Sunday, March 8, 2009

Friendship & Love

























There are two famous quotations which for some reason have always stuck in my mind regarding friendship and the competing demands of loyalty. The first is by E.M. Forster, the distinguished English novelist--

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

The second is by Graham Greene, another distinguished English novelist from a later generation--

"If you have to earn a living...and the price they make you pay is loyalty, be a double agent--and never let either of the two sides know your real name."


Forster was a Gay man, who grew up and lived at a time when homosexuality was still legally a crime in Great Britain. His sentiments regarding loyalty and friendship have a specific poignancy, in light of the conditions under which he was forced to live during the better part of his life. Later, he would confront loyalty in the political sphere, but his feelings were always informed by the tension between private (and even secret) loyalties and public duty. 

Greene occupied for most of his life a dual role, as public servant, and novelist--a complex, worldly man, with many competing loyalties (church, state, family, art), in addition to a restless, wayward nature, and a tortured conscience. The Author both of "straight" novels, and mystery whodunits (which he famously called "entertainments"), he drew deeply upon his cosmopolitan familiarity with exotic settings:  Africa, Central America, East Asia. One of the dominant themes in his work is just this very issue of personal attachment versus political, or public duty. In The Third Man, for instance, the American Western genre writer Holly Martins comes to post-War Vienna to see his old friend Harry Lime; ultimately he discovers that Lime has been trafficking in black market fake medicines, and is now underground, eluding the Authorities in the Western Sector. In the course of his inquiries, Martins falls in love with Lime's girlfriend, Anna Schmidt. The Authorities want him to rat out his friend, Anna wants to protect Lime, whom she still loves, and Martins still feels drawn to his corrupt old friend. It's vintage Greene, and sets into motion all the classic claims on loyalty (friendship, love, duty, morality)--particularly the value we place on personal friendship.

There is no neat distinction between love and friendship.  Indeed, it is possible to be a friend and a lover to someone at the same time, though complications may arise. Relationships which begin in love, may develop into lasting friendships, and vice versa. More often, we tend to think of friendships as less intense than love, or as having a somewhat different character. Love may occur between individuals for whom other levels of interaction are unlikely. Friendships may be destroyed by allowing them to "descend" into the carnal. 

In the modern world, friendship has often been the testing ground for character. Our allegiances to individuals are often pitted against our commitment to groups, political principles or the demands of conduct. At the level of the family or clan, we are often torn between loyalty to our immediate relations, and those of religion, country or ideology. How we mediate between these demands is a measure of strength of character, or lack of it.

The Forster quote seems to come down on the side of friendship, as being a more powerful and preferable attachment than patriotism. It's attractive, because it places allegiance to individual--possibly an individual--above duty to country, presumably even--or particularly--in time of great stress, such as under wartime conditions. If we cannot depend upon our closest friends, then upon what foundation is our individual freedom and honor to be constructed? One can think of exceptions which might break such a vow, i.e., if one's friend had committed an heinous crime, or was a "mad bomber" intent upon anarchistic mischief. But Forster probably is referring to those kinds of explicit betrayals which involve exposing a friend to embarrassment or punishment for merely standing by a private belief. As such, it expresses a kind of freedom which is often at odds with duty.

The Greene quotation is more personal, referring to the allegiance which an individual makes, privately, to himself. It assumes that such oaths and vows are by their nature secret, never divulged, and that by maintaining a sort of "neutral" ground--a personal code of non-commitment--one may save one's moral soul by never truly (to one's self) taking sides. This kind of alienation from outward forms of connection is typical in the modern world, since it accepts as a given that we all have private lives which are distinct and separate from our existence in the everyday world. It's explicitly immoral, or morally ambiguous, since it sets the individual ethically apart from an expressed, committed choice.  Each individual is therefore free to maintain a private code. A private code implies a degree of freedom,  a core of sensibility which is impenetrable, even under torture, or extreme temptation. It puts a high degree of value (esteem) upon individual freedom.  

It is this internal sense of the self's independence which ultimately guides all our decisions--all our choices and actions. It cannot be bought, or stolen. It exists despite every compromise or betrayal we may commit. In religious terms, it is our redemptive portion, which, despite every sin or evil deed or mistake or accident we may commit, is still within our power to preserve. It's a sort of saving grace. I'm not a theologian, but I suspect that this concept of the inviolable soul is a familiar one to religious historians or theoreticians.

It may be that friendship is the greatest of all possible human relationships, greater than love, greater than patriotism, greater than loyalty to race, sex, religion, family or business. Friendship must be nurtured, and tended, like any living thing. It is voluntary, and therefore enabling and empowering. Woe betide the man or woman who has no friends, or has no use for friendship. He/she is truly alone.  

16 comments:

Kirby Olson said...

Soupault wrote a book on friendship. It was called L'Amitie (Hachette, 1964 or so).

He argues that in true love there is also true friendship.

He had four wives, though. And in his youth he appears to have visited bordellos.

Curtis Faville said...

So, Kirby, what's your take on friendship. Is it as important as love?

Kirby Olson said...

I think love is more important. Without that, you feel really crummy. Friends are also easier to get than a true love.

I can operate pretty well with just a true love.

I can't operate very well (too depressed) without that.

But friends are a nice filler. I like to have friends. You can argue with friends, and you can dump friends pretty easily. Or at least stay away from a friend for a month or two if they've bugged you.

With true loves, you constantly have to work things out, which is harder.

Of course as Venn diagrams go, there are overlaps, as you indicate in your post.

But for me I would rather have one true love than ten good friends. Ten good friends are a good thing, don't get me wrong, but they don't go to the heart of your being, as does one true love.

Curtis Faville said...

People can have "affairs" or even long sexual relationships based purely on physical attraction.

"Love" is like possession, an instinctual phenomenon which may bear little resemblance to the mutual curiosity and interchange of intellectual play.

I've made a distinction here between the powerful, and often irrational, emotion we call love, and everything else which we could call friendship, though of course there are many different kinds of friendship. Marital relationships may be of either kind, or both, at different periods.

There are people who apparently live without love, though they usually have some kind of contact, even if only with animals.

What I'm getting at here is that though most people do have "love" experiences, these are often not the steady, reliable, dependable relationships that endure. As we get older, our sexual capabilities decline, though our mental sense of attachment, or even of lust, may go on unabated. But there are gifts of friendship that eventually may outweigh the intense, fragile interactions of youth or middle age.

Most marriages become de-facto friendships over time, with the added dimension of love, or of its possibility. They can also become tired routines. Many couples begin in intense desire, and peter out. Our high divorce rate is a testimony to that.

Having one or two very close friends over a lifetime is one of life's special pleasures, And it's not that common.

Kirby Olson said...

You say that "people" can have physical affairs.

I can't.

A physical affair has to be completely true in every sense a deep and valid friendship, or there's just no way I can go through with it.

People are different, of course.

Curtis Faville said...

I'm just drawing distinctions.

In our modern world, much is made of the possibility and romance of "love" usually of the physical kind. It is glorified and elevated to a shrine of glory.

But friendship may be a much more reliable and useful relationship for people to have.

Fiction is filled with these kinds of filial relationships.

They aren't complicated and endangered by the vicissitudes of physical passion. People can fall in and out of love several times in their lives, and can have physical relationships with multiple partners, but friendships stand a better chance of enduring, and of providing us with insights and support and development unavailable to other kinds of contact.

I've always been intrigued by the possibility of true friendship. Love, on the other hand, has always presented complications and problems.

Kirby Olson said...

It's to some extent a question of what can be exchanged. In deep love, two beings exchange souls, and this requires incredible trust. You are risking more, and betrayal (Medea's revenge on Jason is paradigmatic) is punished more thoroughly, often with death. It's hard to imagine a friendship risking that much.

In true love, you risk everything and gain everything.

In friendship, the risk is not so high, but the returns are also not so high.

However, they may last over a longer period, in which case they may eventually (in friendship) outweigh the benefits of a love relationship (which can be devastating if it goes awry).

I think the notion of a marriage as being SEALED from the inside to outside influences/partners is based on its necessary exclusivity.

Friendships however can be manifold and yet not threatening. Friendship doesn't require monogamy, and sealing.

That true love does require that indicates how much more precious it is, how much more trust is required, how much more is involved.

Curtis Faville said...

Interesting concept, this "sealing" from the inside.

Never thought of it that way.

I think Louis and Celia Zukofsky had a "sealed" relationship, don't you think?

So-called "open marriages" or marriages of convenience--like Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, for instance--are quite difficult, I would think, or am I wrong? Do those putter along smoothly because no betrayal is possible?

Kirby Olson said...

I don't know that relationship. Were they bisexual, to boot, like the Woolfs?

I don't know that world very well.

The French surrealists tended to seal their relationships, but to practice serial monogamy, with the men and the women both periodically sneaking out.

They tend to be rather discreet in terms of what leaks out in many cases.

But Soupault had three wives and at least two very serious girlfriends who lasted for years (one of them was an American and she lasted for twenty years).

Georgie said...
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Curtis Faville said...

Well, Georgie, if I understand you aright, then all descriptions of the varying shades of emotion people experience in proximity to one another are conveniences. But human history is long enough for intelligent thinkers to have made good, reliable observations about it.

In a "state of nature" I suppose it might be possible for the physical act of procreation to be considered just an impulsive distraction. But primitive societies hold such interactions to much higher standards of decency than "civilized" ones. Since the onset of marriage contracts--both pre-historical and after--it has been understood that carnal activity must be controlled and institutionalized--deviations notwithstanding.

Friendship is a very broad term. It could be said to include every kind of friendly exchange, lasting from one day, to a lifetime.

My discussion here focuses on the longer-term variety. I'm trying to suggest that in the scale of values of human society, friendship may well be of greater "value" to the individual than any other kind of exchange, greater--because of durability--than love, or what our culture calls love. I am uncomfortable when "friends" try to call friendship "love." I think that's a bit extreme. If it is indeed love, it has passed over into something else--perhaps a sort of sibling bonding. Still, I think love describes either a carnal desire, or a romantic attachment that closely resembles physical attraction, if not actually realizing it.

It may be that true friendship cannot be improved through the addition of sex. Sex is about procreation, or an audition for procreation, or its rehearsal. It's not a form of recreation.

Georgie said...
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Curtis Faville said...

Nature persuades us to be interested in difference. This is one reason I find monosexuality to be a kind of deviation. In our difference lies the curiosity, and the attraction of opposites. Difference creates an attraction to "the other"--to unite with it to create a whole. Procreation is the implicit intention of all sexual activity. With monosexuality, or other forms of deviation, you risk nothing. This is the "pure innocence" of Gay sex.

To love "like" is tantamount to love of self. Or the mimicry of "the other"--wanting to be a female to another male, or vice versa. The estrangement from difference is an interrupted development, the incomplete "Oedipus" as Freud describes it.

Friendship isn't explicitly sexual, and ultimately doesn't rely on difference. It relies on a neutral ground, based on common regard, interest, and sympathy, pity, emulation, sharing, protectiveness, etc. It is less demanding, and usually studier than the sexual, because it doesn't rely on beauty, fetishes of object, types.

Georgie said...
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Curtis Faville said...

Yeah, Freud is a minefield of problems. I'm not trying to come up with any new bright ideas about sexual difference, and rather regret we got sidetracked off the main topic. Are monosexuality and vicarious protected sex expressions of very deep "friendship"? Clearly, the purpose of sex is procreation--that's its only pretext. Otherwise it's play. Play isn't evil, it has its place. Not just another "version" of heterosexual love, however, and not a basis for institutionalization.

Georgie said...
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