We live in the world of friending, not friendships. Friend has become a euphemism for something more or less than friendship; a “friend” is a conspicuous casual acquaintance who overcrowds our homepage, or an inconspicuous lover who likes to escape home.
The word friendship shares etymologies with freedom in English, freude (joy) in German, and with philia (affectionate love) in Romance languages and Greek. In Russian, the word for “friend,” drug, is related to “the other,” but not a foreign other, for which there is another word, inoi. The aspect of otherness is important because there are many things friendship is not. Friendship, in my understanding, is neither a conventional intimacy, nor a brotherhood or sisterhood, nor a networking opportunity. Rather, it is an elective affinity without finality, a relationship without plot or place in our society, an experience for its own sake. It is not always democratic or egalitarian, but rather selective and not entirely inclusive.
Hannah Arendt wrote that friendship of a serious kind is what makes life worth living. Yet she also emphasized that friendship should not be confused with romantic love for a “single one,” which for her can become “a totalitarianism for two” because it makes the whole world around the lovers vanish. Nor is friendship the confessional intimacy advocated by Rousseau, an echo chamber of one’s overflowing narcissism: “We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy, in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands.”1 Friendship for her is, in fact, precisely about being molested by the world and responding in kind—by expanding, so to speak, the dimensions of existence and by co-creating on the worldly stage. This stage has a particular scenography. Neither brightly lit nor completely enlightened, it has a scenography of chiaroscuro, of the interplay of light and shadow.
Writing about men and women in “dark times,” Arendt observed that in circumstances of extremity, the illuminations do not come from philosophical concepts but from the “uncertain, flickering and often weak light” that men and women kindle and shed over the lifespan given to them. This luminous space where “men and women come out of their origins and reflect each other’s sparks” is the space of humaneness and friendship that sheds light on the world of appearances we inhabit. In other words, friendship is not about having everything illuminated or obscured, but about conspiring and playing with shadows. Its goal is not enlightenment but luminosity, not a quest for the blinding truth but only for occasional lucidity and honesty.
Philosophies of friendship go back to ancient Greece and Rome, where friendship was part and parcel of both vita activa and vita contemplativa, of politics and of philosophy (itself etymologically related to philia). These philosophies have alternated between the political and the apolitical, between the worldly and the utopian, but all of them, including contemporary analyses by Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Giorgio Agamben, speak mostly of male friendship. Friendship between women is somehow deemed to lack philosophical gravitas…
Hannah Arendt’s own unlikely relationship with Mary McCarthy provides a way to examine these issues in their specifics. The two women, who theorized and practiced friendship in a passionately non-euphemistic manner, had the type of relationship that can be described only through a series of expressions whose oxymoronic character allows us both to get to its passionate core and avoid the touchy-feely confessional mode for which the two women had little patience—luminous opacity, diasporic intimacy, asymmetrical reciprocity, impolite tactfulness, homoerotic heterogeneity.
Who is talking when two friends like McCarthy and Arendt talk about the world? Reading the letters, we are impressed by the multiplicity of voices—tender attentiveness, impatient desire for the other’s presence, mischief and playfulness, sharp intellectual observations, philosophical discussions. In other words, the voices of intimate friends, writers, political observers, philosophers, and adventurers. Only this worldly interspace of friendship allows for such exuberance of freedom that it does not conform to any divisions of labor, disciplines, or social roles. With friends, one can take part in multiple dialogues and share solitudes. Arendt wrote that solitude is different from loneliness because in solitude we are in dialogue with ourselves and with the world, while loneliness makes us isolated and tongue-tied. When experiencing solitude, we are playing on our internal stage with what the Greeks called “daimons” (not to be confused with demons; daimons are not to be exorcized since they are the voices of our invisible selves.) When you speak with a true friend, she sees the daimons speaking over our shoulders, or perhaps our daimons confront each other in friendly recognition. With a single good friend, we are in good and diverse company. In such a deep friendship, we multiply, create, and discover our actual and potential selves, not fall back stubbornly into the claustrophobia of our supposedly “true self.” Friendships are extensions of ourselves into the realm of liminal adventure.
1 Hannah Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts on Lessing,” in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1968), p. 24
Excerpt from Svetlana Boym, “Scenography of Friendship,” Cabinet, Issue 36 “Friendship” (Winter 2009–2010).
Online article: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/36/boym.php