A review of Friendship: An Exposé, by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein remarks that there aren't many books written on the subject of friendship. Two hundred and seventy pages later, we might be tempted to think, Score one more for the marketplace! But of course you wouldn't be tempted to say any such thing after completing this book. Joe Epstein appears to have promised himself, 17 books back, that he would never be tedious, and this latest book is certainly a validation of that oath. In particular because a book on a subject so amorphous (How about a book on love? Or duty?) runs singular risks, in this case the epiphany is that there is no epiphany in the offing. Although Epstein never ceases to amuse and to illuminate, he has no thesis about friendship to communicate, no bizarre discoveries to share. He can only instruct and entertain. Instruct in what?How to make friends? No, not really. How to keep them? No, not exactly. How to weather the loss of one? Not quite, though he has a bromide or two handy. How much to care for the evanescence of one or more friendships? 

Depends. So what is it that he tells us that is edifying? Well, how to write about friendship, never mind that the challenge—how to make a friend—can't be confidently undertaken because there are no sure-fire rules. On this point he quietly surrenders.

What then does he do?

He is gifted beyond belief in coming up with a phrase or a sentence or a paragraph written by or about people who make good copy, Christmas light after light on a huge tree, and after a few chapters you permit yourself to wonder: Can this man keep this up?

Here is a schematic idea of the scope of the challenge he accepts.

Turning to the index, you run your eyes down the first page pausing only at proper names. We have Achilles, Mortimer Adler, Celeste Alberet, Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, Kingsley Amis, Digby Anderson, Yasir Arafat, Hannah Arendt, Aristotle (12 citations), Newton Arvin, Titus Pomponius Atticus, W. H. Auden, Saint Augustine, Jane Austen, Francis Bacon, George Balanchine, Honoré de Balzac, Karl Barth, Jacques Barzun, Walter Jackson Bate, Samuel Beckett, Max Beerbohm.

I was once tempted (unhappily, I resisted the temptation) to turn to a boring television host, who couldn't find stay-awake words to describe the book I was on his program to promote, and throw out a challenge. I thought to say, "Max, give me a number between 1 and 341, the last page of my book. Never mind why, I'll tell you why. I will turn to the page you select and in five seconds, will read aloud from one paragraph on that page. It will demonstrate the unspeakable satisfaction imparted from hearing the text." As a gesture of humility, I might have added that if any of Max's viewers accepted the challenge and did not find in the selected paragraph the advertised qualities of wit and elegance, that person would be excused from buying the book. Max had about five million viewers, so my challenge was pretty safe. 

If readers of these words I am writing about Epstein were within earshot, I'd have rejoiced in issuing a challenge at the same level, centered on people he quoted or alluded to.

For instance, what did Mortimer Adler do or say to get him into Friendship: An Exposé?

Page 159: "I once worked for Mortimer J. Adler, who was born a Jew but for many years attended an Episcopal church, and who once instructed a friend of mine who was his office manager not to hire a Jewish girl as his secretary (Adler converted to Catholicism shortly before he died). Around me this man, who identified himself as little as possible as Jewish, would occasionally bring out a Yiddishism or recount stories of his immigrant father. Something about me, apparently, brings out the Jew in people."

Titus Pomponius Atticus had one very close friend. Epstein dilates: "With a wife or husband who is truly one's [friend], with physical love and a mutual interest in one's children added, one requires less in and from other friends. Sometimes, in fact, when one has such a dominant best friend—a live-in, as it were, best friend—the expectations and obligations of other friendships can come to seem a touch, and sometimes more than a touch, burdensome."

In my own experience, incipient friendships are often stillborn in that they were never really born. On reflection, they were intimacies that owed their lives to briefly shared experiences. 

These are frequently associated with travel. If it wasn't Somerset Maugham who wrote about the shipboard romance, it's simply because he forgot to do so. The situation is very nearly generic. The woman, preferably middle-aged, is on a liner crossing an ocean and in a matter of days goes from attraction for a single male passenger to devotion to him, and before the ship docks there is a mutual intimacy that sweeps them off their feet. When they leave the ship, they go off to disparate engagements, but it is inconceivable that they should end other than as full-fledged lifelong friends; but in fact they never see each other again, or if they do, only fleetingly.

Such relationships are not always romantic in nature. I've had short-term friendships, conceived aboard ship, or during basic training in the army, or pooling time and resources at college in pursuit of learning or pleasure. But the inseminating agent never did permanent work, and commonplace absorptions took over.

I think of Hughie, though I now need to work at it to remember him at all, but he fits here exactly. It was a hot August 1944, and Hughie was on the bus that carried a load of draftees from Camden, South Carolina, to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. There we would be "processed," a three-day operation, after which half of us would be bused to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, the next step in a progressive deployment that took me, finally, to Camp Wheeler, in Macon, Georgia, for basic training in the infantry. Hughie and I were together for ten days, at the end of which he was dispatched to Oklahoma for artillery training. We learned at the same drill that we would be separated that same day, and the forlornness was piercing. We spoke of reunion in Camden after the war ended, and of correspondence in between, though I remember wondering whether Hughie knew how to read and write.

Such "friendships," though perhaps that is not what they should be labeled, I simply imagine happen to us all, no doubt including Mr. Epstein, though I'd be reluctant to admit just any old anybody into the hallowed company of Hughie, sacred in my thoughts, for a couple of weeks in the hot Carolina sun of 1944 when what seemed the entire world was bent on wresting us from civil life to make us into soldiers. 

Character is required, along with the suppression of envy, for the less fortunate of two friends not to hold his old friend's success against him. "Francis Bacon, on this point, claims that 'there is little friendship in the world, and least of all that between equals.' I take Bacon's point to be that equality between people is chiefly a spur to rivalry, which can be death on friendship." Balzac is waiting there to strengthen the argument, writes Epstein: "with that worldly cynicism one comes to expect (and enjoy) in him, [he] backs up Bacon by remarking that 'nothing so fortifies a friendship as the belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other.'"

The mention of Amis brings on an extensive excerpt from this examination of friendship:

Consider a relatively famous recent three-way male friendship, that among literary Englishmen of the same generation: the poet Philip Larkin, the novelist Kingsley Amis, and the historian of Soviet terror Robert Conquest…. Larkin was the best poet of his time, Amis the most highly regarded English novelist, and Conquest, in The Great Terror, the author of one of the most historically significant books of the past century. Larkin and Amis went to university together; Conquest matched both in comic point of view.

The objective comes now clearly into view:


Friendships similar to that among these three men are unthinkable among women, and perhaps among American men. Although they were (Conquest is still very much alive) men of considerable intellectual and artistic seriousness, among themselves they remained schoolboys, perhaps no older than age-fifteen schoolboys. They shared an interest in light pornography, spanking and all that (ah, there'll always be an England), as well as a scruffiness and a deliberate loutishness. Larkin could write to Amis about what a waste of time and money it was to court a woman, when it made much more sense and saved five pounds to toss off early in the evening and spend the rest of the night alone, drinking and listening to jazz records. Amis could report to Larkin on his adulteries and his drunkenness. Their anti-female sentiments were unabashed and, if one is not a woman, wickedly funny. Conquest sent them both limericks quite gigglesome in their obscenity. To one another they could mock the pretensions of the famous among their other friends and acquaintances. In short, guy stuff, to a high and amusing if not entirely admirable power, yet of a kind that gave all three of these extraordinary men much pleasure and probably solace.


However abundant the spirit for friendship, there needs to be a practical limitation, surely, in numbers? "I am myself guilty of breaking a serious rule of the art of friendship," writes Epstein, 


the Aristotelian stricture against polyphilia, or having too many friends: "for it would seem," Aristotle wrote, "actually impossible to be a great friend to many people." In a talk I once gave on friendship, I mentioned that I have seventy-five or so friends. A sensible woman in the audience said that that seemed an unusually, almost unbelievably high number. (I'm reminded here of reading somewhere that William F. Buckley, Jr., once gave a party to which he invited his fifteen hundred closest friends.)* I now think that the number seventy-five was probably on the modest side, at least if one thinks of friends as people with whom one has had past and expects to have continuing relations, with all the conviviality and obligations entailed in a friendship.

All of which is best summarized by suggesting that here is the perfect gift for your—friend. 

Best friend? 

Why not? Though perhaps best friends should have two copies.


* The story here is funny. A commercial ship owner brought to New York City for its maiden exposure a huge new sail-rigged ship and asked me, through an agent of his line, if I would like to have it for a lunch sail with "your closest friends." How many would the ship accommodate, I asked? "Fifteen hundred" was his answer. I took some delight in issuing the invitations, disclosing a mock rank of each invitee in a discreet pencil stroke, counting down from 1,500; a fun exercise in eyebrow-raising. About 50 friends boarded the boat, discussing, for a while, their relative standing in my roster.