Friday, July 14, 2006


It is prudent to be equally wary of Percy, Laurence and Augustin. Laurence recites poetry, Percy lectures and Augustin tells truths. A frank person – that is the latter’s title, and his profession is that of being a true friend.Augustin comes into a salon; verily I tell you, be on your guard and never forget that he is truly your friend. Remember that, just like Percy and Laurence, he never comes with impunity, and that he will not wait for you to ask him before telling you a few truth about yourself, any more than Laurence waited before delivering a monologue before you, or Percy before telling you what he thinks of Verlaine. He does not let you wait for him or interrupt him, since he is frank in the same way as Laurence is a lecturer, not in your interest but for his own pleasure. To be sure, your displeasure intensifies his pleasure, just as your attention intensifies the pleasure of Laurence. But he would forego it if necessary. So here we have them, three impudent scoundrels to whom we should refuse all encouragement, all indulgence, and anything, indeed which feeds their vice. Quite the contrary, for they have their own special audience which they can live off. Indeed, the audience of Augustin the sayer of truths is quite extensive. This audience, misled by the conventional psychology of the theatre and the absurd maxim, ‘who loves well chastises well’ refuses to recognize that flattery is sometimes merely an overflow of affection and frankness the foam and slobber of a bad mood. Does Augustin exercise his spite on a friend? His audience draws a vague mental contrast between Roman rough justice and Byzantine hypocrisy, and they all exclaim with proud gesture, their eyes lit by jubilation at feeling themselves to be morally better, more down to earth, altogether rougher and tougher. ‘He’s not someone to spare your feelings out of affection!…. Let’s honour him: what a true friend….”

From: Pleasures and Days, by Marcel Proust

I browsed a little to find what great people say about the relationship among flattery, frankness and friendship. Apparently, there is a relationship. Shakespeare says that friendship is a kind of flattery. Socrates says that flattery is like friendship in show, but not in fruit.

So there seem to be connections extending each way. Friends can be frankly flattering, with the best of intentions and affection. Isn't that why we like to mention our friends? As some sort of an affirmation, that for those people, we matter? Isn't that what flattery does to us? Tells us that we are special in some way, some noticeable way? I think this is where the nexus is, between these three terms.

I recently had to occasion to ask: is this friendship? The answer was: why do you care what it's called? What if I am your friend but I'm a lousy human being? I am honoured to be your friend, but remember, it is only I. Flattery, (I am honoured); frankness (if I'm a lousy human, then this friendship doesn't say much about you, right?). But in this case, both the frankness and flattery join together to flatter a friend. A friend, apparently, who is worth the trouble of an answer.

Of course having such a friend flatters my ego. Would I be telling this story if the answer was: of course we are not friends, you silly cow, friendship with you would be like having a constant pain in the proverbial. No way. I would be licking my wounded amour-propre somewhere out of sight.

What I want to say is that I probably agree with Proust that flattery can be seen as an overflow of affection, especially when it happens between friends. And that flattery between friends has many subtleties to it. But still I wonder: Is there, underneath it all, a jousting for power, somehow?

An etymological perspective:

"flatter c.1225, from O.Fr. flater "to flatter," originally "stroke with the hand, caress," from Frank. *flat "palm, flat of the hand" (see flat (adj.)). "

My friend Sue says:

“Someone cares enough to think one is at some level of one's being."

Indeed. I think Sue captured perfectly Proust's meaning of the overflow of affection. But I also happen to believe that friends who are really close to us are always good looking in our eyes. It is a fact that it is very easy to be generous in that respect towards our friends. Maybe that's what Proust was actually aiming at expressing when he talks of flattery between friends. Something that is more like a welling of generosity.

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