Exploring the ties that bind friends

Review Behavior


Friendship: An Expose

Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin / 270 pages / $24

Grapple your proven friends to your soul with hoops of steel, Polonius tells Laertes in Hamlet. Get yourself a friend, the Talmud tells beginning scholars.

If Joseph Epstein skipped those references, he skipped almost nothing else. Friendship combines the wide range, wry wit and generously skeptical viewpoint that made Snobbery: The American Version a best-seller, and The American Scholar such a pleasure to read when Epstein was editor.

Epstein covers the evolution of the idea of friendship from the Bible and the Greeks to contemporary America, with the kind of detours that, however much Epstein's readers have come to expect them, always surprise: In how many books would Aristotle, Montaigne, Henry James and C.S. Lewis schmooze with Jerry Seinfeld and Wonder Woman?

Along the way, Epstein covers such matters as the different purposes of friendship, the different degrees of possible intimacy and the ways in which friendships can collapse. One of the guilty pleasures in this last department is Epstein's account of the breakup between his mentor, the sociologist Edward Shils, and Saul Bellow. Shils, "a true teacher," kept trying to get Bellow to straighten out his notoriously messy private life: "He wanted Bellow to be Thomas Mann with Jewish jokiness added." Bellow, who did not have this in him - would anybody? - sought revenge after Shils died by mocking him as a character in Ravelstein. Perhaps Epstein is hitting back on Shils' behalf.

Friendship, in any aspect, is no longer a simple thing. Age and responsibility make it more difficult - the best time for it, Epstein writes, is adolescence - but more important, the ancient simplicities of friendship have gone the way of the ancient simplicities about child-rearing, both based on the division of labor between breadwinner husband and homemaker wife.

"Neither of my parents," Epstein writes, "felt that their first duty was to their children. ... But I never felt in the least neglected or maltreated by being so much on my own; on the contrary, I relished my freedom. Few parents today would themselves feel free enough to extend such freedom to their own children." As unmonitored, un- scheduled time for children goes the way of the housewife's kaffeeklatsch and the night out with the boys, both children and adults have less time for discovering, and cultivating, friendship.

That's one side of the argument, but Epstein gives us the other: The telephone and "this miraculous invention called e-mail" have destroyed distance and time as obstacles to friendship. And the end of "the cruel and wasteful, if unlegislated" segregation of men and women has made possible nonsexual male-female friendships of the kind that only "exceptional people" - he cites Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford - used to be able to enjoy. Perhaps I appreciate this because so many of my own friends are women; one of the best passages in the book describes a woman friend, younger than Epstein and politically his opposite, who keeps his esteem because, among other reasons, she is "easily the most generous person I've ever met."

But then Epstein, departing from the stereotype of the college teacher he used to be, cares as little for intellectual hatreds as Yeats did: "[W]hen I find myself in a room with people whom I can count on to share (roughly) my own political views, my first thought is that perhaps these views are flawed and I ought to rethink them."

Why are we attracted to some people but not to others? Unless you're an academic or a full-time political activist, it's not likely to be a person's opinions, which, Epstein says, "are perhaps the least important thing about him." Some opinions may be important as an index to character: Epstein doubts he could be friends with a racist or an anti-Semite, and recalls the ex-husband of another friend, now dead, as "a perfect bigot of virtue." But other qualities, like generosity, wit and courage, count for much more. It's the outlook that made the Scholar, under Epstein, a model of the difference between a sensibility and a political agenda.

Books are friends, the librarians used to say in grade school; I paid attention, perhaps to a fault. But human friends are priceless, and Epstein, who knows both the paper-and-ink and flesh-and-blood kind of friend, has turned out a fascinating look at something that will remain important as long as we remain human.

Jeffrey M. Landaw is a Sun copy editor.

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