Monday, December 25, 2006

On vanished friendships:

According to Aristotle, good legislators should have more respect for friendship than for justice. Thus, in true friendship lies the supreme idea of society’s perfection. Friendship is a virtue.

However, cautions Montagne. While mindful of the moral good that is friendship, he prefers to listen to Cicero: “Those are only to be reputed friendships that are fortified and confirmed by judgment and length of time.”

True friendships are taxed and tried, subject to many tests and bumps. They also take time. Long periods of time to get consolidated and vital.

Paul Ricoeur, in his book “Oneself as Another” explores the idea of friendship as the one relationship that holds out hope of countering the fragility and inconstancy of humankind. He catalogues three types of friendship:




Friendships motivated by utility and pleasure have their own raison d'etre, not to be dismissed or scoffed at out of hand. We all have them. And we all know they are short-lived and fickle, subject to the slightest gust of wind to knock them off track. These friendships are not life sustaining in any way. They are like candy. “But, in general, all those friendships created and nourished by pleasure, profit, public or private interest are so much the less noble and generous, and so much the less friendships, by the extent to which they mix up another cause and motive with friendship itself.” These are, Montagne tells us, acquaintances, connections, people we know, with whom we exchange some of the less important content of our minds, of our selves. "But, in the friendship I speak of, they min­gle and melt into one piece, with so universal a mixture that there is left no more sign of the seam by which they were first put together. If any one should demand that I give a reason why I loved someone, I feel it could no otherwise be expressed than by the answer, “Because he was he; because I was I”.

Generosity and selflessness are the marks of true friendship. Ricoeur explains why. The exchange that takes place in true friendship depends on mutuality, reciprocity, and pre-supposes true equality. This is where the virtue that is friendship and the idea of justice intersect, since justice strives to restore equality. If we understand this essential element in friendship, aside from the natural flow of affection, then we have made some progress towards ways of augmenting justice in this world. And I speak of the justice that does not rely on legislation to keep the peace.

I will get back to this idea some time in the future. Right now I’d like to go back to the idea of friendship, which is still in the private sphere.

I’m reading Martin Amis’s book “Experience”. I only recently came to appreciate this author, who mobilizes the English language as a painter wields his paints, in range of hues, colour combinations and varying degrees of tactility. Since I’ve only just begun to ponder the man behind the words, I will not try to describe or characterize him. Except to say that I think he is a decent thinker, in the tradition of decency set by George Orwell.

The book is a memoir, mostly intended to outline a certain portrait of his father, Kingsley Amis. The book also refers a great deal to the women in his life, so love and sex form a secondary theme in this memoir. But I thought the real pivot this book turns on is friendship. Friendship with his father, with his stepmother, with his peers, with his mentors, with books and poems.

Amis has the good fortune to call some very formidable writers, friends. His friends are the authors we read today, if we are interested in words, language, culture, literature. Christopher Hitchens has a special place. If Hitchens is Amis' fraternal-friend then Saul Bellow is the paternal friend.

Amis recounts the story of a loss of friendship, one that he thought would endure forever. And having lost the friend (British author Julian Barnes), he says:

“As Christopher Hitchens learned…the sacrifice of a friendship is a terrible affront to the Sauls and Jonathans of the media (each to each an Achilles, a Patroclus). The slant they’ll always give it is that the sacrifice was, at once, utterly calculating and utterly blithe. And never regretted. Whereas in the real world, the world of experience, a vanished friendship leaves you with many doubts and question; it is an amorphous absence that haunts your present, your future and, most unwelcomely, your past. I should think this is how it is for Julian, too”.

Martin Amis' surprise at the sharpness with which this friendship was severed leads him to surmise that it cannot have been one isolated incident that brokered it. The grudge must have gone back a long time. Meaning, of course, that true friendships are not easily intimidated by one act of incompatible interests, that the asperity had been there for much longer, rendering what appeared to be a solid friendship merely a sort of a pretense at friendship. I think that was as far as he was willing to concede that he had his innermost, buried doubts about the sustainability of that particular friendship for a long time. I think I can understand, both his initial surprise with the hostility of the breakup and his reluctance to admit to himself that there was really no surprise there, that it had been anticipated.

But at least he was spared the pain that ensues when a friendship falters and dies for no apparently good reason. He knew exactly who, when and why. And this is why, I think, he can talk about his former friend with some generosity and without much rancour.


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