Henry James characterised the unpredictable outcomes of friendship between two people (and how much more curious among a group of people) as quasi-chemical – explosive, expanding, volatile gases or dispersible obscuring powders. He was a subtle operator himself, secretive in his relationships (especially with women when young) and becoming increasingly reclusive as his dread of being known and possibly judged by society increased with age. He was also utterly dedicated to his art of writing, and not above exploiting his friends’ willingness to share themselves with him, and shunning them when they needed his support. One biography has it (Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography by Fred Kaplan) that his capacity for true friendship and also sexual love of any kind was ruined by his capricious and domineering parents. Another (Henry James: His Women and His Art by Lyndall Gordon) that he almost ruthlessly used the understandings of women of his acquaintance to build his extraordinarily touching females characters within their stifling conventional societies in Europe at the turn of the last century. A third affirms this view, and also focuses on forbidden male passions (The Master by Colm Toibin). Each author has doubtless committed themselves to a particular perspective, and all cast light on the complexity of the case. But in life outside books, everything is more nebulous, time generates change, chance acts upon the chemistry and living elements exert their own unique understandings.
A.C. Grayling has written a masterly account of the varieties of the experience of friendship (Friendship : Vices and Virtues) which has been a consolation to me as I lose touch with friends, they die, they find themselves in irresistible circumstances and make choices which seem uncharacteristic. But the beauty of a friendship is that is can remake itself, given thought, time and acceptance. May be any apparent change or loss can be borne if there have been truly shared values and an underlying sympathy. Humanity requires that we accept that nobody can be known completely, and that we do not even completely know ourselves, until we encounter the ‘others’, and accept the validity of their experience.
I have often been brought up short, even many years later, by a fresh realisation of meaning in something said by a friend. Statement: ‘Oh, it must be so simple not to be married.’ Correction: ‘There are other complications.’ Statement: ‘I always presumed that two men might understand one another better.’ Correction: ‘Which two men? All are different’. I am almost shamed by the recollection of so much ignorance! Conversely, a friend may say something which reveals their unknowing of my own mental state. Statement: ‘You were confused.’ Correction: ‘I was very clear but our use of language is different, and I am kind enough not to hurt your feelings’. Statement: ‘You want me’ Correction ‘I am feeling fear or distaste, not lust!’ So we negotiate our lives, covertly and overtly. Where there are great self-evident differences of gender, nationality or class, or more subtle nuances of social understanding, how much more can we be mistaken in someone we like, and feel we know. Some blessed souls may have no space between their intent and their expression, but I believe those are few and far between.
Maybe dialogue can clarify meanings between friends, but there must be non-judgment. When a friend (or more hurtfully, a family member) tells me I am wrong about something, it is a denial of my experience; the process of my life. I may understand myself to be wrong in time, but I must come there myself. More likely, some third position will prevail. Some believe that to like, one must be alike. In such a case, I believe a relationship can be saved by non-discussion in certain areas. Leave something in peace until insight prevails. We are not only creatures of reason; emotions can prevent us from thinking or expressing clearly things which may be of core importance to us. Compromise is essential. Some would say that if there is a significant and fundamental difference between two people, they cannot be friends, but I am not so sure. It might depend on the degree of toleration available. Grayling examines models of friendship within which one partner advises, prevents, changes the other. I would prefer to come to change on my own account, not be told by someone who only wants me to resemble and thus affirm themselves. For in difference is the Jamesian chemistry.
For me an ideal friend is somewhat self-sufficient. Co-dependency seems a denial of individual responsibility and agency. Time may divide friends through differing experience and character development, and there may be insufficient remaining at depth to hold on to. In which case, let go. But don’t expect this to be easy. We become used to our longstanding constellations. And yet with even distant separation and no communication, like a star a friendship may be picked up as if it had never been severed. I am not sure what holds. Still other friendshps may simply dissolve away: maybe they were never really there. I suspect that I am somewhat needy of social contact, and sometimes I feel I need my friends more than they need me. But I only have to remember that others may have more pressing claims upon their attention. Only when resentment begins to creep in is it time to stop missing the person’s presence, and learn a little more independence.
Death begins to remove our friends in a different way as we get older. The untimely loss of young friends can be shattering, but it can also help us to learn that the universe is not a personal place. Henry James experienced resurgence of his creative powers on the deaths of three women in his life, and there is a certain energy in the emotion of loss. One may suddenly make a decision to change, or to live differently, or one may suddenly gain an understanding of something previously obscure (like the poetry of T.S. Eliot, another man hard to know and love) I can’t believe that after death I will be reunited with loved ones. That is not a necessary part of it. But the idea of the material of a friend continuing; breath, clothing, their use of household objects; seems beautiful to me. And thoughts of past conversation, with the new understandings brought by memory and imagination, is consoling. If friends fall out, I believe they should forgive one another and move on. ‘These things happen.’ But a friendship is never completely dead, in my experience.