Friends as fellow travelers; or, the art of saying farewell

The following is a spiritual exercise (ascesis) in the art of saying farewell. The former friend whom I’m addressing in the letter has an extensive background in music, physics, and philosophy, has a prestigious academic pedigree, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in philosophy. We first met only days after I moved to NYC, a little over 2 1/2 years ago. At the time, I had already finished my Ph.D., had Great Gatsby’ed my way to New York, was subletting a filthy apartment in Brooklyn, and was sitting in a graduate-level Hegel course for fun. M. and I had gotten together on occasion since and at one time were in a small reading group on Montaigne’s Essays. (Guess whose idea that was?) At the end of the summer of 2010, I attended his wedding; it was beautiful.

My intention in the letter, which was penned at the beginning of the week, is to frame the leave-taking in terms of a Romantic metaphysic. For the Romantics, organic life begins in being, becomes severed by means of conflict and consciousness, and–at least for Holderlin and Hegel–seeks out higher forms of reconciliation. I imply, below, that the pain of separation is an appropriately metaphysical construal of the end of this relationship. (This is not necessarily true, of course, of the end of other relationships.) Consequently, no one is ‘at fault,’ no one is ‘to blame,’ and no ‘apologies’ or ‘reparations’ need be made.

Not all severances can be re-unified. Leading a philosophical life–what David E. Cooper has called the Practical Vision of philosophy–is rather like metanoia, very akin to a conversion experience. (I hope the reader isn’t pulling out her hair. The New Atheist is scoffing, snorting and scoffing, but no matter.) After metanoia, the philosopher sees himself, as one conversation partner elegantly put it this week, on a different path than the one the other is still on. (Here, the other is beholden still to a Theoretical Vision of philosophy.) It is not that there is a measurable distance between one and the other, between life and life. It is rather that the gulf becomes immeasurable, infinite, heterodoxical. I recall who I was then, I realize why I was drawn to him, I enjoyed the time I spent with him, but I can’t see how, because of who I am now, we can go on together. It is difficult not to sound cavalier or uncaring to say that there is nothing wrong with the thought that one way of life could be incommensurable with another, nor is it easy to avoid sounding hubristic when one asserts that there is everything decent and good about the idea of a human life being the activity of unfolding, growing, radiating, dying and living again. Perhaps the point to make is that I have given up asserting and defending, in some eristical fashion, and given myself up to elucidating and showing.

It’s a good question, M., and, no, you’ve not harmed or offended me. I think we met when I was slowly, ever so slowly saying goodbye to one way of life, one that had placed the university as its keystone, and when I was just then greeting, quite gingerly and tentatively, a new way of life that was about to unfold. Then, I believed that friends were those whom you held onto, those to whom you held fast. Now, I believe that friends are fellow travelers for a time: they come into your life and, on the exhalation, they go out of your life. To me, that’s all right. [I nearly wrote: “To me, that is as it should be.”] Now, most of my time is spent thinking in public and working in my philosophy practice.

My days are full**, I have found my place. Yesterday, I had lunch with a beautiful woman–an artist and recent divorcee–whom I’ve been working with for a little over a year. Her 4 yr. old son sat on my lap, calling it “cozy.” Earlier this morning, I spoke with a woman based in Berlin; she reminded me of geese. Later this afternoon, I’ll speak, as I often do around this time, with a woman I adore who’s living on the West Coast. I don’t know whether this conversation–whether any–will be the last. When I do things right, I give her the last words.


In the evening, I received a reply. It contained a quizzical accusation.

End Note

** The line is a quote without proper attribution. In a letter I received from another, the original reads: “My days are full of life.” This strikes me, iambs and all, as a radiant example of completeness.

Further Reading

I speak about category mistakes with respect to apologies in “Most Americans are Highly Apologetic.” In the latter, I try to show that many of our mistakes are best regarded as follies or as errors in judgment. I have begun thinking that errors in judgment, of which I have made plenty, long for amends-making. I draw attention to the lived importance of first lines and final words in this piece on love and death.