Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Friendship and Aloneness

“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”
                                              Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

If I were pressed to say why I love him, I feel that my only reply could be: Because it was he, because it was I.

                                               Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship

Music to accompany article: Cello Suite No.1 in G (J.S. Bach)

Only those who savour solitude are capable of true friendship. Only when two people do not need one another can they become friends in the deep meaning of the word. In this intimate dance of souls, the self becomes the other and the other becomes the self. And yet, it is the separateness of the two that propels the movement.

     At the heart of friendship lies the Gelassenheit, the letting go of the other in peace. Inevitably this is followed by the expectation of their return, when it happens, if it happens. Whilst solitude is essential for cultivating a state of not needing the other, paradoxically it is precisely the other that enables us not to need. The word alone derives from all one and a friend is someone with whom we can be all-one, with whom we can be alone. Whilst “we live as we dream — alone” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness), we delight in sharing our aloneness.

     One might think of friendship as a camaraderie of ‘free spirits’, who, at every moment, make a conscious choice to be close to each other without the need to possess, to enslave or to serve. While “slaves cannot be friends, tyrants cannot have friends” – said Nietzsche. “What we commonly call friends and friendships”, continues Montaigne, “are no more than acquaintanceships and familiarities, contracted either by chance or for advantage, which have brought our minds together. In the friendship I speak of, they mix and blend into one another in so perfect a union that the seam which has joined them is effaced and disappears.” Such union can only take place between individuals, between undivided selves.

     Friendship was greatly valued by the ancient Greeks. Yet, according to Aristotle, no friend is to be preferred to truth, which is greater than any finite human being can be. He stated of his friendship with Plato: “Plato is my friend, but truth is a greater friend”. A true friend is not some incarnation of the nymph Echo that only tells us what we want to hear; a friend tells us what we daren’t see in ourselves. When a self-induced disaster befalls us, we can invoke his soft yet persistent probing: “Could you have done it differently?”

     Nietzsche, like the ancients, held friendship above erotic love and considered agon (a contest) to be an indispensable ingredient of it: “in your friend you should have your best enemy”! In this he echoed W.R. Emerson: “let him be to thee a sort of beautiful enemy, untameable, devoutly revered and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside” (from his essay Friendship). Hence, beware of those who echo you in a flattering fashion, and also of those who reduce you to an echo!

     Friendship is about sharing an ideal, sometimes more precious than life itself. Such was the camaraderie of those who were facing death in the desolate trenches of the Great War. Saving a friend from extinction sometimes required the sacrifice of one’s own life; serving one’s country in peril was a higher ideal still. Every heroic endeavour implies readiness to die for the ideal or principle that stands above the earthly existence of the individual. It dispenses with utility and transports us into the realm of the transcendental. Nietzsche extolled the ideal of friendship thus: “There is, to be sure, here and there on earth a kind of continuation of love in which the greedy desire of two persons for one another has given way to a new desire and a new greed, a common higher thirst for an ideal that stands above them: but who knows this love? Who has experienced it? Its rightful name is friendship” (The Gay Science; I:14). A sense of uniqueness is implied here, uniqueness of the ideal and uniqueness of the friend who shares this ideal with us.
     A friend makes us feel fully ourselves without the fear of being judged or rejected; he is like a mirror that helps us to become ourselves. In his presence, we can discard the mask. A friend sees the good in us when the rest of the world doubts it, when we ourselves doubt it; a friend is someone who walks in when others walk out. For Hamlet, it was the loyal, unwavering Horatio who quietly gave him courage to face the hostile, treacherous world. He was also someone to whom Hamlet was not afraid to show the vulnerable, anguished and also loving side of himself. It was in Horatio’s arms that Hamlet died, and it was Horatio who was left to mourn the ‘sweet Prince’ and tell his story to the world. Perhaps “to become what one is”, even the great ones must have a ‘Horatio’ by their side? Especially the great. And this is what Nietzsche, the advocate of hardness, solitude and self-sufficiency, wrote to his ‘Horatio’: “My dear friend; what is this – our life? A boat that swims in the sea, and all one knows for certain about it is that one day it will capsize. Here we are, two good old boats that have been faithful neighbours, and above all your hand has done its best to keep me from capsizing!” (letter to Franz Overbeck, November, 1881).

     When we are in deep suffering and despair, no words can bring solace. The silent, compassionate presence of the other is all that is needed. This can be brief, but it must be sincere. A moment of shared, wordless stillness becomes a moment of friendship; it is also the moment when healing begins. We treasure the memories of these ‘spots of time’ in our hearts and return to them when despair returns to overwhelm us. To use the metaphor from Bergman’s unforgettable film of the same name, they become our “wild strawberries”.

     To conclude, here is an extract from Wordsworth, a man who knew a great deal about the darkness and the transformation of the human soul:

            That with distinct pre-eminence retain
                       A renovating virtue, whence ...
                                                                ... our minds
                                   Are nourished and invisibly repaired.

                                                        (from The Prelude: XII)

I dedicate this essay to my friend, Eric Phipps, who has been
a midwife to my thoughts for many years, and hopefully for many more to come.