Monday, April 23, 2012

Twenty-Nine: Amitié

Classical writers regarded friendship as the greatest gift, and one of the greatest goods. Without friendship, Aristotle said, no man would wish to live, though he had all other goods. Friendship is a dying art, now. It's not something we're comfortable with. Sex we understand, and we valorise love in ways the classical writers never imagined. But friendship is something that doesn't fit well with contemporary sensibilities.

I seem to remember twenty-odd years ago, and stories in news magazines proclaiming that the 1990s would be the Decade of Friendship. I don't remember why. Was it that after the plague years, the AIDS decade, that sex was something we were afraid of? Was it that passion was supposed to have burned itself out it Eighties excess? I don't remember at all why the trendspotters announced that "friendship" would be so key in the Nineties. I certainly don't remember that friendship played a major role in that decade. What I do remember is that friendship as an art had faltered all through the twentieth century, and that it continued to sicken all through the decade.

We do understand sex, and lust, and we insist that the pair-bond, the romantic couple, is the standard against which all relationships are measured. Friendship sits awkwardly in contemporary eyes. It's too often seen as something that takes away from the pair-bonding that's regarded as the only serious or valuable kind of relationship. Time spent with friends is time not devoted to the pair-bonding of spouses. Friendship and its emotional ties are seen as...what? Competing with something more serious, more socially valuable, more mature. I think, too, that it's hard for contemporaries to see any kind of close emotional or affectional tie and not read it as somehow sexual. A close friendship is seen as really just a love affair that's being hidden or denied.

I'm male, and a bachelor, and I feel the loss of friendships keenly. Yet I know that I'm sensitive to the implication that to have close male friends past one's undergraduate days is either  willful immaturity or closeted homosexuality. It's male friendship, of course, that carries those implications. Friendships between women are celebrated as empowering, not as clinging to juvenile life or as subterranean sapphistry.

I'm told that Japanese culture still values male friendship. I'm told that in societies where the sexes are still not integrated socially, where men and women have separate social spheres, males can have friendships that aren't suspected of either being a way to escape domestic life/adulthood or a hidden gay affair. We expect a close relationship to be a pair-bond where two people share everything and "complete" one another. There's no room left for friendship past one's mid-twenties, for anything that competes with the domestic pair-bond.

There's a bit of fear here, I know that. I feel a certain amount of fear about being regarded as either a Peter Pan or a paederast should I have close male friends. I'm a bachelor, too--- a status already suspect enough. To have close male friends now is to invite raised eyebrows from women. To make--- or try to make ---male friends now is to invite even more suspicion, if not derision.

This raises the perennial question, of course: can men and women ever be friends? I used to say that so many of my friends were women, and that my friendships with them weren't simply stalled courtships. But the truth is that while, yes, my closest friends are female, they're all people with whom I have a history. Not ex-lovers so much as ex-friends with benefits. They're women with whom I once had affairs in passing, affairs that didn't stray into dangerous areas of passion. Ex-friends with benefits--- shared past, shared beds, and now still able to talk and trust one another and share confidences. It would never work if I hadn't slept with them already. It wouldn't work if I'd once been deeply in love and lost that. Lovely young companions who were once friends-with-benefits have become my friends. I know that the sexual past--- even where we don't talk about it ---is what makes the friendship work.

I wouldn't know how to have male friends here at my age. I wouldn't know how to have female friends with whom I hadn't slept already. I'm not sure at all how to define friendship or what I hope for from friendship. I hope that if you're reading this, you'll tell me about how you define friendship for yourself, about what you think of male friendship as such. I suppose I'm hoping that lovely and literary and thoughtful girls--- the Comp. Lit. graduate student who's always my Implied Reader ---will comment on this. What are we to make of friendship here in the second decade of the new century? Is it even possible to be male and still have friends?