Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘love’

25 AUGUST, 2014

A Brief History of Romantic Friendship

By:

“Smashes,” “crushes,” “spoons,” and other curious nineteenth-century relationship varieties.

Thoreau used to lie awake at night and “think of friendship and its possibilities,” while his dear friend Emerson, in contemplating the secret of friendship, marveled, “What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” — language strikingly similar to that of all the great Romantic poets in extolling the union of love. It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love, but what about that strange, wonderful, and often messy neverland between the two and the inevitable discombobulation of our neatly organized relationship structures that happens when romantic love and friendship converge?

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), historian Lilian Faderman chronicles the extraordinary, era-defining rise and fall of precisely that phenomenon — romantic friendship — as an agent of cultural change:

While romantic friendship had had a long history in Western civilization, it took on particular significance in nineteenth-century America, where men’s spheres and women’s spheres became so divided through the task of nation-building. Men saw themselves as needing the assistance of other men to realize their great material passions, and they fostered “muscle values” and “rational values,” to the exclusion of women. Women, left to themselves outside of their household duties, found kindred spirits primarily in each other. They banded together and fostered “heart values.”

Still, given the economic and social demands of life at the time, most of these female bonds were necessarily secondary to women’s familial obligations, whether in a father’s house or a husband’s. But college, Faderman argues, changed all that — access to education swung open the gates to a new world for women and, as pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell memorably marveled in her diary, it allowed women to set their sights much higher than pervious generations had imagined possible.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

What amplified the impact of that progress, beyond the raw material of academia, were young women’s relationships with each other and the ecosystem of those relationships, which created “a healthy and productive separatism.” This allowed them to explore their own boundaries, to build their own hierarchy of values, to try on the roles of leaders in a self-contained universe free from the traditional yardsticks of society and from the pressure of male demands. But there was one especially potent driver of this empowerment — romantic friendships, which were referred to in college slang as “smashes,” “crushes,” or “spoons.”

In 1873, a Yale student newspaper described the phenomenon in terms that bespeak either utter obliviousness to the sexual undertones of these relationships or nonchalant acceptance of them:

When a Vassar girl takes a shine to another, she straightway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of “Ridley’s Mixed Candies,” locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two women become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as — smashed.

Vassar, as it happens, was not only the university where Maria Mitchell had begun teaching as the only woman on the faculty, paving the way for women in science, but also where Edna St. Vincent Millay became “smashed” with another woman and penned for her some of the most enchanting queer love letters of all time.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

The romantic friendship, also well-documented among men, was not only culturally condoned — in fact, William Alger wrote in 1868 that it brought to women “freshness, stimulant charm, noble truths and aspirations” — but also deeply woven into the fabric of college life. Institutions like Vassar and Smith regularly held all-female dances in the early twentieth century. A Cosmopolitan magazine article from 1901 on life in women’s colleges describes Smith’s Freshman Frolic, in which a sophomore girl played “the cavalier” for the freshman girl she escorted:

She sends her flowers, calls for her, fills her order of dance, fetches ices and frappes between dances and takes her to supper… Every “soph” sees her partner home, begs for a flower … and if the freshman has taken advantage of the opportunity and made the desired hit, there are dates for future meetings and jollifications and a good night over the balusters, as lingering and cordial as any the “freshie” has left behind. And if the gallant soph who lives in another hall runs away from her shadow on the way back to her dormitory, it’s nobody’s business but her own.

Despite the reluctance of the era’s writers to detail that aspect, Faderman notes that such courtship rituals often led to “lovemaking,” both in the 19th-century sentimental sense and in the modern meaning of sexual intimacy. She marvels at the fault line between the oblivious and the obvious:

How could such excitements not lead to passionate loves at a time when there was not yet widespread stigma against intense female same-sex relationships?

What’s more, young college women’s romantic friendships were modeled heavily after the relationships between their female professors, who resided on campus, usually in pairs, often forming lifelong love relationships — “marriages,” like that of Charity and Sylvia. They also provided a new model of economic independence — wholly self-supporting, they didn’t need to marry in order to survive.

Once college-educated women began entering the workforce, the romantic friendship took place against a new backdrop, which Katherine Anne Porter once described as “a company of Amazons” — those early professional women, the first generations of female doctors, professors, ministers, union organizers, and social workers. Faderman cites the case of two Englishwomen from the 1890s, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a pair of “romantic friends” who penned some 25 plays and eight books of poetry together under the pseudonym Michael Field, vowing to each other to be “poets and lovers evermore.”

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

But it didn’t take long for the cultural establishment to begin fearing romantic friendships as a threat to the traditional institution of marriage, which was still a pivotal part of society’s economic model. By the early 1900s, Faderman notes, sexologists and other newly anointed “experts” in the social sciences began condemning these relationships, which only a decade earlier had been universally accepted as innocuous and even ennobling. An 1895 book titled Side Talks with Girls cautioned that it was dangerous for a woman to have “a girl-sweetheart” because wasting her love on another woman would leave nothing for “Prince Charming when he comes to claim his bride.” One pseudo-medical text from the beginning of the century admonished against women’s “increasing affection” for one another:

They kiss each other fondly on every occasion. They embrace each other with mutual satisfaction. It is most natural, in the interchange of visits, for them to sleep together. They learn the pleasure of direct contact, and in the course of them fondling they resort to cunni-linguistic practices… After this the normal sex act fails to satisfy [them].

By 1906, one Swiss psychiatrist issued the alarmist statement that “the excess of female inverts exceeds those of the male” and that for female lovers, sexual lust “is their one thought, night and day, almost without interruption.” (That gentleman had clearly missed the memo on lesbian bed death.) And yet through the 1920s, college women were able to enjoy their romantic friendships with varying degrees of freedom and self-consciousness. Faderman cites one particularly amusing 1921 satirical essay from the Oberlin College yearbook, titled “My Heart Leaps Up,” in which the writers deploy delightful irony at the admonitions against romantic friendship:

Crushes are bad and happen only to the very young and very foolish. Once upon a time we were very young, and the bushes on the campus were hung with our bleeding hearts. Cecil’s heart bled indiscriminately. The rest of us specialized more, and the paths of Gertie Hearne, Dosia, Eleanor Marquand, Adelaide, Tip, and others would have been strewn with roses if public opinion had permitted flowers during the War.

The type of person smitten was one of the striking things about the epidemic. For instance, our emotional Betty Mills spent many stolen hours gazing up at Phoebe’s window. The excitable Copey was enamoured successively of all presidents of the Athletic Association, and has had a hard time this year deciding where to bestow her affections.

But there were some cases that were different from these common crushes. We know they were different, because the victims told us so. Only the most jaundiced mind could call by any other name than friendship Nora’s tender feeling toward Gertie Steele, which led her to keep Gertie’s room overflowing with flowers, fruit, candy, pictures, books, and other indispensable articles. (I always thought rather pathetic the story that once Gertie had been exposed to the measles and for a whole week could not be kissed good-night.) We will all admit that only the purest friendship caused Marjorie to knit the shell-pink sweater and gallantly rescue V.K.’s gown from the waste basket…

Of course, all these things happened in our extreme youth.

Willa Cather (right) with Louise Pound, University of Nebraska, early 1890s

(Image: Willa Cather Archive)

While some early-twentieth-century women saw no need to hide their same-sex relationships, Faderman points out that many were already bending down to the culture’s budding pressures against “romantic friendship.” She points to celebrated writer Willa Cather as one particularly appropriate example — early in her college career at the University of Nebraska in the late 19th century, she called herself Dr. William and practically dressed in male drag, but by graduation, despite continuing her romantic relationships with women (one of whom would eventually become the love of her life), she had conformed to a much more feminine presentation.

Willa Cather as a freshman (left) and upon graduation

(Images: Willa Cather Archive)

Indeed, the turn of the twentieth century did eventually beget the death knell of romantic friendship — a phenomenon that, as Faderman notes, “might have been too simple to survive in our complex times anyway.” She writes:

It was also the beginning of a lengthy period of general closing off of most affectional possibilities between women. The precious intimacies that adult females had been allowed to enjoy with each other earlier — sleeping in the same bed, holding hands, exchanging vows of eternal love, writing letters in the language of romance — became increasingly self-conscious and then rare.

Thanks to the influence of Freud and “all his spiritual offspring,” Faderman argues, the late twentieth century became “hyper-sophisticated” about matters of sexuality and love between women was stripped of that older veneer of sexual innocence:

Whether or not two women who find themselves passionately attached choose to identify themselves as lesbian today, they must at least examine the possibility of sexual attraction between them and decide whether or not to act upon it. Such sexual self-consciousness could easily have been avoided in earlier eras.

Of course, Faderman was writing more than two decades before the triumph of marriage equality and its political leap in eliminating an enormous part of that “self-consciousness,” which we owe largely to one particular woman: Edith Windsor, the courageous patron saint of modern love, who fought for the sanctity of the love she shared with her spouse of 42 years, Thea Spier, and for its rightful status as a marriage in the eyes of the law, fighting her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in Windsor’s favor and deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

Still, it pays to remember that any landmark cultural shift is the product of decades, and often centuries, of incremental strides and cumulative efforts. The remainder of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers chronicles precisely those ordinary stories and imperceptible victories that, together, laid the groundwork for one of the greatest triumphs of human rights and dignity in the past century. Complement it with the sweet story of how two women married each other in early America.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 AUGUST, 2014

Why We Hurt Each Other: Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi on Love, Violence, and the Truth of the Human Spirit

By:

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life’s greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Tolstoy’s letter was later published in English under the title A Letter to a Hindu (free download; public library).

The exchange sparked an ongoing correspondence between the two that lasted until Tolstoy’s death — a meeting of two great minds and spirits, eventually collected in Letters from One: Correspondence (and more) of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi and rivaled only by Einstein’s correspondence with Freud on violence and human nature.

Tolstoy’s letters issue a clarion call for nonviolent resistance — he admonishes against false ideologies, both religious and pseudo-scientific, that promote violence, an act he sees as unnatural for the human spirit, and advocates for a return to our most natural, basic state, which is the law of love. Evil, Tolstoy argues with passionate conviction, is restrained not with violence but with love — something Maya Angelou would come to echo beautifully decades later.

Gandhi’s introduction to the original edition, in which he calls Tolstoy “one of the clearest thinkers in the western world, one of the greatest writers,” offers a pithy caveat to the text, as perfect today as it was a century ago:

One need not accept all that Tolstoy says … to realize the central truth of his indictment.

[…]

There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavors to practice what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.

Tolstoy opens each “chapter” of his missive — for the letter’s length, indeed, puts in glaring perspective the nuanceless and hasty op-eds of our time, contrasting the truly reflective with the merely reactive — by quoting a passage from Krishna as a backdrop for his political, moral, and humanistic arguments. His words bear extraordinary prescience today, as we face a swelling tide of political unrest, ethnic violence, and global conflict. He writes:

The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives is always and everywhere the same — whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race or whether … the oppressors are of a different nation.

[…]

The reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called “civilization.”

It’s worth pausing here to note that Tolstoy’s notion of “religious teaching” is perhaps best regarded as “spiritual direction,” for he dedicated a great portion of his life trying to discern precisely such spiritual direction for himself by selectively culling wisdom from all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Indeed, he speaks to that aspect directly further along in the letter:

In every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love… The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He considers how political ideologies hijacked this basic law of love at various times in human history and tried to replace it with a law of violent submission:

This truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society… The dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth — that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man—this truth, in order to force a way to man’s consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth.

[…]

The recognition that love represents the highest morality was nowhere denied or contradicted, but this truth was so interwoven everywhere with all kinds of falsehoods which distorted it, that finally nothing of it remained but words. It was taught that this highest morality was only applicable to private life — for home use, as it were — but that in public life all forms of violence — such as imprisonment, executions, and wars — might be used for the protection of the majority against a minority of evildoers, though such means were diametrically opposed to any vestige of love. And though common sense indicated that if some men claim to decide who is to be subjected to violence of all kinds for the benefit of others, these men to whom violence is applied may, in turn, arrive at a similar conclusion with regard to those who have employed violence to them, and though the great religious teachers … foreseeing such a perversion of the law of love, have constantly drawn attention to the one invariable condition of love (namely, the enduring of injuries, insults, and violence of all kinds without resisting evil by evil) people continued — regardless of all that leads man forward — to try to unite the incompatibles: the virtue of love, and what is opposed to love, namely, the restraining of evil by violence. And such a teaching, despite its inner contradiction, was so firmly established that the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

He distills this idea to one “old and simple truth”:

It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.

In addition to the false interpretations of religion, Tolstoy takes equal issue with scientific reductionism — something that undoubtedly felt like a great threat at the dawn of the twentieth century, when science was just beginning break to down the material universe into its basic atomic units, a discovery that many feared might be reduced to the hollowing belief that a human being is nothing more than physical “stuff.” Both science and religion, Tolstoy argues, could result in dangerous dogma that blinds us to the basic law of love, if taken at face value and stripped of nuance — the danger of, as he puts it, “scientific superstition replacing the religious one”:

But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable… The unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these “scientific truths” are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications.

(How easy it is even today for laypeople to be “dazzled by the pomp” of questionable science journalism that prioritizes clickbait sensationalism — something else about which Tolstoy held passionate, prescient opinions — over clarity and rigor.)

He returns to the central point, affirming Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance:

Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.

Considering the British colonization of India, Tolstoy marvels at how “a commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions” and argues that this was only made possible by people, both the oppressors and the oppressed, failing to contact “the eternal law of love inherent in humanity.” He writes:

As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence — as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual.

Reflecting on the process of reawakening to that “eternal law,” Tolstoy offers a developmental metaphor:

What is now happening to the people of the East as of the West is like what happens to every individual when he passes from childhood to adolescence and from youth to manhood. He loses what had hitherto guided his life and lives without direction, not having found a new standard suitable to his age, and so he invents all sorts of occupations, cares, distractions, and stupefactions to divert his attention from the misery and senselessness of his life. Such a condition may last a long time.

When an individual passes from one period of life to another a time comes when he cannot go on in senseless activity and excitement as before, but has to understand that although he has outgrown what before used to direct him, this does not mean that he must live without any reasonable guidance, but rather that he must formulate for himself an understanding of life corresponding to his age, and having elucidated it must be guided by it. And in the same way a similar time must come in the growth and development of humanity. I believe that such a time has now arrived — not in the sense that it has come in the year 1908, but that the inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence. This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favorable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.

But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.

To save a sinking ship it is necessary to throw overboard the ballast, which though it may once have been needed would now cause the ship to sink.

Sensing that global tensions were brewing, Tolstoy added the prescient admonition that “in our time all these things must be cleared away in order that mankind may escape from self-inflicted calamities that have reached an extreme intensity.” World War I broke out less than five years later. One of humanity’s grimmest self-inflicted calamities offered evidence, as modern wars do, that we still have a long way to go before reaching that return to the basic nature of love Tolstoy envisioned — which is why Tolstoy’s closing words to Gandhi ring with amplified urgency today:

What are wanted for the Indian as for the Englishman, the Frenchman, the German, and the Russian, are not Constitutions and Revolutions, nor all sorts of Conferences and Congresses, nor the many ingenious devices for submarine navigation and aerial navigation, nor powerful explosives, nor all sorts of conveniences to add to the enjoyment of the rich, ruling classes; nor new schools and universities with innumerable faculties of science, nor an augmentation of papers and books, nor gramophones and cinematographs, nor those childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities termed art — but one thing only is needful: the knowledge of the simple and clear truth which finds place in every soul that is not stupefied by religious and scientific superstitions — the truth that for our life one law is valid — the law of love, which brings the highest happiness to every individual as well as to all mankind. Free your minds from those overgrown, mountainous imbecilities which hinder your recognition of it, and at once the truth will emerge from amid the pseudo-religious nonsense that has been smothering it: the indubitable, eternal truth inherent in man, which is one and the same in all the great religions of the world.

(Twelve years earlier, Tolstoy found far more than “childish and for the most part corrupt stupidities” in art in his sublime essay on the “emotional infectiousness” of art.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Writing to Gandhi again on September 7, 1910 — eight weeks before he took his final breath — Tolstoy revisited the subject with even more heartfelt conviction:

The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else, and what in my opinion is of immense importance, namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force, which really simply means the doctrine of the law of love unperverted by sophistries. Love, or in other words the striving of men’s souls towards unity and the submissive behavior to one another that results therefrom, represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children), and knows until he becomes involved in the lying net of worldly thoughts… Any employment of force is incompatible with love.

A Letter to a Hindu is well worth a read in its entirety, and it’s available as a free download. Complement it with Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world, his timeless Calendar of Wisdom, and a rare recording of the author reading from it shortly before his death, then revisit another extraordinary exchange of Eastern and Western ideas in Einstein and Tagore’s 1930 conversation about Truth and Beauty.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 AUGUST, 2014

Truth and Tenderness: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Friendship and Its Two Essential Conditions

By:

“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?”

It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love (though it’s not uncommon for one to turn abruptly into the other), but whatever the case, friendship is certainly one of the most rewarding fruits of life — from the sweetness of childhood friendships to the trickiness of workplace ones. This delicate dance has been examined by thinkers from Aristotle to Francis Bacon to Thoreau, but none more thoughtfully than by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In an essay on the subject, found in his altogether soul-expanding Essays and Lectures (public library; free download), Emerson considers the intricate dynamics of friendship, beginning with our often underutilized innate capacities:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Barring all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eyebeams. The heart knoweth…

The emotions of benevolence … from the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life.

More than mere gratification of the heart, however, Emerson celebrates friendship as something that expands and enriches our intellectual landscape:

Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection. The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.

But beyond the rewards of emotion and intellect lies an even deeper satisfaction — that of the soul:

What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling? How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and the true! The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis vanish; all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.

For Emerson, friendship isn’t something that can be willed or forced but, rather, the natural byproduct of our interaction with the world. A century and a half before the modern social web, he pens a passage that rings with extraordinary poignancy and prescience today:

We weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by-and-by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought.

Drawing from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

In the deepest of friendships, Emerson finds an element of reverie as the two friends amplify each other’s goodness through a boundless generosity of spirit:

I must feel pride in my friend’s accomplishments as if they were mine, and a property in his virtues. I feel as warmly when he is praised, as the lover when he hears applause of his engaged maiden. We over-estimate the conscience of our friend. His goodness seems better than our goodness, his nature finer, his temptations less. Everything that is his, — his name, his form, his dress, books and instruments, — fancy enhances. Our own thought sounds new and larger from his mouth.

But even the most absolute of friendships, Emerson argues, have a certain pace of presence and absence, a natural rhythm of “comings and goings” that should be respected rather than bemoaned as a weakness in the relationship:

The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. This method betrays itself along the whole history of our personal relations. The instinct of affection revives the hope of union with our mates, and the returning sense of insulation recalls us from the chase. Thus every man passes his life in the search after friendship, and if he should record his true sentiment, he might write a letter like this, to each new candidate for his love:

Dear Friend:—

If I was sure of thee, sure of thy capacity, sure to match my mood with thine, I should never think again of trifles, in relation to thy comings and goings. I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable; and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment. Thine ever, or never.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

To rush these rhythms or force friendship to comply to a specific fantasy, Emerson gently admonishes, would be an assault on the relationship:

Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart. The laws of friendship are great, austere, and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals. But we have aimed at a swift and petty benefit, to suck a sudden sweetness.

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo a century later in the context of love, writing to his teenage son that “the main thing is not to hurry [for] nothing good gets away,” Emerson argues that to be impatient in friendship is to mistrust the depth of the relationship and to deny the resilience and immutability of the friend’s affections:

Our impatience is thus sharply rebuked. Bashfulness and apathy are a tough husk in which a delicate organization is protected from premature ripening. It would be lost if it knew itself before any of the best souls were yet ripe enough to know and own it. Respect the naturalangsamkeit [German for the slowness of natural development] which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration, in which Alps and Andes come and go as rainbows. The good spirit of our life has no heaven which is the price of rashness. Love, which is the essence of God, is not for levity, but for the total worth of man. Let us not have this childish luxury in our regards, but the austerest worth; let us approach our friend with an audacious trust in the truth of his heart, in the breadth, impossible to be overturned, of his foundations.

[…]

I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

And yet how rare it is to have a friend with whom one can be earnest to the point of absoluteness — who doesn’t require the veneer of self-consciousness and the shield of cynicism. Echoing Aristotle’s assertion that a friend holds a mirror up to us and thus brings us closer to ourselves, Emerson outlines the two key elements of a true, solid, soul-fortifying friendship:

There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, but diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth as having none above it to court or conform unto. Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins… We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.

[…]

The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune.

In another stroke of exalting prescience, Emerson bemoans — more than a century before our networking-preoccupied, self-promotional society — the superficiality and transactional ego-stroking that defines most human interactions, the vacant “chat of markets or reading-rooms.” (We all know the people who bestow upon professional relations and marginal acquaintances the misplaced label “friend” in an act of name-dropping or self-inflation — an injustice against true friendship.) Emerson laments:

To most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. To stand in true relations with men in a false age, is worth a fit of insanity, is it not? We can seldom go erect. Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me. My friend gives me entertainment without requiring any stipulation on my part. A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature. I who alone am, I who see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own, behold now the semblance of my being in all its height, variety and curiosity, reiterated in a foreign form; so that a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.

[…]

I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances.

He returns to the greatest gift of true friendship:

[Friendship] is for aid and comfort through all the relations and passages of life and death. It is fit for serene days, and graceful gifts, and country rambles, but also for rough roads and hard fare, shipwreck, poverty, and persecution… We are to dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man’s life, and embellish it by courage, wisdom and unity. It should never fall into something usual and settled, but should be alert and inventive, and add rhyme and reason to what was drudgery.

Illustration by Carla Torres from 'Larry and Friends.' Click image for more.

But Emerson argues, as I too have long believed, that the fruits of friendship are best harvested in one-on-one companionship rather than larger social situations. He explores the inverse correlation between the quality of connection and conversation and the number of friends involved:

I find this law of one to one, peremptory for conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship. Do not mix waters too much. The best mix as ill as good and bad. You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word. Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort. In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals at once merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.

Returning to the building blocks of true friendship, Emerson points out that the most valuable friendships don’t spring from a filter bubble of like-mindedness but, rather, from the perfect osmosis of shared values and just enough discrepancy in tastes and sensibilities to broaden our horizons:

Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness, that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party… I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance, or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend, than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it… Let it be an alliance of two large formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.

(A phrase like “a mush of concession” reminds you of just how daring a writer Emerson was in his era, and how original he remains in ours.)

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

He returns once more to the organic formation of true friendship and the reverie with which its natural rhythms should be beheld, the room we should give a friend to breathe and grow and just be:

Friendship demands a religious treatment. We talk of choosing our friends, but friends are self-elected. Reverence is a great part of it. Treat your friend as a spectacle. [Your friend] has merits that are not yours, and that you cannot honor, if you must needs hold him close to your person. Stand aside; give those merits room; let them mount and expand. Are you the friend of your friend’s buttons, or of his thought? To a great heart he will still be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground…

Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit.

To entrust a friend with the burden of our own wholeness, he suggests, is not only to place an unbearable weight on the relationship but also to relinquish vital personal responsibility:

We must be our own before we can be another’s… The least defect of self-possession vitiates, in my judgment, the entire relation. There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect until, in their dialogue, each stands for the whole world.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown,' a vintage ode to friendship by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

Emerson ends by considering the dual art of what it takes to have a friend and to be one:

Wait, and thy heart shall speak. Wait until the necessary and everlasting overpowers you, until day and night avail themselves of your lips. The only reward of virtue, is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.

A patience with the rhythms of relationships and an attentive sensitivity to their dynamics, he argues, will eventually elevate the true friendships over the false ones, over those of unequal investment of affections and effort, which will invariably fall away to reveal the immutable:

It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away… But the great will see that true love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object, and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth, and feels its independency the surer… The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust.

Complement this with Andrew Sullivan’s beautiful reflections on friendship. Emerson’s Essays and Lectures includes equally insightful meditations on love, heroism, intellect, prudence, self-reliance, and more. The entire volume is available, and highly recommended, as a free download.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.