On the expanding possibilities of friendship

Joseph Epstein, Friendship

Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

I’ve read only one book by American writer Joseph Epstein–his 2006 Friendship: An Expose–but the strength of this work was enough to make me a convert. His writing style is superbly, elegantly constructed, intellectual in the best sense of the word, possessed by an inimitable wit and an ability to share the most telling anecdotes at just the right time.

Reviewers at Slate and the New York Times weren’t kind to the book, mainly because of the way they felt that Epstein related his friendships, his explicit lack of personal revelations. That’s a fair criticism; I felt it too. For me, though, that was secondary, Friendship‘s value as a sort of typology of friendships, as an examination of friendships both personal and historical and the ways in which differences and similarities can bring people together. The perspective of time that Epstein brings to friendship lets him conclude that the possibilities for friendship across once impenetrable barriers have increased greatly.

That’s too true. Slate recently had a series remarking on the novelty of male-female friendships, possible only after the 20th century saw something closer to equality of the sexes and female autonomy. The Christian Science Monitor covered how heterosexual men found–find–it difficult to form friendships for fear of being identified as effeminate or even gay. I know that quite a few older gay friends of mine are surprised that most of my male friends are straight. My entire social life, really, would have been impossible even a generation ago. It’s still impossible in most of the world, probably even in some parts of Canada. The amount of pleasure, support, happiness that people have deprived themselves of on account of these barriers saddens me.

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3 Responses to On the expanding possibilities of friendship

  1. I am equally surprised that male-female friendship has not been covered more by historians, because it certainly did exist. Most societies, even though that seem most oppressive today, weren’t as black and white as we see them. Places like Saudi Arabia likely have stronger controls on women now than they did then, because nowadays the complete equality option is competing. Much like pre-Reformation Catholicism, when everyone belongs the same school of thought about something (here, gender relations) what appears to some later historians as a powerful monopoly with strong control usually contains quite a bit of flexibility and variance, because a little deviation is not a big problem in those situations.

    I definitely think there was a lot more male-female friendship than the lack of the history books and these Slate articles would admit. First, of course, are childhood friendships, when everybody would play together. Another example would be adolescent flirtations. Parental decisions played a large role from nobles to peasants, but the parents quite often asked, and listened to, their childrens’ preferences, and they had to get to know the members of the opposite sex somehow (festivals, taverns, church, and so on).

    Even after one’s marriage, that did not necessarily end. Everyone still went to church and spoke before, after, and during the services. People visited each others’ houses. Most shopping and village trade was conducted by wives. Even in the nineteenth century, considered the golden age of the snotty bourgeoisie, more and more research is uncovering complex social networks. While it might be couples visiting each other, or some felt a man should be present when a male friend visited, this does not mean these friendships didn’t exist. Letter writing, too.

    Sorry for the long reply! I just wanted to say that these kinds of friendships certainly existed. Were they on an equal level? No. Foucault would argue that no friendships or relationships are at an equal level (not that I’m a fan of Foucault; I’m not). Did it look strange to neighbors etc. if married individuals had strong opposite-gender friendships? Most certainly. However, for many today it still does, albeit less than it did. I think we just forget how much people interacted in a gender-segregated early modern world which was not nearly so gender-segregated as writers at the time pretended.

  2. andrewsshi says:

    One area of male/female friendship that doesn’t get talked about by folks who aren’t specialists in pre-modern history is the relationship between celibate religious and lay people of the opposite sex. Tongues would often wag when it happened, but it was frequent enough that it seemed to be a workable model.

  3. Pingback: [FORUM] Do you think friendship between men is difficult in our culture? « A Bit More Detail

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