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Do we have ‘friends’, or do we just know various people? There is something a bit sticky and self-conscious about the idea of friendship. Anyone can be in love and proud of it, but to have a ‘friend’ – no, it really won’t do. ‘I’m your friend,’ said Myfanwy to John as they crouched in the ‘dark and furry cupboard while the rest played hide-and-seek’. Betjeman got that about right. ‘We’ve always been the greatest friends’ – that is the kind of thing the lady says about her dentist or accountant, or a woman she’s known for years and years and doesn’t trust an inch. Friendship, like patriotism, is one of those things that has gone off the scale of expression. E. M. Forster managed to combine both in the stickiest sentence he ever wrote: the one about hoping he would have the guts to betray his country rather than his friend. We still have the crude but at least practical convenience of ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’. But can the past, and its writing, restore sense and civility to the idea of friendship? You might like to have a look at The Oxford Book of Friendship edited by D.J. Enright and David Rawlinson, some 360 pages. It's been out since 1991.
In The Oxford Book of Friendship, D.J. Enright, one of England's best known poets, and David Rawlinson bring together some of the world's best thoughts on friendship, found in excerpts from Shakespeare and the Bible, novels and poems, autobiographies, letters, and diaries, even personal ads from The New York Review of Books. The selections across a wide spectrum offer a literary buffet of historic and literary friendships of all kinds--from David and Jonathan in the Bible to Damon and Pythias, from Goethe and Schiller to Huck Finn and Jim--and under all circumstances, from friendships forged in concentration camps to the bonds we form with our pets. Concluding with a delightful potpourri of short sayings, like: "It is easier to visit friends than to live with them", the editors provide an amusing, enriching, and reflective anthology on a central theme in everyone's life.
WHAT FORM: FRIENDSHIP?
All his life he’d cherished a beloved idea of friendship and now, when true and good friends offered, he found he simply could not commit himself, even to simple friendship. He found his soul just set against it: great or small, deep or shallow. It took him a long time before he would admit or accept this new fact. He wanted some living fellowship, perhaps it was the joy of obedience and the sacred responsibility of authority. Price had, indeed, found such a living fellowship, such a joy in obedience and such an authority to which he felt a sacred responsibility. -Ron Price with thanks to D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, Angus and Robertson, 1982(1923), pp.114-115.
There’s a subtle, remote, formless
beauty, poignant even, hanging back,
aloof in its desert emptiness or mountain
vastness, a sombreness, as if worn low,
blunt and squat and very old, calling me
to be lonely and driving me back in a frenzy
to fight it out with my fellows, showing me
delicate and fragile forms, extraordinary
delight, opening before my eyes, surprising
me again and again, in a world that doesn’t
care and tramps blankly on and on, and on......
That world saves me from bothering, helping me
confine myself, my care, my self, to my essential
instincts, as if they were fate, stearing clear of
unanimity’s weary business, stepping aside with
a great geniality from the gaping silences and the
endless, endless words, into an inner life & private
character that is the chief source of my happiness
and joy, but only because I have had such endless
immersion in society’s ocean its seemingly endless
mateships, fellowships.....and so-called friendships.
5/1/'97 to 19/12/'13.
Michel de Montaigne(1533-1592), one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularising the essay as a literary genre, and commonly thought of as the father of modern skepticism, echoed an Aristotelian perspective. "There is nothing for which nature seems to have given us such a bent as for society," he assured his readers. Aristotle wrote that good lawgivers have paid more attention to friendship than to justice. Friendship is the "peak" of a "perfect society." (Montaigne, Essays, pp. 92-3). In these secular terms, friendship was generally esteemed. Etienne de la Boetie(1530-1563), a French judge, writer, anarchist, and one of the founders of modern political philosophy in France, advised that "our nature is such that the common duties of friendship consume a good portion of our lives" (Charier, A History of Private Life, p. 21).
The idea of "duty" is important in many conceptions of friendship. For many, the idea of friendship was immediately idealised, in classical terms, as a matter of responsibility to fellow members of the community. In his Book of the Governor, Sir Thomas Elyot(1490-1546) defined the good magistrate as one who was a "plain and unfeigned friend." The secular aspect was, then, intimately related to classical models of public and civic association. James Harrington(1611-1677), an English political theorist best known for his controversial work, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), described friendship more in terms of agricultural settlement and rural life than in terms of ideals of Roman civic governance. His views were firmly based on received models of citizen "virtue." Indeed, as John Pocock(1924- ), a writer and historian of political thought, noted, the importance of Oceana lies precisely in its translation of classical ideas of association into a world determined by the jurisprudence of the common law.
Since many readers who come to this sub-section of my webpage come here as 'friends' from a multitude of internet sites at which I post, you might enjoy a book published in 2006 by one of the English speaking world's finest essayists, Joseph Epstein. The book is entitled: Friendship: An Expose. This is a rambling, shambling, highly personal survey of a universal relationship. It is a relationship whose fluidity and changing nature---through history and through the stages of a single life---make it rich pickings for an erudite essayist of Mr. Epstein’s caliber. A review of that book is found at this link at The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/26/books/26grim.html
Friendship, like forgiveness, modesty and tolerance, is a concept which we all instinctively recognise but which buckles under the pressure of philosophical definition. In this little study, AC Grayling charts the history of attempts to understand what friendship is; how a friend differs from a lover, an acquaintance or an ally; and how friendship relates to wider moral and ethical propositions. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle, and progressing via Cicero and Augustine to Montaigne, Kant and Godwin, Grayling assesses a formidable array of sources before turning his attention to literary depictions of friendship: Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Nisus and Euryalus, Tennyson and Hallam. He concludes with his own insights into the idea of friendship, drawn from his own experience.
Part of the problem is purely linguistic, says Grayling. Anthony Clifford "A. C." Grayling(1949-) is an English philosopher. In 2011 he founded and became the first Master of New College of the Humanities, an independent undergraduate college in London. Until June 2011, he was Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, where he taught from 1991. He is also a supernumerary fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. For more on Grayling go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._C._Grayling
Grayling does not mention this, but there is a slippage in English between the idea of a "friend" and a "best friend". It is even more complicated now that the word has become a verb: one may "friend" a complete stranger on Facebook. A thread joins together Aristotle's statement in the Nicomachean Ethics – "his friend is another self" – to Cicero in De Amicitia – "in the face of a true friend we see a second self" – to Montaigne writing "if anyone urges me to tell why I loved him, I feel it cannot be expressed but by answering: Because it was he, because it was myself". Grayling rightly questions whether this is solipsism – a friend is a friend depending on how closely they resemble us. But the opposite tradition – a friend complements us by having qualities we lack, as exemplified by Godwin's sense of the inequality inherent in friendship – is equally problematic. If we push this to extremes, then we should seek out friends who supplement our zeal with idleness, our generosity with parsimony and our loyalty with treachery. For more by AC Grayling go to:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/16/friendship-ac-grayling-review
“Henry Adams’s capacity for friendship,” wrote Lionel Trilling in 1952 in an essay about this nineteenth century American intellectual, “was one of the most notable things about him, and it is of course a decisive element of the greatness of his letters.” Trilling goes on to refer to the nineteenth century as “the great age of friendship” when men had “close, continuing communication with each other.” Adams was, he asserts, “the last man, or perhaps the last American, to have had actual friendships.” As a pioneer and travel teacher, I find the process by which my friendships are created and endure quite complex to describe.-Ron Price with thanks to Lionel Trilling, “Adams At Ease,” The Oxford Book of Essays, editor, John Gross, Oxford UP, NY, 1991, pp.522-52.
This subject is, for this pioneer,
travel-teacher, a complex one;
for one who, for years, found
and still finds it easy to throw
his emotional and creative
energies into relationships,
shared frames of meaning,
reified by means of belief,
interest, simply living in the age.
The messy, fuzzy, contradictory,
inexplicable realities, nonlinear,
geometries of friendships,
regularities of coherence,
exist now across two continents.
That seething cauldron1
of coalescing, diverging,
emerging, reuniting patterns,
with its bewildering, often
where friendships emerge
and come to exist
in the longue duree, life-line
that bridges several epochs,
with social reality in a maze
of mutually created social identities
and my own transformation caught
in a stable and quite unstable mix.
1 it only seethes when one analyses it deeply. A surface, day-to-day, casual glance at all these relationships presents a relative calm cauldron with little activity going on.
John Press writes that “The origin of most poems worthy of the name will be either in an image or in a rhythm rather than in a concept, a thought, or a feeling.” It would seem that John Keats’ experience was the opposite. “Keats’ writing,” says Gittings, “is an almost instant transmutation of impressions, thoughts, reading and ideas into poetry….the poems are far from being a poetic diary of his life. They enrich the original impulse with a complete thought of their own. He regarded most of his day-to-day reading as ‘study’ for poetry. Some of his poetry was a record of his own poetic nature….writing frankly about himself and about his poetry.” By the early years of the new millennium most of my reading was, in fact, study for poetry and, like Keats, it was a record of my poetic nature, a narrative about myself, my poetry and my religion. –Ron Price with thanks to John Press, The Fire and the Fountain, Barnes and Noble Inc., Boston, p.166 and Robert Gittings, Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats, Heinemann Books Ltd. London, 1981(1966), pp.8-11.
I think I’m about fifty-fifty; I’m taking
some very ordinary feelings and putting
them into poems; taking sinewy reason
and obscure states of being concealed on
the inside and putting them into poems;
taking what are often flat, banal utterances
in calm, neutral tones; what are sometimes
sense experiences of remarkable acuteness
and writing about them with a poignancy:
sex, the sensory, sensation and satisfaction.
I’m taking intellectual and emotional
complexes, vortices & clusters of ideas
endowing them with energy, with words.
28 August 1999
A TYPE OF FRIENDSHIP
I read a book in the last two days about Shakespeare’s sonnets and the presence and absence of a narrative, an anecdotal, a temporal, a chronological, a linear, a dramatic sequence in the one hundred and fifty four sonnets. It helped me to reflect on the quality of my own poetic material and its role in the following 8 categories of aims and purposes:
(i) illuminating and evoking the idiosyncrasies and complexities of my personal sensibility sometimes in a moving way and sometimes in a simple, natural and dispassionate manner, (ii) establishing a basis for my readers’ affinity with me, a recognition that their heart is my heart, at least to some extent, and in the process creating the type of friendship that is unique between a reader and a writer, (iii) creating a narrative, a temporal, an anecdotal, a lineal sequence of my life, my society’s and my Faith’s, (iv) defining how I view experience, how I reflect on that experience as the inevitable centrepiece of my life, (vi) describing my emotions as immediately and intensely as possible, (vii) anchoring the events, the situations, the stories, the dramas, the conflicting forces and the tensions of the participants in my poems, as well as their joys, pleasures and their happiness in life; and (viii) providing a focus for an internal meditation, dialogue between myself and the world or some circularity of repeated internal meditation. -Ron Price with thanks to Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare’s Narrative Poems and Sonnets, Cornell UP, London, 1987.
This is one of those circular, repeated,
internal meditations on a life, a life in
which I’ve lived in more towns than
you can shake a stick at, where I’ve
entreated and invoked Him for as many
years as it took Moses to get to the
Promised Land: such was my walk with
God, during this period of a discouragingly
meagre response, the work of a lifetime
which will continue forever and ever, with
new powers and perceptions, part of a living
relation with God, a spiritual commerce,
a spontaneous and eager quest, part of living
in all those towns across three epochs.
Ron Price 10 May 2000
Again and agan in life we all reconstitute our memories. I have done this agan and again in relation to so many other people, places and things. These reconstituted memories form the basis of my remembered self. The shared stories and memories I have within my family, my friendships, my religious community and other individuals and groups define my particular social self. These new memories sometimes bolster and sometimes compete with my previously remembered selves and my previous memories. The narrative construction of human reality, in particular the social reality, and the role of stories in communication and social interaction, forms the story, the autobiographical story or autobiography which is central to human personality. Readers will find, if they have not already, that I come back often to the process of autobiography. Consciousness of this process is, I think, crucial to understanding our own personal lives.
Human stories are rich and of such a complexity and variability that it is difficult to define human narrativity and to separate this narrative from the living body which such narrative abilities emerge from. However, embedding such a story-telling capacity in human agents like ourselves with our rich behavior repertoire, our complex biology and our arguably even more complex social reality, makes for paradox, irony and subtlety and requires a brilliant inventiveness, understanding and wisdom to unravel it. After nearly twenty years of working on this story I feel I have only begun.
A DEEP DOWN THING
At the end of a documentary about the famous contemporary composer Philip Glass,(1 )Glass talks about one of his friends who is a writer. He says that this writer sees his writing as functioning to create a personal centre, an introspective meaning, a cosmology, a focus in the midst of a world immersed in various chaotic elements, various tempestuous struggles. –Ron Price with thanks to (1)ABC1, 26 January 2009, 8:30-9:30, “Glass: A Portrait of Philip Glass in Twelve Parts.”
We got a glimpse behind
the curtain into the life of
this surprising & complex
man; we got a portrait-like
mosaic of one of the great
artist-composers of our time
whose music aims at structures
of repetitive-reiterative styles
with brief melodic fragments
that weave in and out of aural
tapestries due to an overflowing
energy, incessant activity and a
swirling--propulsive inner life.
I was very moved by your work,
Philip, work which created its own
centre, its meaning, its focus in the
midst of our chaotic modern world—
me too, Philip, me too—my work
grows out of a myriad of influences
like your own, Philip. But there is
for me a centre, a deep down thing,
a sweet-scented stream, everlasting
melody breathing tranquillity on me.
Perhaps it is this medication cocktail
that the world of chemotherapy, of
science and psychiatry has brought
into this world of existence, my own
deep-down thing in my very brain,
simplifying the ‘oft chaotic and, yes,
smoothing out most of the rough edges.
Ron Price 23 February 2009
One’s books form a kind of an autobiography; I suppose the same could be said about one’s letters, one’s clothes, one’s writings, one’s food, among other things, depending, of course, on what part of one’s life one is telling the story about. -Ron Price, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, 26 October 1996.
You’re1 all over the place now,
after years of keeping you in order.
A great burgeoning has appeared
making you incomplete, beyond
my means, only in the bookshop now
or on other people’s shelves.
Some of you go way back,
back to ’62, perhaps before,
those earliest years,
before I had any idea
of what most of it meant,
reacting to a feeling,
a poetic taste, a touch of the infinite
that I might have got from my mother
or father in their act of creation and mystery.
Now, you’re covered with lines,
annoying my wife; you’re friendly,
warm, old friends, sometimes distant,
weathered by fatigue, overworked,
make me tired just looking at you,
no gloss any more,
sometimes not even friendly,
estranging: you’ve been there too long;
I need to change you like new furniture
every 19 years. You harbour gems
of inestimable delight
behind those worn covers,
jagged edges, every-sized.
Noone knows the light hidden in your blackness.
26 October 1996
1 My Baha’i books
After ten years you go beyond feeling.
-C. Chessman, BBC, 1993, ABC TV, 30 November 1995: Great Crimes and Trials of the Twentieth Century. Chessman was a man waiting on death row in California from 1950 to 1962, in the years I was preparing, little did I know it, for a lifetime of pioneering.
After thirty-three years in the field
your feelings learn to protect themselves
with humorous asides and saying ‘no,’
dwelling in some inner landscape
where the Master rides, lightly rides:
in the mountains you reach for Him.
You cloak yourself in a privacy
which sometimes tastes of dignity
and a hint of spiritual charm
like a herbal remedy, ever so distant,
ever so subtle, dry even.
Sometimes you feel like a delectable,
mysterious sauce, piquant,
lingers on the tongue,
surprising their taste buds
with unexpected combinations
of colourful, scented, ingredients.
You meet the human need
for delighted astonishment,
but sadly(thankfully?) only sometimes.(1)
So much of it is dry paperland
with no more juice
than some of those useless lemons,
that is why you admit people to friendship slowly.
You had to after winning
all those popularity contests
which you didn’t even want to enter:
So you perfected evasion into an art form;
kept away the bore, the pedant, the obtuse,
the fake, the chatterbox, the loud,
just about everyone: gave them the slip
when they blundered uninvited
with their chit-chat into your personal space,
with their well-intentioned catechism of things
that would be good for you.
For the cosmic patriotism of this Cause
and its enthusiastic temper of espousal
can get a little thin,
unless one is constitutionally sanguine
and possesses a congenital amnesia,
an incapacity for even transient sadness,
a temperament organically weighted
on the side of cheer,
fatally forbidden to linger,
even momentarily, on the dark side.
But you, and many of them,
have a different susceptibility
to emotional excitement,
to the impulses and inhibitions
that they bring in their train.
This rank-and-file believer,
part of the warp and weft,
an ordinary chap,
seems to have softened with the years,
has unobtrusively acquired
an incapacity for those sacrificial moods
that once inspired his being;
perhaps he has just learned
to inhibit his instinctive repugnances
and has acquired a firece contempt
for his own person
which he is learning to moderate
in both his private and public domains.
Is this how one discovers and measures saintship?
(1) When I look at some celebrities especially some comedians like Robyn Williams, I wonder how what seems like their infinite capacity to delight others must have a wear and tear factor on their lives. Then I read that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Williams had an addiction to cocaine; he has stated that he has since quit. Williams was a close friend of and frequent partier alongside John Belushi. He says the death of his friend and the birth of his son prompted him to quit drugs: "Was it a wake-up call? Oh yeah, on a huge level. The grand jury helped too." On August 9, 2006, Williams checked himself in to a substance-abuse rehabilitation center (located in Newberg, Oregon), later admitting that he was an alcoholic. His publicist delivered the announcement:
"After 20 years of sobriety, Robin Williams found himself drinking again and has decided to take proactive measures to deal with this for his own well-being and the well-being of his family. He asks that you respect him and his family's privacy during this time. He looks forward to returning to work this fall to support his upcoming film releases." Williams has had some recent health problems. He was hospitalized in March 2009 due to heart problems. He postponed his one-man tour in order to undergo surgery to replace his aortic valve. The surgery was successfully completed on March 13, 2009, at the Cleveland Clinic. He was only 58."
30 November 1995
Some of my internet posts below on the subject of friendship and related topics.