It has long been my custom, when I find a writer that I am particularly drawn to, to read the writers that influenced him (or her), to read the writers that they read. This practice helps me remember that poetry and literature and philosophy are not isolated artistic or intellectual events, but rather a discussion through the ages, a discussion that survives death and sometimes obscurity. In this way I came to Plutarch and Montaigne; that is, not by their own reputations, but because Shakespeare had read them. We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s reading habits, but we know, with as much certainty as is possible, that he read Plutarch because a number of his plays are based on Plutarch’s histories and a few of the speeches in those plays are very similar to the prose of Sir Thomas North, who translated Plutarch in Shakespeare’s time. That he read Montaigne is again not actually known, but it is generally believed that Shakespeare counted John Florio, who made the first English translation of Montaigne, as a friend. It is further conjectured that Shakespeare first read the essays at about the time he was writing Hamlet and that the French essayist helped deepen his thought. When I read Montaigne’s The Custom of Clea or Of Practice, I can’t help thinking of the character of Hamlet, and when I read Of Friendship, I wonder whether Montaigne’s great love for Etienne de La Boétie gave the playwright the inspiration to give Hamlet one true friend. I speak, of course, of Horatio.
In creating Horatio, Shakespeare gave us not so much a character who was a friend, but a picture of friendship itself. There are few characters in all of literature that better embody the virtues of friendship. I would further say that the characterization of Horatio has so influenced our idea of a friend, that people who don’t know Hamlet, when they think of what a friend is, conjure up traits like patience and level-headedness and devotion that are best defined in his character.
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself. For thou hast been
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well co-mingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. 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.
~ Hamlet to Horatio, Hamlet
Montaigne was less interested in describing the virtues that made Etienne de La Boétie an ideal friend as he was in trying to describe the spiritual bond they achieved. This bond was so singular, that he finds all his other relationships—including his marriage—lacking in substance. Montaigne is seldom so passionate in the essays, but for his friend, who died at 33, when Montaigne was 30, he has nothing but passionate praise. He knew him for only four years.
About their friendship he writes:
So many coincidences are needed to build up such a friendship that it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries.
About his loss he writes:
If I compare it all [his life afterwards], with the four years that were granted me to enjoy the sweet company and society of that man, it is nothing but smoke, nothing but dark and dreary night. Since the day I lost him, I drag on a weary life.
Aristotle classifies friendship into three types: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and perfect friendships.
Montaigne gives us five, based on the four ancient types plus what he wants us to understand as real or true friendship. The four ancient types are: natural, social, hospitable, and erotic. Montaigne is not quite as systematic as Aristotle, but basically natural friends are relations, fathers, sons, brothers, etc; erotic is, well, erotic, what Aristotle calls friendships of pleasure, and Montaigne has much to say about their insufficiency; of the other two lesser friendships he doesn’t have a lot to say.
For the rest, what we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience. ~ Montaigne
Aristotle also gives us five ways to define a friend: 1) one who wishes and does what is good for the sake of the friend, 2) one who wishes his friend to live and be happy for who they are, 3) one who lives with the friend, 4) one who has the same tastes and interests as the friend, and 5) one who shares the grief and the joy of the friend.
Though much has changed about the way we treat friendship since the time of Aristotle and the time of Montaigne, those changes have not altered the essence of friendship. Friendship remains an endeavor between two people, and though our technology has made it easier to be alone, it has not been able to remove the reality that humans need human contact. People may imagine that they have 3000 friends because they have that many ‘friends’ on Facebook; they may watch a television series or read a novel in which they feel they know and identify with the characters, but there is always the moment when the novel ends or the computer or television is shut off, where there is just a man or a woman sitting in a room alone. I’m not sure how this kind of substitution is any different than a little boy or girl who invents an imaginary friend because they have no one to play with. Imaginary friendships satisfy our mechanical needs, but not our human needs.
Not long ago I met by accident a man who I have known for more than 30 years, and when I commented to him that it has been a long time since we spoke last, he said that that is one of the consequences of having so many friends. We both have traveled a great deal in our lives and when we met in the past, in London, or Russia, or California, we have, on my side at least, had interesting and sometimes revealing conversations. He has all the qualities that we like in a friend. He is truthful; he is considerate; and if I tell him something in confidence, I can be pretty certain that my words will not be repeated. But in truth I have never thought of him as my friend. I would say rather that he is someone that I respect. And if my observations are correct, I would say that he is more comfortable with respect than he is with friendship. But perhaps this is just with me; perhaps I was unequal to him in ways that make him open to me revealing myself to him, but not the other way around.
The question in this is: can we call someone we see infrequently a friend? Is the time element one of the fixed foundations of friendship? When someone says that they are too busy to meet with you, are they not really saying that they have other friends, other events that they value more? We all make choices, and these choices reveal who our friends are, or at least who we want our friends to be.
It is this time element, among other factors, that led Aristotle to the conclusion that we cannot have a large number of friends of the prefect variety. In his thinking the requirements of friendship, like the requirements of a romantic relationship, disallow the possibility of having a large number of friends. In other words the friendships not only need to be made, they also need to be maintained.
One cannot be a friend to many people in sense of having friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once. ~ Aristotle
This can be understood in the sense that in relationships that include sex there is, hopefully, intimacy, and intimacy if it is shared with many different lovers becomes something other than intimacy. It is like an energy (Aristotle calls it an excess of feeling) that we only have in limited amounts and so when we spread it around, it weakens the perfect friendships (or relationships) we share to the point that they cease to become perfect. They lose the name of perfect and become friendships of utility or pleasure. In our time we have a name for it: friends with benefits, which are usually thought to be friendships of pleasure, though they can be friendships of utility when one of the participants gets something other than pleasure, like companionship or prestige or financial support.
Another type of friendship that is particular to our age is the long distance friendships. The relative ease of travel and communication allows me connect to, and occasionally visit, friends in Paris or Saint Petersburg while living in California. At the same time the ease of travel has fed my natural tendency to avoid difficult emotional situations. More than once in my youth I observed that when I became fed up with the people that surrounded me, instead of trying to work things out, I just packed up and left. All and all I spent ten years out of the United States, and during one hectic period had nineteen addresses in less than two years. There is a fascination and charm in making new friends, as there is in finding new lovers.
Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit. ~ Aristotle
In Montaigne’s time it would have been hard enough to receive letters from Paris in his native Bordeaux. To have a regular communication from someone in another country in the way we are able would have been unimaginable to him. A series of religious wars were fought during his life, which were disruptive to say the least. (He was kidnapped once, and lost companions and a valued servant because of the madness.) He only travelled outside of France one time. Toward the end of his life, after ten years of self-imposed exile in his tower, he journeyed, at the torturous rate of twenty miles a day, to Rome. He packed his carriage with books and medicine, visited spas in the hope of finding a cure to kidney stones—which afflicted him and had killed his father—and kept a record of his illnesses: gravel and dizziness in Florence, a toothache at La Villa, and colic in Sterzing.
There are some purists, especially among the Russians that I know, that believe that friendships of utility and pleasure are not friendships at all, that they do not deserve the name.
Montaigne allowed for some level of friendship with his doctor, his lawyer, his mule driver, and his cook. But he believed that in this type of friendship, or acquaintanceship, he need only concern himself with the part of the man’s character that concerns him.
I am not as much afraid of a gambling mule-driver as of a weak one, or of a profane cook as of an ignorant one. ~ Montaigne
Business is a place where we should find friendships of utility. In the long run the best businessmen are the ones who inspire qualities like trust, fair-mindedness, and loyalty, which are legitimate attributes of friendship. But the prevailing attitude in business these days is that anything is okay as long as it increases profits. This trend of justified greed has come about because of a number of reasons. The rise of the corporation, which removes the personal, human element from business, is certainly at the heart of the problem, but there are also certain delusions that are widely held and promoted that help justify a kind of systematic greed. For instance people regularly tout the attitude that helping others is a weakness, and that strength means taking advantage of, and even hurting others, if you can personally benefit. This attitude is supported by a popularization of ideas like the ‘survival of the fittest,’ where animal behaviors are held up as ideals for man. Of course the reality is that real strength comes not from controlling others, but from self control. And now, to make matters worse, we have in the United States a man sitting in the White House who represents everything that is wrong with business. Nobody expects him to be truthful, nobody expects him to be fair, and the only loyalty he has achieved is through lying, threats, and fear. The sad truth is that he is incapable of friendship. He is a weak man, who is so afraid that the world will see his flaws that he gladly exposes the crimes of those around him in order to distract the world from concentrating on his weakness and his crimes.
Plato (in Lysis) says that two bad men may not be friends. Basically he reasons that bad men are not comfortable with themselves, and therefore cannot be in ‘union or harmony with another.’
But in this dialogue Plato doesn’t come to an understanding of what friendship is. It ends when the tutors of Menexenus and Lysis call the two young men away, and Socrates is forced to admit, despite everyone imagining that the three of them are friends, that they ‘have been unable to discover what a friend is.’
The question of whether bad men can be friends comes down to this: if two bad men join together to hurt innocent people, is that friendship?
Our popular culture gives us many examples of this kind of friendship in movies and in novels. But can we call it friendship if the individuals seek only profit for themselves?
Bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage comes of the relation. ~ Aristotle
We have the English expression ‘thick as thieves,’ which is a curious cultural choice. We don’t say ‘thick as blackmailers’ or ‘thick as murderers.’ In popular culture a certain kind of thieving has become an acceptable sport assuming, that is, that there is no violence involved and that the target is unsympathetic and rich. I think this is largely the result of a general understanding, or at least a belief, that most wealthy individuals and institutions acquired their wealth, if not in outright illegal ways, at least in ways that have taken advantage of those that are less fortunate. So stories of thieves, instead of inciting our indignation that these people are taking what is not theirs, create excitement, even enjoyment; it appeals to our sense of justice to see a band of thieves taking from the same kinds of people who have taken advantage of us.
In the end I don’t think we can call anything friendship that does not have some consideration for others. Man is selfish by nature, and friendship, like love, has the capacity to lift us out of own narrow interests. Some level of selfless behavior must color friendship; otherwise all we have, as Montaigne says, is acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience.
Though love and friendship share many virtues, there are some important differences between the two. Both need steadfastness, consideration, trust, and loyalty, but at the same time it is possible to love someone and not be their friend, and it is possible to have friends who you do not love. Both also have a human and spiritual expression. To be ‘in love’ is not the same as to love someone. You may love someone who you are not attracted to, but you are generally not in love with someone who does not attract you. In the same way you may have friends who benefit you in some way and yet you make no effort to form a deeper friendship with them. And yet perfect friendships seem to rise to the level of spiritual love, so that on the highest levels there is little difference between what we call love and friendship.
If we take Aristotle’s most famous saying about perfect friendship, that ‘a friend is second self,’ and compare it to the golden rule ‘to love your neighbor as yourself,’ the action of friendship and love become almost identical. In a sense you can say that love and friendship in all their forms are avenues to the same state, and though this state may be described in many ways, one of its essential features is that its perspective allows selfless behavior.
It’s strange to think that on a human level we may have many friends and acquaintances, but have few romantic relationships, and that on a spiritual level we may love everyone, even our enemies, but have only a few true friendships.
Love is the attempt to form a friendship inspired by beauty. ~ Cicero
It is impossible to talk about love and friendship without saying something about beauty. I don’t know the context of the above quote from Cicero—I lifted it from Montaigne’s essay Of Friendship—but I could easily imagine it being said with some irony, but then, looked at in a different way, I see that it could also be said as a statement of fact. Knowing Cicero as little as I do, I would not want to hazard a guess one way or the other. In either case, it’s clear that Cicero is speaking of erotic or passionate love and of physical beauty. He is not talking about a person learning to love by trying to form a perfect friendship with a beautiful soul.
Inspired by beauty is an appealing phrase, but Leonard Cohen’s line, oppressed by the figures of beauty is just as apt. What indignities have we (men and women alike) not suffered in the pursuit of a relationship with a beautiful woman or handsome man? The point of a relationship or a friendship with a physically beautiful person is not just to have something pleasant to look at, it’s the energy we feel, the love, or the being in love. Though this kind of stimulation may or may not make us a better person, it is intoxicating. But, as the poets remind us, physical beauty is fragile, subject to disease, to accident, and to the ravages of time.
…the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
~ Marvell (To His Coy Mistress)
Montaigne expresses the opinion that friendships between men and women cannot be put in the same category as friendships between two men. He says that affection for women is more active, more scorching, and more intense. But it is a more impetuous and fickle flame, undulating and variable, a fever flame, subject to fits and lulls.
This is opposed to the consistent and settled warmth of friendship between men.
Montaigne gets into a lot trouble with the modern reader for his views on women. And Of Friendship is not the worst example; in another essay, which has the promising title Of Three Good Women, he describes not three women who were remarkable in themselves, but three women who were remarkable in their loyalty to their husbands, who in fact were willing to die with their husbands when there was no requirement for them to do so.
Though we have to acknowledge that Montaigne’s view of women was not forward thinking—he seems to have possessed the prejudices for women that were common in his age—we mustn’t be too hard on him. He would be the first to admit that he was not an authority on any subject and that his thought was far from perfect.
I have no doubt that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by the masters of the craft, and more truthfully. Whoever shall catch me in ignorance will do nothing against me; for I should hardly be answerable for my ideas to others, I who am not answerable for them to myself, or satisfied with them. Whoever is in search of knowledge, let him fish for it where it dwells; there is nothing I profess less. ~ Montaigne
I would suggest that, in relation to women, he was not lucky. His marriage seems to have been little more than a business arrangement, and there are no accounts in his the essays of his meeting any remarkable women. Of Shakespeare, who was a generation later, we cannot say the same. His plays give us an array of remarkable women. But Shakespeare’s life was less sheltered than Montaigne’s; he was forced to mingled with different classes of people. It’s easy to imagine that women in the lower classes were less stifled simply because they had less to lose. And Shakespeare was born during the reign on Elizabeth I, certainly one of the most powerful and clever Monarchs in the entire history of England.
I doubt we can go as far as to say, as a few critics have said, that Montaigne was a misogynist—there is no cruelty or hatred in his remarks about women—but his ignorance and lack of experience have to be admitted. In the long run the misdemeanors of authors need to be forgiven when they have so much else to offer, which is certainly the case with Montaigne.
In my experience gender is not an obstacle to friendship. The same principles apply to men and women. Really there are only three possibilities: friendships between women, friendships between men, and friendships between men and women. To say that one or the other is intrinsically more profound than the other two displays a subjectivity and a lack of understanding of the essence of friendship.
In our time when gender, at least among the liberally-minded, has become more fluid, even changeable, it surprises me that there is not more interest in the ideas of reincarnation. Reincarnation, if we assume both male and female embodiments, can explain much about our feelings and dreams. And it can explain why it is a limitation to identify strongly with being male or female.
In Lysis what we discover is that friendship resists defining by human types and characteristics. The like and the unlike, the like and the like, the good and the evil, the good and good, the wise and the ignorant, the congenial and the uncongenial: there are no hard set rules that any pairing of these types of people will be friends. But Socrates is faced with the evidence of friendship: Menexenus and Lysis are friends. So it is not question of whether friendship exists, but a question of our capacity to understand what it is.
For me Plato’s ideas are key to understanding friendship, but for this we will need to leave the confines of Lysis and examine some of his primary ideas, those of recollection and forms, though first I want add another type of friendship, the esoteric friendship.
If we define esotericism in the simplest possible terms as the practice of an inner work that changes our being in ways that make it possible for us to experience and maintain higher states of consciousness, then we can see that such a work would naturally create a bond between the people who practice it. Whatever else can be said about inner work, it is difficult, so difficult that it takes not one, but many lifetimes, to attain its final goal. So it is natural to suppose that we all will need help and have help to offer along the way. Working with other people is, in fact, thought to be a necessary law in order to keep our work going in the proper direction. Gurdjieff called this line the second line of work—there are three lines in total. The idea also exists in other esoteric systems. In Buddhism the three lines of work are called the three jewels and the parallel line to the second line is called the Sangha. The idea is that when our inner efforts flag, teaching another or asking questions of another or helping with the organization of the work, will bridge the interval in our inner work. It will provide a shock that is needed to move to the next note or phase.
On top of the necessity of friendships in the work, there is an undeniable emotional element to inner work, which make friendship, if not a requirement, at least a natural outpouring of the experience of learning to see ourselves.
Our need to share our experience, coupled with a desire to understand the experience of others—the first without the second is narcissism—is essentially a spiritual longing. On some level we all understand that having a body is an obstacle to true sharing, and all our social interactions, from marriage to joining a political party, are an attempt to compensate for our inability to truly understand and be understood.
There is nothing to which nature has seemed to have inclined us more than to society. ~ Montaigne
In this area we must not concern ourselves too much with the monk who seeks solitude in the desert. In a real sense he confirms our human need to be social. His way is the way of denial. He seeks focus by denying what is natural in the human experience.
At the same time we have to account for differences in essence. There are some people that are undemanding and open with other people and make friends easily, and others who are not so eager to let strangers into their inner world. This second type often feels that their friendship needs to be earned. Their reserve may simply be part of their nature, or it may be the result of their experience; for instance, they may have been hurt in the past by opening up to someone they trusted, and feel a compulsive need to protect themselves. I tend toward the first type, though in my youth I was much more secretive about my inner world. Later I realized that my secrets were not really secrets, that we are all open books to people who are perceptive and take the time to try to understand us, but this realization was coupled with the understanding that generally people do not take the time to try to get to know us.
Romantic relationships in the work have their blessings and difficulties as do all romantic relationships. People in the work, in my experience, are more likely to change than people who have not set out to systematically change themselves. Change is the point of the inner work. I have often seen couples who were good for each other at the beginning, who separated later because they had grown in ways that made them less compatible. But this can happen in any relationship.
Most of the people I know in the work will not enter into a serious relationship with someone who is not interested in esotericism. They feel that the work is such an important part of their life that they would not want to marry or be in long-term relationship with a person who could not understand that experience. But again this is not unlike a religious person refusing to marry outside their church. Of course there are no rules for success here, and exceptions abound.
Esoteric friendships span to whole range of friendship types. We may find friends in the work who have nothing in common with us with except the work. Here we come back to Montaigne’s observation that it was okay for him to befriend his doctor for his doctoring skills and his cook for his cooking skill, and not concern himself with the whole of their characters. We need to recognize that esotericism as an area of common interest potentially includes larger portions of our being—eventually it should include our entire being—than, say, a common interest in good food. Still, it is possible to form a friendship based on a common interest in esotericism that is partitioned in ways that are similar to friendships of utility.
The work requires that we learn to master difficult inner exercises and special ways of looking at ourselves and the world, so that, especially at the beginning, it is essential to benefit from the experience of people who have been in the work longer.
In my youth I made a point of seeking out people who seemed to have mastered what I had set myself to learn. One, it seemed to me, had conquered the expression of negative emotions; another, inner considering. Generally it wasn’t enough to question these people. I needed to spend time with them, to befriend them, to see how they reacted to ordinary and extraordinary situations. And in some cases, when I learned what I had set out to learn, I moved on. Of course that was not always the case, sometimes the friendship survived and continued for a long time afterwards.
For the perfect friendship I speak of is indivisible: each one gives himself so wholly to his friend that he has nothing left to distribute elsewhere. ~ Montaigne
Another way of measuring the limits of friendship is to look at how partitioned it is. With most friendships we are willing to share certain parts of our lives, but not others. With one friend we may share our political opinions, but not our personal feelings, with another we may share a physical activity or sport, but we may not want to share our religious or esoteric beliefs. This also works in relation to different friends. In other words we may not like to mix the friends that we know at work with the friends that we knew at school, or we may not like to mix our Russian friends with our American friends.
To a certain extent this kind of partitioning is natural, but there is a danger that it possible for us to have different personalities connected with different friends and go from one personality to the other without the two knowing the each other. Roles play an important part in lesser friendships because we tend to form personalities around roles. For example with one friend you may feel that you need to play the role of the teacher because of an imagined or real feeling of superior being and become so identified with playing that role that you miss the opportunities to learn from them.
Roles are important to personality because personality has no foundation of being and must reinforce its sense of place and identity. It needs the name of teacher or artist or Christian or businessman. Having a role gives it a convenient way to relate to other people; teacher and student; businessman and customer. Friendships in personality are shallow in that they are based on ideas that we have of ourselves rather than on a human or spiritual connection.
Esoteric relationships have to be human relationships transmuted to something higher. They can never be less than human relationships. ~ Rodney Collin
Because we have the possibility to exist on different levels, our friendships can also exist on different levels. There can be friendships in personality, friendships in essence, and friendships based on the experience of higher centers. Friendships based on the experience of higher centers are rare simply because there are very few people who are capable of manifesting from higher centers for any length of time, and friendship, as we have already decided, requires time. Essence friendships are based on real, physically based, preferences that are part of our type and center of gravity and talents and shortcomings. Friendships in personality are the most partitioned, or limited. They touch what is real in us the least, and often are based on convenience.
I have heard a good argument for the partitioned friendship: our lives tend to be messy and to keep certain parts of our lives unshared may be seen as kindness. I find, for instance, that I am loath to share my health issues with even my closest friends. But if we start to view friendship in this way, we have to ask: is it possible for imperfect people—and in my mind we are all imperfect—to have perfect friendships?
If we take friendship as a Platonic form, then it exists in a perfected form only in the abstract, or, if we really want to follow Plato’s thought, then it exists for us as perfect only in the world between death and birth. In a strange way this makes sense. In an astral world, where the body does not veil our ability to communicate and experience the friend, there would be no undividable you and me because the material of the self would allow a comingling that is now impossible for us even in our most intimate human expressions.
Imagine human consciousness endowed with the properties of matter in such a molecular state. It could then perform many of the miracles ascribed to magicians and would in fact possess the capacities often attributed to the soul after death. It could be present in many places simultaneously, it could pass through walls, it could assume different shapes, and it could enter inside other men. ~ Rodney Collin
Among modern scholars Plato’s idea of reincarnation is an embarrassment. They want to write it off as a kind of primitive superstition, or as an idea that exists on the fringes of his thought. But at the end of The Republic, after Socrates tells the elaborate myth of Er, or of how souls after death gather and choose a new life from many lives, he suggests that the whole purpose of the good life (the life of the philosopher) is to be able to choose wisely in that moment.
Plato’s theory of recollection also needs the notion of a being that can survive in different lives and between lives. If you believe that we are born from nothing and that when we die we go back to nothing, then the idea of recollection is simply impossible. (One scholar tried to justify it as an instinctive understanding of genes and heredity, which it clearly is not.) Recollection is the idea that the soul is in the possession of certain knowledge, and that learning in certain areas is recollecting that knowledge, or, if you want, learning is not so much adding to what we know, but rather finding a higher place in ourselves where that knowledge already resides. So the confusion over the nature of friendship is not because we don’t know what it is when we see it. Friendship as a Platonic form is an astral experience, the meeting and comingling of souls, and our confusion is because we try to bring that experience to the physical world, where it can only exist as a shadow or intimation. We have a recollection of the experience, so we know what it is, but when we try to practice it in our day to day world it is far from perfect.
We are used to thinking that we have one experience, that of this life. But Plato believed that we have many experiences. We are not usually in touch with these other experiences because we are designed us in such a way that the whole of our being is not available to us except in exceptional moments. But sometimes we know things that we shouldn’t know. For instance I knew as a child that the world was uncertain, that I had not always been this person, and that it was possible to move on at any time. How can a child of five or six know this? I had lost no one close to my world at the time. What Plato would suggest is that I knew this because it was part of my experience or being. I had died. I had had been part of a world and had lost it, and there was a memory of it. Not a memory of the details, of my name and who I had been, or what kind of society I had lived in. The understanding I took from that life and other lives was still with me, but, like all of us, I was taught to forget it. The physical necessity of making a life and surviving forced this understanding into the background.
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy. ~ Wordsworth
But sometimes when I meet someone for the first time and begin to talk to them, I feel that this is not the first time we’ve met; despite the evidence that this person is a stranger, I feel that there is already a foundation of friendship. The feeling isn’t that we are getting to know each other, but rather that we are picking up where we had left off sometime in the past. There is a history, only that history is not part of my present experience. I have met a handful of people in my life that fit into this category. And those friendships have tended to last and, among my friendships, have perhaps come the closest to being perfect.
This is the story of a friend of mine, a Russian woman. When she was thirteen years old, she and her mother went to a film in Moscow—this is before the fall of the Soviet Union. On the screen she saw a well-know Russian actress for the first time, and after the film, she told her mother that this actress was going to be her close friend. Of course her mother thought she was being ridiculous, how could a thirteen year old girl, who had no pretense to being anybody, befriend a nationally acclaimed actress who was a grown woman? And the girl didn’t find a chance to meet with the actress for ten years. By then she was twenty-three, was married, and was planning to leave Russia for America; but before she left, she prepared a gift for the actress and waited for her to appear in front of a theater where she was performing a play. When the actress appeared, my friend approached her and explained to her that she was going to America and that she didn’t know if she would ever be allowed to come back to Russia, and that she wanted to give her a gift, a book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The actress was in a hurry, but instead of brushing off the young admirer, she suggested that they meet after the play. And they did; they sat on a bench and talked after the performance. And as it happened, a number of years later it became possible for former Soviet citizens to travel to Russia, so my friend was able to visit the actress, and then, after that, they met many times. And not long ago this famous actress felt so strongly about their friendship that she insisted that she pay my friend’s fare to Russia so that she could attend her eightieth birthday celebration, because, as she put it, it would unthinkable for her not to be there.
Before writing this essay I spoke to a number of friends—this is not my usual habit—and one conversation stood out. A woman I have remained friends with for long time said that on meeting some people for the first time, she saw or felt that there was something unchanging that stood apart from the moods and quirks that we normally associate with the identity of that person. She explained that it was these people who attracted her. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was talking about an unseen history or whether she simply felt the solidity of their being. In any event, this woman, more than almost anybody I know, is loyal to the people she has chosen to be her friends. She doesn’t shy away from conflict or messy situations, but she also doesn’t abandon her friends because of their transgressions or disappear when they fall on hard times.
Old friendships, especially when they span lifetimes, hold a particular place for us because they share a long history of presence. But we come here not just to retrieve what was important to us, but also to find new experiences and new friends. We live in a dark time, but we must not become so overwhelmed by the ignorance of the powers that seem bent on destroying our future that we forget that life has its compensations, and certainly friendship is one of those compensations.