Few happy days are entirely unspotted by melancholy. I just had an exceptionally fine one, and my mailbox overflowed with congratulations by the time it was done, but I couldn’t help thinking of departed friends with whom I would have rejoiced to share my good news, and how they would have rejoiced to hear it. As I remembered them, I thought of the stark confession Dr. Johnson made in the preface to his Dictionary: “I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.”
Those are terrible words, and in Dr. Johnson’s case they might almost have been true, for he was thinking of his wife, who was forced to live in harsh discomfort because of the paralyzing sloth that kept him from finishing his great work until after her death. He was racked with guilt as a result, and the preface to the Dictionary reflects that guilt. But was it really true that he had “little to fear or hope from censure or from praise”? I doubt it. Dr. Johnson was a very great man, but great men are still men, and few of them are wholly indifferent to the kind words of friends and colleagues, even if they wish to be thought so.
In any case, most of us, however curmudgeonly we may pretend to be, acquire at least a few younger friends as we grow older, in part because it is a comfort–a relief, really–to know people who take you at face value. Old friends know too much about you to do that. I noticed a few years ago that most of my closest friends were younger than I am (two of them are half my age), and briefly wondered what that said about me. Was I seeking to feed off their vitality? Did I hunger for the uncritical admiration of a student for his teacher? Or was I simply following the predictable path of a normal life, in the course of which we sort out our friends and acquaintances over time, picking new ones and pruning old ones in the light of our growing self-knowledge? All of the above, I suspect, and I’m not so sure that there’s anything bad about it. I love my new friends, sometimes selfishly and sometimes not, just as Dr. Johnson didn’t let his pretended indifference stop him from warming his hands at the fire of Boswell’s admiration.
To be sure, the one thing a new friend can never do for you is say I knew you when, and I find it rather sad that there are so few people in my life who can speak those words. None of my closest friends in Manhattan knew me when: we didn’t meet until after I’d figured out who I was and what I wanted to become. On the other hand, the friends of our youth present their own problems. They are part of the train of memories that we all pull behind us, the one that grows longer with each passing day, and for that reason harder to pull. “The friend of your youth,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men, “is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore, speaks a name–Spike, Bud, Skip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave–which belongs to that now non-existent face but by some inane and doddering confusion is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger.” Old friends knew you when, but new ones know you now, and now is when it is and where you are.
Which brings me full circle, back to those absent friends who will never know me now. I miss them all, one or two with a keenness undulled by the passage of time. How I wish they could have seen what they missed–just as I wish I could have seen what they missed. But there’s no point in longing for what you can’t possibly have, especially since I’m as grateful as a man can be for what I do have: the perfect job, a handsome apartment whose walls are crowded with beautiful works of art, and a couple of dozen beloved friends who give me more joy than I deserve. I’d trade every piece in the Teachout Museum for any one of them. They are what I treasure most.