Friends Aren't What They Used To Be
The new ethos of intimacy.
For those of us hopelessly tainted by bicoastal elitism, the Chicagoan Joseph Epstein can be hard to place. An essayist, short-story writer, and former editor of the esteemed American Scholar, Epstein has an easygoing tone, pedigreed but loose, broad-shouldered but with a hint of a charming sag; his politics, an unrabid conservatism with roots in Dr. Johnson, feel unfamiliar, too. Nonetheless, in recent years my heart has leapt up when I see his byline, and I've come to think of him as my culture-pages friend, the way Jose Reyes is my sister-in-law's TV boyfriend. For every time I blinked twice at the politics, I envied the style, that conversational manner that, when necessary, flashes the shiv. Upon hearing that Epstein, who recently broke out of the midlist with a cunning best seller on American snobbery, had authored a book on friendship, I thought, sign me up; time to get to know the man better.
Epstein doesn't say so outright, but the implication is easily picked up throughout Friendship: An Exposé that the requirements for writing well about friendship mimic the requirements for being a good friend: humor, a certain balance of tact and candor, a capacity for solitude, a tolerance for silence when enough has been said. And friendship is not often written about well, its classical literature (nonfiction, at least) tending toward the highfalutin, its contemporary (again, nonfiction) literature tending toward the garrulous. Epstein admires the first, giving us a nicely potted history highlighted by Cicero and Montaigne, and deplores the latter, which, in his favorite catch-all slur, he labels the "therapeutic."
A therapeutic culture is in love with the grieving confessional; it ruins friendship by overburdening it, as if friendship were the one place we can be made psychically whole. Counterpoised against the "therapeutic" is Epstein's own Midwestern reticence, with a little salutary jaundice tossed in. "I felt my roster of friends and acquaintances—owing to my own undiminished talent for acquiring friends—was altogether too large as it stood," he admits early on. "I was already seeing more people—for lunches, coffees, dinners with them and their wives and husbands—than I really liked. But to my mild fraudulence was added a deep social cowardice—an inability to break things off with people who were of only peripheral interest to me. I sometimes felt I was the perfect customer for a much-needed but never-produced Hallmark card that would read 'We've been friends for a very long time,' followed on the inside by 'What do you say we stop?' "
As a new would-be friend, Epstein, I'm pleased to report, in the old theater phrase, hits his mark. His aperçus are delightful, his anecdotes tastefully dishy, his wit an amicably gelid appraisal of human variety. And yet, something nagged me as I read the book. At first I thought it was simply that Mr. Epstein and I are temperamental opposites. (I'm that needy wretch who gathers people to him only with difficulty and then, my mind a little reliquary of collected slights, sheds them with great joy.) But the problem lay shallower: Mr. Epstein has no deep feelings on the subject of friends. Though possessed of many, he isn't sure he wants any. "As part of my prowess at making a lot of friends," he writes about his early childhood, "I had at my command a small gift for implying an intimacy that often wasn't really there. I have it still, and it sometimes gets me into difficulty, making people think I have a stronger feeling for them than in fact I do."
This book is filled with many tetchy pleasures, but the one thing a self-styled exposé must never feel is familiar. Worse than being wrong, Epstein is trailing the friendship curve. He seems to think that adolescence, with its jags of hysterical shriving, is still the paradigmatic time for making friends. ("The idealization of friendship may be owing to the fact that the most intense time for friendship, for men and for women, is during adolescence," he writes. "This is also a period when time itself seems inexhaustible, and life's pressures are well off in the distance. Friendship can be explored, friends cultivated, unambiguously enjoyed, luxuriated in.") But as any must-see TV viewer knows, the paradigmatic time for making friends is no longer adolescence. It's the new, ill-defined period in a person's life, between what Erik Erikson once labeled "Young Adulthood" and "Maturity," between the one nuclear family you are born into, and the one you may (or may not) start for yourself.
This mini-epoch in the life cycle, which Erikson realized often pitted "intimacy" against "isolation," has expanded and expanded to become, as adolescence was in the 1950s and '60s, the defining period of a person's existence. (A hint of the extent of its imperial expansion can be found in Epstein's own insistence that, at the age of 67, he is in "late middle age.") This never-ending era of prematurity represents treasure to the advertisers (think of it: disposable income, no major responsibilities), and its guiding ethos wasn't given to us by Freud and Oprah, but by psychopharmacology and, of course, our great Huis Clos epic, Seinfeld. When George finally opens up, telling Jerry his deepest, darkest secrets, Jerry pauses then says, "Good luck with all that."
Abhorrence of confession, admixed with a petty irritation at the necessity of sharing the universe with others—these attitudes are in syndication. And so finally, I must admit, I wearied of my new companion. True, there had been warning signs upfront—the third or fourth protest-too-much jibe against Freud (got it, thanks, cigar's just a cigar), the fifth or sixth dig at the tenured ding-a-lings, the loftiness in his appreciation of "the human comedy." But in the end, it was simply that he took Seinfeldism one step too far. "I recall being invited to lunch with a poet, who obviously wished to befriend me, but who talked through the meal about himself, his small triumphs, his enemies, his good works, his plans for his brilliant future. At the end, I wanted to touch his hand and say, 'Forgive me, but you have spoken way too much about yourself, especially in the presence of someone who, in our puny little literary world, is much better known and much more important than you. A serious mistake, especially if you plan to have lunch with me again.' "
No worries there. Check, please.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.