On Friendship

And why had he never had a friend, as Jorge O’Kelly had been for Prado--A friend with whom he could have talked about things like loyalty and love, and about death? Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

I’ve had only a few friends in my life. I did have a friend in junior high school, but we were too young then to talk about love and death. I had another friend in high school who I enjoyed talking with at lunch. But all we ever talked about were the classes we were taking and I never saw him again after we graduated

In college I didn’t really have any close friends, even though you started to hear talk of love and death then. In graduate school I did have a close friend and we must have talked a lot about love and death, as we spent one summer reading Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet.

He was about the closest friend I ever had. We snuck away from classes once in a while to go to the horse races. One year we staged a Kentucky Derby Party, mint juleps, fancy hats, and a genuine betting table. It was one of those all-time-best-ever parties.

He and his wife became our bridge friends and we often had dinner together at home or in the City. But we lost contact after graduate school and then one day I learned he had taken his life. He felt thoroughly out of place in psychology and was fighting chaos that I never heard much about.

After that, there have been no close friends in my life. Never again did we play bridge or have regular dinner companions. The closest person in my life has always been my wife and we talk almost daily about love and death. But I’ve never considered her a friend, as she is something in a higher realm altogether.

Like Gregorious in Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, lately I’ve begun to wonder why I’ve never really had any close friends, at least for any length of time. Gregorious never answers that question, never even tries. And for me it also remains a puzzle.

In The Spinoza Problem Irvin Yalom writes of Spinoza, Ah, friendship! So this is the glue that holds people together—this warmth, this loneliness-dispelling state of mind. Doubting so much, fearing so much, revealing so little, he had sampled friendship far too rarely in his life.

Later, Spinoza replies, Though I desire and insist upon a solitary life to pursue my meditations, I can sense another part of me longing for intimacy.

For those of us of this disposition, we often turn to books for our friends. We are under no delusions about them, but for a while we become true companions, often far less troublesome than our real friends. Anthony Burgess wrote, “I am convinced that many novel-readers go to a book not merely for the story but for the companionship of the teller of the story—they want a friend with a somewhat greater knowledge of the world than themselves, one who knows the clubs, a good cigar, Tangier and Singapore, who has perhaps dallied with strange women and read odd books, but remains friendly, smiling, tolerant but indignant when the reader would be indignant, always approachable and always without side.”

I find my fictional friends generally far more perceptive with richer bank of ideas than those I encounter off the page. But while I talk with them, they rarely reply or if they do, it is with a voice that leaves open the question of what they might have said if they could jump off the page and land on the empty chair beside me.

In Three Dollars Elliot Perlman wrote: If you have ever loved your parents, if you have ever been able to talk with them, then all you really want from life is someone you can talk to when your parents die.

Isn’t what that what a friend is for, someone who you can talk to, who listens to what you say, and to whom you might say things you’d never tell anyone else? It would be even better if a response were made. But is that really necessary? Perhaps someone who is simply there, a silent companion is all that matters.