1 A Little Taxonomy of Friends
The beauty of the word “friend” is that it’s so ambiguous,” wrote Miss Manners in one of her columns. I take Miss Manners’s meaning, though ambiguity is not necessarily a beautiful quality for someone who is attempting to understand what friendship is and how it works, and at book length no less. How much better if the meaning, implications, and significance of the word were nicely locked into a firm and easy definition! Alas, they aren’t, and perhaps never will be.
Friendship is the strongest of relationships not bound by or hostage to biology, which is to say, blood. It is, in this sense, as C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary.” As Lewis goes on to point out, we can breed without friendship and carry on existence without it. Friendship does not arise out of necessity, but out of preference. Unlike our family, which we have no say in choosing, our friendships are based almost entirely on personal selection. “God’s apology,” the English essayist Hugh Kingsmill amusingly called friends; by which he meant that, by way of apology, and to make amends to us for the families He has burdened us with, God has also supplied us with friends.
The breadth of meanings the word “friend” takes in is such that all one can safely say through definition is that a friend is someone one likes and wishes to see again, though I can think of exceptions and qualifications even to this innocuous formulation. Rather than attempt to define “friend” straightaway, perhaps I do better to begin by distinguishing between the kinds and degrees of friendship.
The first necessary distinction is that between a friend and an acquaintance. Dictionaries aren’t of much help here either. An acquaintance, I should say, is someone you know, may even have known for a long while, but almost never plan to meet, unless for some very specific reason. He or she may be someone pleasing enough to encounter—on the street, at a party or professional function, even in a hospital—but one generally does so with a slight element of surprise. A relationship with an acquaintance doesn’t postulate a future. You may or may not meet again, no obligation on either side, nothing owed but recognition and civility. You might dislike, in fact despise, an acquaintance, and do so with a clear conscience, something one is not permitted to do with a person one claims to call a friend. Yet there are some who prefer acquaintances to friends, as does the narrator of Julian Fellowes’s recent novel Snobs, who remarks that he much prefers acquaintances over friends, for they offer more variety and require so much less in the way of participation and obligation, leaving one’s life less clogged with human complication.
“Comrade” was a word much in vogue under Communism, which tried to foist equality even on friendship by making all men and women equally one’s friend in the forthcoming (it hasn’t quite arrived yet) just society. But in the social sense friendship isn’t about equality. Quite the reverse. By its nature friendship is preferential: one chooses one person over another to draw closer to; an element of exclusivity is implied in the word “friend.” “Companion” is too neutral a word to be of much help in establishing what a friend is or isn’t. A companion is, as it sounds, someone who happens to be in one’s company. He or she may be someone on one’s payroll; for example, someone an older person pays to stay with her during recovery from an illness. Sometimes “companion” is used as a code word for a lover, which also isn’t much help. A “great good friend” was the old Time magazine euphemism for someone a person wasn’t married to but was sleeping with.
Closer to the matter are the categories of Old Friends, Out-of- Town Friends, Professional Friends, Secondary Friends, Male-Female Friends, and Ex-Friends. I won’t bother to add Fair-Weather Friends, though I have a friend I call my Foul- Weather Friend, because we chiefly meet in the winter or on rainy days, since on all his other free days he is out playing golf.
Old friends include friends from one’s past whom one may or may not any longer see regularly. Old friends often include friends from as far back as one’s grade school or high school or college days. They might also include friends made in the military. Often these are friendships that have gone not so much sour as inactive: one of the parties to the friendship has moved to another area of the country, or perhaps once shared interests or causes or outlooks have changed, respective fortunes may have radically altered, and in the mix of all these possibilities the previous bassis for the friendship has become diluted or has dissolved. A common past, or at any rate a patch of the past, is what usually unites ooooold friends. At their best, school reunions are sustained by the feeling supplied by old friendships.
Sometimes meeting an old friend can be terribly disappointing, not to say sad, so far apart might friends have grown or so differently might they now view the world and therefore each other. Sometimes such meetings can be very sweet, especially when one still finds in an old friend, after a long lapse of time, the qualities one first liked in him or her twenty, thirty, forty, fifty and more years ago. But perhaps as often as not one finds nothing of the kind, and is left to wonder, God, what did we ever, in those distant days, find attractive in each other to begin with. Many old friendships are best left to lapse, without the drama of a final break, but simply allowed to sputter and gutter out. This becomes all the more poignant when only one party to the old friendship feels the friendship is better ended and the other wishes, hope against hope, to keep it alive. One friend may feel he has outgrown the other, to cite a common example, while the other is still entranced by the fond memories of past days and wants the friendship continued on the old basis.
Owing to American mobility—people moving about the country for work, a more pleasing environment, retirement, and much else—the category of out-of-town friend has become a larger one than perhaps at any previous time. Some friends are not merely out of town, but out of the country. One usually makes such friends through one’s professional associations: scientists often meet in faraway places with colleagues from around the world; connections get made, and out of them friendships begin to form. The main—it may be a crucial— distinction between out-of-town and other friends is that the element of regularity plays a much smaller, or sometimes almost no, part in out-of-town friendships.
Good feelings can certainly stay alive with friends who live in Paris, London, Bombay, and South America, but friendship doesn’t get much of a workout at such distances. The element of longing can also enter into out-of-town friendships—a longing to see the persons in question in the flesh, for which e-mails and long-distance telephone may be no substitute. I happen to have perhaps twenty friends in other cities and countries, all of whom I should like, with the wave of a magic wand, to live in the same city with me— a city, it nearly goes without saying, of perfect climate and rich cultural amenities, one agreeable to us all. Of course, it is also possible that if these fine out-of-town friendships were put to the test of reasonable regularity (a meeting every month or so), things might fall apart—presence, to reverse the old cliché, making the heart grow colder.
Not long ago I had the experience of regaining an old friend from grammar school. Back then he was the boy, so quick of mind was he, who convinced me that I had no future in mathematics. Then, in seventh grade, at the age of thirteen, he and his family moved to northern California. We had lost touch for a mere forty years when one day he sent me an e-mail, occasioned by something I had written, asking if I was the same kid with whom he had gone to Daniel Boone School in Chicago. We exchanged more e-mails, learning that, as we had common interests in those early days, we now had vastly changed but once again common interests today: sports and girls then; literature, philosophy, and art now; and an interest in baseball, then as now. When he came to Chicago a couple of years ago, so easily did we regain our former good feeling for each other, the friendship immediately rekindled. An old and lost friend, now regained, has become an out-of-town friend—I’d rather have him in town, yet reuniting with him has still been very fine.
Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, talks about friendships based on pleasure and friendships based on utility, neither of which, he believed, qualified as friendship of the highest order. When the pleasure was gone, when the usefulness had run its course, the friendship was finished. Yet surely everyone has had, and still has, friendships begun in the most strict utility —where one person might even have been paid to render a service to the other—that happily developed into richer friendships. Why shouldn’t some of one’s closest friends also be friends made in the line of work? Not for nothing are many physicians most friendly with fellow physicians, painters with painters, accountants with accountants, poets with poets.
Secondary friendships are those in which one realizes that one isn’t one of the main players in the relationship, or might not have been befriended at all if another relationship hadn’t first been in place. A secondary friendship is one entered into as the friend of a friend, or as the relation of a relation of a friend. One’s wife, say, is dear friends with another woman, who suggests that you go out to dinner as a foursome, putting you in a friendly relationship with your wife’s friend and your wife’s friend’s husband, whom you may or may not like. I have a friend who is in precisely such a relation in which he likes his wife’s friend but strongly dislikes his wife’s friend’s husband, with whom he has been faking friendliness for decades. He is too good a husband, and too gentle a man, to complain; he grins and (barely) bears it.
Another category is that of specialized friendships. Specialized friends are those whom one sees only during a particular activity—tennis, golf, bridge, poker, pottery, yoga, bowling— and has no real connection with outside the specific activity.
Sometimes, of course, one can first meet someone through this activity and the friendship can branch out and deepen, no longer requiring the game or craft or hobby or interest in question to keep it going. But more often, once one or the other party quits the activity, the friendship is done too.
Friendships can also be divided among those people who are older or younger or contemporary with oneself. The standard friendships—if any such thing as a standard can be said to exist in friendship—are probably those among contemporaries, who figure to have so much more in the way of common background and interests and to be at the same stage in life, which bring similar problems and pleasures and hence many more things to talk about.
My dearest friend—described in Chapter Three—was twenty- seven years older than I, though we met when I was already in my mid- thirties and he in his early sixties. But I have also had much older friends who had less experience of the world than I, and so the difference in age seemed to be wiped out, and we became equals; and in some instances, it became apparent that I, though younger, was the far more worldly person in the relationship, again wiping out age as a factor of any importance.
As one grows older, a relatively small difference in age—four years in adolescence, say, or ten or twelve in early adulthood— once providing an unpassable obstacle to friendship, seems to matter less and less and then not to matter at all. And in deadcenter middle age—fifty, say— one can sometimes feel more comfortable with someone in his late seventies or early eighties than with someone in his late twenties or early thirties. Unless one is committed to the notion that the world was a good place only when one was young, which will age a person faster than any other way I know, age differences seem to count for less as one advances into late middle and early old age, and so the possibilities for friendships correspondingly widen.
And yet there remains something to the obvious fact that one’s closest friends are likely to be drawn, at least for many years, from among one’s contemporaries. In this wise, I have heard it said that, once one reaches eighty, everyone you meet who is eighty or beyond is not merely a contemporary but automatically a friend, though I rather doubt it. A man or woman who was a creep at forty is unlikely to improve at eighty-five.
When I was a university teacher, I of course encountered a regular supply of younger men and women, a small number of whom attracted me by their intelligence, seriousness, passion, and high spirits. We became friendly, and, as they grew older, we became actual friends, though for some there remains a barrier that, decades later, they find difficult to jump. (Two of these former students, a man now in his thirties and a woman in her forties, even today cannot bring themselves to call me by my first name, and continue to address me as Mr. Epstein.) I’ve met other younger men and women through my writing: they wrote to me, or we met at a public function, we stayed in touch, friendship developed. When I can, I enjoy helping bring them on in their careers, just as a few older writers helped bring me on. I hope I am never condescending to them. I would like to say that they make me feel younger; in fact, they do not. What I chiefly feel toward them is the slight protectiveness of an older friend for a younger, which is of course the true nature of our relationship. Just now we are not equals; but one day, doubtless, things will be reversed, and if I live long enough, some among them may end up feeling protective of me.
Perhaps it ought to be added that the old (or older) are pleased to the have the friendship of the young (or younger), which makes the older feel less out of the whirl of things. For many of the young—I know I felt this when younger than I now am—friendships with older men and women buck one up, making one feel that if people with long records of accomplishment behind them thought well of one, perhaps one is the person of high quality one has always, deep down, known oneself to be.
The ideal friendship, from Cicero to Montaigne, is generally posited as one between equals. Ideal it may be, but reality doesn’t seem to leave much room to accommodate even near-perfect equality in friendships. Old friends who started out equal often enough find that the twists of life— good fortune, wretched luck, illness—put one or another of them well ahead, at least as the world measures the race, though friendship is best viewed outside all competition. Good character may be required for the friend who has had the better run to remain loyal to his friend, now that they are separated by money, achievement, prestige; poor character will allow him happily to desert his friend without much afterthought. Character is also required, along with the suppression of envy, for the less fortunate of the two friends not to hold his old friend’s success against him. One thinks here of Gore Vidal’s mean but not entirely truthless aphorism: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Francis Bacon, on this point, claims that “there is little friendship in the world, and least of all that between equals.” I take Bacon’s point to be that equality between people is chiefly a spur to rivalry, which can be death on friendship. And Balzac, with that worldly cynicism one comes to expect (and enjoy) in him, backs up Bacon by remarking that “nothing so fortifies a friendship as the belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other.” Other friendships start out unequal and remain so, equality never at any time having anything essential to do with the friendship. One may also befriend someone for qualities that are not obvious, or even knowable, until put to the test: loyalty, generosity, kindness, a good heart. Perhaps the person who has these qualities is always the one who holds an edge over the friend who is merely brilliant, attractive, or rich. Inequality, like beauty, may be only in the eye of the beholder. Here is the place to remark again—I have already done so in my Foreword—that I do not believe either that most men cannot be close friends without a strong homoerotic element admixed, or that a man and woman cannot be friends without their not-so-secretly wishing to leap into bed with each other. Such notions are part of the rich heritage of Freudianism, whose main ideas—the Oedipus complex, the dominance of the sexual element in everyday life, the ease with which human beings repress the painful in their lives, that one’s own pathetic ego must at all costs be defended—have now been plowed under by scientific evidence and covered over by common sense.
Friendships between men and women that exclude sex have become a more frequent feature of contemporary life. In my own experience, friendships between men and women can provide things that friendships between men do not. For one thing, the element of rivalrousness, sometimes present when with members of one’s own sex, tends to disappear when with a member of the opposite sex on whom one has no romantic designs. For another, women, or a great many women I have known, seem more receptive to ironic and obliquely ironic points in conversation. A man can let his guard down a bit with friends who are women in a way that he is perhaps less likely to do with male friends. I can more easily imagine telling a woman that I think that clothes, far from being trivial, can be amusing or witty, and that the right clothes can on occasion make a person, man or woman, feel better than coming into possession of three fresh religious insights. Women (at least some women) are made less nervous about taking up a wider range of subjects than are men (at least most men).
In modern times there have been innumerable instances of women finding themselves greatly at ease with, in fact preferring above all others, the friendship of homosexual men. They often find such men witty, attentive to style and to the domestic arts and to the details of quotidian life in a way that heterosexual men are usually not. Gay men, too, give off the air of being socially, sometimes artistically, if not avant-garde then au courant. And for women concerned, not to say worried, about such things, homosexual men provide the additional bonus of posing no sexual threat. Homosexual men, for their part, gain from such friendships the pleasures of the purely feminine point of view, relief from the masculine pose, and entrée into a larger world than exclusively male homosexual life allows. These are of course bold—and some of them possibly already outdated— generalizations, so all exceptions to them are admitted.
The saddest category is that of ex-friends. Behind most broken friendships is a story of insensitivity, decisive sins of omission or commission, the outrages of fortune—the reasons for friendships breaking up are as manifold as those for their beginning.
Other kinds and permutations of friendship may be found, lots of them. At different times in one’s life, one seeks out different sorts of friendships. Paul Valéry said that a man “has as many friends as he has personalities within him.” In youth, friendships can be particularly intense. One of the consequences of marrying is that the nature of one’s earlier friendships often change, though perhaps this is more true for men than for women. The degree to which one is absorbed by one’s life’s work will also alter the nature and number of one’s friendships.
The longer one lives, the fewer one’s friends figure to be, and one of the sadnesses of living into one’s nineties is that usually all one’s friends have departed, leaving one feeling alone on the planet. No one will be surprised to learn that studies have suggested that having friends tends to lengthen the life of the elderly by, among other things, extending their interests and getting them out of themselves. Something to it, no doubt, but then one remembers some years ago other studies that claimed that the lives of the very elderly are also enriched and lengthened by having a pet to care for, which may or may not be true. As for the status of friendship in the afterlife, all such studies, and this book along with them, remain resolutely silent.
Copyright © 2006 by Joseph Epstein. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.