I have always placed a prime value on friendship, and it's Emerson's essays on the subject that I have admired most. He has perceptively written: "I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know." Emerson's idea is utterly germane to the few friendships that are authentic and contain emotional depth and commitment.
Still, most friendships, though often providing pleasure in good talk, warm feelings, and shared interests and insights, are superficial, and carry the ephemeral quality of "glass threads."
Recently, I have been dipping into "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" (Viking) an exchange of letters between two major novelists, both in their 60s, Brooklyn's Paul Auster ("The New York Trilogy"), and the Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee ("Disgrace"), born in South Africa and now living in Australia. The letters cover a variety of subjects, but for the purpose of the column I am specifically interested in their thoughts on friendship.
Auster writes that men, including friends, "tend not to talk about how they feel." But friendships survive "for many decades, in this ambiguous zone of not-knowing." And Coetzee writes that it's difficult saying anything interesting about friendship, for it's not "like love and politics, that are never what they seem to be, friendship is what it seems to be.
I have never felt that a deep connection can be sustained by knowing little about the internal life of a friend (and some men do open up emotionally), or that the subject is freer of intricate subtexts than politics or love. It has always seemed hard to get a handle on the nature of friendship, and the more one delves into it, the greater its elusiveness and ambiguity. I often hit an almost impenetrable wall in trying to understand what the basis of a particular friendship is. Consequently, we end up generalizing about friendship by using our own relationships as exemplars -- our definitions of friendship based, by necessity, on our own experiences.
The one thing about friendship that is most striking in the book is that the two writers have created an honest, genuine one. These are two successful writers who share many interests, respect each other, and, most importantly, have achieved a level of affection where Auster can refer to Coetzee as an "absent other" to whom he talks to in his head. Coetzee in turn reveals that he feels "a certain fraternal tenderness for you and your dogged, unappreciated bravery." Those are sentiments rarely expressed in everyday friendships; it signifies an intimacy between friends that never comes easily.
My own notions of friendship kept on subtly shifting over the years. I remember that in college, friendship took the form of a large circle of people, some much closer than others. We attended chaotic parties, drank tepid coffee in the college cafeteria, and hung out nights in smoke-filled, crowded Village coffee shops like Figaro's. Sitting among long-haired, arty, jewelry-wearing girls and Mexican-sweatered boys we fumed and raged about the meaninglessness of life.
Much of our talk had the feel of performance, with lots of polemics against suburban materialism and conformity. We were young and noisily tested our half-baked ideas, and, primarily, friendship took the form of affirming shared values and putting down the society we were alienated from. Still, there were also times when I was able to talk, in what I believed then was a truly confessional fashion, to dark, tense Andy and bland, stoned Dick (who I knew could never hear me) about how our families stunted us, and going deeper, our insecurities and fantasies about our uncharted future.
Over the years, the friendship circles disappeared, replaced by a consuming full-time job, marriage, and fatherhood. I established a number of individual friendships, some merely casual and social, others more intellectual than personal, a few intimate, though nothing was set in stone, given that the categories of friendship and the degrees of feeling were always open to change.
Still, I know what intimate friendships feel like. They are time-tested, built on profound loyalty, and generally involve a number of shared interests and values. Most importantly, the moments of ennui and lack of connection that normally occur between two people are outweighed by the times where honest, deeply felt revelatory talk is in ascendance.
In intimate friendships we also ultimately commit ourselves to the other without analyzing and questioning the nature of the relationship each time we meet. Emerson believes that "a friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud." But even the most open of these friendships, we still censor ourselves from being too critical of the other's limitations, as otherwise, we endanger destroying what we have so carefully constructed.
As a result, for someone like myself who has an extremely small family and no longer has a work community to offer a meaningful collective experience, it's friendship and marriage that provide solace. It's difficult to sustain a profound emotional connection to a friend, but the few that do help make life richer and more resonant.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org