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Friendship

One of the most dangerous ideas afflicting our culture today is that of balance. We talk about balancing career and family, or having a balanced diet, or keeping a balanced perspective, but when we live like this, constantly afraid to do anything that might upset the carefully constructed balance of our lives, we also fail to believe and to do the things that are truly important. Living a balanced life permits no great loves, no great deeds, no great passions.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and throw themselves into some craziness or another just to add spice to their lives. What I’m suggesting is that we forgo a life of cautious balance in favour of the tension that lies between great and driving passions.

Let me be clear here. Being passionate in this way does not mean following your bliss. It does not mean dancing like no one is watching. It means loving things worth loving, and loving them so much that you are willing to do and to be and to sacrifice whatever they require of you. It means loving family and community, friendship and conviviality, justice and hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. It means loving them enough to do the things that bring them about.

Too many people stay with a spouse for fear of upsetting their lives. Too few stay because they have fostered a great and encompassing love.

Too many people have children to satisfy social expectations of what the family should look like. Too few have children because they love what the family can be.

Too many people volunteer their time out of duty. Too few volunteer their time because they love to see justice and mercy done.

Too many people are looking for balance. Too few are willing to live in the tension of great passion.

My friend John Jantunen launched his new book last night, a novel called Cipher, well worth a read, and there were quite a few people there to celebrate with him.  I was particularly enjoying myself, because I had no responsibilities for the event, so I could just have a couple $2 pints and chat with the other guests.

At one point I had a chance to talk at length with an established publisher who was kind enough to answer some questions for me and to take an interest in what we’re doing at Vocamus Press.  Then, as our conversation was finishing, two young men came to introduce themselves and ask about what was involved with Vocamus, and I found myself abruptly switching my role from student to mentor in the time it took me to turn from one conversation to the next.

On my way home after the event, I had a chance to reflect on the evening, and it struck me that this moment of being both student and mentor embodied a principle that is essential to the formation of a strong and developing community.  When we become too proud and isolated to learn from each other, when we become too arrogant and protective to teach each other, our community ceases to grow.  In order for us to develop as individuals and as communities, we must constantly be teaching and learning, encouraging and challenging.  If it can happen naturally, over a pint or two, so much the better.

Whereas the fundamental gesture of hospitality is the invitation, and the fundamental gesture of community is the greeting, so the fundamental gesture of friendship is the referral or the recommendation.  Friendship is not even possible without this gesture.  It is essential to friendship that each friend be continually directing the other to what might delight and please, to be constantly saying to the other, “Meet this person; walk this path; read this book; explore this place; listen to this song.”  This referring is the very fabric , not of friendship itself, but of the place where friendship takes place, where it is discovered, where it is grown.  Without it, there can be no friendship.

I wrote recently about how knowledge without friendship is deficient, and I was reflecting, in a conversation with just such a friend, that friendship makes knowledge sufficient, at least in part, by deflecting it from its course.

When I am thinking with a friend, when this thinking is taking place between us as an expression of our friendship, our conversation will always find itself drifting from whatever course that we had in mind.  Whatever purposes and aims that I might bring to the conversation, they always find themselves distracted by the response of the friend, perhaps only for a moment, perhaps for a longer time, perhaps for the rest of the night, and this distraction calls me to think differently, apart from the course that I had planned.

In other words, the thoughtful and considered response of the friend does not allow me to remain under the illusion that my thinking is sufficient, but opens me to the other courses that it might take.  This kind of conversation takes the closed and linear character of my all too monological thinking and opens it, diverts it, distracts it, merely by exposing it to the kind of dialogical thinking that is peculiar to a friendship.  It reveals that thinking is never finished, if it is ever truly begun, just as the conversation at the heart of a friendship is never finished.  It pushes thinking off course in order that it might really become thinking.

Not just any dialogue will suffice here, not just any conversation.  Most kinds of dialogue are capable only of agreeing or disagreeing with a thinking that remains stubbornly on course.  Thinking does not in fact take place here, because it has become external to the conversation.  It is the subject rather than the product of the dialogue.  This kind of dialogue does not know how to do anything but stay on course.

It is only the  conversation at the heart of a friendship that produces thinking capable of getting off course, of discovering what it might still become.  It is only this conversation that allows thinking to find its way on the way to thinking.  This is why it is necessary to cultivate meaningful friendships rather than being content merely to check a box on some social networking application, because the quality of our friendships will determine the quality of our thinking.

Ivan Illich says this: “Knowledge without friendship that delights in the friend’s knowledge is deficient.”

This is a profound truth. Knowledge finds its sufficiency only when it is shared between friends. It finds its sufficiency only as the medium through which friendship is fostered and expressed, as the opportunity for friends to delight in one another. Knowledge certainly exists apart from such friendship, but it is a poor, sickly, deficient sort of knowledge, a mere pedantry, lacking in everything that makes knowledge a delight.

This kind of knowledge, and these kinds of friends, have been the great pleasures of my life. I will not try to name them all, because there have been many of them at many times and in many degrees, but those who have shared this pleasure with me will recognize what Illich is describing, and hopefully they will also accept my sincere gratitude for their friendship, for their knowledge, and for their delight. There is little that I value more.

I began reading On Friendship, a collection of Michel de Montaigne’s essays, mostly as a change of pace from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which is one of those books, at least for me, that is best enjoyed in smaller sections separated by sufficient time for reflection.  Rather than merely changing Bachelard’s pace, however, Montaigne soon set a pace of his own, and I found suddenly that I had read him from cover to cover, though I had intended to read him only an essay at a time.

The collection is seven essays long, but it is the first piece, “On Friendship”, that I found most compelling.  Some of the later essays in the volume, like “On the Affection Of Fathers For Their Children” or “That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Until After Our Death”, are certainly interesting in their way and certainly fine examples of writing as well, but they lack the passion that is so clear in “On Friendship”, where Montaigne describes his relationship with Etienne de La Boetie with real intensity.  “In the friendship which I am talking about,” he says, “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found,” and this kind of personal passion distinguishes the essay from all the others in the collection.

Interestingly, Montaigne locates the origin of this friendship, not in a face to face encounter, but in a text that La Boetie had written against tyranny.  “I am particularly indebted to that treatise,” says Montaigne, “because it first brought us together,”  and he goes on to say that this treatise was what prepared him “for that loving-friendship between us which as long as it pleased God we fostered so perfect and so entire that it is certain that few such can even be read about, and no trace at all of it can be found among men of today.”

While I am more than a little sceptical of Montaigne’s claims about the exclusive nature of his friendship, I am fascinated by the role that writing played in the development of his relationship with La Boetie.  Montaigne read the work of La Boetie long before he met him in person, and he claims that this reading made him acquainted with La Boetie, preparing the conditions which would enable their friendship to develop when they did at last meet.  Here, at least, whatever poststructuralist criticism might say about the absence of the author and the illusion of authorial intention and whatever else, here, a reader claims that the act of reading made him acquainted with a writer in such a way that a friendship became possible.

Writing is never adequate to its author, of course, to its author’s thinking or to its author’s intention.  It is only ever adequate to itself.  Its function is not to mean what the author thought or intended, but simply to mean what it comes to mean.  Nevertheless, the example of Montaigne and La Boetie shows, as does my own experience, that writing does return us to its author in some way.  It is not that writing allows us to determine anything about the author, and it is not that writing makes its author somehow present to us.  Writing merely turns us toward an author, indefinite and undetermined though this author may be.  It allows us to make an author’s acquaintance.  It opens the possibility of friendship.

It is this possibility that underwrites the act of reading for me.  Though many of the authors I read are now dead, and though it is not likely that I will ever meet and befriend those of them who are still living, I still read in order to be turned toward the author, toward this someone else who writes for me without knowing me.  I read in order to make the aquaintence of this unknown one, to open a possible friendship with this anonymous other, even and especially because the possible friendship will almost certainly remain unrealized.

I read to encounter this impossible possibility.