My Sicilian friend Manlio has something in him of the late Curtis Cate, who was a mutual friend of mine and Tom Fleming’s and a frequent contributor to these pages.  When Curtis died in 2006 aged 82, I did not think to write an obituary.  For some reason, one whose perennial argument with the heart invariably leaves the heart baffled—though perhaps it has something to do with Manlio not having been very well of late—I remembered him the other day.  This column, then, is something like the révérence I should have made.

Curtis published lots of books, including acclaimed biographies of George Sand, André Malraux, and Saint-Exupéry, but all that can be easily looked up elsewhere.  In fact, I never understood why a man who was not making his living as an academic—mind you, Curtis had degrees from the École des Langues Orientales in Paris, Oxford, and Harvard, but qualifications do not always add up to employment—bothered to pen all those academic tomes.  Yet are we writers defined by what we write?  Often, but by no means always.

The truth is, Curtis was a good man, one of the two I’ve known.  Manlio is the other.  At some stage in life one begins to realize that the goodness of a person—at least when that quality has been felt to approach a certain human ideal—is not phenomenal, as Kant would have said, but rather a “thing in itself,” das Ding an sich.  We all have qualities, physical as well as spiritual, and the promiscuity or generosity of one acquaintance is as noumenal as the baldness or freckles of another.  Well, goodness is but one of these myriad qualities, perhaps no more important, in the final analysis, than the number of hairs on somebody’s head or whether he’d lend you a fiver when you’re skint, but there you are.  Das Ding an sich, nonetheless.  Das Ding in spades.

Somebody once taught me a parlor game to play with oneself, where in your imagination you conjure up, one by one, your closest friends and match them against three questions.  The first question is, “Would you trust this friend with your money?”  Meaning, if you had to leave the country for many years, would you be sure to find the fortune you had entrusted to that person restored to you upon your return?  The second question is, “Would you trust this friend with your wife?”  Meaning, once again, that if you had to leave the country, go to prison, or lapse into a coma in hospital, that person would take care of your wife without taking advantage of her emotional condition.  Finally, the third question is, “Would this friend come to your aid if you were in trouble with the law?”  Meaning, if the police were at your door, looking to take you in for a crime you may or may not—note the vital lack of distinction here—have committed, would that person undertake to hide you, provide you with false papers, hire a boat in which to make your escape?

As you ponder the answers, you realize just how isolated and autochthonous is every human trait, whether it amounts to a weakness or to an endowment.  And so one friend would protect your property but despoil your wife; another would do neither, yet hand you over to the cops as soon as he heard the whistle; still a third would fail on all counts, but, as he is such a brilliant mind, this does not diminish the value of your friendship.

Curtis was never my closest friend.  Neither is Manlio.  It follows that there are human qualities one may value above goodness, whether it be fully realized talent, perpetually ebullient optimism, or chronically mischievous skepsis.

Consider how all round, no holds barred, near ideal goodness may be an obstacle in the path of creation, which is nowhere as readily observed as in the relationships of good men with women, bad as well as good.  Physical affection, after all, is all about inequality, disparity, otherness; and the unavoidable tension in what amounts to a tug of war between the sexes is something that goodness shies away from.  The classic good men in literature, like Chekhov’s Dymov in The Grasshopper or Tolstoy’s Pierre in War and Peace, have uneasy private lives.  In the war of the sexes, as in the struggle for complete self-realization, they are conscientious objectors, at times deserters.

In short, the world and its ways being what they are, the good person is something of a misfit.  Ever drifting on the darkling plain of life and finding only temporary refuge, incidental appreciation, and intermittent solace, he is, unbeknown to himself, headed for a better life in Heaven.  My point is that while such a person is with us on this earth, we ought to value his goodness above character traits more conspicuous, such as personal loyalty, manly courage, or intellectual brilliance.  For the fact of the matter, put simply, is that such a person is as close to an angel as we sinners are likely to meet.