Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lewis on Friendship

For anyone who has not read C.S. Lewis' "The Four Loves," I highly recommend it, in particular the chapter on Friendship. Lewis remains a venerable source of commentary on the modern predicament because he sees that what we have let fall between the cracks of morality is something quite different, and more fundamentally valuable than Christians of the present era suppose it to be.

Quite a number of people in conservative circles lament the blase contemporary attitude expressed towards erotic love. Very few, however, express any concern that the modern individual has any less firm of a grasp on the value of fraternal affection. At the beginning of his essay, Lewis notes that while Romeo and Juliet, Hero and Leander, and Heloise and Abelard all have their parallels in modern literature, Roland and Oliver, Hamlet and Horatio, and David and Jonathan have not. In fact, says Lewis, there has been written no major work of literature at whose center is the emotion of brotherly love since Tennyson's "In Memoriam" (which was published around 1850, as memory serves).

I think Lewis makes an interesting point here, one that, while we have been busy lamenting the decay of the family and the decrepitude of marriage, we have neglected to notice.
Quite possibly, we haven't attended to the present devaluation of friendship because unlike with marriage and erotic love, we don't see it perverted or abused; more often, we see it ignored, or at other times misdefined. One commonality I've noticed is that people of my generation frequently call someone a friend when they would more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Apparently MySpace (may it rot in hell) makes boon comrades of us all. Intimacy, although access to it ought to be only a matter of tapping a few keys, is a strangely rare commodity these days. The drought of close acquaintance, which found its first major descriptor in the British novelist E.M. Forster, has found its way into the movies as well, with directors such as Sophia Coppola and Zach Braff making it almost their stock in trade.

We have come to the point where we see intimacy and friendship as almost inimacle to one another. When we discuss "intimacy" or use the word in conversation, it is almost invariably in reference to affection of a romantic nature. Peripherally, this has led to an unfortunate turn in our understanding of relationships not only among ourselves, but between historical figures, and characters in myth and in popular fiction; wherever we observe an intimacy between friends in narrative, our impulse is to label that closeness as erotic love masquerading as something less intriguing. Thus the relationship between, say, Aeneas and Achates arouses our suspicion, and allowing that, we grow that much more suspicious of our own motives in friendship, and the motives of those that we count as friends.

Lewis was right in saying that friendship has lost its voice; if Hamlet were alive today, he wouldn't be able to testify to Horatio that

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself;

Nor get away with the request

Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.

At least not with an awkward silence thereafter.

I don't expect that conservatives will start adopting Lewis' concern with the dilution of friendship any time soon. It is not a fashionable cause, or one capable of raising much alarm. I wonder though, if we had a less clouded view of friendship, could that lead to a less corrupted view of marriage? It's clear that we commonly confuse the love natural to friends for the love natural to a husband and wife, but I think we are also sadly capable of the converse. Couples have on occasion tied the knot too much for the reason of "common interests" that include things like skiing, mountain climbing or Pilates,* ignoring a lack of common interest in one another. Common interest of the first kind is at the center of friendship, but at the outskirts of marriage. When we fail to see this, confusion follows on both sides of the equation. But when we do see and know the one, we may better exemplify both it and its counterpart.



*Female readers: Never believe a man who claims to like this form of exercise, unless he prefaces it with the phrase "Watching chicks doing. . ."

9 comments:

Bennett said...

bom,

but we have seen it perverted: a proper understanding of comaraderie would make non-existent most of the popular prsbyterian pass-times.

"boon comrade" is the best phrase i've heard all month. rem acu tetigisti, as a guy once said.

Thomas Banks said...

Ben-

For all intents and purposes, you may be right, and maybe I should have picked a different word than "Misinterpreted." What I meant though, was that people at present are not adamantly trying to dismantle the "Institution" of friendship (If it can be called that) in the same degree as say, marriage.

BTW, what do you mean "Popular Presbyterian Pastimes?"

...And props on the alliteration.

Bennett said...

i agree with you completely, though you could argue that friendship has already been dismantled (to a degree) by an enlightenment-induced elevation of propositional assertion over personal relationship, which idea conservatives bought into long ago.
that was the point of the presbyterian jab: there seems to be a new presby hate-storm over some doctrinal minutiae every other week (FV, NPP, etc. ad nauseum)

Thomas Banks said...

That's an interesting point, especially taken in light of statements like Bertrand Russell's "Loyalty is one of the greatest forms of evil."

Personally, one thing I notice is that modern conservatives tend to overate deductive reasoning as the basis for policy, whereas liberals tend to put too much emphasis on the inductive, "Think of the poor single mother in Compton" line. Strangely, this is the opposite of what would have been the case 150 years ago. Hmm.

I may have to post more on this.

RespectMyAuthorita said...

Tom, this is gay. I dont think men should even use the word intimate. I feel like taking a shower after typing it. Dudes were meant to get a wife, leave their buddies in the dust, and call them every once in a while, throw the pigskin around while BBQ'ing once a year or so. This neglect of brotherly love is all for the best, there are too many fags around anyway. I like to be left alone most of the time anyway. The internet is great, because i can talk to people very platonically, and keep a nice 5 mile plus distence from all dudeage.

Heather said...

I really enjoyed this post... I would like to know what you think about friendships between men and women. Because so many people are fighting against the perversions of relationships between men and women and the soiling of marriage, I think that they have made all relationships between men and women too sexually charged.. and my own experience has taught me that it is truly rare to find a friendship between a man and a woman that is not on some level based on attraction.... yet...... I want that kind of asexual friendship to be possible.
What do you think?
For Tom's married readers (basically, Ben and Mr. Evan), I'd also love to know what you think.... and lastly, Davis, if you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them as well.

Heather said...

where i put an "and", there should be a but (when I talk about my own experience). i should have waited to post when i was more awake.... so forgive my post if it seems a bit garbled.

Bennett said...

hez,

i'm ambivalent on that one. on the one hand, i've had a couple very close friendships with girls that were absolutely platonic. on the other hand, they may not have appeared so to someone on the outside (speculative, evil-minded brutes that we are).
i've also had a few "friends" who, despite all our protestations to the contrary, turned into much more than that. so, on this topic, a few things to bear in mind as you consider your friendships with men:

1. attraction + proximity = attachment (even if it ain't mutual)

2. reputation and the appearance of evil are as much your responsibility as avoiding actual sexual sin. gossips asside, if people you respect are giving you the old stink eye, you are doing something wrong, even if it's not what they think you are doing.

3. "It is good for a man not to touch a woman". though i am all for the hug or kiss on the cheek between close friends (mr. wilson, cold fish that he is, will disagree with me here), too much of a good thing, even if the formula in #1 doesn't apply, can become a very good thing, if you follow.

i know those came off as largely negative, but i figure you, like me, don't really need encouragement in the other direction so much.

blessings,

b

Thomas Banks said...

As to No. 3 on Ben's list-

In any other culture than this one, I'd be down with that.