Adventures in Friendship
Friendship as a Way of Life
In a fascinating 1981 interview with the French magazine Gai Pied, Michel Foucault argues that gay men should work to “escape the two readymade formulas of the purely sexual hookup and the lovers’ fusion of identities [échapper aux deux formules toutes faites de la pure rencontre sexuelle et de la fusion amoureuse des identités.]” Neither pure sex nor true love should be the ground of a gay identity; to accept this alternative would be to insert homosexuality into established fields of opposition, rendering it comprehensible and acceptable at the cost of what Foucault has always found most interesting about it:
[Relationships among men were] always something of importance for me. Not necessarily in the form of the couple, but as a question of existence: how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their bed, their leisures, their pains, their knowledge, their secrets? What is it, to be among men, “naked,” outside institutional relations, outside the family, outside professions and obligatory camaraderie? It’s a desire, a disquiet, a desire-disquiet which exists in many people.
[Ça a été pour moi toujours quelque chose d’important. Non pas forcément sous la forme du couple, mais comme une question d’existence: comment est-il possible pour des hommes d’être ensemble ? de vivre ensemble, de partager leur temps, leurs repas, leur chambre, leurs loisirs, leurs chagrins, leur savoir, leurs confidences ? Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça, être entre hommes, «à nu» hors de relations institutionnelles, de famille, de profession, de camaraderie obligée? C’est un désir, une inquiétude, un désir-inquiétude qui existe chez beaucoup de gens.]
Surprisingly, Foucault argues that these questions, and not, say, acts of sodomy performed in public restrooms, are what people find most disquieting about male homosexuality. Gay male hookups are comprehensible, they correspond to an established understanding of unbridled male homosexuality; to identify gay identity with the image of the hookup is a reassuring “concession” to dominant forms, since this image “eliminates all that could be disquieting in forms of affection, tenderness, friendship, loyalty, camaraderie, companionship, to which a somewhat restricted society cannot offer a place without fearing that new alliances and unpredictable lines of force might emerge [annule tout ce qu’il peut y avoir d’inquiétant dans l’affection, la tendresse, l’amitié, la fidélité, la camaraderie, le compagnonnage, auxquels une société un peu ratissée ne peut pas donner de place sans craindre que ne se forment des alliances, que ne se nouent des lignes de force imprévues.]” The aim-inhibited male homosociality underpinning many social institutions—the army, for example—would be threatened by ambiguous affiliations among men. This is what’s most troubling and most exciting about gay identity for Foucault: not how gay men are to establish their right to established heterosexual forms of alliance, but how homosexuality might lead to as yet non-existent ways of relating. Foucault suggests a name for these ways: “That toward which the developments of the problem of homosexuality tend is the problem of friendship. [Ce vers quoi vont les développements du problème de l’homosexualité, c’est le problème de l’amitié.]” The problem for gay men in his view is that of an ascesis, a work to transform the self, aimed at generating a new form of life:
They must invent from start to finish a relation still without form, that of friendship: which is to say the sum of all the means through which, from one to another, we can give each other pleasure. [Ils ont à inventer de A à Z une relation encore sans forme, et qui est l’amitié : c’est-à-dire la somme de toutes les choses à travers lesquelles, l’un à l’autre, on peut se faire plaisir.]
“How we can give each other pleasure”: there is something gloriously open about the phrase, and the task suggested. It’s such a simple question, but so rarely asked; for the most part we are distracted by the question of what we want, or what they do, or we are simply caught up in the habits of love and friendship, as though we already knew what little there is to know about pleasure.
The situation has changed since 1981, of course. When I first read “Friendship as a Way of Life” I thought Foucault was crazy to think that gay sex isn’t what’s most disturbing about gay homosexuality: he didn’t understand the visceral horror of straight men concerning male bodies. But I think in a certain sense history has vindicated him: male homosexuality is accepted by the right-thinking in both its Grindr and its happily-married forms, precisely as hookup and lovers’ fusion.1 But in the discourse on male friendship little has changed: a few movies about friends with benefits aside, the peculiar intensities of friendship remain unthought, even disavowed. Particularly among men, of course—“no homo” certainly represents progress, since presumably thirty years ago it would have gotten you punched, but it’s still a joking disavowal of tenderness which makes tenderness into a joke.
Meanwhile a new field has opened up: that of non-romantic (and possibly but not necessarily non-sexual) heterosexual friendship. An unexpected byproduct of the sexual revolution, and one that has not received enough attention: in our brave new world unmarried men and women can do whatever they want with each other, now—even talk. Our culture seems hellbent on exorcizing this possibility in the name of romantic love; in a recent movie, Justin Timberlake is saved from the awful possibility of friendship-but-not-love with a woman only by the intervention of his dying father, who puts him back on the true path, while young men are regularly warned against the miserable abjection of the “friend zone.” Scientists have even demonstrated conclusively that non-romantic male-female friendship is impossible, just so our everyday experience of the falsity of this claim doesn’t give us any ideas.
Clearly the culture is worried, as well it might be: social codes delimiting the possibilities of relation exist for a reason. The reason is that relation is scary. So many things can go wrong! We have social codes in place explaining how to avoid being damaged, and what to do if you are, and even so people end up hurt. If we leave the scripts God knows what will become of us; we’ll be harmed in new and exciting ways, ways there aren’t any songs about yet, and it’ll be our own fault too for transgressing the codes.
There’s another reason cross-gender friendships are scary, of course: their complication, their potential for drama and abjection, raises questions about the coded friendships we already know. A man and a woman can’t be “friends,” because friendship is too intense, too fraught, too close to something “more” than friendship; so what does that say about friendships among men, or among women? Are they so simple after all? The affective intensities of ordinary friendship are something we disavow, something we’d rather not know about. Our enormous subtlety in teasing out the interpersonal dynamics of romantic love—how and why it works, how and why it fails, how to make it work and whose fault when it fails—is in marked contrast with our almost total lack of interest in the feelings of friendship. Friendship is simple, sex is complicated, we think; God forbid that our friendships become just as exhausting, enthralling, absorbing as sex. Of course the attention lavished on sex is what makes it so complicated, and the simplicity of friendship merely measures how little about it we really want to know.
But these strange new friendships we’re having—cross-gender friendships, certainly, but also the friendships of people who happen also to be having sex, and the friendships of a culture unsure about marriage, friendships which outlast so many romantic relationships that they begin to seem suspiciously significant—should incite us to know a bit more about friends. Every bookstore carries dozens of self-help manuals on how to be a good wife, a good boyfriend, a good communicator and worthy companion in love; can we imagine an analogous literature on the art of friendship, on how to be a good friend? Certainly the latter would be more interesting: romantic self-help teaches us once again how to find fulfillment within a mode of relation so firmly established it grows tired of itself, whereas to focus on friendship would require us to imagine new ways of relating, new intensities, and new pleasures. We already perform many forms of ascesis in the service of romantic love; what would we need to do, how would we need to think, to find new friendships, to make ourselves friends?
Love vs. Friendship
“Are you two dating?”
“Oh, no, we’re just friends.”
[Toasting his bride at a wedding] “She’s not just my lover, she’s also my best friend.”
The lesson of these two statements is as follows: Companionate marriage is the natural enemy of friendship. Marriage in its specifically bourgeois form wraps up all our needs for companionship, care, tenderness, and passion into a single package, with a single person; in relation to marriage (and hence to all serious romantic relationships insofar as they might lead to marriage), all friendships are “just” friendships, nothing more, nothing so terribly serious. The ideal marriage is between friends, “best” friends even. To be sure, our tendency to describe the ideal relationship by noting that it’s also a friendship suggests some dissatisfaction with the romantic relationship as ordinarily conceived: “we’re also best friends” means something like, “we also laugh together, we also just hang out, it’s not all serious dates and state-of-the-relationship discussions.” But the fact remains that marriage ought to be the single relationship which satisfies all serious emotional needs. Marriage isn’t simply more important than any given friendship in the sense that any given friendship might be more important than another, as a matter of degree; it’s more important than all friendships combined, than friendship as such.
This judgment on significance expresses itself in our culture in an extreme devaluation of friendship among married adults. Most people seem to develop their most significant friendships in high school or college; they may keep up with these friends in later, married life, but they don’t typically make new friends of the same degree of significance, and the friendships they keep stop developing; they’re more a matter of getting dinner or drinks once in a while for old times’ sake. When I was growing up my parents’ friends were mostly the parents of friends I’d made in elementary school, with whom I’d had playdates; they were riding my coattails! Worse still, they were friends as a couple with couples; they almost never socialized one-on-one. And they weren’t alone—most of my friends’ parents did the same. In high school I became absolutely mystified by this phenomenon: my friendships were so central to my life and involved such constant and intense interaction. How could my parents survive on just each other and the couples they dined with every couple of weeks?
I still don’t really understand it, but in my mid-twenties I’m at least a good bit clearer on how I might end up the same way. One’s twenties are like a party that’s coming to an end: people pair off one by one and go home together, and the gradually diminishing crowd inspires the worry that you’ll be the last one left, sitting there drinking alone. Hence the frisson twenty-somethings feel on hearing that one of their friends is getting married. The universal agreement that marriage takes priority becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if no one else will require serious, sustaining friendships when they’re forty, you’d better not be counting on them either. If marriage is the sine qua non of a happy adulthood and friendship just isn’t, it’s entirely natural that we lavish anguished attention on finding a partner and let friendships wane from inattention once we’re paired. As Louis CK puts it:
I have a new friend, which is weird. I’m 43 and I’m a father, I’m divorced. I have a new friend and it makes me a little sick to my stomach. I don’t like it. You ever make a new friend? Young people make new friends easy, because you’re just young and you’re just, you’re fabulous. But I’m 43 and I’m startin’ to make a friend, it’s creepy. It’s creepy. Like, I hung out with this guy who I don’t know and then I was like, I’m inside my head, I’m like, ‘I want to see him again. I wanna see this guy again. If I just let him go, I’ll never see him again. I need to say something.’ And I felt so sick, like I felt so disgusting. Why did it bother me to say to this fella, ‘I would like to see you again?’ You know why, I realized it was because I was afraid he might say no. I was afraid of being rejected. So I didn’t want to make him say that but I did, I said I would really like to do that, hang out again.’ And he said, ‘yeah, okay...’ And then I ate his asshole. That’s my new friend. What are friends for? If you don’t eat your friend’s asshole out with your tongue, you’re a piece of shit, you’re not a friend. You’re not a friend, you’re a fair-weather friend.
Louis CK captures nicely the abjection of an adult who needs friends (and the homosexual panic of male intimacy, of course), but he also points to a hopeful sign: divorce rates are climbing, and for many people serial monogamy is beginning to look less and less like a series of tryouts for marriage, more and more like a permanent state. As marriages are put off or ended, friendship gains significance, even out of mere necessity. A good friend—one who will try to talk you out of dating the wrong person, put up with it when she’s all you want to talk about, bear with being ignored while you’re in love, then get drunk with you after the breakup—may well turn out to be a more “significant” other than the lover herself.
Like anyone I hope to have many passionate affairs in my life, but I sometimes hope that when I’m an old man and the flames of passion have turned to embers, I’ll settle down with a friend. After all, passionate love is blind, mad and fleeting—certainly one of life’s beauties, but nothing to build a life on. How much better to live out my years in the quieter and companionable company of one or two friends. For this reason I’ve always had a sort of affection for the phrase “bros before hos,” although of course my friends aren’t bros and I certainly know no hos. No doubt the phrase is more of a wish than a promise, but it has always made intuitive sense to me even so: lovers come and go, it’s friends you can depend on.
Friendship and Power
But of course to place so much weight on friendship would pose certain risks, and I wouldn’t want to be taken to evade them. Perhaps the most significant of these concern power imbalance, jealousy, and betrayal. When people wonder whether men and women can be friends, or whether friendship “with benefits” is possible, the risk they cite, tellingly enough, is that one or the other of the friends will want “something more,” demand love, be refused, feel betrayed, end the friendship in misery, anger and disappointment. Significant and open-ended friendships mean painful betrayals; they open our friendships to the anguish we so often find in love.
Love deals with the problem, or tries to, through “commitment,” a sort of bilateral disarmament treaty in which you give your heart to someone only on the condition that he or she does the same to you: this level of vulnerability is manageable only if it’s reciprocated. Romantic love is to the greatest possible extent monogamous and exclusive; both parties promise not to hold anything dearer than their loves, and not even to look for anyone better. For this reason, lovers have rights in each other: one can take one’s lover to task for not calling enough, not caring enough, not listening well or valuing you as a person, much more easily than you can a friend. If a friend stops calling, it’s because he doesn’t like you much or has something else to do, and so much the worse for you; if a lover stops calling it’s betrayal.
Ideally, then, in the traditional framework, one has two tiers of affection: the lover, whose betrayal is warded off through promises of absolute commitment, and the friend, whose betrayal is not significant enough to be too worrisome. Of course things don’t really work that way: lovers betray each other constantly, and friendships are more intense than we admit. But in certain emergent forms of friendship, especially those that happen to involve sex, the whole system collapses and roles become blurred. One doesn’t know which affections one has a right to, where the thing is going, where it will end. The space between absolute commitment and insignificance is a no-man’s-land in which total abjection, confusion, disappointment and anger await the unwary traveler. No doubt it’s easier not to venture there.
But what does it say of us that we can’t manage these ambiguities—that we can’t handle intense affections without getting drunk on the absolutes of love? In a beautiful passage on friendship in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche suggests something of what’s at stake in such an incapacity for friendship:
Are you a slave? Then you cannot be a friend. Are you a tyrant? Then you cannot have friends. All too long have a slave and a tyrant been concealed in woman. Therefore woman is not yet capable of friendship: she knows only love.
Woman’s love involves injustice and blindness against everything that she does not love. And even in the knowing love of a woman there are still assault and lightning and night alongside light. Woman is not yet capable of friendship: women are still cats and birds. Or at best, cows. Woman is not yet capable of friendship. But tell me, you men, who among you is capable of friendship?
Alas, behold your poverty, you men, and the meanness of your souls! As much as you give the friend, I will give even my enemy, and I shall not be any the poorer for it. There is comradeship: let there be friendship!
Quixotic as this may seem, I would like to leave to one side the gender politics of this passage—much though, as a hobbyist of lost causes, I am only too glad on most days to defend Nietzsche from the charge of misogyny—and focus on the distinction it suggests between love and friendship. Love is essentially linked to tyranny and slavery, to total power and absolute impotence—even if this relation is reciprocal, even if each party can be a slave or a tyrant by turns. Love is an injustice; as an absolute commitment to a particular person, it is blind to everything but the beloved. And out of this blindness it is unjust to the lover too: neither the romantic intoxication nor the terrible cruelty which lovers sometimes lavish on each other can be just, since love sacrifices judgment. (We don’t ask often enough whether it’s ever good for a person, ethically speaking, to be loved blindly.) Nietzsche suggests that love isn’t a higher degree of intensity with respect to friendship but a different and lower thing—that our inability to handle anything less than absolute affiliations evinces the “meanness of our souls,” our injustice, our smallness.
Our culture’s commitment to the forms of love and marriage might be its most childish obsession: at best a misplaced idealism apparently immune to experience, at worst merely fear of the dark, of solitude, of ambiguity. No doubt these fears are understandable, and their sources are deep. Friendship can’t promise what love can, the intoxicating fusion of souls; its eyes are clearer and its aims in a certain sense more modest, or at least more indefinite. If lovers plunge into unity, friends must learn how to be separate, and how to think across that distance the strangeness of the friend. “Who is capable of friendship?” Not us, not yet. We’ve scarcely begun to invent it. “How can we give each other pleasure?” What can we do for one another, outside or alongside the everyday chitchat and the romantic plunge, what new forms of encounter might we invent? It’s an open question as yet.
1 Far be it from me to complain about the sanitization of homosexuality implicit in the politics of gay marriage; it’s not my place to demand of gay men that they be a revolutionary vanguard for me, and no doubt I’d feel less dismissive of marriage as an institution if there were organized political groups devoted exclusively to ensuring that I couldn’t get married.