He supposed that for most of his career he had been going to these conferences hoping to meet women. He had been an academic for over twenty years, and initially was so engaged with his subject he finished his PhD in just under eighteen months. It was on the post-New Wave filmmakers of the seventies, French filmmakers who at the time he identified with, because, like them, they had almost no money but a great deal of enthusiasm. He would read about these filmmakers and even their crises - their heroin addictions, their suicide attempts, their exotic, mind-damaging travels - created a sense of fascination that kept pushing the PhD even if much of what he was writing was formal analysis more than anecdote; philosophical connections rather than social examination.
When he would initially go to these conferences, he seemed to have no especial interest in meeting women. He was in a long-term relationship from the beginning of his undergraduate degree right through till a couple of years after his PhD. Vicky and Michael rented a flat in a street not far from the university and though it was small, it provided the necessary sense of domesticity they both seemed to need for a number of years. After she finished her degree she got a management job in a charity shop, and turned the space into her own, carefully weeding through the many bags of junk she would get each week, and keeping the quality and giving the rest to homeless hostels. She also had a policy of never prosecuting, or even remotely persecuting, shoplifters. If someone came into the shop and stole something; she would take the person to one side and say that she would have to take the item they had tried to steal off them, but they were free to rummage around in the bags of unwanted clothes in the back to see if there was anything they required. A number of shoplifters in fact went on to become volunteers.
One offers the above to give some sense of Vicky's idealism, which she no doubt still possesses, and to suggest a world of values Michael very much shared. He would see these filmmakers he was writing on as outlaws and misfits, and would often write on them through ethics, existentialism, and what one philosopher called technologies of the self. He felt there was some common link between his work in academia, and Vicky's in the charity shop.
He probably never really knew how or why they split up, and he sometimes thought many relationships fail not because the two parties have changed, but that the milieux in which they move have diverged. Maybe the people he began to know through academia were too academic not so much for Vicky, but people Vicky would know. When they would argue, they seemed to be arguing more about other people than about themselves, and about the tension created amongst these other people in their company.
So they split up. Vicky moved back to London, and Michael stayed on in the flat he is still living in, and which he bought some years ago. Over the years he had the odd short-term partner, but nothing of significance, and never found anybody with whom he once again wanted to share the flat. He was still very engaged in his subject, but somehow it wasn't enough. He no longer felt passion for it exclusively, but equally he couldn't feel passion exclusively for a woman either. He seemed to be searching out a passion that was simultaneously aesthetic and sexual. Maybe he just seemed like another sleazy academic looking to hit on women instead of focusing on his subject, but he really didn't think that was, or is, the case at all.
No, instead what he thought had happened was that after Vicky and he parted, his subject seeped much more into his life. He believed the ethical issues the filmmakers raised were not just their problems, but his also. And he felt the need to resolve them externally - in the world - and not just internally - in the essays he was publishing and the book that he was writing at the time. He felt that Vicky had always done this in her charity shop work, that any idea she had was immediately being put into practise. But he was dealing not with material things but thoughts and feelings. How was he to turn this into a living reality; how was he to capture the yearning intimacy, which these filmmakers' work seemed so often to be about, into more than articles on the page? What he was seeking he guessed was a sort of intimate Situationism, a private Situationism that nevertheless wasn't just about bedding women but about getting as close as he could to another human being. People would often say when he read papers at a conference that they felt a little as though they were hearing his confessions at one remove; that his thoughts and preoccupations were offered in relatively metaphoric form through the one remove of films and filmmakers. Some would insist this was needless indulgence; others would say he was getting to the first principle of the work: he was conjoining the emotions of the filmmakers with his own, and arriving at 'emotion', emotion that belonged to no one, but that conveyed the vulnerable emotion that the films were preoccupied with.
But initially at these conferences he felt that though he was talking about emotions, his were still nevertheless hypothetical rather than actualized. His emotional life was really reserved for Vicky, and when he was at a conference he would phone her a couple of times a day, and one of those calls would always be just before he would go off to bed. So any conversation he would get into would usually end around midnight, as he said he would have to go off and phone his girlfriend, and that would eliminate any hint of intimacy with another.
He thought this idea of killed intimacy and the notion of trying to create out of this intimacy came to him after one particular conference in Dublin. It was on the subject of a French filmmaker called Philippe Garrel, and one evening in the Irish Film Centre bar he was talking to a French critic who was working on a long article on Garrel and aloneness. She claimed what interested Garrel was the possibility of love coming out of personal despair, never social inevitability, and that the characters gravitate towards the greatest degree of despair: that there is entropic misery the characters will always seek out. She said Garrel found this in his long term relationship with the singer and heroin addict Nico and never recovered, so that he wasn't just, as people would often say, making films aboutNico, but much more about the degree of despair in Nico that he would never find again in equal depth. As she spoke he could see this was a belief she held personally and that she invigorated it professionally through the intensity to which she applied it in her own life: she said she had often been with unhappy men whose plight moved her, rather than happy men who she believed didn't understand other people's pain.
Now it wasn't that he agreed with this woman, nor was he attracted to her and nor was she attracted to him. Their problems with the world were he felt very different. But the principle of living through one's work struck him most intensely on that occasion, and something in him never quite recovered from it. This isn't to say meeting her was necessarily some Damascan road either, but it crystallized many of the thoughts and feeling he was half-expressing, an air of dissatisfaction looking for articulacy, but an articulacy that couldn't just come from books but from a living example, the sort of living example he felt he wanted to become.
So when Vicky was offered a job in London working at the charity's head office, he insisted she should go. He said he didn't think he would ever want to get married, ever want to have children. He felt his life wouldn't be motivated by the need for children, but by a more interior progression. Vicky said she wasn't sure what she wanted, but she suspected her work at a certain stage wouldn't be enough. For a few months after Vicky left, while adjusting to the stillness of the flat, to the absence of another presence in the evening, he wondered whether his ideal was merely that: that he could think he wanted to be alone whilst with another, but in reality he always wanted someone to be with him.
After about eight months, though, he started to feel astonishingly, if tentatively, free. Whenever he thought about travelling, for example, he would find himself thinking for one, and never wondering whether it would suit Vicky's skin tone (she was pale and he was dark), or linguistic competence (he spoke a bit of French; Vicky was fluent in Spanish and had some Italian). It was also around this time that Vicky and Michael split up that his father passed away. Michael's relationship with him was always tense, and frequently they would go for long periods of time without talking to each other. This would nevertheless, Vicky would often say, manifest in Michael a tension at one remove, so that he would on some level be arguing with himself instead of with his father, questioning himself the way his father might have questioned him. But when he died these questions all but disappeared, so that just as splitting up with Vicky led Michael to think of his own thoughts in relation to space, in relation to travel, and in relation to food, so his father's death allowed him to think for one in such a way that all the imaginary arguments he would have with him in his absence faded away when his absence became permanent.
For a long time this created in Michael a feeling of freedom and yet also loneliness. Often he would return to the flat and spend half the evening just trying to occupy it, trying to fill its emptiness, where before he would often arrive and Vicky would have the radio on, be cooking food, or floating around. It would be a lie, then, if he said he was not often lonely, but this loneliness over time became ritualistically rewarding. He would usually spend his mornings alone writing, then go for a run or do a light Pilates-based work out, and then teach in the afternoon. When he came home in the early evening, he would cook himself dinner based on a weekly shop that would contain all he needed for his increasingly whole-food diet, and then spend the rest of the evening watching a film, and then reading in bed. He had a few friends, but would rarely see them during the week, and he thought it was out of this fairly isolated existence he started to see conferences as something more than just about giving papers and talking shop. It became a world of possibilities, a world of aligned loneliness, in keeping with the sort of loneliness he found himself often writing about.
But if many of the characters in the films would alleviate their loneliness through drink and drugs and oblivious sex, Michael wanted to alleviate it through rational control, through connections that were anything but oblivious. He once read a philosopher Martin Buber saying that what mattered was two people participating in one another's lives in the very fact, not physically but ontically. He found comments like this very suggestive, and wanted to explore this idea of living a life of intimacy not physically - physical in the sense of co-habitation - but almost imaginarily, so that over the space of a number of years he had what he could only call ontic friendships. Now some of these friendships were with men; some with women; some of the ones with women were sexual, some of them were not. Some of the ones that were initially sexual with some women became platonic when they had regular partners; and some of the ones that were platonic initially became sexual if the women were free or dissatisfied with who they were with.
How did this elaborate network come into being you may ask, and he supposed it was about a year after Michael had split up with Vicky, and attended a conference in Paris, a conference he was invited to by the very woman who talked about aloneness in the films of Garrel. He read a paper that touched upon this aloneness in Garrel but also in other filmmakers of that generation. He suggested they were an orphan generation in some way, and that their characters didn't so much have relationships as cling to each other. He provocatively proposed that it was the first generation of filmmakers who were really making films about the necessity of love. After the paper, during a meal that many of the delegates went to on that second evening of the conference, a Danish woman around his own age - late twenties - asked if he really believed what he was saying. Michael said he believed in it, and yet provocatively so. He didn't say it just to have something to say, but he said it because from a certain point of view he thought it was true. From the perspective of a certain type of loneliness it made sense. That's all it had to do. Of course Hollywood films had always dealt with love, but it was love as a desire rather than a need. A person was more or less deemed a stable, whole human being looking for love. In these seventies films it's as though most of the characters were fractured, half existent people looking for love to survive, to create a miniature world of meaning against the onslaught of a wider meaninglessness. He said to her he was working on a book on this, and that he wanted really to locate the importance of these films and explain, he supposed, how they impacted on him.
Did this explanation and exploration work as an elaborate chat-up line? He could see as they talked she was attracted to what he was saying, and later that evening, as they went up to his hotel room and kissed as they went through the door, obviously attracted to him.
But would this attraction have manifested itself without this intellectual/emotional link? They spent the rest of the conference together, and also a further week in Paris. (Coincidentally they had both decided to make the conference just the first stage of a Paris visit.) They occasionally met up thereafter, usually at conferences, but never tried to move towards a relationship.
But this first conference fling led perhaps to a degree of preconception thereafter. Usually when he was invited to a conference he would aim to stay in the city for a week. Not only because there was the chance of a brief affair with somebody - often he would simply spend the week exploring the city - but that was central to it. Did he even tailor his essays around the possibility of seduction, as if reading a paper were the first stage in an act of flirtation? That would be too calculated, but certainly the aim was to generate through reading the paper an act of intimacy, and out of that conversation would arise with men and women, young and old, an air of intimacy in the questions he would often be asked in the wake of the paper, either in the conference hall, in the foyer after the talk, or in the restaurant, caf or pub later. And with a number of the young women, yes, there was sex, and on occasion with older women also, but the purpose seemed always, to him, to generate intimacy.
Why was this so important? He could perhaps pretend it was just good faith on his part - that from the start of his 'career', or at least after Vicky and Michael had split up, he wanted the career and the life to work in tandem. So often he would see academics that didn't remotely seem to live the life they proposed in their work, and felt their way of affirming contraries in the life was to fill themselves with drink. But he really didn't believe he responded to this observation smugly, but instead almost fearfully: he wanted less to practise good faith than protect his own nervous system from the ravages of contradiction. But how could he do that if he, like everybody else, was a human being full of these contrary responses to multi-faceted reality? How could he work from a principle that would allow him to keep moving forward in his work and in his life? He was, he recalled, struck around this time by a comment a contemporary philosopher made about not living existentially, living an authentic existence, but in some way living aesthetically and thus living an inauthentic yet less constrained life. He would often see academics that seemed to him constrained by their reputation, their professorial status and their expertise in their field, and he was determined to escape that sense of self-petrification.
For a long time he wondered how he would do this, and realized that he would do so through art, through on some level living the vulnerability of the art to which he most responded. Now he had little interest in drink and none at all in drugs, so some might say how was he so in sympathy with filmmakers for whom, at least at certain stages in their career, these things were so vital. Yet somehow he felt he could take them further. Where he believed many academics were professorially becoming experts in their field, but that somehow their field had nothing to do with their being, he wondered if he could locate his being somehow within the subject of which he was perceived to be an expert. How could he convey the affective impact of the filmmakers on whom he was writing?
And so this was the basis for the pursuit of women, as though the seduction had nothing really to do with Michael as a subject seducing but being part of a world that is instead intimate. He recalled reading in a Philip Roth novel of what a character calls 'the Kundera disease'. Here the young woman makes love to a young man less on the basis of her attraction to him, than on the excitement generated by a Kundera lecture on Madame Bovary. Michael thought what he was trying to do in his own talks was maybe a less elevated version of Kundera: he wanted to generate an intimacy that was bigger than the reading of a paper, to create an intimacy that would move others towards thinking intimately the way he believed the films he was writing on wanted to generate this feeling of private worlds. He thought he needed not so much to report on these films academically, but spread their private world through his own vulnerability.
But there was always he would admit this trepidation, this feeling that maybe he was trying to share emotions to the detriment of creating an exclusivity, an exclusivity that would make for deeper intimacy. For twenty years now, ever since Vicky left, Michael hasn't had a long-term relationship, and perhaps on occasion he missed the gestures of intimacy that only really come out of living with another human being. Sometimes when he looked at friends who had been single for a long period of time he felt they were a little frosty, abrupt and impatient with compromise. He didn't believe he had this sense of singledom; even if he protected his aloneness, his own, perhaps, orphan status. Over the years, and mainly though far from exclusively at conferences, he had slept with over a hundred women, and sometimes he'd have spent so wonderful a few days with some of them that he felt a yearning to try and spend his life with them. But he never suggested it, as though there was a principle in him that held more strongly to aloneness than togetherness, or perhaps to a more general togetherness than the couple. Maybe it is for others to decide if this story is a tale of loss or of hope, or perhaps it is a tale, if it is a tale at all, precipitously and constantly balanced between the two.
© Tony McKibbin