The glaze in their eyes gives it away, the slight tightening of their lips, and the nervous breath. When colleagues learn about my new project, they begin to feel sorry for me. “Why friendship of all subjects?” It’s seems quaint to them or just light; in any case, not a legitimate object of inquiry.
And when hosts ask me about potential lecture topics and I mention friendship, they ask: “How about something on nationalism or what about aesthetics? The politics of criticism, maybe?” And when I insist on friendship, I pick up the edginess of their fingers on the keyboard.
So what’s wrong with friendship and why are people so indifferent to it? How can an important relationship be so lost in the academic radar screen? Of course, there has been in the last twenty years some work on friendship in many fields, such as literary criticism, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Interestingly, many of these studies begin with the standard complaint about the little interest expressed by the academy in the topic.
This professional unresponsiveness is matched by society’s coolness to friendship. In contrast to classical Greece and Rome or twelfth-century medieval Europe, modern society makes marriage its organizing metaphor. It is marriage that gets religious, political, and legal recognition. Friendship is really invisible, enjoying little institutional support. The community is not concerned if we make friends or not as much as it does if we get married. Friendship seems is crucial in childhood and adolescence as a socializing mechanism. But after the years of prime reproduction have passed, the community loses interest in our friendships. Ask a middle age man how many intimate friends he has! And then ask yourself if anyone cares.
And literature itself has remained silent. How many novels deal with friendship? (Of course, most of children’s literature treats it in one form or the other.) For every copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Passage to India or Embers by the Hungarian writer, Sándor Márai, there are dozens of novels concerned with courtship or the dissolution of marriage. We find the narrative about marriage much more compelling than the story of two mates. Ultimately, we would like our relationships to be productive, that is, to facilitate social reproduction. Thus the friendship between Andrea and Ena, two university students, in post civil war Barcelona explored in Nada by Carmen Laforet seems inconsequential because it does not lead to the end-game of sexual coupling, either homosexual or heterosexual. You get the feeling that the protagonist, Andrea, stands at a slight angle to the world in being more interested in friendship than dating.
In many ways friendship is like art—self-governing, sovereign but non-productive. We turn to friendship, as we turn to art, when we have time. In the utilitarianism of modernity both friendship and art seem superfluous because they have no other goal other than themselves. There is no model for friendship, Montaigne says, other than the relationship itself.
This overlap between the discourse of friendship and the discourse of literature makes the literary silence on friendship strange. It becomes even more odd when you consider that the first case of recorded poetry, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is really a poem about friendship, two heroes who fall in love with one another Early literature records many other examples of heroic friendship—Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Roland and Oliver—all relationships with a strong erotic attachment.
Modern literature certainly prefers the dynamic of dating. But why is the academy so cool to friendship? I think the reason is identity. Scholarship has been obsessed for the last thirty years with exploring various aspects of human identity, be it of the nation, race, ethnicity, gender, and sex.
But friendship is a non-identitarian social form. It is always a relation, an interaction of self and other that can’t be reduced to one or the other. The friend, as Aristotle puts it, is another self, a paradox. And this ambivalence can’t be appropriated by the logic of identity thinking.
In Epistemology of the Closet Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick lists many ideological tensions in her examination of the crisis in representation: the heterosexual/homosexual, secrecy/disclosure, in/out, natural/ artificial, masculine/feminine, canonic/noncanonic, discipline/terrorism, majority/minority amongst others. Friendship gets not even a mention because it does not fit into the definitions she examines. It does not manifest the oppositions she believes come to express the modern age.
Sedgwick makes a point by her very silence. We’re not really interested in the friend as a simultaneous exchange of the same and the different; but only if this ambivalence can be reduced to an identity. This is why the two men, Jack and Ennis in E. Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain” (later made into a film by Ang Lee), can’t be friends. Unlike Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, they can’t fall in love with each other without their love being turned into a binary opposition.
They interest us only to the extent that we convert their relationship into a narrative of secrecy and disclosure, of thwarted desire, and the impossibility of achieving wholeness. We turn it, in other words, into a tale of courtship. We want the story of Ennis and Jack to become the gay version of Tristan and Isolde—an adulterous affair carried over decades.
We want the two characters to conform to the reigning categories of heterosexual and homosexual. But we don’t want them to be friends because, as friends, they would disrupt these categories.