Epicurus, the Athenian philosopher, included friendship among life’s necessities. "Only beasts dine alone," he is said to have exclaimed. Friends provide amusement, information, and a bracing and beautiful feeling of human connection. "Without friends," says Joseph Epstein, former editor of the American Scholar, "we are all lost." But friends can also be "an immense complication, a huge burden, and a royal pain in the arse." Candid and curmudgeonly, Epstein generalizes from his own experiences in Friendship: An Expose to subvert romantic conceptions of friendship that he believes are a recipe for disenchantment, failure and remorse.
Although his answer to Robert Burns’ question "Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" is "Why the hell not," Epstein lays claim to seventy five friends. He calls anyone he likes and plans to see again a friend, including elevator and lobby friends, poker and pottery friends, professional friends, out-of-town friends, and old friends. The tie of friend to friend, he emphasizes, should be familiarity, not utility. Close friends share an equality of feeling, if not status, agree on "fundamental things," and never seem to exhaust the delight they take in one another’s company. A friend should get the benefit of every doubt. Even flaws acquired after the friendship was formed should be tolerated.
Epstein would not permit an attack – unfair or fair – on a close friend in a magazine he edited, but he does not want friends to "be there" for him in difficult times. He expects friends to be "unsteady, contradictory, not perpetually obliging." A decent listener who recognizes in himself a tendency to become a "gasbag," Epstein has never had a friend who was a confidant: "I am simply and utterly unable to find any attraction to the intimacy, outside of my family life, that such a path to my putatively deeper self promises."
Little wonder, then, that Epstein looks for friends who share his "manly stoicism" (though not necessarily his views on politics and religion) and prefers small talk to big talk. When his physician’s mother died, he did not send a note of condolence because he preferred "our middle distance friendship" to something closer. And he fears that if he met face-to-face with "a good friend" with whom he exchanges e-mails more than once a day "we might be disappointed."
Unlike his prescriptions, Epstein’s descriptions of friendship provide few surprises. He posits that "there is something natural about gravitating toward one’s own people," then adds, defensively, that some of his best friends are not Jews. Friendship and sex, he insists, almost reflexively, can mix only in a good marriage. Epstein also believes that "only with men can one banter, use raillery, be heavy-handedly ironic, screw off and be boyishly, stupidly, happily, manly." Modern companionate, child-centered marriage, and feminism "in its intemperate strain," he concludes, threaten these male bonds. While women widen their range of friends after marriage, men do not: With less time for the boys, they grow satisfied with wives who are their best friends, enjoying solitude as they get older.
Acknowledging that his analysis stems from the unique relationships he has had, Epstein maintains that it is only a "more intense and public version" of the friendships forged by his readers. He doubts that the sexual revolution has made even a "minuscule change in human nature." Gen-Xers, and more than a few baby boomers, may not agree. Instead of universal truths about friendship, they may conclude that Friendship: An Expose lays bare the perceptions, prejudices and apprehensions of an aging, affluent, Jewish male academic, whose father didn’t acquire friends because he didn’t require them, a bruised romantic who really doesn’t, or shouldn’t, want his friendships without obligations or great expectations.
Friendship: An Expose
By Joseph Epstein
Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler, Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.