kept on hoping and waiting less and less…. He lost his faith that what he wanted could happen, and he knew that without faith it would not happen. He knew that without faith nothing that should happen would happen, and with faith almost never either.”
What Traveler wants is not, I think, unusual or unfamiliar. The parallels he longs to uncover would presumably serve as evidence of love, indicating that two people can become, or are already, a single unbroken whole. Isn’t this something we want, often painfully, from the people we are closest to? (Or perhaps I should say: this is something I want, and I think that sometimes others do too.) There’s a fear of not being understood in all of my richness, and a corresponding desire for an unspoken intimacy. Sometimes, when we have to work at our relationships, they already begin to feel like failures.
My college graduation a year ago is veiled in dreams and drunkenness. Without shelter from the sun, I spent a morning and part of an afternoon sweating in my cap and gown, the ungainly outfit that flattened all the graduates into each other, a blurred black mass breaking up into the world.
I can’t really remember now if I told my friends I’d stay in touch, or how often. I think I didn’t make any unreasonable promises, and neither did anyone else. But even so, a mixture of despair and ecstasy created a kind of fever-pitch within me; I was consumed by a love and sadness that didn’t make sense, felt at one moment as a prematurely distant fondness, at another as a yearning to touch, hug, tell these people around me something—I’m not sure what.
I lingered at my airport gate the next morning, waiting to say goodbye to a friend who happened to be flying out to an opposite coast. In hindsight, the last-minute meeting felt appropriately dramatic, enough of a parting; we’ve exchanged three or four messages since then, and saw each other recently when they were back in town. And it’s the same for plenty of other people that brought me so much joy in college, our interactions now curt and digital, gradually coming to feel obligatory. I often think about how much my friends mean to me; but what do they mean to me, if I can cast them off so easily?
I don’t know what friendship is, or how to do it well, but I sometimes tell myself that the loss of these friends is okay. Relationships have their time and place; it’s unseemly to expect that I won’t grow apart from the vast majority of those I went to college with. In that way, the entire experience, the broken-up mass of people too vast and ungainly to keep track of, folds itself neatly into my own instructive conclusion.
Increasingly, my experiences with family or friends are riddled with disjunctions, moments in which I am reminded that there are aspects of them that are closed off to me. Like Traveler, I’m frustrated. We can’t dream the same dreams, and yet I persist in searching for signals of confluence, parallel tracks of thought, natural intimacy. Why is this gradual awareness of discontinuity disappointing to me? My mother once told me with pride that my father and his best friend would often choose similarly colored outfits; rather than a referendum on the comical limits of the male fashion sense, it was a symbol of their unintentional, easy closeness.
I would like to feel that somebody really understands something essential and unchanging about me. Any fumble with a friend I haven’t seen in a while becomes evidence that we did not have the right kind of friendship to begin with.
Agnès Varda’s Vagabond begins with the corpse of the titular character, Mona Bergeron, frozen to death in a vineyard ditch. An unnamed, mysterious narrator soon appears; while she never explicitly shows up in the film, she oversees the reconstruction of Mona’s last days through interviews with the people Mona encountered.
“I always imagined she came from the sea,” says the narrator, as the camera shows a nude, shimmering figure walking onto a beach, the first shot of a living Mona. A moment later, the shot pans out, and we see that Mona is being watched by two men on a motorbike. Here is the first instance of the unrelenting male gaze through which much of Mona’s story is filtered, in her interactions with truck drivers, agronomists, fellow vagabonds.
These men’s reflections on the brief relationships, or encounters, they have with Mona make clear that the movie’s motive is not to present us with a true retelling of Mona’s life. The point is, there cannot be: the tragedy is that it’s too late for her to tell it. The best we can do is piece it together out of recollections, and those, in turn, will always drag something else reluctantly into the picture.
What is that something else? A man she spends a few days with in an abandoned chateau whines “I thought she was the staying type,” after she abruptly disappears. (This, mind you, is the same man who wears a padlock-necklace and described himself as a “Wandering Jew.”) A philosophy-PhD-turned-shepherd tries to get her to plant a row of potatoes at the farm he shares with his wife. When she vanishes again, he sneers that she doesn’t understand that her rebellion against society is meaningless without building something in its place. A woman in an unhappy relationship, seeing Mona and the Wandering Jew asleep together, imagines them as happy lovers.
It happens to us too as, gently and obstinately, the structure of Vagabond leads us back to Mona’s death. Watching the scenes spliced together by the narrator, we draw out significance, unravel meaning, seize on words and gestures, find points of inflection and moments of revelation. In other words, we identify the site of infection, where and when the fungus began to cause the rot that leads to her death. And in doing so, we, too, enter the frame.
Vagabond reveals how fragile our perception of others often are. We are liable to twist them to serve our own purposes. The stranger on the road, Mona, is an extreme example—what do we owe to her, after all?—but it exists everywhere. Joan Didion begins “The White Album” with the famous line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”; the unspoken corollary is that everybody else becomes a character in those stories.
How do these ideas fit together? I want a feeling of truth in my friendships—a closeness whose most absurd incarnation is found in Traveler—but I am constantly foiled by my own selfishness, the violent way I instrumentalize the people I encounter, turning them into foils and mirrors for myself. We need others, but we can hardly ever get our encounters right because the effort is so often self-involved.
In certain moods, once you start to think about your relationships along these unforgiving lines, it becomes difficult to stop. After quitting my soccer team, I sometimes worried that I only remained friends with some of the people on it because it reinforced a particular, vain image I’d had of myself as a teenager, of someone both athletic and intelligent. So how do we forge better relationships, make sure that we’re not just deluding ourselves into sopping self-satisfaction?
One temptation—at least, after college—is to say that perhaps academic conversation is a place where better encounters can happen, when we must put forth an opinion out to test it against others and find the truth that lies somewhere outside of and between us. But I’m not interested in turning my life into a sharp-tongued seminar, at least not always. I am interested in figuring out how to make the attempt, when encountering the sharp edge of difference, of seeing it for what it is, and appreciating it fully as something distinct from me. What is the virtue, or habit, that will help me act well in this way?
In Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” we might find something like an answer. The novella begins at Weatherend, located somewhere vaguely in the English countryside. There, John Marcher, a man vaguely situated somewhere in the British upper classes, is sure that he is re-encountering a woman named May Bartram, though he’s not sure when he first met her—her face is “a reminder, yet not quite a remembrance.”
They find themselves drawn together; then it strikes Marcher where he has seen May Bartram before: “‘Years and years ago in Rome. I remember all about it.’” His triumph is quickly undercut, as she promptly corrects all of the details he offers up: They didn’t meet in Rome, but Naples; it was ten years ago, not seven; he wasn’t accompanying the Pembles, but the Boyers; they weren’t at the Palace of the Caesars, but Pompeii, “present there at an important find.”
A little while into the encounter, Marcher is already fashioning a regretful narrative about it, indulging in the idea that some opportunity for closer friendship has been lost to circumstance, and the fact there is nothing that really connects them to each other. “He would have liked to invent something, get her to make believe with him that some passage of a romantic or critical kind had originally occurred,” James writes.
Just when he has neatly wrapped up their interaction, however, she says: “You know you told me something that I’ve never forgotten and that again and again has made me think of you since.” She then explains that, “on that tremendously hot day when we went to Sorrento,” he revealed to her what he calls “the Beast in the Jungle”: the great fear that’s lurked around him his whole life. In May’s words:
“You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious or terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”
Marcher says he still feels this way, as if his life’s been marked out for something awful. The result is that he’s isolated himself from the rest of the world; he’s so burdened, in his own mind, by the strange experience of the Beast in the Jungle that he’s unable to forge lasting or meaningful relationships with others. But the fact that he once told May Bartram about it seems to him to be something he might “profit” by, in part because it will help alleviate his feeling of solitude. As a result, he asks her if she will “watch” with him to see what happens to him, which she agrees to do.
The novella proceeds from there, over the course of many years, as Marcher and May Bartram become each other’s primary companions. It’s in this relationship—the way both people revolve around a single pole within it, founded on Marcher’s obsessive sense of foreboding—that there is perhaps a lesson for friendship.
Marcher describes his friendship with May as a relief, because it allows him to be “just a little” selfish. In his interactions with other people, he thinks of himself as “decently—as in fact perhaps even a little sublimely—unselfish” because he doesn’t want to disturb people “with the queerness of having to know a haunted man.” Of course, being caught up in a near-pathological self-absorption isn’t what it means to be unselfish; Marcher is making a mistake, confusing egoistic passivity with genuine regard for other people. (Orson Welles once described his loathing of Woody Allen this way: “He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant.”)
In contrast, there are two things about May Bartram that set her apart from Marcher. The first is the attention she pays to his circumstances, to helping him try to figure out exactly what the Beast in the Jungle is. That is, she lives up to her original promise of “watching” with him, with the special kind of scrutiny the word implies. “That was what women had where they were interested; they made out things, where people were concerned, that people often couldn’t have made out themselves,” Marcher observes. Laying aside the explicitly gendered claims of this sentence, the point being made here is that there are times when we cannot reach self-knowledge except with the help of others who pay attention to us in a particular way.
Marcher’s conclusion is that “she had almost of a sudden begun to strike him as more useful to him than ever yet.” Of course, it’s precisely this attitude that prevents her from actually being useful to him. The years pass without anything particularly awful taking place—in fact, without much of anything at all taking place. Eventually, May Bartram becomes fatally ill with a mysterious blood disease. During one of their last conversations, Marcher confronts her with a suspicion: that she knows what the Beast is, but refuses to tell him.
Her response is to stand up and walk over to him:
“She waited once again, always with her cold sweet eyes on him. ‘It’s never too late.’ She had, with her gliding step, diminished the distance between them, and she stood nearer to him, close to him, a minute, as if still charged with the unspoken…She only kept him waiting, however; that is he only waited.”
Why doesn’t she simply tell him? In the last sentence of the passage above—“she only kept him waiting, however; that is he only waited”—the subject shifts between the two clauses, from May Bartram to Marcher. The suggestion, from James’s prose and May Bartram’s action, is that there is a similar shift in agency: it becomes incumbent upon Marcher to do or understand something he has not previously understood. Why doesn’t she simply tell him? Because she understands, in her love for him, that she can lead him to the edge of self-knowledge, but that he must discover it for himself.
This is the second instructive feature found in her character; unlike the confessional mode of someone like Traveler, her love for Marcher takes the form of respect for the fact of his difference, an understanding that she can only lead him to the cliff’s-edge of understanding—he must jump off himself. The tragedy of the story is that he cannot understand this, in part because he treats her as a means to his own good, thereby eliminating the possibility that she might actually function as such a means.
But it should also be clear, from the story, that May Bartram is forced to be martyrish, hemmed in by the expectations of patriarchy. Though her behavior can in some ways function as a model—in much the same way as a saint’s—the extremity of her self-abnegation is both unattainable and unhealthy for most of us.
That’s okay. The majority of people don’t exactly have the leisurely privilege of spending so much time with our friends. Instead we’re beset by the demands of a world that often feels set on obliterating any relation—anything beyond mere friendly acquaintance—we might try to forge with others. Unselfish, mutually attentive friendship can’t function as a wholesale antidote to systemic oppression and exploitation, but it might nevertheless be true that the possibility of systemic change will require us to reconfigure our relationships with one another along lines of love or care.
John Marcher’s story ends in front of May Bartram’s gravestone, when he realizes that, in his ever-present anticipation of an unknown horror, he’s missed the entirety of his life. He’s become “the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.” He also understands that loving May Bartram would have been his escape—“then he would have lived.”
In the mid-twentieth century, the psychoanalyst D.H. Winnicott articulated the concept of the good-enough mother. In its brand new finitude, an infant has constant needs, none of which it can really fulfil without the help of its parents. It is therefore to a certain extent omnipotent: mewl after milk, and a nipple, real or artificial, is proffered. The child thereby develops a sense of reality, the feeling that it can make things happen in the world. But the parent is not all-accommodating; to meet the infant’s every need would foster a pathological identification between the child and its environment. So parents fail sometimes, and Winnicott not only forgives them, but suggests that it is for the best, is indeed an imperative of parenting. (“The mother’s eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant.”) The healthy human moderates between a feeling of creative power and an awareness of its limits.
Last summer, one of my roommates moved to Austria, where he taught English in a town outside Vienna. I was separated from someone who had been grafted firmly onto my life, a limb attached and lost over the course of a couple of years. Our relationship gradually reconfigured itself along digital lines; we have long Messenger conversations and phone calls during which we tell each other about ourselves. It’s strange to willingly vivisect myself in this way for the benefit of an alien consciousness, displaying my anxious and joyful innards.
When we lived together, my friend often said he felt as if our apartment were developing a mythology. I always understood that to be a way of investing the ordinary—an evening watching The Player, teaching him to cook shakshuka—with a giddy, unjustified importance. I loved him for it, but in the wake of our separation I also love him for the opposite reason: the fact that, in speaking with him, I’m forced to confront my self-delusion and deception in a way I could never accomplish on my own. And I try to do the same for him, and hope that I sometimes succeed. We have become good-enough friends—which sounds like a slight, but isn’t.
Winnicott writes that “the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality.” Our friendships, I think, are invaluable in helping with this. When I interned at an office, I often imagined that I had a secret inner life set apart, somehow, from the mundanity of exposed piping and semi-open cubicles. Other times, I wanted someone to shake me and say: enough with this unbearable solipsism. I still don’t really know what friendship is, but I’m often happy to find there are people near me willing to indulge and shake me alternately when it’s necessary.