Joyland

The Midwest |

Insult

by Joseph Clayton Mills

I had a friend who, over the long course of many years, gradually began to take on, as if by a process of osmosis, all of those quirks, opinions, and traits of character that I considered to be most deeply my own. When I first made his acquaintance, for example, he had shown a marked preference for the sentimental excesses of the films of Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age” over the headier intellectual pleasures that characterize Italian neorealist cinema. After several years, however, he began to espouse, with equal fervor, precisely the opposite opinion; that is, a preference for Antonioni and Visconti over Capra, Hawks, and Sturges—an opinion that I had myself defended against all comers on occasions too numerous to mention. Indeed, it would not be exaggerating the point to say that my friend’s entire worldview incrementally conformed itself to my own. He was initially a devout Hegelian, and this despite my constant entreaties that he lend more credence to Nietzsche’s critique of the dialectic; after several years I was amazed to discover that, completely without my knowledge, and, as it were, on the sly, he had entirely thrown over Hegel for Nietzsche. Nor was my friend immune to aping even the most superficial aspects of my personality and character. When I first made his acquaintance, he was an inveterate smoker of Gauloise cigarettes; in time, he came to develop an insatiable addiction to my own beloved Cuban cigars. Once indifferent to sporting contests, he learned to emulate my fascination with amateur boxing. Formerly scrupulously clean-shaven, he eventually went so far as to attempt to cultivate my distinctive handlebar mustache. Initially, I found his tendency to adopt even my most eccentric mannerisms and opinions flattering—even charming—and I frequently congratulated myself on having exerted such a salutary effect on my young protege’s development. Over time, however, as his mimicry grew ever more exact, I became increasingly disturbed. To my surprise, I found that the more perfectly my friend came to resemble me, the less pleasure I took in his company, until at last, as his performance was polished to a mirror-like exactitude, I found it quite impossible to be in his presence for even the slightest length of time. I avoided him as assiduously as I could, although the similarities in our habits and predilections led to inevitable run-ins at the tobacconist, the gymnasium, and the barber. On each occasion, somewhat to my consternation, I was consumed by a virulent loathing that I could only conceal with the greatest exertion of personal will. Fortunately, my friend’s abrupt and unexpected suicide alleviated the need for further social contact. Leaving a note that characterized his life as “a ludicrous farce no longer worth the trouble of living,” he had ingested a generous handful of prescription pain killers before hurling himself from the balcony of his tony downtown apartment. I must confess, however, that my immediate and somewhat embarrassing relief at his untimely demise was tempered by the troubling question of whether that life which he had so abruptly discarded and to which his suicide note had referred with such derision should truly be regarded as his own—and his final act merely the ultimate step in a process of self-annihilation that had perhaps begun with our first acquaintance—or whether, on the contrary, his suicide should be taken as the most outrageous insult to which I have ever been subjected.