Saturday, 6 December 2008

Conversation on a train - the kindness of...

Periodically I return to the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680). A byword for cynicism, disillusion, dry wit and general downbeatness, he seemed cold and wrong at first, but as the years have gone on I have started to think of him as a rather passionate, sharp-witted, man observing himself as much as the rest of society. Of some 772 maxims, 25 are on the subject of women, a number of those about coquetry, which he does not particularly condemn, no more than he does pride or vanity in men. He does not condemn: he observes.

In the introduction by George H. Powell, we find the following:

What is called political life under such a regime seems devoid alike of liberty and honesty; and if society - upper class society, that is - presents, on the surface, a brighter prospect, this seems, on nearer view, a cold and hard brilliance, which has little of the warmth of living humanity about it. A deeply corrosive class-selfishness, a want of the common feelings most essential to the union of the social fabric - these are noticeable traits. When we find the amiable and cultured Madame de Sévigné writing, with such unconcealed delight, of the hideous barbarities inflicted on the poor, defenceless Breton peasantry, as if massacre and hanging were a good joke, as long as she was left to enjoy in peace the shade of her beloved woods, we are perhaps less surprised to find her friend, M. de La Rochefoucauld, speaking with contempt of pity itself.


I am travelling home from one of the innumerable journeys recently. Beside me a young woman - perhaps no more than a girl of eighteen or nineteen - is talking to her friend across the aisle, she being of the same age. Both are pretty in the normal nothing-out-of-the-unusual way in which everyone young and confident, of regular features, seems to be pretty. They have no particular accent, if anything they're comfortable middle-class. Their conversation zooms in and out of focus over my new iPod (I am listening to the Mahavishnu Orhestra). Mostly they are talking about being drunk absolutely stupid and how great this is. Later, this is what I catch, entirely from the, louder, Girl 1:

Girl 1: ...and I'd get lifts there regularly with this, like, bloke, from... but then later this bloke, like he's older, and I think he's getting, you know, and I think... well, he's sort of middle aged and, anyway, you know what, he's killed in a car crash next week. It's so funny [she actually laughs and her friend laughs too], I mean, it's like, you know, but it's really funny [more laughter from both]. Of course I don't, like, get the lifts now...

They continue talking and laughing about the dead man for a while then move on back to being pissed out of their heads and how their parents are so understanding about this. By this time I thoroughly hate them, with a hate I have not felt for a long time. As far as I can gather nothing happened between the man who gave the girl lifts, except that he might have had a slightly lower social rank (an employee of dad's perhaps) and that he might have been attracted by her. These things happen. But the smug repulsive laughter hits me hard. And I think of Madame de Sévigné. Just a little.


alek said...

your recording of the conversation is like a photograph

i enjoy La Rochefoucauld, sometimes

George S said...

'Sometimes' is about the right number of times. One would have to be an utter grouch to make it daily reading. Maybe when I am very old and very grouchy.

Mark Granier said...

"...and, anyway, you know what, he's killed in a car crash next week. It's so funny."

Wow. That hits home.

herecomeslucy said...

I'm with Alek. The photograph is of the two girls laughing uproariously on the bus, with the narrator sitting behind, looking disgusted and appalled.

It's like a Winogrand.

George S said...

Train, Lucy. One of the girls is sitting next to me, her friend on the nearest seat just across the aisle.

Their voices are loud.