Apart from railing against the enforced inertia of train journeys, people utter no panegyrics about the scenery through which they pass; they only have hideous tales to tell about fellow passengers. These stories worry me because I have always felt that when we say of a stranger that he is tedious, it is ourselves that we criticize. Only a lie is boring.
On a long train journey we ought, therefore, to present ourselves to the other people in our coach as a wide-open, indestructible vessel into which the acids of truth can safely be poured. We should become for the time like psychoanalysts, making those sitting opposite feel that nothing they can say will shock us or provoke scorn. Travelers are often advised to take a long book on their journeys, but who would devote his attention to a book which will always be at hand when he can turn the dog-eared pages of a total stranger whom he may never meet again?
A little old lady sitting opposite me in an otherwise empty coach said, “…and then, after twenty-five years, my husband died.” I was just about to look gravely at the floor between us when she added, “and oh, the relief.” I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostok to hear a remark like that.
The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp (1984)
Painting by Paul Gustave Fischer: In the Train Compartment (1927)
[George and Faith, an estranged couple, are in bed, lying next to each other after making love. She talks about how much she used to love him and then:]
FAITH: Just now for an instant there – I don’t know – you made me laugh, George – you were kind.
GEORGE: You’re right, I’m not kind anymore.
FAITH: Me neither.
GEORGE: You’re kind to strangers.
FAITH: Strangers are easy.
From Bo Goldman’s screenplay Shoot the Moon (1982)
Photo: Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in Shoot the Moon
Dressing as I did did not make me ‘happy’ necessarily, but it unified me – and that is what we must all do with our lives. There are always penalties up to any age for presenting the world with a highly individualized image, but if it is the genuine you and not some affectation (a distinction which, I realize, may take years to sort out) then you must be what you are, honestly and bravely, with all the taste and intelligence you can muster. Life will be more difficult if you try to fulfill yourself, but avoiding this difficulty renders life meaningless. To arrive at the end of your life thinking, I never did anything I really wanted to do…must be one of the most profound miseries the human soul is capable of feeling – and one for which there is no last-minute cure or consolation.
Manners from Heaven (1985)
Screen capture: A scene from Pleasantville (1998)
INTERVIEWER: Was your first sexual experience with a man or a woman?
GORE VIDAL: I was much too polite to ask.
Viva magazine, 1973