Introduction to Josie Barnard's The Book of Friendship
The Book of Friendship by Josie Barnard
Moving seamlessly from Boudicca to Jennifer Aniston, from Nietszche to Morecambe & Wise, Josie Barnard examines how friendship is affected by class, gender and geography, and the circumstances that can turn a passing acquaintance into a lifelong friend. The Book of Friendship discusses with wit, intelligence and sparkling insight every aspect of this alluring, uplifting, vital relationship.
Friendship is strange. Out of the sea of acquaintances and strangers, how do we make our friends? When do they appear in our lives? ‘We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed,’ wrote the eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson. ‘As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last the one which makes the heart run over.’
It often feels hard to explain. On the one hand, friends are crucial to us. On the other, they can seem like an awful lot of effort. In a soliloquy about the passing of time and the pointlessness of living, Bernard, a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, says, ‘I have lost friends, some by death . . . others by sheer inability to cross the street.’ Some leave you feeling lazy. Yet there are friends for whom you’d do anything. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. ‘Friendship my oxygen,’ says the novelist Michèle Roberts. The American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of his friends: ‘The great God gave them to me. By oldest right, by the divine affinity of virtue with itself, I find them, or rather, not I, but the Deity in me.’
But friends can be so unpredictable. At the start of the 2008 teen film Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, the protagonist Georgia arrives at a party dressed as a stuffed olive because she and her fourteen year-old pals had agreed to come as hors d’oeuvres – one as a vol au vent, one as a cocktail sausage. But her friends bottled out and didn’t tell her. The film opens with Georgia standing aghast in the middle of the party, fat and green with her head made up to look like a bit of pimento, staring at her friends, who all look glamorous. Yet these same friends also help Georgia devise a ‘snogging scale’, get a boyfriend and throw the best party in Eastbourne.
And yes, notebook at my side I did watch Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging from start to finish. I also read pivotal essays on friendship by philosophers including Kant and Kierkegaard. I found myself listening rather too intently to other people’s conversations in the changing room at my local swimming pool. I made my way systematically through works by psychologists and sociologists, historians, biographers and critics in the British Library. In second hand shops I happened across books such as Mutual Aid by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, crumpled and annotated. TV programmes like Glee held a new fascination.
Indeed, at times it felt as if everything I did was part of my research. Nipping out for coffee with a mate was not so simple any more. It’s not that my friends were my research. But inevitably I thought about friendship while I was with them. If I mentioned to a close friend or someone I hardly knew that I was writing a book on friendship, more often than not their eyes would light up and they’d say: You must include such and such a book/writer/song/artist. And I’d find myself scrabbling for pencil stubs and making notes on table napkins.
It was exciting, but also a bit alarming. Friendship was turning out to be such a vast subject. It soon became clear that I could not be comprehensive. I had to stop trying to be. Obviously, some texts demand attention: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example. Aristotle says a great many astute, wise things about friendship. And he uses phrases that have left moral philosophers squirming for more than two millennia. He said that ‘friendships of excellence’ were the only type worth having, and that they were only available to male aristocrats. From the Enlightenment on, Aristotle was charged with elitism. Still more problematic, though, was his assertion that only those who were ‘self-sufficient’ could have truly worthwhile friendships. To achieve self-sufficiency, Aristotle said, one must be ‘a friend to oneself most of all’. ‘The good person,’ he stated, ‘must be a self-lover.’
And this one small word, ‘self-lover’, proved a terrible stumbling-block. A self-lover is surely selfish, which makes friendship something achieved at the expense of the greater good and therefore indefensible. Yet Aristotle was a fierce champion of friendship. ‘No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all other goods.’ For his shrewd and for his controversial observations, Aristotle became a leaping-off point. And I decided that, if they shed light on the same aspect of friendship, figures as diverse as Joyce Grenfell and Émile Zola, Cicero and The Spice Girls, could be grouped together. Suddenly it felt a bit like throwing a party. It didn’t have to be linear. It shouldn’t be linear.
I talked to eighteen-year-old Clem and nineteen-year-old Arianna about texting versus Facebook. I looked at the clothes and activities depicted in the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Children’s Games. I thought about the fact that in Lancashire cotton mills, workers would keep communicating with their friends over the noise of the looms using sign language and lip reading. I considered the ways things have changed in the relatively recent past for mothers. In 1935, one new mother who called herself ‘Ubique’ was so desperately isolated that she wrote to the letters page of Nursery World magazine: ‘Can any mother help me?’ Many women now who join antenatal classes stay friends with that same group for decades. Mumsnet.com allows new mothers kept awake by colicky babies to give each other support from opposite ends of the country at 3 a.m.
I took facts and opinions, others’ and my own. I selected, I shaped. I realised I was on a journey, but not up a mountain that has a definitive summit. In fact, there’s no one peak to conquer. This book is an exploration. I go down side alleys, I discover coves and glades. But there are truths to be found along the way. ‘Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship,’ said the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Plato said that he would rather have a single companion than all Darius’s gold. Money doesn’t buy us happiness anyway, we know that.
Indeed, books like Affluenza by Oliver James show that a commitment to accumulating it actually takes us individually and nationally into debt. Families are more fractured nowadays. Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics show that almost half of all marriages in England and Wales will end in divorce. Aunts and uncles often live hundreds of miles away. The roles men and women play in society continue changing. It is not only women who tend children. As mothers increasingly hold down high-powered jobs, the househusband gains ground. It has been assumed for decades now that women are innately better at friendships, specifically at friendships that are more about empathy and sharing intimacies, while men’s friendships are about going out and doing things together. Women fighting to become barristers find it necessary to develop the kinds of friendships that used to be confined to gentlemen’s clubs and the golf course. Men trying to ferry children between classes and after-school clubs find that a busy domestic schedule is barely feasible without a network of fellow parents. Many people choose not to have children at all.
Our society is now infused with a fear of moral collapse. But stating simply that rethinking friendship might be a significant part of the answer is something we balk at in the twenty-first century.
The answer is not to suddenly acquire more friends, or to narrow too many friends down to one, or to dismiss Facebook on the grounds that it’s simply not possible to have 352. But there are dos and don’ts of friendship, and in this book, ranging as it does through history and through disciplines and exploring representations of friendship in fiction, I will point to ways of making the most of what you have.
More than ever in our fractured society, friendship is, as Friedrich Nietzsche described it, ‘a problem worthy of a solution’.
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