A Socratic dialog turns Proustian.
Tonight after the group meets I walk up to my favorite cafe with Samuel and we get a burger, look at girls, and discuss martial arts. On the last topic Samuel, with years more experience in the field, makes a very provocative comment:
“The secret of this type of martial arts is relaxation, plus connection, plus aiming,” he says.
I ask him to repeat it and when he does, I plunge into deep contemplation for a few minutes.
Samuel is as fascinating as a character from Proust. When we walk he directs our steps and expects I walk with him. We wander down Grenfell Street.
“I’m such a creature of habit,” I say. “Normally I walk along Rundle Mall and look at the menswear in the shop windows on the way to the Adelaide train station.”
“Listen to you, you’re such a faggot,” Samuel says.
“I’ve been doing it for years. I now own some of the menswear I used to wish for in the windows,” I say, not even bothering to defend myself. Samuel doesn’t care what you think of him, so any defence I can mount is a waste of our time and energy.
He follows me into the literary bookstore, and listens in on my superficial conversation with the bookseller without adding a single disapproving word. But when we come to the local men’s fashion emporium he finally balks, refusing to look at the clothes. “I can’t stand the music,” he says of the dance music blaring from the store.
“Too much high culture for you,” I jeer. He doesn’t reply.
We walk down King William Street deep in conversation. Eventually the talk comes around to the person he had a phone text message dispute with over our dinner. A mutual friend, it appears. Apropos of the dispute Samuel begins to speak openly and with perfect naturalness about his character defects.
“It’s not that I mean to be arrogant. I am just being myself and other people take offence.”
“How do you know when you’re just being yourself and when you’re being arrogant?” I ask.
“Oh I know,” he says, with perfectly unconscious arrogance. “Even if I’m saying I’m not being arrogant I know deep inside when I am. I feel it.”
I watch his face carefully, fascinated by the notion that gut feelings might be any sort of reliable guide to social truth.
He talks at length about his defect and his natural personality. His view on personal responsibility is what inspires his legendary bluntness and impoliteness, he reveals:
“If I say something and you get offended, that’s your choice. You choose to be offended. Fine; no harm done. But if you get hurt and angry and cry at how I hurt your feelings because you took offence, then I have no time for you. You’re playing the victim when you think someone else can make you feel anything.”
“But isn’t offence an emotion?” I ask.
“Offence,” he says, “is a mental state. You don’t choose to be offended, but you do choose to feel the associated emotions with it. I speak bluntly to some people and they couldn’t care less, and I speak the same way with others and you’d think I’d taken their firstborn, they get so upset.”
“That is fascinating, Samuel. Thankyou for explaining that for me, now I understand what that behaviour’s all about,” I say. I had been wondering what motivates his bluntness for several weeks, and to have him simply explain himself to me without my asking is an unexpected boon.
But I do not speak my mind until the conversation has ostensibly moved on to other topics and I can bring up the subject of his vanity without fear of causing offense:
“I notice some people habitually take offence because of political correctness. That is to say, because I am a female, you can’t say that; because I am indigenous, you can’t say that. For such people, offence and emotion is one and the same thing.”
Samuel heartily agrees. So I continue:
“You know neurologists have found that being able to restrain your emotions is one of the last traits to appear in adulthood. It’s associated with the frontal lobes and generally finishes growing in the thirties, so many people either have brain damage or they haven’t grown the proper brain structures to be able to restrain themselves from getting upset,” I say. “So when a person without the ability to stop themselves reacting feels upset, would it not follow they would automatically be offended?”
But Samuel is not interested in examining his own views. He says: “Imagine what the world would be like if drinking alcohol was unpopular on a Saturday night.”
“People would be playing chess in the square,” I say. We are sitting at the bus stop in Victoria Square as I say this.
“Giant chess with human bodies,” Samuel adds whimsically.
“There would be comfortable couches in nightclubs, and they wouldn’t have to fear people ruining them by spilling alcohol all over them.”
“Nightclubs would be so different. Comfortable.”
“People would be playing instruments in cafes. Jazz, rock bands.”
“String quartets in nightclubs. And wouldn’t it be cool if you could go to a yoga class at 9.30 on a Saturday night!” I say.
He looks at me oddly, as if doing a yoga class on a Saturday night is just completely beyond the pale. His disturbed look just makes my night. I am delighted. Sometimes Samuel finds me very strange indeed, and this is one of those times.
“Here comes my bus,” he says, standing. “You’ve missed your tram.”
“I have, and I’ve had the compensation of a very interesting conversation,” I say warmly, and we part ways.
My behavior tonight was half-way between Proust and Socrates. The Socratic desire to cross-examine my friend’s absurd views on causing offense was overcome by the simple pleasure Marcel Proust takes in the gentle unconscious comedy that comes from enjoying the implaceable bad defects of those we hold in high affection.