The Complex Difficulty of Human Affairs

A few days ago I read a few pages of that eternal provoker of thoughts, Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book I pick up and open at random from time to time — most of the time finding something I didn’t notice in the previous readings.   Read a section on the Israeli judges asking Eichmann, who knowingly and diligently sent countless people to their deaths, about his conscience.  Arendt then shows how he actually exercised a kind of conscience, at first (a little) in diverting a trainload of Jews and Gypsies to a ghetto instead of a killing center (they were still using bullets at that point) and then how quickly (four weeks) his conscience reformed itself into a standard loyal Nazi one.    

That gave me a fleeting thought about former buddy Karl, American expatriat in Poland (the action on the page had taken place in the Nazi Protectorate, near Lodz) and my childhood friend Raj’s concern a few years back that his childhood friend Karl was becoming a fascist (I’d also noted a slide to the nationalist right in Karl).

Which led me to this thought, in regard to someone like Karl being angry enough to silently write me out of his life forever (for my offense of no longer being friends with Raj, I suppose, since Karl and I never had any argument I can recall). This is that area of human life that makes knowing anything for certain tricky — for we are all very certain of our justifications when we act decisively. When we write somebody off there is seldom any doubt in our mind that our decision was a righteous one.

To Raj, I was heartless not to keep forgiving the inadvertently aggravating things he may have sometimes, even often, done. He was angry that I wouldn’t let an ongoing bygone be a bygone. To me, Raj’s habitual passive aggression was as intolerable as his “I know you are, but what am I?” insistence that he was not doing anything objectionable, that I was the one who was being unreasonable in trying to get him to refrain from doing things that, in his mind, I constantly overreacted to.

Karl seems to have written me off out of simple loyalty to his childhood friend, tartly dismissing whatever we’d observed about the difficulty of dealing with Raj’s neurosis. Karl, in Poland, had little regular contact with Raj and as for their once yearly visits, things were as cool between them as between Karl and any of his other longtime friends in the USA.

I’ve always tended to express my feelings more than most people I know. This leads to my not unfair reputation as a belly-acher, a tendency I’ve tried to dial back in recent years — with mixed results.  I get this largely from my mother, I think, this sometimes plaintive expressiveness. I’ve also always had more time and inclination than most people to ponder and more ways to express myself– as well as a greater need to do those things than most.  My friends know pretty much exactly how I feel most of the time.  I’m interested in their thoughts and feelings too, and I try to listen to them with the same engagement and empathy I hope for from them. Because we are all homo sapiens, this does not always guarantee a good result. That’s where mutual compassion becomes indispensable.  

We are lucky if we have one other person in our life who we can safely have this kind of mutually vulnerable exchange with. With a close friend there should never be much mystery about how the other feels about things that are important to us, and it’s a big part of the strength and resilience of a close friendship — managing to listen with engagement even when the other person’s feelings might not be like our own in a similar circumstance.   

A rare and extremely valuable thing, that.  It goes a long way to reminding each other we’re no more insane than the next person, no matter how shook up we might have felt before discussing the thing, and, importantly, it may be the only assurance we get of that from anyone.

Here’s the thought that dawned on me, taking Karl as the example.  He’s very bright, an excellent writer, introspective, sensitive, dry sense of humor, fine piano player (though he rarely plays in recent years).   Karl has been married to two women (divorced from the first after her traumatic open infidelity) who are strong-willed, demanding and make all the life decisions.   He is very devoted, but also chafes under their tyranny, while not allowing himself to talk about it except in quick, bitter asides — and suffers what he recognizes as regular repressed-rage symptoms from digestive, to migraines, to sometimes crippling nerve pains in back, neck, legs, hands, to other ailments.   

What could be more infuriating to a man who constantly swallows his anger than watching somebody else assess an unfair relationship, identify exactly what is intolerable about it, make several attempts to fix it and finally throw up his hands and say “so be it, asshole, adios” ?  

I don’t know why the Eichmann pages made me think of this, exactly. The insight about Karl here is not new, it just popped into relief somehow. You can sometimes trace a conflict to a fairly simple root. Karl, of course, will have an equally compelling story behind his brief formal email telling me not to bother writing back, ending an almost daily correspondence of several years.

There is also this about Karl. He is a fine writer who no longer writes (except to confide to his journal), an excellent piano player who doesn’t play. It is not surprising that he might well take a bitter view of a lesser writer (such as myself) who writes a “public” journal every day and although not a good piano player, plays contentedly several times a week.

 We’ve had a recent whiff of totalitarianism here in the USA, where we have came sickeningly close to a fascist overthrow of an election that went against a strongman, members of his party looking for ways beyond the law to nullify the clear will of the voters. It inspires nothing but horror in me (horror and a strong desire to stand with others against it). Karl’s drift to the right, his support of a nationalistic autocracy in Poland, seems an apt illustration of Hannah Arendt’s portrait of the ideal supporter of totalitarianism.

The “fascist” angle, Karl’s lurch to the right, seems to confirm to me that an inauthentic emotional life like the internally dishonest one Karl leads is fertile ground for a politics of grievance like Polish Nationalism, whatever the hell that entails.   Arendt makes this profound point about those who embrace totalitarianism, they are isolated and emotionally hollowed out, finally incapable of comparing things intelligently and making humane decisions — preferring membership in an orderly, militant hierarchy of (even insane) beliefs to the terrifying uncertainty of their emotional isolation.

This feeling gets stored up for release as hostility, saved for when the friend is in a tight spot. I was in a spot like this when my old friend Pavel expressed his curiously neutral concern when I was angrily flailing, again suddenly and unfairly without the health insurance I’d already paid for, during a pandemic, trying to find the laws governing termination of a policy under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act– laws nobody in the world can find, as it turns out. 

Karl, Raj and Pavel had something in common, all three spent years in combative relationships with their womenfolk, marriages that ended badly, as so many do.   I watched the ugliness up close with Raj, heard tales of an insanely bitter divorce from Pavel and had many examples of subtle one-sided warfare from Karl. Sekhnet and I have our share of conflict, but here’s a funny thing about our relationship — how good it must look to guys who are in constant war with their partners.

Sekhnet is hard-headed. I say this with a mix of admiration and vexation. Sekhnet is as loving a hard-headed woman as you will find anywhere. She is also funny, cute, smart and a great actress in social settings (as many of us are, but she’s really good). From the point of view of somebody battling hourly with his significant other, in a war that will eventually end in an ugly divorce, I seem to have an almost ideal situation that I often seem to be ungrateful for. From their vantage point, watching Sekhnet and me interact, I am a lucky bastard who enjoys a stress-free, relaxed relationship  with a supportive, delightful, loving mate with a great sense of humor.

So how intolerable must it be to them that I’m constantly belly-aching about my hard life, while men like Karl manage to manfully keep their fucking mouths shut and don’t trouble others with their personal problems, which are many times worse than my pampered whining about how hard it is being carried from pillow to pillow? 

Which leads finally to the fuller answer to my old friend’s good question from the other day — why is it often necessary to kill them in the end? 

There comes a point in the frustrating back and forth, after a once close friend’s hostility has become impossible to ignore, after they insist that they love me (Pavel, and his new girlfriend, and Raj and Raj’s wife, all insisted that because they “loved” me that I was being a complete vicious asshole not to forgive them, an assholishness which would justify them hating me if I didn’t immediately forgive them) when I am handed poison to swallow — in Raj’s case that I am wildly oversensitive to imagined “provocation” and an unforgiving monster insanely determined to be right and “win” at any cost, I demur. When poison is splashed into my mouth, I have to spit it out, cat with a hairball style, as I would pantomime for you if we were not interacting on a page.

Part of the process, sometimes, is severing the insistent hand that is holding out the familiar poison, to prevent another attempt to force it on me.   It is a move I had to use many times during childhood as I battled my poor bastard of a flailing father, who regenerated more limbs than a thousand embattled crabs and octopuses — a move, ironically, he implied at the end was right and appropriate when somebody is doing that to you. I don’t relish the brutality, but once it reaches the point of irreconcilable war, all attempts at peace dashed, it is preferable to the taste of poison in my mouth and I sleep better once it’s done.

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