“Friendly Fire”

Gauden's Diana

“Diana” Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1892-93

“Friendly Fire”

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were among the more influential of the twentieth-century’s French philosophers. They had been friends, but Sartre had broken with Merleau-Ponty over some political disagreement. When Merleau-Ponty died in mid-life, prematurely, Sartre felt free to write about his deceased friend and colleague:

We quarreled. A quarrel does not matter. It is only another way

for friends to live together.

Yes, a quarrel is another way. But what “other way” is it?

In my life, the most painful ruptures were those that, for years, I wanted desperately to repair in the first instance, and prevent in the second.

“Harper” was the fictitious name I had given her in Conversions: A Philosophic Memoir. She was the woman friend who gave me her womanly permission to live a girl’s first love in Paris. When no one else knew, she was kind, accepting, funny and said those immortal words:

There are many sins, my dear.

Though we’d had a youthful break that goes on my report card, it was she who broke off the resumed, adult friendship for good. She said it was for political reasons. Maybe it was, but maybe it was really because – by marrying the right guy at last – she felt I was putting the friendship between her and me at risk. Love was something she’d always felt to be jeopardized. She’d had a pretty wicked mother. If you stood next to that lady, you felt a chill settle in the air.

I felt it was, on both the political and the personal counts, a misunderstanding!

But you know, if they wanna leave, you can’t chase ‘em.

The other, most painful breakup I have already written about in “Loyalty”. We were different. She was blond, Nordic, wore shorts with authority, had planted herself in Nietzsche and held that the things that really mattered were “beyond good and evil.” By contrast, I was dark-haired, dark-eyed, preferred cafés to fjords, had planted myself in Hegel, believed the real was the rational and that life was a moral struggle.

Our differences were a source of joy and fun for us both – something we truly celebrated. Privately I hoped that our swords would never cross over this good and evil thing. While I knew that no place is “beyond” good and evil, there are many morally neutral pathways in life. I hoped we could keep it neutral, as long as our lives lasted. If we ever got to the domain of stark moral choice, I dreaded what could happen to us. She had no practice, telling crap from clay in the moral domain – and it takes practice. If we did ever stumble onto that muddy ground, I thought she might choose wrongly, in some way that would make a difference, and, like as not, would later deny that she had met – and failed to recognize – the better and the worser angels.

When the day came that I hoped never would, it was all as consequential as Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness.” It was over. No angels could hang around to bring it back.

Is a quarrel but one more way for friends to live together? “Together” only in the sense that we still matter to one another?

Yes, alas. Not everything in life can be resolved.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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