Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Bromance, friendship and The King's Speech

Some critics have described The King’s Speech as the first “bromance” of 2011. They are right and they are wrong in equal measures. The hybrid term “bromance” indicates the friendship between two men. In cultural terms it is a street recognition of the value and importance of men having male friends. This is the secure environment where a man can reveal or articulate things about himself in a way that is different to the way he would do so to his wife, girlfriend, work colleagues or gang of mates down the pub. Unfortunately, the term “bromance” brings with it associations of juvenile puerility. The central relationship in The King’s Speech between Bertie, the future King George VI, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, has no trace of such associations and thus makes for a more profound and moving depiction of their friendship.

Friendships can be based on interests, experiences and personality traits shared in common. However, The King’s Speech is a reminder that deep friendships can occur between seemingly mismatched characters. In this case, royalty and a commoner, an English monarch and an Australian speech therapist, a man straight-jacketed by convention and a man who explodes conventional practices, one trapped by the wounds of the past and one uncertain about the possibilities of the future. Yet, these combinations work because each man sees in the other something that has a healing quality and is life-affirming. In this friendship both men discover a masculine idiom with which to communicate their fears and longings.

Aristotle devoted two chapters of his Ethics to friendship and all future reflections on friendship have, to a greater or lesser extent, been influenced by his thought. Aristotle believed that friendship

is almost necessary for living. Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things. Indeed those who hold wealth and office and power are thought to stand in special need of friends; for what is the use of prosperity to them if they are denied the opportunity for beneficence. In poverty too and all the other misfortunes of life people regard their friends as their only refuge. We praise those who love their friends, and the possession of many friends is held to be one of the fine things of life. What is more, people think that good men and friends are the same.

So, for Aristotle, friendship is a kind of virtue, not only because it can potentially bind together the divisions of class, age and social rank, but because deep within it incubates the germ of goodness. The highest form of friendship will involve the reciprocal recognition of goodness, its nurture and unhindered growth.
Aristotle hewed three broad categories of friendship. The first two he considered inferior to the third; nonetheless all had some claim to be properly described as “friendship”. The categories were:

(i) Friendship based on utility. This would include the friends we intermittently call upon to fill vacant evenings and help keep at bay the bruised clouds of loneliness – friends who will amuse us, flatter us and distract us from ourselves.

(ii) Friendship based on pleasure. This type of friendship often comes as a powerful twister of looks, feelings and passion which eventually blows itself out, leaving varying degrees of emotional destruction. Once the feelings have been stripped bare and the passion exhausted, so this friendship lacking real foundations, subsides and eventually collapses.

(iii) Friendship based on goodness. These friendships are stable, possess athletic stamina and can weather the fickleness of human emotions and motives because they are based on goodness. Aristotle writes that

Only the friendship of those who are good, and similar in their goodness, is perfect. For these people each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves. And it is those who desire the good of their friends for their friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality.

Aristotle suggests that without this pure form of friendship our lives would be incomplete and we would remain partially lost to ourselves. Tempering his natural idealism he candidly admits that “such friendships are rare...because men of this kind are few...The wish for friendship develops rapidly, but friendship does not” or as the poet, Elizabeth Jennings puts it, “they (friendships) are not claimed but courted, honoured, considered.”

The friendship between Bertie and Lionel Logue appears to have possessed these qualities. After a slow, stammering gestation period, their lifelong friendship was courted, honoured, considered. They were able to penetrate their character differences, idiosyncrasies and failings and see within each other the treasure of goodness. “Easy at first,” writes W.H.Auden, “the language of friendship/Is, as we soon discover,/Very difficult to speak well...” In The King’s Speech we meet two men who found their voices and learnt to speak the language of friendship well.

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