FRIENDS AND ENEMIES
An essay on friendship, an introduction to my play The Spank
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This story of a friendship - The Spank - developed out of the most natural thing, something I'd been doing for years: sitting with a male friend once or twice a week in a local cafe. Oddly, we sit side-by-side, partly because I have to situate myself near his good ear. I have also noticed, though, that friends tend to sit side-by-side in a pub or cafe, both facing the same way. Lovers or acquaintances would never do that.
My pal and I drink a little, eat sometimes, complain a lot, and talk about everything and nothing, seeing how it goes. We examine the comedy of existence, our families, other friends, sport, politics, and our work. There are jokes, many unnecessarily over-detailed accounts of doctor, dentist and hospital visits, and occasional tragedies and farces.
Such friendships are not alliances, nor are they networking. They are not commercial, and there should be no profit or advantage in them. Friendship is a form of purposive idleness. The relationship is based on equality, not on power. And since there's no agenda, and no reason to see the other except for distraction and entertainment, you can say whatever you like, more or less free associating. You can forget yourself and digress; you can digress from your digressions, until the words, insofar as they are even words, might resemble a distant rumbling, a sort of automatic talking. Why would a friend object if your mind and mouth run all over? They will be used to the way you go on, forfeiting logic for inspiration. And, most likely, as you both sit there, the friend is mulling over something more important. So, with a friend, there's a kind of solitude possible, even in their company. There might be silence and no rush to fill it. And why not? You can let one another be.
However, the friend I'm referring to does like to say suddenly, 'What else is new?' This can be startling at times, like an alarm going off, and I'm still not used to it. And so, if there is a somnolent patch in the conversation, it's a good idea to have a piece of juicy gossip prepared, usually concerning the misfortune of a good friend, which will set the pal giggling with pleasure.
One of the things you are doing in such a friendship, by conjuring up a world between you, is acting as artists of the spoken. The people you discuss - people you might barely know, and some you have never met - are not present except through your words. They are characters rather than people. You only see them from one point of view. They have no dimension. You can only guess how they might really be. But you'll hear a lot about them, and you'll see them in your mind. If you do run into them, it might be a shock.
Such a simple set-up seemed like a good subject for a play. There will be some drama in it - but not too much - because conversation isn't merely the conveying of information; one person is always doing something to the other. Unlike most writing, which may be evocative but is still always fixed, speech is labile. There's an affect made, and a change in the other person. After all, the right question, at the right time can open someone up, surprise them, make them laugh or question the meaning of their existence. They might find themselves laughing hard, or wondering who they are.
Such conversations are works of the imagination. One person is turning experience into stories for the other; hopefully, amusing, intriguing ones at that. There should be embellishment, added dialogue, sadnesses turned into hilarity, and moving moments. And plays, of course, are similarly made of people talking: chatter, gossip, demands, seduction, high peril, and so on.
I'd rather talk to one friend in a quiet cafe than fifty acquaintances at a party. Not only is it more of a cosy pleasure, it also works because there is a boundary with the friend; you know where you are. I've had a series of male friends, most of which were older than me, and all opened up the world, each in different ways. I was always pushy and curious as a kid; I wanted to know stuff, and be enthused by others. A smart friend can re-describe things for you; seeing stuff on your pal's terms makes new objects suddenly pleasurable. As Emerson says, "The moment we indulge our affections, the each is metamorphosed”.
Montaigne, in his lovely essay on friendship, states that you can't really be friends with a parent because there are intimacies you will never want to share with your mother or father. There's some truth in this; but wouldn't it be wise always to be sparing with one's intimacies? Nevertheless, I have found that friendship with an adult child is the deepest pleasure imaginable. When you no longer have to take care of your kid, you can enjoy them in a new way, marvelling at what you helped make, from a distance. They also take care of you; it's their turn. Their love is a moving reward.
It is natural, of course, that there will be certain familiarities you should not, or cannot share with a friend. There will always be useful limits. One of these is the knowledge that the conversation won't go on too long. You know when you will part. There will be other things you want to do more, like watch television, take a walk or go to bed. There's no compulsion. You can leave when you like.
It is your partner you go home to; it is your partner you are ultimately loyal to. You like talking with your friend, but you would never go to bed with them. There is no romance; instead, laughter is the sex of friendship. The flame of sexual love, as Montaigne also says, 'is more active, hotter, and fiercer.' You have no desire to posses your friend, restrain them, or make unusual carnal demands. Where you keep your lover jealously close, you let the friend go.
Which isn't to say there will not be ethical dilemmas which can disturb, if not tear at a friendship. Some arguments can be passionate, and draw you together. Others will divide you. Sometimes the friendship itself will be at stake. The best friendships can end; sometimes they have to. And that's where the trouble starts.