Familiar

It seem obvious to me that knowledge of oneself (such as it is) is entirely different in kind from knowledge of others (such as it is). We naturally presume that in general, other people have insides much like our own in their general proportions, though the furniture may be quite different. Perhaps a cross-species analogy may make this clearer. Some dogs prefer chasing birds, others gather sticks, but all have some hankering of that kind, with perhaps an obsessive quality. That is furniture. Some breeds hanker more — collies are the intellectuals of the canine world, with a neurotic edge; terriers or greyhounds simply cannot abide the sight of their prey animals, and are born with a mission to kill and dismember. But poodles and spaniels are scatterbrains. These might be differences in “general proportions”, or the internal architecture of what is still probably much the same mental space, breed being a construct perhaps more than skin deep, but still, only tens of generations deep. But we can’t see inside. If I try to come up with a self-description, probably it is abstracted from the history of my interactions with others, and my own thumbnail sketch of my character might be as surprising to them as my sense of what those interactions were like. That has little to do with what it feels like to be me — rather, it is an accounting I might give of myself, perhaps to a hostile audience. By contrast, if I try to name the qualities of others deeply known, as it feels they are (we must mean something when we say we know someone well or less well), the list may depend what side of bed I got out of this morning, or how frank I am inclined to be. Other people are intractable. Our sense of who they are is often not analytical; but when the enumeration begins, it is almost always to blame, occasionally to praise. The esteem we owe our familiars is a feeling situated within a shared story; or it is just a wordless intimacy: there you are. I think I have written here before about the fierce joy of sitting at your desk, and after some time, hearing a breathy sigh from below. Your dog belongs at your side, and he appears there like a ghost, without any words at all, in his rightful estate.When I was married, I never saw the point of talking about “the relationship”; and no good ever came of doing so. This is an attitude so typical of Brazilian men that the women of Apipucos have abbreviated the dreaded activity to its initials: DR: discutir a relação. By convention, marriage is considered our most intimate relationship, but it is surely impossible to survive living at such close quarters for so long without veils. The terms in which such conversations are commonly held are like a thousandfold impoverished version of the literary examination of human interiors, so the question of how those spaces truly are constituted, and what we can discern in them (by triangulation perhaps, as from Plato’s cave) becomes all the more acute. If your model is drawn from magazines and agony aunts, the dice are loaded. I have been spending a lot of time recently with my mother, which is what prompted these rough thoughts. In one sense, we know one another better than anyone; but also, not at all. What is knowledge? Is asking that like Pilate asking what is truth? Maybe what is needful is not knowledge, but simply love.

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