Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Friendship: An Expose by Joseph Epstein








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Many readers will be grateful that Joseph Epstein has entered a reflective time of life and is willing to share his experiences and wisdom with others. On the pages of Friendship: An Expose, Epstein riffs on as many dimensions of friendship as he can think of, and tells stories of his own experiences with friendship over a lifetime of making and losing friends. After reading this book, many readers will pick up the phone and call a friend. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Friends-Who Needs ‘Em?,” pp. 46-53:


“For without friends,” writes Aristotle, in the Ethics, “no one would choose to live.” Aristotle goes on from here to run the categories of those who need friends: The prosperous and successful need them to exercise their beneficence, and also to guard and help preserve their wealth. In poverty and misfortune, Aristotle claims, friends are the only refuge. Friends help keep the young from error, and help the older by minister­ing to their needs and shoring up their weaknesses as life winds down; and friends lead those in the prime of life to contemplate noble deeds that will win approbation.

These are all rather utilitarian reasons for friendship. Aristo­tle was of course born well before the age of self-regarding psychology, and so was less likely to dive down to the darker waters of hidden motives behind friendship. Do we look to friends, for example, for self-affirmation that is, to affirm our own best evaluation of ourselves or, in the cant phrase of the day, to pump up our self-esteem? Is friendship, when stripped down to its essentials, just another playing field for that insa­tiably greedy and sleepless monster, the human ego? A comic line of our time runs, “It’s always about you, isn’t it?” Does friendship qualify here, too? Is it, finally, always about “me” or “you” about, in other words, little more than making me or you feel good?

One would like to say, without hesitation, absolutely not to all these questions. But consider. In its broadest lineaments, the argument that friendship is chiefly about self-affirmation holds that none of us exists outside a social context. Our sense of our own value, in this reading, is almost wholly dependent on what others think of us. Obviously, most of us are pleased to count as friends people of whose high opinion of us we can be certain. (No one but a certified masochist could bear a friendship with someone who is always putting down or otherwise deflating him.) If we have noble or generous or impressive achievements in our past, it’s pleasing to think that the people with whom we are friendly know about these things. Pleasing, too, even late in life, to be in a group where many people know that one was once a good athlete, physically beautiful, a great student, a solid parent, a fine provider, a splendid person all around. Among friends, one doesn’t have to establish afresh one’s bona fides about one’s real quality.

Do we take our conception of ourselves from outside our­selves, the question is, or are we strong enough to know our true value without seeing it reflected in the eyes of friends? Some writers, artists, and composers have known they were good, superior even, without any signs of their quality being registered in criticism, the marketplace, or the estimation of people who love them: Henri Matisse, Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg come to mind. Of their own quality they were without doubt; and, among a small number of such people many of them avant-garde geniuses they re­quired no other valuation than self-knowledge, which informed their unwavering high opinion of themselves. (Exceptions to this exist in the arts, of course: Virginia Woolf, judging from her diaries, seemed to have been in a state of near-permanent inse­curity about the quality of her art and of endless worry about what the people who mattered to her thought about it.) But are there many people outside the arts who have the same confi­dence?

My father seems to have been such a person. He was a good, gentle, generous, fair man, yet in all the time I knew him, a man without anything resembling friends. When I was a boy, if the phone rang in our apartment, my father would joke that if it was for him the joke here is that it never was to tell the party calling that he had left the country. My father had friends as a boy and as a young man, but once he married and found the work that he was able to devote himself to, friendships seemed to hold no real allure for him. Such social life as he had was with the husbands of my mother’s friends, and he never went be­yond a middling sociability with any of them. In place of friends, he had family; in place of a social life, he had his busi­ness. The people who came closest to being his friends were those he knew through work, but he rarely saw them in the eve-fling or on weekends.

My father’s fairly high valuation of himself was owing to his having made a small but genuine success at his business. Born a Canadian, he moved to Chicago when he was seventeen, with­out finishing high school. Such social life as he had centered on his extended family. He played no cards, felt golf a game for mo­rons, understood that country and city clubs could never be his milieu. He had a marriage in which his wife was his best friend. He could be courtly without being unduly formal, and he had a good sense of humor, but he had no great gift for intimacy. He apparently had no need for masculine company. He wasn’t es­pecially antisocial. (He was, in the 1940s, briefly a Mason.) Had you met him, you would not, I think, disagree with a descrip­tion of him as “cordial.” Never was it a question of his having lost, or longed for, friends; he simply didn’t require them, and so never bothered to acquire them. And, as his son, and some­one who knew him for more than sixty years, I cannot say that he ever seemed to miss them.

My father had a firm sense of himself as a serious and pro­ductive and independent person. He was filled with opinions about human nature and the way the world worked; though he didn’t force them on anyone, neither could he quite hold them back. (He had developed the art of the falsely modest introduc­tory clause: “I could be wrong about this, of course. . .“ “This is just off the top of my head, but I’m inclined to think. . .“) As a self-made man, he felt he had some authority to speak about the world; and as far as I was concerned, he did have the au­thority, if not always anywhere near enough to support his heady theories about demography and war, the various hidden purports of Mother Nature, and the like.

His success at his business may have conferred on him all the self-regard he needed. Having friends in important places, hav­ing someone besides his wife to confide in, having people with whom he could be utterly relaxed and himself, none of these things seemed to matter to him. He wanted to be thought an agreeable person, but I don’t think he cared all that much if someone found him otherwise. He was what he was which is to say, he was always himself. Inner-directed, in David Ries­man’s once famous scheme of psychological types, is what my father was, and to a high degree.

While my mother was my father’s best friend, I’m far from certain that he was her best friend, though her love for him was constant and without qualification. Owing to his temperament and his total absorption in his work, he could not hope to come close to supplying her with her social requirements. My mother was a very sociable woman. She always had circles of friends, belonged to card-playing groups, and went to lots of luncheons and charity events of the kind that women of her generation called “affairs.” Nor had she the least snobbery. Her only quali­fication for a friend, so far as I can determine, was that she have a good heart, which my mother herself had. Thus she became friends with the woman, an immigrant who survived Hitler’s death camps, who began as her seamstress, and sometimes she would spend mornings with this woman, listening to her stories about life in Poland, and Saturday mornings my mother drove her around on shopping errands.

As a married man, I resemble my father in having, as my best friend, my wife. But I also have a knack—a flaw perhaps is bet­ter for a too easy intimacy, described earlier, that leads some people to believe that I want to be closer to them than I actually do. People mistake friendliness in me for friendship, two quite distinct things. Because of this. I suspect that the number of people in the world who might call me a good friend is larger than the number of people I would claim as good friends.

When I ask myself what my friends do for me, I find myself retreating into vapidities. With friends I feel the comfort of a common outlook amused, ironic, not altogether unhappy to be slightly out of it as we grow older together. More than any­thing else I find comfort in my close friends: an easiness that al­lows me to be myself. Not, I hasten to add, that I have several al­ternative selves available to me to be. I pride myself on having arrived at an age when pretense seems silly, if not comical. (My general style, once perhaps carefully cultivated, but now quite real, is that of being a man reasonably at ease in the world.) Yet with these few friends, I can, so to say, be even more myself: risk wild allusiveness, drop diplomacy, heighten candor. Knowing how their sense of humor works, I can play on my own with a spontaneity and freedom that I can’t generally call into play with lesser friends. These close friends and I do not agree on everything only on important, only on the main, things.

I hope I don’t need reinforcement from friends for such ideas as I have, such opinions as I hold, such core beliefs as I expect to die with. Agreement in these and other matters can of course cushion friendship, removing the potholes and bumpy places all friendships of any duration encounter. I have met many people whose opinions were vastly different from my own, and discovered that this deprived them neither of charm nor, when I permitted myself to gaze beyond their mere opin­ions, of my affection.

On the other side, I’ve met people many of whose opinions are nearly congruent with my own whom I find entirely objec­tionable and wouldn’t want to be with for the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. When I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the early and middle sixties, all friendships were formed on the basis of one’s views on racial integration. I had acquaintances who were not integrationists, but my social circle was made up exclusively of people who were for racial integration (not so ob­vious or easy a thing to be openly for in Arkansas in those years, especially if one happened to have been born in the South). Yet in those days I often thought how, but for this single matter of enlightened opinions about race, I would not choose to spend much time with many of these people, and, after I moved out of the South, our interest in one another lapsed and fell away. These were, in effect, single-issue friendships, which are not usually built to last.

Over the years I have had friends connected with specific ac­tivities: tennis friends, racquetball friends, poker friends. But when the games were over, so too, until the next session of games, were the friendships. As I have grown older, many of my friendships have come to have distinct limits. I have a friend, from our days in the army together, with whom I went to one Chicago Cubs game a year, until he moved to Virginia. I have another friend whom I meet with for lunch precisely twice a year: once in spring, once in the fall. If I see a friend, even a good friend, on Wednesday, I’m likely to arrange things so that I don’t see him or her again on Friday. If this all sounds rather cold and calculating, this is only because it is or at least it’s calculating.

When I am with certain friends, I am, variously, content, amused, happy, sometimes all these things at once. But I do not mentally crave the pleasures of friendship as once I did. Too often I feel, more than straightforward affection, a corroding sense of obligation; and as the sociologist Ray Pahl puts it, “if we feel obliged to be a friend, then it is no true friendship.” Nietzsche said that to live alone, a man must be a god or a beast. I know I am not the first, and hope I’m not turning into the sec­ond. Is it that much of my former need for friends is now sup­plied by my wife, a person many of whose interests and much of whose point of view are so close to my own? Is it that, having grown older, I have come to enjoy solitude more?

In an introduction to Jocelyn Brooke’s Orchid Trilogy, An­thony Powell writes of his friendship with Brooke: “I was never a close friend of Jocelyn Brooke’s, but we corresponded quite often, and he was one of the people to whom one wrote letters with great ease. He speaks more than once of his own liking for that sort of relationship, a kind that did not make him feel hemmed in. There are several incidents in his books when the narrator refuses an invitation from someone with whom he is getting on pretty well so that it was no great surprise when, a few months after Brooke had stayed with us for a weekend, he politely excused himself from another visit on grounds of work. The reason may have been valid enough, writing time is always hard to conserve, but one suspected his sense of feeling ‘differ­ent,’ unwillingness to cope with face-to-face cordialities of a kind that might at the same time be agreeable in letters.” I am not so odd as Jocelyn Brooke, but I have come to a time in life when I can understand his oblique motives.

I sometimes feel my life too crowded with friends, of various kinds. Some contemporaries among my friends have reached the stage of ceasing to listen, but only wait to speak, which they often do about things I have heard them say more than twice before. With them meetings are no longer as pleasant as I re­member them having been: the laughter is less, the flow of talk not as spirited, the glow of good feeling afterward occasionally nonexistent.

Friendship, in other words, can come to seem a burden. I want friends, yes, but I want them at my convenience: the right ones at the right time. This is a condition of course that can be met only by what were once known as call girls, and friends, quite rightly, won’t and shouldn’t stand for it. Still . . .

Why are people drawn to me? Embarrassing question though it is to confront, I would say it is due in part to the gen­eral aura, the high-octane fumes, of friendliness I often give off, to the promise my personality seems to hold out for charm and chumminess: I am teller of jokes, a doubtless too frequent reteller of well-polished anecdotes, someone who attempts to use language in an amusing way. But I also think that I come off I say “come off,” which is, please note, different from “am” as someone who is comfortable in his own skin, not vulnerable or needy, a man who is sailing through life well in control, owing to his strong sense of autonomy. Whether this is actually so is perhaps not a question for me to answer.

What if, reading the above paragraphs, my friends many of whom are happily without knowledge of one another’s exis­tence were to hold a meeting in which they established an easily arrived at consensus to abandon me? What would my life be like without friends?

Undoubtedly poorer much poorer. My relationship with my wife, however dear to me, cannot supply all my social needs. Although she is a highly cultured woman, some of my intellec­tual pursuits are outside her realm of interest. She knows only a minimum about my professional dealings with magazine and book editors, literary agents and publishers. I am more vulgar than she, with a number of small but real passions for sports, unhealthy food, off-color jokes (not too off-color; roughly tur­quoise, I’d say) that I am just as glad she doesn’t share. Al­though she is the only person in the world with whom I can speak freely not always easily, but freely about things of the heart, she cannot be all things for me, and I know I cannot be all things for her.

I retain friends for various of these (I wish there were a better word than the one I am about to use) needs. With some friends of my own age I can talk about how goofy the world has become and how different from the world in which we grew up. With others I can talk in a detailed way about mildly abstract things: politics, the current state of the university, the quality of literary and intellectual life. With still others I can talk about brutish things: sports, the comedy of sex, and use such charming words as mother-grabber and nice boobs.


The excerpt illustrates the offbeat style Epstein uses throughout Friendship. Readers will both laugh and think as the pages turn.


Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2006



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 in the August 2006 issue of Executive Times


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