The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

Montaigne 1.28

'The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb' (1521), by Hans Holbein the Younger

I cannot allow those other common friendships to be placed in the same line with ours. I have as much knowledge of them as another, and of the most perfect of their kind, but I should not advise any one to measure them with the same rule; he would be much mistaken (190).

In his discursive fashion, Montaigne describes several sorts of friendship, of which one sort – such as he apparently experienced with Étienne de La Boétie – is very much out of the common way. The ordinary sort of friendship is haphazard, not the result of any sympathy of mind but rather of circumstance: ‘what we commonly call friends and friendship are no more than acquaintanceships and intimacies contracted by chance for or some advantage, by means of which our souls come together.’ A community of souls sounds like a promising start for a friendship, until he continues: ‘In the friendship I speak of, our souls blend and meld so entirely, that there is no more sign of the seam which joins them. If I am pressed to say why I loved him, I feel that I can only express myself by answering, “Because it was he, because it was I”’ (188).

It hit too close to home, this essay of Montaigne’s ‘On Friendship’ – it drew attention to something I had long noticed and at first made light of, then tried to ignore. In that year, though – in the summer when I was reading this essay – the distinctions of friendship, of what is means to be a friend became with me a sort of ache, as I felt the stitches holding together seams of my friendships begin to strain and begin to unravel. By nature I am a private person, and my friendships are few – by choice and by habit. During that summer the rituals of friendship – the letters, the phone calls, the routine of sympathy – fell to one side, for reasons I do not quite understand nor care fully to examine.

To read, then, of friendship, of the sort of intense friendship that can only be of short duration (do not forget La Boétie died young – Montaigne’s passion could safely transform into mourning, which is easier to sustain than friendship), when I found myself so out of tune with everyone I knew – well, it was miserable. So I did not write about it. Or about anything. I did not dare.

The feeling has not wholly passed. But it is an ache I am now able to examine, which I suppose must be a welcome change. It is, at any rate, a change – for which I am thankful.


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