‘The tendency is to deepen friendship and I think one has to be wary. It's more charming often not to deepen it.'


July 24 2006

‘The tendency is to deepen friendship and I think one has to be wary. It's more charming often not to deepen it.'


July 24 2006

‘The tendency is to deepen friendship and I think one has to be wary. It's more charming often not to deepen it.'



Joseph Epstein is a journalist, academic and author whose work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Commentary. His last book was Snobbery: The American Version. He has just published Friendship: An Exposé.

Q Samuel Johnson said “life has no pleasure higher or nobler than friendship." Yet there have been few in-depth studies. Why? A: Well, there is no theory of friendship, and somehow every subject needs a theory. I think the reason there isn’t a theory of friendship is that it has this large, untidy essence. There are so many degrees and calibrations. The one theory we have of friendship is, to me, a fairly debased one, and that’s Sigmund Freud’s—that friendship is essentially a guise for jumping on each other’s bones. Still, Fm amazed that no one has taken it up except in a kind of how-to manner—how to get more friends, how to survive broken friendships—which are written at a pretty low level, if I may say.

Q: You cut through the complexity by creating a taxonomy of friendships, even drawing a stadium seating plan with your closest friends in the box seats and the less close...

A: In the grandstand and the bleachers. Q: Yes, poor souls. You say friendship by nature is variegated. And your first rule of the art of friendship is that not all friendships should be deepened. Yet received wisdom is

that friendship must become more intense.

A: Yes. The tendency is to deepen it, and I think one has to be wary of it. You and I start talking and I say, “Anne Kingston is simpático, we got on so well. You know, I’m coming to Toronto next month. Can we have lunch?” And then we have lunch and I say, “You know, my family is going to Antarctica. Is there any chance yours can come with?”

Q: And the hell begins...

A: [Laughs] Exactly. But it’s not necessary. It’s more charming, often, not to deepen it. Something I didn’t say in my book—I wish I had yet another draft—is that friendship is one of the few realms in which the golden rule doesn’t apply.

Q: Because not all people want to be treated as you’d treat yourself?

A: Exactly. Not so long ago somebody called on me in a great huff and said, “You know, you’re not reciprocating my good feeling toward you. I always have to take the lead, and I don’t think it’s right.” And I felt like saying, “One more meeting like this and we won’t call each other ever!”

Q: It wouldn’t be the first relationship you’ve severed. What have you learned doing that?

A: The first thing I learned is what a social coward I am. It’s best if you can let friendships lapse, but often the other party won’t do that. I think I’ve been fortunate in never being the party that someone else wanted to drop off—so far as I know.

Q: You say shared opinions are the least important thing one should seek in a friend.

Rather, point of view or one’s sensibility is what counts.

A: Yes, I realized that living in the South in the the ’60s. All my friends were integrationists and I would say to myself, “These people have the right opinion, but a lot of them are extraordinarily boring and dreary.” That said, each of us will have that point where we can’t go. If you say to me, “I’m for the PLO no matter what...” [Laughs]

Q: Recent studies say the number of friends people have is in decline. You address some of the reasons for this, including the notion that people always have to be “growing,” which makes friends disposable.

A: Yes, charming plants that we are. I don’t think I’ve grown in about 38 years, actually.

Q: But you do write that friendships shift with age.

A: I do. Adolescence is the Garden of Eden of friendship. You have all this time for it. Then work intrudes, and then, if one marries, marriage. And then children, especially now in this child-centred culture. And then, growing older, a lot of people become almost wilfully out of it and crankish. And people whom one once loved somehow don’t seem so lovable. So there are a lot of casualties. And then some people have been kicked in the pants by fortune, life has been hard...

Q: But, as you write, it’s easier to see a friend through trouble than through luck.

A: Yes. I find also that male friendship— unlike female friendship—is based on a kind of “manly reticence.” I have a good friend

who has lapsed into depression and has become kind of seedy and I can’t speak to him about it. I just can’t say, “You have to pull up your socks, kid, you should be shaving every day.”

Q: Because male friendships provide a way to escape responsible roles?

A Yeah, that’s my sense. In fact, I read somewhere— and it sounds true—that men confide in women more than they do in other men. I think men have to prove their worthiness to other men, and I think women aren’t under quite the same obligation. I quote E.M. Forster: “Pity is at the bottom of women.” They really want to be sympathetic. And I think with men, which is what makes us ridiculous, is that we insist on our dignity.

Q: You believe friendships between men and women are important but are adamant that friendship and sex should never mix...

A: Yes, I feel they don’t.

Q: Yet you describe friendship between a happily married husband and wife as an ideal. Isn’t that a contradiction?

A: Well, in the fullness of time, sex—though it remains a superior indoor sport—isn’t as primary in a marriage, and other things come together that are more important, such as friendship, the raising of children, responsibilities later on for grandchildren. Whereas in a romance—certainly at the outset—sex is everything. There’s a kind of possessiveness that’s very different. If a friend wanted to possess you the way a lover does, I think you would back away.

Q: Yes, it would seem pathological. But the expectation that husband and wife are best friends marks a huge shift in friendship.

A: Yes. I mentioned that Montaigne considered his wife as chattel, somebody to relieve himself with sexually and to raise children. It was not a felicitous marriage.

Q: You note that the increased status of women in the 20th century has changed the nature of friendship profoundly.

A: Oh, it’s the central thing socially. And I think it’s a good thing, not to sound like I’m sucking up to the movement or anything. My wife has been the one person I can tell about disappointments and failures, and those things that I can’t tell her I cheerfully repress.

Q: Another major change you discuss is teclmology. You write that talk is essential to maintaining friendships, yet you’ve formed a few exclusively email friendships.

A: Yeah, I’m an emailista. A phrase I didn’t use in the book is that friendship is becoming more and more on-demand, the way that entertainment and news are on-demand.

There’s also caller ID. I’ve had calls from people I adore but I say, “God, it’s my friend Norman. He’s wonderful but I know it’s 35 minutes if I take this call.” And I said, “I’m going to screen it. I can’t give 35 minutes now.” So that part of a friendship is on-demand. There are people who rue email because it’s ruining prose style, but prose style has other enemies besides email. I have a friendship with a screenwriter, Frederick Raphael, and all we’ve ever done is email.

Q: Is that a box-seat friendship?

A: No, higher grandstand. But there are extraordinary people hidden away in secret places, and email is a wonderful way to get connected.

Q: You write that friendships can get more complicated with age, but you’re making friends into your 60s. Are the pleasures different?

A: I think they are better in some ways because they’re not weighted by the past. I have a number of friendships that go back to grammar school, and with some of them I’ve said to myself, “You know, if I met this person now I wouldn’t do anything to deepen his friendship at all.” I think those friendships one makes in one’s 40s, 50s and 60s are subtler and sounder in some ways.

Q: So you should never say “My friendship quota is filled.”

A: I think if you do, you are closing down shop. Older friends understand there has to be a certain distance, that it’s not the old adolescent friendship, the “Let’s sleep over.”

Q: You’re candid, brutally so, about your friendships in the book—to the point of admitting that you lied to one friend to avoid seeing him. Did you give people a heads-up?

A: No.

Q: Any response yet?

A: No. The book hasn’t been out in the world long enough. This is not a courageous book; it’s a reckless book.

Q: You describe yourself as a highly sociable misanthrope but I don’t sense that.

A: I don’t think I’m a misanthrope, quite. My problem is I seem to be too militantly genial. Have you picked out your clothes for the Antarctic yet, by the way?

Q: [Laughs] I was amazed that you count some 75 people as friends. Is that because you re not a whiner?

A: Well you’d think so, except that there are people who like a kind of quid pro quo of whining—I tell you that I’m deeply disappointed with my marriage, and you tell me that your sex life is a disaster, and we both go off skipping away. There are people who believe that telling their troubles makes them better and people who believe that it doesn’t. I seem to be one of those who don’t believe it helps very much.

Q: You quote Aristotle, saying “The earnest

practice of friendship, in short, requires us to be rather better than most of the time we are. ” Do you believe that?

A: Well, for Aristotle the highest form of friendship is two virtuous people each leading the other onto a higher path of virtue. I say the problem is that I don’t know so many virtuous people and I’m pretty sure I’m not one myself. But I think if one is with a person of superior character, one tends to want to turn one’s own game up a notch or two.

Q: You write of the strategic importance of having younger friends, especially as older friends die off. But that too requires adaptation as you cease to be the mentor.

A: Exactly. Though if I live long enough maybe they’ll write recommendations for me to get me into the nursing home.

Q: But you don’t believe in friendship based in utility?

'Adolescence is the Garden of Eden of friendship. Then work intrudes, then marriage, children.’

A: No. Aristotle talks about that as a kind of secondary or tertiary notion, that once the utility’s gone there goes the friendship. Although in some cases, one can build on that.

I’ve had editors at various magazines who ^ have become friends, or at least publicists. P Maybe it’s my friendship promiscuity, but ^ one’s heart goes out to people and one >¡ shouldn’t ever smother that. On the other hand, if your heart goes out too often there u> you are in the back seat of a Chevy again. ^

Q: [Laughs] Thank you. I’ve enjoyed this, ¡¡j And ifyou'reeverin Toronto, please don’t call. ^

A: [Laughs] Back atcha. M Z