Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Joseph Epstein's book Friendship: An Expose is an entertaining and thought-provoking book. I wouldn't say that it has an overarching argument about friendship, but it is full of interesting observations. E.g.:
[Here he's discussing the nature of "community":]

The central fire, then, is something beyond and deeper than mere agreement. It is a place where one can receive kindness, understanding, solace, patient attention, and respect for one's point of view, and all this because of an underlying but never spoken sense that everyone around that central fire, or in the community, knows that he and she are all in the same struggle together.

* * *

Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another been members of true communities. The most typical may be membership on athletic teams, especially when the team is doing well. In my own case, the sense of community, when I have experienced it, has been fairly short-lived. I felt I belonged to the community formed by the twenty-five or so men in my platoon during the difficult weeks of basic training in the army. I felt it earlier among my fellow fraternity pledges during a semester at the University of Illinois, though I couldn't feel anything like it for the full fraternity. . . .

I've never felt anything similar for a political community -- quite the reverse: when I find myself in a room with people whom I can count on to share (roughly) my own political views, my first thought is that perhaps these views are flawed and I ought to rethink them. Academics used to speak of a "community of scholars," but in a thirty-year teaching careeer, I have never felt anything like the warmth of Bertrand Russell's central fire at a university. . . .

But on those occasions, however brief, when I have felt myself part of a community, the feeling was enormously satisfying. The feeling is one of belonging. You look at the other seated around the central fire and feel with equal confidence that you would do almost anything for these people, as they would do almost anything for you. As a member of a community, you feel you have lost yourself, however temporarily, in something larger, of which you are nonetheless an important part. To be part of a true community is to experience collective friendship, with the associated feelings of mutuality and reciprocity that are normally available only between two people. It's a grand, grand feeling, and all the grander for its rarity.
This was amusing, and typically so:
No friend has broken with me in recent years, though I have known a few people who, I have to assume, did not long for my company when I have offered it. . . . Most strangely of all, I have a friend, also from college days, whom I hadn't seen for thirty years, then began seeing again with some frequency for four years or so, and now no longer see again. Apparently our friendship is on a four-years-on, thirty-years-off cycle, and clearly we do not have sufficient time left for another cycle. Did I offend him somehow? Or perhaps I unconsciously irked his wife. Might it be that I am not the charming fellow I believe I am? Good God, surely not.
And this observation seems correct as to one reason for the decline of modern friendship:
Most homes with young kids today are child-centered to an extent that would astonish parents of my mother and father's generation, who brought up their children in the 1940s and '50s. Neither of my parents felt that their first duty was to their children. They went off on vacations to Montreal or New York and left my younger brother and me in the care of professional babysitters or a childless aunt and uncle. My mother didn't begin driving until her late forties and my father was always off at work during the day, including Saturday, so I was never picked up or taken anywhere by my parents; I bicycled or took public transportation wherever I went. True, the world seemed a safer place then -- less crime, no drugs -- and kids could be left on their own more readily. But I never felt in the least neglected or maltrated by being so much on my own; on the contrary, I relished the freedom. Few parents today would themselves feel free enough to extend such freedom to their own children. Such is their worry about bringing up their children properly that they are willing (feel compelled is more like it) to expend a vast outlay of time on a full-court press of attention for their kids -- time taken from, among other things, the cultivating of friendships.

Given the changed status of women, the demands of career and especially those of family in the contemporary scheme of living, friendship has been demoted to a leisure time activity and consequently has come to seem an altered, even a radically changed, institution.


Blogger Dennis Mangan said...

As a longtime fan of Epstein's writing, I bought and read "Friendship", but have to say was disappointed. His "Snobbery" shows the Epstein flair to much greater effect.

12:30 PM  

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