Tuesday, June 05, 2012

`His Own Utopian Country'

“Only among friends are there no ranks.”

I thought of Don Colacho’s terse acknowledgment of reality when reading Joseph Epstein’s “My Friend Matt” in the June issue of Commentary. To write of friendship without a wallow in sentimentality is tough enough, but Epstein, author of Friendship: An Exposé (2006), accomplishes something more difficult: He details an unlikely bond of affection, trust and mutual enjoyment with a man significantly unlike himself in age, education, politics and ethnicity. We all know people who collect “exotic” friends for the sole purpose of advertising their colorful sense of broadmindedness – whites who flaunt friendships with blacks, for instance, or intellectuals with token working-class acquaintances. Of his friendship with Matt Shanahan, a blind man who dies at age ninety-four, Epstein writes:

“On fundamental things we were in agreement: on what was amusing, on who was impressive, on what constituted decency.”

Rare but enviable commonalities, in my experience, especially the part about humor. All of us must deal with the earnest, zealous, dull and literal-minded, but befriending them is a challenge I’ve never been able to overcome. It’s not clowns and joke-tellers I find attractive, necessarily, but people with whom I share a sense of what is ridiculous. Among the ridiculous: Al Gore, Slavoj Žižek, Joan Didion, Günter Grass and all the world’s other frauds and poseurs. I could never take seriously anyone who took them seriously, and friendship would be unimaginable. Epstein writes of Shanahan:

“Not long after we met, in fact, he turned in my direction and asked, `Do you have any notion why Hannah Arendt wanted to sleep with a creep like Heidegger?’ An interesting question coming from a man who never finished high school.”

The second of Epstein’s “fundamental things” at first surprised me, but it came to make sense and is directly linked to what amuses us. If you’re impressed by John Dewey, Muriel Rukeyser, Pete Seeger, Andy Warhol, Jimmy Carter or Michael Jackson, etc., clearly you have no sense of humor. On the other hand, if you’re not impressed by Samuel Johnson, Henry James, Louis Armstrong, Yvor Winters, Richard Diebenkorn and A.J. Liebling (notably funny and serious fellows) – well, we probably have little to talk about.

The part about decency is the most difficult of Epstein’s categories to articulate but the simplest to recognize. It might boil down, I think, to finding self-centeredness, in one’s self and others, repellent. If you can’t see it or won’t condemn it, we may get along for awhile but nothing deeper or more lasting is likely. I favor the company of people who share my radar for pomposity, pretension and mendacity, and this too relates to what we find amusing. “My Friend Matt” is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Epstein is always funny and wise, but his gift for unlikely friendship and the charm with which he describes it inspire a Charles Lamb-like sense of fondness and amiability in this reader. In Friendship: An Exposé, in a chapter titled “Disparate Friends,” Epstein writes:

“Everyone must try to make friendship his own utopian country in which no inequalities exist, where the coin of the realm is imaginative sympathy, all competition and rivalrous feelings are strictly outlawed, the oxygen is considerate talk, and the blood circulates best when stimulated by the constant exercise of thoughtfulness, generous impulse, and kindness. The earnest practice of friendship, in short, requires us to be rather better than most of the time we really are.”


Chuck Kelly said...

Thanks for the tip re Epstein.

Levi Stahl said...

I fully agree with your, and Epstein's, broad themes, here, Patrick. What comes to mind most quickly when I think of my friends and family is shared laughter; it's hard to imagine a successful friendship that doesn't include that.

I do have to quibble with your dismissal of Michael Jackson, however. (I hope that doesn't automatically exclude me from the utopian country of your friendship?) He was often a ridiculous figure, certainly, but his dancing and singing--and the deep sense of rhythm (and the endlessly multiplying possibilities thereof) they reveal--still take my breath away sometimes. To hear how well he already understood the art of working with and against the beat as a pre-teen in the Jackson 5 songs still amazes me, and, when set against the weird mess that his life became, makes me sad.

Levi Stahl said...

Oh, and I should say: I took a class from Joseph Epstein when I was an undergraduate, and he was kind, attentive, engaged, and even pleasantly courtly in his manner. I really enjoyed his company.

Helen Pinkerton said...


Don Colacho always gets it just right, doesn't he?