Keywords: friendship; attachment; Michel de Montaigne; Etienne de la Boitie; Wayne Booth; fictional friends; love; respect
Apparently it used to be normal (possibly even common) for people of the same sex to have passionately intimate but non-sexual relationships — attachments that psychoanalysts used to call “cathexes.” This might involve hugging, kissing, and even sharing a bed without implying that there was anything erotic about it. These friendships were far more intense and important than quotidian affections.
I have never experienced such an obsessive craving for a female friend (loving a man is, of course, a different matter) nor have many of my women friends, who are mostly aging heterosexuals. My friendships are as different as the personalities of my friends themselves and I value them all — but not equally so, and commonly not to the same degree over time. Even when a dear friend moves far away or when we can only meet once a year or even once a decade, we can ordinarily pick up immediately as if there had been no interruption. There are certain friends whom I would visit regularly if it were convenient, but in practice that does not happen and I don’t feel that our friendship is diminished by the absence when we do get together.
On the other hand, relationships occasionally do end, and I have been discovering some unnoticed aspects of amity by experiencing such a loss lately — or rather, several such losses, for there are many different ways in which relationships may run down or break.
Thinking about this issue, I turned to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592 — see his photo) today, reading his essay about his intense, four-year-long friendship with Etienne de la Boitie. A good deal was lost in the English translation provided by someone named Florio in 1603. Still, it was possible to compare my relationships with his extreme one, which was of a kind that he declared only occurred about once in three hundred years. He specifically distinguished it from the commonplace kind:
“As for the rest, those we ordinarily call friends and amities, are but acquaintances and familiarities, tied together by some occasion or commodities, by means whereof our minds are entertained.
“In the amity I speak of, they intermix and confound themselves one in the other, with so universal a commixture that they wear out and can no more find the seam that hath conjoined them together. If a man urge me to tell wherefore I love him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself....It is I wot not what kind of quintessence, of all this commixture, which having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and lose itself in his, which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to lose and plunge itself in mine, with a mutual greediness, and with a semblable concurrence...”
All these “plunging” references left me doubting the non-erotic nature of the friendship but I put my skepticism aside, remarking instead how lucky these two guys had been: Their intense feelings had been reciprocal. Most friendships are not. My friend Barry Wellman studies networks professionally. For example, he might ask you to list your top five friends, and then he would go to each of them and ask them in turn to list their own top five friends. It is unlikely, he says, that you would be on their lists — not because there’s anything wrong with you but only because friendship is not necessarily symmetrical. When I share this fact with others, they usually consider it a sad revelation. Personally, I don’t think it’s particularly regrettable. That’s just the way friendships are. It would, however, be painful if you couldn’t name five friends at all.
Montaigne recognizes that the essence of friendship is ease of communication. When he and la Boitie met, they immediately understood each other perfectly and began interacting “greedily” and as perfect equals. (He says that parents cannot be friends with their children because there must always be some asymmetrical ‘respect’ between them.) His friendship with la Boitie certainly indicates the importance of mutual interaction, at least in an extreme type of friendship. However, we can ask how far to insist upon that principle. Can a relationship be asymmetrical or lacking interactiveness, yet nevertheless be important?
I think so. Take as an extreme example, one’s relationship with a writer, a celebrity, or a public figure whom one has never met. It is entirely possible to form intense bonds with such personalities on the basis of their writings or actions in public. Indeed, it is possible to be profoundly influenced by a fictional character. This bond is still based on communication, but it is not interactive, mutual, or even “real.” The late literary critic Wayne Booth studied the moral impact on our lives of reading fiction. He wrote a wonderful book called The Company We Keep, which described fictitious characters as our “friends,” and this term is more than a metaphor. My own opinions, values, and lifestyle have been influenced more by watching plays and reading than by conversations with my acknowledged “friends” — the living persons who would name me on a list for Barry Wellman. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that Booth is unusual in applying the term “friendship” to this kind of relationship.
But Montaigne is surely correct about the magic of discovering oneself in another person, and having the discovery confirmed as mutual. He’s also correct in pointing out its rarity, for each fully-formed adult person has interests and opinions that are unique and unlike the thoughts of others. An ongoing project of every thinking person is to create coherence among his/her ideas, and then to apply that new synthesis to newly emerging human problems. Ordinarily this makes for an irreversible trend toward complexity — at least until we lose some cognitive ability in old age. The discovery of congruences between our thought structures and those of another person can indeed mark the thrilling onset of intense friendship.
Montaigne frequently uses the word love when describing friendship. He barely mentions respect, and then not with any suggestion that it can involve equality or mutuality. To me, it seems that both love and respect have to exist in any true friendship, though in combinations that vary immensely. The nature of the friendship is largely determined by the nature of the love and respect composing it. Both of these attitudes are limited by contingency. To be authentic, they must arise as spontaneous responses to the other.
Yet even this generalization can be questioned. People often do “work,” sometimes successfully, to keep their love alive.
In the Euthyphro, Plato asks whether we love something because it is lovable or instead call it lovable because we love it. In general, I vote for the “objectivist” answer: We love another being because we recognize special qualities in it; we don’t confer those qualities by loving it. This should be the case with any response. We laugh at someone who is funny. We feel sexually attracted to someone who is sexually evocative. We obey someone who is authoritative. But it is possible to be “corrupt” by responding inappropriately to another person’s qualities. We may laugh at someone’s unfunny jokes or even sleep with him to curry favor because he has power, and so on. These are not honest responses.
Love is a recognition of charming, generous, or beautiful qualities in the other person. If it diminishes, it remains possible is to find for other grounds for love, thus cognitively sustaining a basis for at least some type of genuine tenderness. For instance, if the beloved has become hard, or bitter, or mean-spirited, perhaps one can appreciate her courage in standing up for what she believes.
There’s a wonderful example of this re-construction in the film The Queen. The populace and even Tony Blair’s staff have withdrawn their affection for Queen Elizabeth, now a dried-up, pitiless woman who manifests no regret about the death of Princess Diana. But Blair reviews the whole of her disciplined, selfless career, and manages to summon up tender affection for his monarch. It is still love, but it is a different kind of love. There is creativity in his transformative insight.
Respect is as essential as love in a friendship and it, even more than love, it must arise as a response to objective qualities perceived in the other. Indeed, it is harder to repair respect than love by a cognitive reinterpretation of the other. There must be considerable consonance between one’s values and beliefs and that of the friend. Respect cannot be conferred, but must be won. Indeed, nor can it be withheld when it has been earned. Even if the other is an enemy whom you hate and don’t want to respect, you will be compelled to do so if his behavior is exemplary. You cannot be sure of getting justice (nature and human laws are often unfair) but by exercising good judgmentyou can be sure of winning respect.
Except for such wholehearted friends as Montaigne and la Boitie, respect and love are contingent, variable, and transient. Therein lies the tragedy. Even friendship may not be sustained indefinitely but may diminish over time. Where there had been perfect congruence of ideas, jarring incompatibilities may arise. Even so, it is often possible to sustain some version of the previous love by finding new qualities that evoke tenderness.
Respect, on the other hand, is almost entirely a response to the other. If the friend’s judgment fails, or if his intelligence or range of interests and commitments constrict, as often happens to old people, pity or even contempt replace respect. Whatever love can be sustained may not make up for the reduction of respect. The loss is an objective fact. You may exercise forbearance, but you cannot revive respect.
But fortunately, we remain capable of forming new friendships. Sadly, sometimes you win a few, and lose a few. That’s life.