Thursday, July 20, 2006


My friends hold me together. And so I find rather poignant this excerpt from an essay by Joseph Epstein entitled Friendship Among the Intellectuals.

"It is painful to consider,” wrote Samuel Johnson about friendship, “that there is no human possession of which the duration is less certain.”

Too true. Some friendships die on their own, of simple inanition, having been quietly allowed to lapse by the unacknowledged agreement of both parties. Others break down because time has altered old friends, given them different interests, values, points of view. In still others, only one party works at the friendship, while the other belongs to what Truman Capote called (in a letter to the critic Newton Arvin, his ex-lover) “some odd psychological type . . . that only writes when he is written to.” And then of course there are the friendships that end when one friend betrays or is felt to betray the other, or fails to come through in a crisis, or finds himself violently disputing the other on matters of profoundest principle.

These days, such principled disagreements tend often to involve ideas, and to be endemic among supposedly educated people and especially among intellectuals. ...[But] here is the question ... raise[d] in high relief: for what ideas would one be willing to give up one’s friends? Most of us, I suspect, would answer: none. Ideas, after all, are but abstract things and as such are not worth even a single flesh-and-blood friend. And yet, abstract as they are, in the realm of politics ideas have consequences, and those consequences can be measured all too often and all too precisely in flesh and blood.

Communism, which began as an idea, ended up causing death and misery to scores of millions of people for nearly a century. If your friend were to advocate or defend the Communist system, could he truly be your friend? Cicero defined friendship “as nothing other than agreement over all things divine and human along with good will and affection.” That is a lot to ask, but it seems undeniable that general agreement on such major matters is a great lubricant for a friction-free friendship.

For me, a person’s general point of view is more important than his opinions on specific issues, though I admit that the line between the two is not always easily drawn. ...Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus broke up their friendship over Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. The book argued against political utopianism, which Camus thought was the world’s most dangerous delusion. Sartre, a utopian who lived comfortably enough with the horrors perpetrated by Joseph Stalin, felt this was going altogether too far, and closed things off. Sigmund Freud, unable to bear deviation from any of his own central ideas, broke with just about everyone in what was once called the Freudian circle.

...Every broken friendship can be thought of as a failure or a defeat. Yet, one must ask in each case, was the friendship itself therefore without meaning? Nietzsche, who himself had a famous broken friendship with Wagner—he began by idolizing the composer and ended by despising him—devotes a strangely fortifying paragraph to the subject in The Gay Science. Trying to make lemonade out of the rotted lemons of broken friendship, he suggests that perhaps, in “a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit, such friendships might be renewed and better made.” One would like to think this may be so, but the odds in favor of it are only slightly better than those in favor of the return of vaudeville.

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