“Mounds of human heads wander into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games, I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining!” –Osip Mandelstam
It has been, rather forgotten by me, more than ten years since I first read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. I recall finding the book in a 1 dollar pile of discards in a bookstore south of Seattle. Having read I Served the King of England in the summer of 1999, on the tail end of my first visits to the Czech Republic and the eastern and central Europe I had been reading and writing about from afar, it had always been a struggle to find this literature. The Czechs I had met to that point seemed hell-bent on a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder arrogance about their superior intelligence and artistry, possessing a tortured soul and an impossible language for anyone but them to understand. Guarding it closely – almost jealously – as though it would diminish what they had if anyone else could get a glimpse of the brilliance. I imagine this attitude being more a Cold War-era hangover than anything else. But I don’t know. My path, which at that moment in 1999, was still at least partly paved with stones from the Slavic studies academic arena, did not wind in that direction.
“‘How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, INQUISITORS BURN BOOKS IN VAIN. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh…‘”
In my recent rereading of Too Loud a Solitude, I discovered an Amazon.com “review” (I won’t really call it that so much as I will call it a collection of notes about things that struck me while reading the book) that I posted in 2003. I had forgotten the review, but there were little bits I had remembered from my previous reading.
For example, quotes, such as “It is from books that I’ve learned the heavens are not humane”. Or better yet, the narrator referring to his tale as a “portrait of the artist as an old mushroom face” (which recently took on even more immediacy when a friend described someone’s morning face as looking like a “used teabag”). Reading the book again, the same imagery jumped out at me – the art and its destruction mixed among garbage. The onslaught of technology, wiping out a way of life or a particular job. Or a theme we discuss at work sometimes – the destruction of beauty. One colleague, who lived for some time in Mexico, marveled at the hard work and skill that Mexican women put into creating the most elaborate piñatas – only to see them destroyed, beaten violently until the candy hidden inside exploded out onto the ground. Perfect analogies for the transitory and temporary nature of beauty. It is only here for a moment. The ‘hero’ of Too Loud a Solitude spent his life operating a wastepaper compactor and extracted the lesson that there is beauty in destruction.
Even current events seem to touch upon the timeliness of the message and imagery – for example, the conscientious (if strange) dumpster divers who go looking for treasures in the garbage because we live in the kind of society when people throw away insane amounts of perfectly good things – food, furniture, appliances. Our throwaway society with its millions of starving people (in the US for example) disposes of and destroys everything. It is no wonder we see people as disposably.
I am like most other people in that I can be petty. I am also keenly aware that a blog is a highly self-indulgent activity. I want to chronicle my thoughts, my life, my frustrations – I just happen to make it public. My concerns are not monumental or particularly profound. My problems are largely luxury problems. I openly recognize and cop to that. This forum does not need to be something more – I write what I know.
Lately, the ache of losing friendship has come up again and again for me. Friendship has always been a bigger struggle and a larger emotional stumbling block for me than, for example, romantic entanglements. Romantic relationships are more cut and dry somehow. The only time one was really difficult was when it was starkly clear that “romance” should never have been a part of it. The guy in question was one of the best friends I ever had. And having had a lot of friends come and go, it always bore tremendous weight when someone “got” me in the way that a true friend did. He was one of those friends.
When this friend got into a new relationship, I was happy for him. I did not think it necessarily meant our friendship was over. We live in different countries, and our communication was limited in any case both in frequency and in terms of topics. Once the contact was so sporadic and topic-specific (almost always about a film, tv, an inside joke about something we both found funny or, usually, about baby animals – which we both found irresistibly cute), I did not imagine that he, once so stubborn and headstrong, would be with someone who was demanding enough to require him to stop talking to me. I also, without knowing the girlfriend, never imagined that someone who was undoubtedly a lovely person if he (whom I respected and believed would make good choices in this realm) decided to be with her, would be so irrationally jealous.
I have written about this before, and after several eruptions, I told him that, despite how much it hurt to cut off the friendship, knowing that I was losing something, I felt we would all have a more harmonious life if we stopped talking. This mostly happened, but of course insanely cute baby animals or funny things that only we could appreciate would sometimes occur, and he did not resist the temptation to write a few times. I then felt liberated not to resist the temptation to send him a gift. I sent it to his work address just because I did not want to stir up trouble in his home life – at all. (He took the envelope home and started up all the trouble that could have been avoided and triggered the REAL end of the friendship. Whether he secretly liked the drama or was just that thoughtless or wanted a detached way to make me really slam the door forever, I don’t know – maybe I am assigning it all too much meaning anyway.) I did not want to start talking again, I did not want to resume a friendship that was clearly over. I just wanted to make one last gesture that might make him smile and remember me – as his friend – fondly. But it turned into a psychodrama that caused me to lose respect for him, not really want to talk to him anymore at all and conclude that he is not the person I thought he was. Not that I wished him ill will. I just had no more feeling involved at all – the only feeling that had been left was this respect and friendship. But after this episode, he was as good to me as a stranger.
Lately this has disturbed me in some way. He now is a stranger – I have no idea what he is doing but still hope he is very happy. This is completely fine. But a few things came up lately that made me really miss him, despite everything.
For one, I watched the annoying film (although less annoying than I feared, and less annoying than the beginning of the film led me to think it would be), Frances Ha. In it, the main character and her best friend drift apart. Their lives take different paths, and somehow that listless sadness of not being able to turn to the person who had been one’s closest friend made an impression.
The final, and arguably much more important thing, is that my mom’s friend in Washington state just took custody of two beautiful tiger cubs at her big-cat sanctuary. He and I used to talk incessantly like near-drunk fools about the irresistible cuteness of baby tigers. We lamented that we would never in our whole lives have access to baby tigers to touch and play with them. And here, right in my hands, is the opportunity of a lifetime to go be in the presence of two baby tigers. No one else I know would find this as significant as he would. But I can’t tell him. I am not going to be the one to break the silence because I am the one who asked for it, I enforce it and really don’t want to open communication again. It is just an unusual set of circumstances that would only matter to the two of us.
One of two baby tigers*
So cute I could have a heart attack – baby tigers*
When I think of the girlfriend, it actually makes me sad to think that she hates me as much as she does without knowing me. I won’t go so far as to say I love her given how unreasonable she has been toward me – a total stranger. But if she makes him happy, I love that she is in his life even though it cost me a friend. If I were a lunatic who actually wanted something from him – as some exes do, I grant, I might understand her ire. Maybe it is unreasonable for me to think that friendship was possible.
Sometimes I want to ask her whether she never had a friend who was so important to her – on only a friendly level – that it would be like having her heart ripped out to have that friend removed from her life? I hope for her sake that she has never been through that. But I have – a handful of times. As I wrote, friendship and the loss of it has always been difficult for me – so losing the one friend with whom I could make ridiculous jokes, watch documentaries with about baby animals and joke about everything from a self-important American “journalist”, pretend characters Pedro, Jose and Esteban and “annyong” (and the new episodes of Arrested Development!) and Grizzly Man was really a devastating loss. I did not want him in any other way. I wanted him to be happy and fulfilled. The fact that he found love with someone made me immensely happy for him – and for her. Naturally I wanted him to find that kind of complete happiness somewhere and with someone – and I had no desire for that to be me.
– Annyong and off-the-hook, unlimited juice party (bad quality video)
— Timothy Treadwell in near-orgasmic state over bear poop
In truth, I realized that living with him, living in Iceland, I was stunted and unhappy – it was not a good situation when we lived together. I was depressed, and he was no happier than I was – I think he stuck with it as long as he did just because we were friends and because he felt sorry for me.
I grieve often because I lost that easy friendship – I gave it up willingly because she demanded it. I said goodbye to someone I loved (as a friend) and respected – and lost respect for him as a result – but it is stupid because I don’t have any “skin in the game”. I am not interested, I am not competing, I am not a threat. If I am the “immature teenager hiding behind my teddy bear” as she claimed, what is she so worried about? Why would someone like the image she has of me even register on her radar? She is the beloved, chosen one and he loves her – even at the cost of forsaking some friendships – which is perhaps meaningless because, happily for her, he is happy with her. That should be enough to allow her to let go of the petty and immature insecurity that drives her anger.
I offered many times to talk to her, to meet her, to let her be in on the whole thing if it would make her feel better. Maybe I have just never felt passionately enough about someone that that kind of possessiveness felt necessary. But too tight a leash eventually chokes the subject to death.