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An essay by Vernon Lee

New Friends And Old

Title:     New Friends And Old
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

There is not unfrequently a spice of humiliation hidden in the rich cordial pleasure of a new friendship, and I think Emerson knew it. Without beating about the bush as he does, one might explain it, methinks, not merely as a vague sense of disloyalty towards the other friendships which are not new; but also as a shrewd suspicion (though we hide it from ourselves) that this one also will have to grow old in its turn. And we have not yet found out how to treat any of our possessions, including our own selves, in such a way that they shall, if anything, improve. Despite our complicated civilization, so called, or perhaps on account of it, we are all of us a mere set of barbarians, who find it less trouble to provide a new, cheap, and shoddy thing than to get the full use and full pleasure of a finely-made and carefully-chosen old one. Those ghastly paper toilettes of the ladies in "Looking Backward" are emblematic of our modes of proceeding. We are for ever dressing and undressing our souls, if not our bodies, in rags made out of rags.

Heaven forbid that I should ever blaspheme new friendships! They are among the most necessary as well as the most delightful things we get a chance of. They do not merely exhilarate, but actually renew and add to us, more even than change of climate and season. We are (luckily for every one) such imitative creatures that every person we like much, adds a new possible form, a new pattern, to our understanding and our feeling; making us, through the pleasantness of novelty, see and feel a little as that person does. And when, instead of _liking_ (which is the verb belonging rather to good acquaintance, accidental relationship as distinguished from real friendship), it is a case of _loving_ (in the sense in which we really love a place, a piece of music, or even, very often, an animal), there is something more important and excellent even than this. For every creature we do really love seems to reveal a whole side of life, by the absorbing of our attention into that creature's ways; nay, more, the fact that what we call _loving_ is in most cases a complete creation, at least a thorough interpretation of them by our fancy and our shaken-up, refreshed feelings.

A new friendship, by this unconscious imitation of the new friend's nature and habits, and by the excitement of the thing's pleasant novelty, causes us to discover new qualities in literature, art, our surroundings, ourselves. How different does the scenery look--still familiar but delightfully strange--as we drive along the valleys or scramble in the hills with the new friend! there is a distant peak one never noticed, or a scented herb which has always grown upon those rocks, but might as well never have done so, but for the other pair of eyes which drew ours to it, or the other hand which crushing made us know its fragrance. Pages of books, seemingly stale, revive into fresh meaning; new music is almost certain to be learned; and a harmony, a rational sequence, something very akin to music, perceived in what had been hitherto but a portion of life's noise and confusion. The changes of style which we note in the case of great geniuses--Goethe and Schiller, for instance, or Ruskin after his meeting with Carlyle--are often brought about, or prepared, by the accident of a new friendship; and, who knows? half of the disinterested progress of the world's thought and feeling might prove, under the moral microscope, to be but a moving web of invisible friendships, forgotten, but once upon a time new, and so vivid!

The falling off from such pleasure and profit in older friendships (it is very sad, but not necessarily cynical to recognize the fact) is due in some measure to our being less frank, less ourselves, in them than in new ones. Our mutual ways of feeling and seeing are apt to produce a definite track of intellectual and affective intercourse; and as this track deepens we find ourselves confined, nay, imprisoned in it, with little possibility of seeing, and none of escaping, as in some sunken Devonshire lane; the very ups and downs of the friendship existing, so to speak, below the level of our real life; disagreements and reconciliations always on one pattern. With people we have known very long, we are apt to go thus continually over the same ground, reciting the same formulae of thought and feeling, imitating the _ego_ of former years in its relations with a _thou_ quite equally obsolete; the real personality left waiting outside for the chance stranger. It is so easy! so safe! We have done it so long! There is an air of piety almost in the monotony and ceremonial; and then, there are the other's habits of thought which might be jarred, or feelings we might hurt.... Meanwhile our sincere, spontaneous reality is idling elsewhere, ready to vagabond irresponsibly at the beck and call of the passing stranger. And, who knows? while we are thus refusing to give our poor old friend the benefit of our genuine, living, changed and changing self, we may ourselves be losing the charm and profit of his or her renovated and more efficacious reality.

The retribution sometimes comes in unexpected manner. We find ourselves neglected for some new-comer, thin of stuff, to-morrow threadbare; _we_, who are conscious all the time of a newness too well hidden, alas! a newness utterly unsuspected by our friend, and far surpassing the newness of the new one! Poetic justice too lamentable to dwell upon. But short of it, far short, our old friendships, with their safe traditions and lazy habits, are ever tending to become the intercourse of friendly ghosts.

Yet even this is well worth having, and after bringing praise to younger friendships, let me for ever feel, rather than speak (for 'tis too deep and wide for words) befitting gratitude to old ones. For there is always something puzzling in the present; unrestful and disquieting in all novelty; and we require, poor harassed mortals, the past and lots of it; the safe, the done-for past, a heap of last year's leaves or of dry, scented hay (which is mere dead grass and dead meadow-flowers) to take our rest upon. There is a virtue ineffable in things known, tried, understood; a comfort and a peacefulness, often truly Elysian, in finding one's self again in this quiet, crepuscular, downy world of old friendships--a world, as I have remarked, largely peopled with ghosts, our own and other folks'; but ghosts whose footsteps never creak, whose touch can never startle, or whose voice stab us, and who smile a smile which has the wide, hazy warmth of setting suns or veiled October skies. Yes, whatever they may lack (through our own fault and folly), old friendships are made up of what, when all is said and done, we need above every other thing, poor faulty, uncertain creatures that we are--I mean kindness and certain indulgence. There is more understanding in new friendships, and a closer contact of soul with soul; but that contact may mean a jar, a bruise, or, worst of all, a sudden sense of icy chill; and the penetrating comprehension may entail, at any moment, pained surprise and disappointment. Making new friends is not merely exploration, but conquest; and what cruel checks to our wishes and ambitions!

Instead of which, all vanity long since put to sleep, curiosity extinct for years, insidious pleasures of self-explanation quite forgotten, there remains this massive comfort of well-known faithful and trusting kindness; a feeling of absolute reassurance almost transcending the human, such as we get from, let us say, an excellent climate.

There remain, also, joys quite especial to old friendship, or the possibility thereof, for the reality, alas! is rare enough. The sudden discovery, for instance, after a period of separation or a gap in intercourse, of qualities and ways not previously seen (perhaps not previously wanted) in the well-known soul: new notes, but with the added charm of likeness to already loved ones, deeper, more resonant, or perhaps of unsuspected high unearthly purity, in the dear voice. Absence may do it, or change of occupation; or sudden vicissitude of fortune; or merely the reading of a certain book (how many friends may not Tolstoi's "Resurrection" have thus revealed to one another!), or the passing of some public crisis like the Dreyfus business. What! after these years of familiarity, we did not know each other fully? You thought, you felt, like that on such or such a subject, dear old friend, and I never suspected it! Nay, never knew, perhaps, that _I_ must feel and think like that, and in no other way! To find more in what one already has; the truest adding to all wealth, the most fruitful act of production;--that is one of the privileges of old friendships.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: New Friends And Old