I’ve been teaching about friendship for the past couple of weeks – Jacques Derrida’s utterly enigmatic Politics of Friendship, to be specific – so I was thrilled to read a reflection by my cross-campus colleague Robert Meagher on where friendship might lead us. There is much to say about friendship. Most of it, if we read the canonical texts on friendship in the Western tradition, places an insanely high standard on "true" friendship. So much so that we hardly think it possible to have such a friend. Or, maybe wonder if, as a student of mine once did after reading Montaigne’s account of his friendship with Etienne de la Boetie, "you really want that much f@#!ing human in your life. We gotta live, man!" No doubt.
But I’m not one to give up on ideals, even when they appear, to those of us living short of the ideal, as smothering or a bit too dreamy. After all, it is an impoverished imagination that measures life’s meaning only according to where we find ourselves. This can’t be all there is, really. Let’s get real.
I read those canonical texts and imagine my friend-to-come – an historic kind of friend. Some sort of twenty-second century Cicero will dedicate lengthy meditations to our intimacy. But that friend will never show up in my living room. He never appears because the only world I know is permeated, maybe perforated, by contingencies. Intimacy is never timeless. Intimacy is always unfolding.
Again, then, I imagine my friend. "He’s my friend, if…" That hesitation points to the open future of any friendship. Perhaps he will be just that kind of friend Montaigne describes into our future togetherness. Yet, the "perhaps" and "will be" are utterly crucial. I really never know what it means to be in that future; that’s what makes the future a future. And so friendship throws me into an undecidable space, tempting me to do exactly what true friendship forbids: condition my love of you on my preferences.
I say "what true friendship forbids" because loving the friend means giving yourself over to that other. If that’s what we think friendship is, loving a friend. If I withdraw my love because this "perhaps" leads to an unpleasant kind of unexpectedness, one can wonder if I’ve really only just loved myself – both my own preferences and my catching sight of those preferences in the other person. A "friend" who simply provides a mirror is no friend at all. Narcissism is a pathology, right?
This leads Nietzsche to say something quite different: the only true friend is a worthy adversary. I’ve read that remark or two by Nietzsche many times, and it always brings me back to a memory. I was five years old. My parents were committed to non-violence as both a political and parenting principle, so we obviously didn’t have guns in the house. My father had a crazy right-winger for a "friend." He sold used cars (reason enough for suspicion!) and loved post-resignation Nixon (all the reason you’d ever need!). He and my father liked to get together and talk, and for some reason I’d be invited along regularly. One day when my father left to use the restroom, the man handed me a pistol. "Never held one of these, eh? Powerful shit right there, in your hands. BANG! You could kill a man. You like that?" He laughed at my scared face, took it back, and told me to not mention it to dad. I of course told my dad as soon as we walked out the door and saddled up on the back of his Harley-Davidson. My father thought it was funny. "Yeah, that bastard is crazy. Hilarious."
Well, because every son grows up wanting to take down his father, I sublimated this desire into thinking about friendship. I like Nietzsche’s idea. I do. Clearly my father and the used car kook weren’t Montaigne-styled friends. Were they Nietzschean friends? I think my father thought so, and I also imagine the car dealer agreed. They laughed a lot and drank Olympia (if you’re a Northwesterner, you get it) while arguing about Nixon.
If they were Nietzschean friends, then that says less about my father than I’d hoped. For, Nietzsche is clear enough: the adversary is worthy, not just an opponent for opposition’s sake. That’s why we don’t want to kill the adversary-as-friend. We want him around. He gives my life vitality by carving out my pretensions and forcing me to start over again and again. You know these people. We fear them as much as we love them. When they come around, we know that everything we say is made suspicious, dissected, and put in question. What a great friend. What a bastard. Not just any bastard, but a bastard like me: brilliant, shining, and a liar always exposed to correcting, surmounting, and disconcerting interruptions of thought and value.
I say all of this to come back to Robert’s post. The story of his father takes us to the limits of Montaigne’s model of the friend, the model of absolute intimacy, inseparability, and coincidence. Perhaps we’ll be friends, unless I have to give up my Church for his Temple. The future of those friends is always open and possibly anxious. At best, that friend can forgive us for taking leave of our friendship in order to attend to personal matters. Like faith. I get that and wouldn’t want to question the value, even indispensability, of such friendships. Friends are forgiving. They see what is important and what is unimportant at those moments, so skipping the Bar Mitzvah is unfortunate, but not decisive.
What about adversaries, though? What if we think of another kind of friend who ruins our pretensions, rather than confirms our virtues? This is where I get to be Oedipal: come on, dad, seriously. You can do better than that! Nixon? Pistols? Used cars? If you like to argue, opposition can be fun, but rarely instructive. I imagine those conversations between pops and the dealer simply confirmed, for each, their own virtues. "I’m not crazy like THAT!" However, when our adversaries are worthy (that’s the tricky determination), they provoke us to rethink our place in the world, wonder if claiming this place in the sun condemns another to a pitiful life. I’m thinking of a friendship with the authentically "other," the social, economic, or political other who doesn’t say "yes, I love you too," but rather "no, you make my life difficult." These can be face-to-face friends or, more likely, befriending those distant and unknown, as in the sense of moral and political solidarity. You know, where in friendship for those who have very little or nothing, you take on something of or everything of the politics they demand. That sort of friendship can be painful. It can lead to intensive self-critique and examination. But that’s also a friendship that opens to another kind of future, a future in which we begin to imagine loving those who are not like us, do not share our immediate world, yet who nevertheless have those just demands which change us forever. Just like friends always do.
John Drabinski : Hampshire College