Alone, But Not…

Alone, But Not… Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“I was getting deep into one of those somber and highly charged novels of Miss Iris Murdoch, the accomplished British writer. I hadn’t gotten past the part where the butler is sort of explaining who the characters are, when I ran into the following bit of chilling self-exegesis by one of the male figures in the story.

“‘I hate solitude but I am afriad of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself and to turn it into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction.’

“‘The company I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have neer wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself…’

“Here, as neatly as a bit fits a peach, is a description of nearly all my friends, and of myself. There’s more to us than the detached and cruel encapsulation, to be sure. Yet the words tell the essence of that band of men, and increasingly of women, who find their greatest comfort in the amenity of a good saloon.

“There is a deal of malarkey set out about the role of the saloon as confessional. It is true you may delineate the nature of your predicament to the barman, but the true saloonaire is not about to tell the truth to anyone, least of all a barman.

“The saloon is where he comes to find the truth–the highly acceptable truth that he conjures up like an alchemist, in that long private conversation with himself which the booze supports.

“How marvelous are these little editions of your life, working themselves out with long practice after three or four jars! You, of course, are the victim; but far too decent a chap to let it show, much less scream out in public for succor.

“In this job of ego rehabilitation, the saloon is the essential ingredient. You just couldn’t do it sitting alone on the banks of a lovely lake, even if you had a jug of red mountain with you. There must be this consciousness of reserve, of suffering in the silence amidst the bustle of life–as represented by the other customers at the bar. You are holding out on them, you are refusing to let them know the stinging of that exquisite pain produced in your abraded soul by an uncaring world. You can’t hold out on a band of fishes in a lake.

“‘Communion of souls’ is precisely the most abhorrent thing of all, to those who fear intimacy and hate solitude. Telling the whole hurt vulgarizes it beyond belief, though there can be a great deal of enjoyment in merchandising it, and peddling it to a credulous world. ‘Communion of souls,’ like a lot of other things, is only acceptable when faked.

“For people who do not drink, the hardest thing to understand about people who do drink, and who drink as a part of their nature, is that drink is an anesthetic, the most pleasant and effective anesthetic in the world. It is very hard to reach a person under anesthesia, partly because of the drug, and even more so because of the evasive need which sends–and sometimes–drives the drinker to his potion. He wants to be alone; but at the same time to be in the midst of life.

“To those who are foreign to the world of drink, there is no sorrier sight than the single man, clutching his schnapps in hand and staring moodily ahead, the picture of isolation. I suggest that, more often than not, the lad is the most content man in the place. His most private needs are being satisfied, which is as close to a definition of happiness as you can come by in a bar.

“And, above all, you are doing the man no favor by giving him a little jolly chatter to let him know he’s wanted. He doesn’t want to be wanted, thank you. If he appears polite, and listens to you, do not believe it–that private conversation with himself is still going on. The drinking man, the solitary who can’t stand solitude, will do anything to preserve the integrity of that private conversation. More marriages, and less sacred relationships, have been ruined by kindly feminine attempts to break into that conversation, than I care to think of right now.”

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