Adam and Michael met for the first time in the early nineties. Adam was working in the woodland reserve in Lanarkshire, and lived with his girlfriend Susan in a small cottage that came with the job. To boost his income, he also made small things out of wood found on the banks of the river, to be sold in the local art shop: candle sticks, wooden plates and spoons, and even chess figures.
Adam met Michael in May, during his morning walk when he’d check if anything needed to be repaired or cleared in the wood. The stranger stopped him and asked about the road to a nearby village, to which Adam responded politely, but briefly, as he was not somebody who would engage in lengthy conversations with strangers. (Even now, he was mildly contemptuous of people who used the trip from Lancaster to London to tell somebody the story of their lives). That said, the stranger intrigued him, partly because one didn’t meet many strangers in this place and partly because he didn’t look like an ordinary passerby. Not only was he tall and handsome, but his clothes didn’t look mass-produced. He also seemed to grant full attention to the person whom he was addressing, even if he was asking about trivial things, as on this occasion and this wasn’t an ordinary politeness, just a way of being.
The next day the stranger met him again and this time it didn’t seem accidental. He said that he was living near Glasgow, but didn’t know anybody there, not being from Scotland. And so, Michael spent the rest of the day accompanying Adam in his tasks. Inevitably, they started to talk. Michael said that he was from Canada, ‘which meant from nowhere.’
‘Is it bad?’ asked Adam.
‘No, it’s not bad. I’m just not ready to live there yet.’
It was an intriguing answer, but Adam didn’t ask him to elaborate. He wanted to get on with his work and also thought that that he would find out sooner or later.
When the work was done, Adam brought Michael to the cottage, where Susan was waiting for him with supper. There was enough food for three of them so they ate, talked, and drank wine. Michael said that he had a degree in philosophy and had started his Masters’ thesis in Toronto, but his real ambition wasn’t to become a philosopher, but to be self-sufficient. Or rather, for him to be a philosopher meant being self-sufficient.
Upon hearing this, Susan smiled, ironically. People who would say such things were for her just pretentious losers, who tried to obscure their flaws with clever talk. But she didn’t say anything.
‘And what you want to do?’, asked Michael, turning to Adam.
‘I don’t know yet. I only finished my studies last year. This is my first job since I graduated. I like it here, but I don’t know if I want to do it for the rest of my life.’
Afterwards Adam showed Michael the things he made from the wood and Michael looked fascinated, even though Adam was dismissive:
‘These things are easy. Almost anybody can do them. To progress to more complex things like rocking horses or musical instruments, one would need a different type of wood and more sophisticated tools. Here I have only a simple lathe.’
‘Well, learning to make simple things from scratch is much more difficult than moving to the next level. It was more important to invent a wheel than a computer. Can you teach me how to do these things? May I come again?’ asked Adam.
‘I suppose so,’ replied Michael, looking towards Susan, but she wasn’t paying attention to them.
Then Michael gave Adam his first lecture in philosophy, beginning that people turn to philosophy for two reasons: some are curious about the world; others are curious about themselves. He belonged to the second category, therefore he became interested in existentialism, especially Heidegger. He miraculously took from the pocket of his jacket a small book with Heidegger’s essential essays and read for Adam a passage from ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’:
The word for peace, Friede, means the free, das Frye, and fry means: preserved from harm and danger, preserved from something, safeguarded. To free really means to spare. The sparing itself consists not only in the fact that we do not harm the one whom we spare. Real sparing is something positive and takes place when we leave something beforehand in its own nature, when we return it specifically to its being, when we ‘free’ it in the real sense of the word into a preserve of peace. To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving. It pervades dwelling in its whole range.
It occurred to Adam that these words captured perfectly what he wanted to do in life: to dwell and to spare: safeguard each thing in its nature, including himself. This was the reason why he moved to where he was. There were other things which Michael said, which for Adam were like prophecies: ‘Only through living with other people, devoting oneself to them, one can experience one’s loneliness’ and ‘Solitude is deceptive, as it causes an illusion that loneliness can be avoided.’ There were also some statements he disagreed with, like ‘Inauthentic people follow patterns; authentic ones create them and break them when they become their shackles.’
Adam thought that existing patterns are often useful. Dwelling for him meant respecting patterns, of nature and people. He wouldn’t break them just for the sake of being original. Indeed, nothing got on his nerves more than people trying to be original for the sake of it.
Susan was even less appreciative of Michael’s ideas, not because she was against authentic life (who could be?) but, because for her, talking of authenticity killed authenticity. She asked Michael, with her typical sharpness, ‘Was this guru of yours an authentic Nazi, or did he temporarily step out of his Dasein to join the winning side?’
By this point Adam did not even know what Dasein meant, but he tried not to show his ignorance.
Michael smiled and said: ‘I don’t know. There is philosophy and there is psychology or psychobiography of philosophers. I was interested in the former, not the latter.’
The men kept meeting several times a week. Michael accompanied Adam in his work and then went with him to his cottage and stayed till the last bus to Glasgow. Most likely he wouldn’t leave at all, if not for Susan, who wanted him to go. She didn’t want him to return either. In her opinion, he disturbed their life and magnified their problems, because when he was around, they tried to hide them, tacitly admitting that there was something wrong with them. Susan was also convinced that Michael wanted to have Adam for himself, although not in a homoerotic, only a ‘friendly’ way, but for her it was even worse. Michael, on his part, was always unfailingly polite towards Susan, but he didn’t involve her in their discussions, which for her was proof that he was a misogynist and a coward.
When the autumn came, working and walking in the forest became less pleasant due to constant rain. The cottage started to get damp and arguments with Susan became more frequent. She was the one who picked fights, but Adam didn’t bother to prevent them or extinguish them in their early stages. On the contrary, with sadomasochistic pleasure he was observing how their fights were developing and always tried to win an argument. Paradoxically, only in such destructive situations did he see himself split between an observer and the observed, hence became authentic according to Michael’s favourite definition of authenticity. Susan was smart and honest enough to realise that she was at fault. Still, she said once or twice that, if you love somebody, you should let the person win even if s/he was mistaken. For her part, Susan never let him win either, proving that neither of them loved the other person enough. Yet, the shortage of love wasn’t even Adam’s main problem. The bigger difficulty was that he had no long-term plan for them or, for that matter, himself. The utopia of living near nature and dwelling in Heidegger’s sense slowly evaporated into a void which he was filling with the anxiety of what do to next. At times this anxiety changed into acute fear, which caused him to get up at night and go outside, not to seek solace in nature, but to get so cold and shivery as to make the bed feel warm and Susan’s body welcoming.
When there were only two of them, Michael and Adam, Adam confessed to this fear and asked Michael if he ever felt the same. He replied: ‘All the time, but I learnt to accept it.’
‘By realising that there won’t be anything different. Inside there will be always fear and there will be no solution on the outside, only palliative, if one is lucky. The most I can achieve is to manage my fear and solitude, making sure that tragedy won’t give way to farce.’
Adam laughed and said, ‘I’m not prepared to accept that yet. I hope to find my path.’
It wasn’t easy, though, and the presence of Susan and Michael increasingly paralysed him. But things were changing. With the first flakes of snow, Susan packed her belongings and returned to London. Before she left, she asked: ‘If you are so lukewarm, so uncommitted, so unromantic, even when there are hardly any distractions, how you will be when there are distractions?’
Whether this question was rhetorical or not, Adam didn’t have any answer. Only when she left, it occurred to him to say that, if he wasn’t romantic with her, this was not because he didn’t love her enough or didn’t care about her, but because in his love he didn’t want to follow any models, repeat any clichés. Still, he felt relieved, when she shut the door, even though he knew that he would miss her.
Only after Susan’s departure Adam learnt that Michael already had two daughters, one in Toronto and one in Glasgow. When Adam asked him why he didn’t live with his daughters, he replied:
‘I must have been a walrus or a lion in my previous life. They have to be separated from their children early. If they stay with them for too long, there is a distinct risk that they would hurt them.’
‘I don’t know if I will ever have kids, but if I do, I would like to live with them till they are independent,’ replied Adam.
‘What if they are never independent, or if you are never mature enough to care for them?’ asked Michael.
‘Then you shouldn’t have them in the first place,’ said Adam.
‘This is true, but you can’t turn back the clock. One can only hope not to make the same mistake again.’
‘It’s not enough to avoid mistakes. One should try to make up for mistakes already committed. Isn’t that what dwelling is about?’
Adam was sure that Michael gave a clever answer to this question, but twenty years later he forgot what it was, although he wished he remembered it.
After Susan left, Michael practically moved in with Adam. Although he brought few belongings, it felt as if he took over their entire living space. He didn’t respect the names of the rooms. The kitchen was his workshop, the bedroom was his dining room, the bathroom his storage and meditation room. There were also no boundaries between rooms – he left all rooms open, even the front door, inviting snow and rain. He said that this was because he was suffering simultaneously from claustrophobia and agoraphobia. His favourite house would have to have open doors and half a roof. Because all doors were open, the entire house was filled with a loud Baroque music, while Adam at this stage was listening to grunge. This got on his nerves. Moreover, everything about Michael was untidy. This was because he feared drastic breaks and craved continuity. A plate with a memory of a previous dish served him better than one which was clean, and a book taken off the table and put on a book shelf was in his eyes a book mistreated.
Two weeks of living with Michael rendered Adam’s life with Susan almost perfect and he started to miss her dearly. He even told Michael this, to which he responded with the suggestion that they go to Zurich together, where he’d been accepted as an apprentice by a Swiss craftsman producing harpsichords. He said that if both of them arrived, the guy would take them both in. But, by this point, Adam had different plans.
That Michael chose making harpsichords as his profession could be explained by their luxurious character and their belonging to a bygone era, which philosophers tended to deify, especially somebody like Heidegger who was contemptuous about the disembedded life of modern people. Pianos could be mass produced; harpsichords could not. But there was more to it. The harpsichord is not what it seems, explained Michael. It was not a piano before the piano was invented, but rather a guitar hidden in a piano-like body. The piano is a simple beast, operating according to the logic of cause-and-effect. Like a dog, it barks loudly or whines quietly, obeying its master. The harpsichord doesn’t allow the user to subjugate it – the sounds it emits remain at the same level. There is more dignity to the harpsichord than to the piano – it is the Socrates of musical instruments. Moreover, harpsichord music is layered – every chord is followed by a different one, a kind of echo, and one is never sure if the echo is mocking or appreciative. Again, it is like having a discussion with Socrates, who tries to instill in his pupil curiosity and doubt.
Adam left the cottage only couple of weeks after Michael. He headed to Lancaster, where he was accepted to a postgraduate course in environmental philosophy. He greatly enjoyed it, as what he learnt confirmed his views and at the same time took him to places he did not think about previously. He felt liberated to discover that there were philosophers after Heidegger. Subsequently he got a funding to do a PhD and started to teach. He enjoyed it too, feeling that he was a better teacher than those he had, perhaps with the exception of Michael. He believed that he was able to influence the lives of his students, make them more critical. As with woodwork, from time to time he got the sense that there is a limit to what he can do, but by this point it didn’t bother him. Once he moved to Lancaster, Susan started to visit him and then moved in, and persuaded him to have a baby. The child, in her own words, was meant to be born for the sake of them and for humanity – they were meant to teach him or her how to improve the world. It was a girl and they named her Hope, to indicate their plans for her. Two years later their son was born. They called him simply Jack, maybe because Susan, being a feminist, didn’t believe that men can be saviours or because it is difficult to give a boy a name furnished with symbolism, without sounding ridiculous. Between the births of their children, Adam got his first full-time post in one of the provincial universities in the North.
In retrospect Adam decided that this had been the best period in his life. He even thought so when living through this period. There was only one thing that marred his contentment: the very thought that this was the peak of his happiness. After that, his trajectory would be downward. This would be sad in itself, but was more so because this happiness wasn’t absolute; it was a mediocre happiness. There were, again, nights when he wanted to leave his bed and run into the night. But where they lived, in a small terrace, in a dense residential area, there were no nights to run into or hide from. The nights were illuminated not by the moon but by street lights and some lights from the houses on their street, where his potential running into the night would only draw the attention of other sleepless souls, maybe finding solace in the fact that they were surrounded by more desperate insomniacs than themselves. So he stayed in bed, not sleeping till the morning, or got up and went to the kitchen, trying to write something, usually without success. When his absence awoke Susan, he told her that he got up as he was worried that one of their children was crying or might die. This was in part true – since the kids were born, he was always thinking that he might lose them and it might happen before they became independent.
After Michael moved to Zurich, he and Adam stayed in touch, but they didn’t see each other for seven years. All these years Michael was living with his boss and his wife, a childless couple with a large house in a posh part of Zurich. Adam knew that Michael’s favourite arrangement was living with a family, as it allowed him all the comforts of having a home and few responsibilities of keeping the home together. Somebody told Adam that this is a position often taken by artists, with Turgenev being an eminent example. Michael, who kept writing postcards to Adam (even though shortly after the time he moved to Zurich people switched to e-mails) praised the arrangements as he had his own room, where he could do as he pleased, and in the workshop, which was situated in a disused metal factory near a railway line, he had plenty of space and fresh air. There, with his boss and one other apprentice, he built harpsichord and cellos. But he didn’t like cellos. A cello was for him a metaphor of inauthentic life – it was bulky, costly, heavy, yet empty. It was like all the things which people assumed would allow them to progress and transcend themselves, but in reality only dragged them down. Michael’s boss also preferred building harpsichords, but the cellos provided most of their income. They could afford to make harpsichords for private customers only because they could subsidise them from their income from cello-making. Their income wasn’t great, but enough to keep them going. Yet, after seven fat years came the lean years, as in the Bible or some other holy text. Then Michael discovered, not for the first time in his life, that living with a family which is not one’s own was not without risks, as one was at the mercy of this family’s fortunes. He learnt it when his host’s wife died and her relatives got worried that the house might pass into Michael’s hands. Michael didn’t expect to be his boss’s heir; he just wanted to have a safe place till the end of his life, which his boss had promised him, only to rescind his promise after a visit from this pack of human hyenas. In the end the house was sold and the old man was moved to an old folk’s home, where he died within a year. The only thing which Michael was left with was the workshop and so, he moved there. Adam came to Zurich to help him with the transition. It wasn’t so much a matter of logistics as of a psychological adjustment, because Michael had few belongings and most of them were kept in the workshop anyway. Yet, suddenly, he had to fend for himself and to lower his living standards, having no bathroom and no proper kitchen at his disposal. He wasn’t ready for such a drastic move, so Adam tried to help him. During the two weeks which he spent with him he took him for meals and allowed him to shower in his hotel room.
In-between they discussed philosophy. In some ways, it felt like the old days, because when they talked about Heidegger or Plato, nothing else mattered to them. But in other ways, things couldn’t be more different. When they met, Michael was Adam’s master and Adam didn’t have any firm views on anything and his arguments could be easily dismissed. Now not only did he know better what he thought, but he realised that his and Michael’s ideas, especially those about authentic life, couldn’t be more different. For Michael living authentically meant to perform and observe his self – be split into an actor and director of his life. Adam, on the other hand, didn’t want such a split – he wanted to be unified. Indeed, the gap between an observing and observed self was for him now a measure of the lack of authenticity and he started to see Michael as fake; his entire life no more than a blown-up performance. Their discussions were less heated but also impatient, as if each of them and especially Adam knew the arguments and wanted to cut through them to their core, while at the same time realising that there was no core, they were sentenced to moving in circles. On occasion this even got on Adam’s nerves and he suggested to do something different, so one day they went to the cinema. They were playing ‘Hilary and Jackie’ in an arthouse cinema near Adam’s hotel, a film about the famous cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her sister.
‘Maybe this film will change your attitude to cello,’ said Adam, half-jokingly. But he was also sort of serious – he hoped his friend would carry on with the cello-making as harpsichords would not allow him to sustain himself. But the opposite happened – the film only confirmed Michael’s prejudice against this instrument.
‘Look at her,’ he said quite loudly in the middle of the film, so that not only Adam, but their neighbours could hear him. ‘With this cello between her legs she looks more vulgar than nuns masturbating themselves with crucifixes in Italian sexploitation films.’
And after a while, when they heard for the third time a piece from Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E Minor, Opus 8’, he added: ‘What sentimental crap. I’m not even surprised that they play it over and over again, as there is hardly any decent music written for cello’.
To make sure that everybody in the movie theatre understood him, Michael repeated this same sentence in German.
Adam felt embarrassed, but he kept quiet, as entering into a discussion would only make the situation worse. Only when they left the cinema, he said: ‘I thought it would be better to increase your potential market, not to kill it.’
‘There is no way I will continue making cellos,’ Michael said.
‘So maybe employ somebody who will,’ Adam replied, although he knew there was little chance of that. Michael couldn’t be a boss or the head of a household – he could only be an apprentice, a man put in the spare room.
Two more days passed, which Michael and Adam spent insulating the workshop and adding some amenities and then Adam left, happy to return to his own house, even if this joy was pierced with guilt. He felt that for Michael the road would be downwards and he was sorry about it, but he couldn’t do much to change it, at least not at the expense of severely jeopardising his own welfare.
Over the next five or six years Adam met Michael only once, in London. He now looked at Michael mostly through other people’s lenses, as their correspondence became scarce and contained little information. It was like watching a stone going downhill, not to check if something stops it, but with what speed it will roll down, what landscape it will pass on the way and what material it will attract.
The main source of information was a diploma film, shot by a female student of a local film school. It documented the last months of Michael’s life in the workhouse, after it was bought by some property developer, who planned to build there a row of luxurious houses.
Adam was impressed by her work, as in a period of two months she captured on camera Michael’s character traits which had taken Adam over ten years to identify, such as his conviction that he was a director of his own life-project and his paradoxical mixture of extravertism and solipsism: his deep involvement with the person standing in front of him, combined with the lack of a sense of responsibility or commitment towards this person. She also realised that it was in fact the latter which facilitated the former: because Michael wasn’t committed to anybody, he could be such a passionate partner in a discussion or apply himself to a new task with utter enthusiasm.
She also noticed things which had changed about Michael since Adam met him last, such as his mournful look and wailing voice. Paradoxically, his voice, especially when he was speaking in German, sounded like a cello. It occurred to Adam that maybe Michael hated this instrument in part because it was so prophetic about his fate.
Upon watching this film Adam was thinking about going to Zurich to discuss with Michael his future and find some solution to his predicament. But at the time his own life was unravelling. His marriage to Susan was in a bad state. Nothing dramatic was happening, just every day added a tiny bit to the sludge of mutual resentment, disappointment and malice, which eventually blocked anything positive which could enter their shared life. Eventually one day she told him that she was leaving him, which meant that he had to leave their house, as the children stayed with her. She also succeeded in turning them against their father.
When Susan and Adam were divorcing, Michael was back in Canada, living with some old friend who was dying from cancer and trying to resume his work on his Master’s thesis. A couple of years later he became a character in another female student’s project. This time it was a series of photographs with accompanying titles. The photos showed that he’d aged considerably and stopped being self-sufficient. Indeed, what struck Adam was how much his friend relied now on external objects. On almost every picture he was propped up by a stick and had a large bird, like a cross between a raven and a seagull, on his arm. From the author’s commentary one learnt that the bird was the main thing which kept Michael going, as he needed to scavenge for food for both of them.
The last time Adam checked on Michael it was twenty-six years since their first meeting. He still thought of him as his close friend. He even described him to a couple of people as the best friend he ever had. But he also knew that he deluded himself. The fact that he regarded Michael as his closest friend only proved that he didn’t have any close friends. He also didn’t find enough support in himself to feel free or happy. On the contrary, he missed his children and he was disappointed with his work. Not only had he barely progressed with his career, of which he cared little, but he hadn’t progressed against his own criteria of progress: he didn’t find solutions to his problems. Everything he touched lacked firmness, bent or broke when somebody put pressure on it. An authentic life was beyond his reach and he increasingly wondered if he needed to study philosophy to discover this simple truth.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over twenty of them in ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Adelaide Magazine’, ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘ ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’, ‘Shark Reef’ and ‘Mystery Tribune’, among others. Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.