Epicurus writes about friendship: (Sententiae Vaticanae LXXVIII-translation is my own) “A man becomes especially noble in mind through wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal.” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον). Friendship was an important aspect of his Hellenistic philosophy which promoted the attainment of a happy, carefree life free from pain and fear of death. In Athens Epicurus had a property called the Garden where his community of friends, which regularly included women, would gather, share common meals and discuss philosophy.
The narrator in Geoff Dyer’s novel The Colour of Memory has no steady job, no real prospects in life, and lives off the dole. But what he does have is a steady, supportive group of friends: Freddie, Carlton, Steranko, Foomie and Belinda. The book lacks a true plot, but instead is one description after another of the narrator and these rather well-read and interesting friends hanging out, going to pubs, listening to music, getting high and generally enjoying one another’s company. Dyer even includes long descriptions of the card games that they play throughout the course of a long, boring winter’s day. I like to think of them as aspiring, 20th century Epicureans:
On Christmas Eve Steranko invited everyone over to his house for a turkey dinner. We all sat around the kitchen table which he had dismantled, hauled up the stairs and then re-assembled in his room. A fire was burning in the grate and more wood was piled up on either side of the fireplace. All the usual clutter of his room had been cleared away and thrown on his bed or shoved into corners: notebooks, sketch pads, paperback novels. As always, the walls were covered with unfinished drawings; canvases were stacked up in a corner. Apart from the fire the only light in the room was from candles on the table and on the mantelpiece. He had even bought some cheap Christmas crackers. Everyone had brought booze and grass and we were all drunk and stoned by the time Steranko emerged from the kitchen bearing the turkey ceremoniously before him like a crown on a cushion.
Freddie’s decision to move away from England and the close knit group is what brings about the shocking and unexpected ending of the story.
Since the group all live in the rough neighborhood of Brixton in London, they are constantly trying to avoid pain—that is the physical pain of a random beating or mugging. The narrator is obsessed with his physical safety and does anything he can to avoid a fight, a mugging, or a burglary in his apartment. He witnesses a man being beaten on the Tube, but neither he, nor anyone else on the train, steps in for fear of getting attacked himself. When Freddie is badly attacked on the street his friend’s swollen and deformed head brings him to tears.
Where the narrator and his friends fall short of being true Epicureans is their tendency to engage in recreational substances to the point of hedonism. I thought it especially astute for the narrator to recognize this flaw:
Waking up the next morning with the odd sensation of being surprised to be alive I threw recklessness to the wind and abandoned my spontaneity programme then and there. I was fed up with the rigours of impulsive living anyway: I didn’t have the application for it. I couldn’t cope with being stoned at eleven thirty in the morning and that kind of thing. Spontaneity seemed constantly to tow regret in its wake. Living for the moment was all very well, I decided, but you had to pick your moments carefully.
He doesn’t completely give up drinking and getting stoned, but he does back it off to the point where his activities don’t cause him excruciating pain and regret the next day. I took a break from my epic summer reads to try something a bit shorter and easier to read. Dyer’s book was a pleasant distraction for a few hours.