Saturday, 29 January 2011

On Friendship

I have just had an article published in The Irish Post on Friendship. It is a reworked version of an earlier blog post inspired by the film, The King’s Speech, but now with a Christian emphasis and consideration of how the dominance of erotic love has “done dirt on friendship”. I have even included a Toy Story video as an act of reparation! I think it is an improved piece of work.

With five star reviews and predictions of Oscars, The King’s Speech is the film of the moment. Interestingly, it has been described by some critics as the first “bromance” of 2011. “Bromance” is street patois for the friendship between two men. In cultural terms this is a recognition of the value and importance of men having male friends. These friendships give men the permission to reveal or articulate things about themselves in a way that is different to how they would do so with their wife, girlfriend, work colleagues or gang of mates down the pub. Unfortunately, the term “bromance” brings with it associations of juvenile puerility. Yet, the central relationship between Bertie, the future King George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, has no trace of such associations. Their friendship was a not trivial affair and part of the film’s success, is that it is treated in a sincere and profound manner.

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 healing and life-affirming qualities. Through their friendship both men discover a masculine idiom with which to communicate their fears and longings.

The Greek philosopher, 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 the noblest friendships incubates the germ of goodness. “It is those who desire the good of their friends for their friends’ sake that are most truly friends,” wrote Aristotle, “because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality.”

Christian thinkers took such ideas and married them to the fact that human beings are created in the image of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A God of relationships of love. They believed it was possible to glimpse (albeit through a glass darkly) in the highest forms of human experience something of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity.

It was in the twelfth century Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire that Abbot Aelred synthesised these ideas and wrote On Spiritual Friendship. Aelred saw in friendship the possibility of human beings concretising their faith. The Christian life could not just be an abstract assent to the love of God but rather love of others, for example, through friendship, made real in some manner God’s love for us.

For Aelred, friendship is a vehicle by which we can approach the Divine and, at the same time, a conduit through which Divine love can pass. Friendship, according to Aelred, should never be a convenient alliance of interests. For him there was a clear separation between superficial, fair-weather friends and a profoundly spiritual friendship. He writes: “Is it not a foretaste of blessedness thus to love and thus to be loved; thus to help and be helped; and in this way from the sweetness of fraternal charity to wing one’s flight aloft to that more sublime splendour of divine love..?”

In recent times, the idea of friendship has been vandalised by the ubiquitous belief that all relationships are, at base, erotic and sexual. This insidious notion has done dirt on friendship and, sadly, deep friendships between people of the same sex are often viewed with suspicion. The King’s Speech refutes this modern idea and unashamedly places friendship centre stage. Friendship, it suggests, give people the space to breathe, to be themselves, to not be narrowly defined in a sexual way. Good, healthy friendships provide us with intimacy as well as the security and freedom of distance. They are to be celebrated.

Aristotle believed that without 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 respective voices and did learn to speak that essential language very well.

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