Joseph Epstein, plain and simple, is my favorite writer. In one calendar year I read about a dozen of his books and it saddened me when I came to the end of his non-fiction. I did buck up and read his Fabulous Small Jews, and found it fun but still, I said to myself, it was all made up. Fiction just casts a shadow when I’m reading it. But, his book Friendship is something I’ve looked forward to ever since I heard it was forthcoming.
We’ll be stopping for a conversation with him each Friday, chewing a bit on two chapters each Friday, until we are done. So do join along, and I promise you this: he’s the best essayist in the USA and he’ll give you plenty to think about.
First, a comment: this is the second book of Epstein’s that has a bibliography and an index. The other, published by the same publisher, was Snobbery. I’m glad for this because I have many times wished his other books had indices where I could chase down a quotation of his from someone: I could remember the name, a bit of the quotation, but could not find it due to the absence of an index.
And I’ll say this, not to dissuade you but to prompt you to finish up this book by moving into his essays: his best books are collections of his familiar essays. I don’t know how to rate fiction and small stories, so I’ll not try. His single-theme volumes (Ambition, Snobbery, and Friendship) as excellent pieces, but he’s simply the best at essays.
And one more comment: don’t expect Epstein to give you analysis and answer; he’s a ruminative, quotatious, exploratory, stylish writer — not a dogmatic table pounder. He provides his readers with a quintessential, one-sided conversation. When done, it is your time to talk back — if you feel you’re up to him.
Second, to our task: a few quotations and observations about the brief intro and chps. 1 and 2.
Write this one down: “In fact, I have come to believe instead that Freudian psychoanalysts, like Germany after World War II, ought to be made to pay reparations to their poor patient-victims” (xiii).
What kinds of friends of do you have? Chp 1 is a little taxonomy of friends.
I like this one: Hugh Kingsmill called our friends “God’s apology” and meant “by way of apology, and to make amends to us for our families He has burdened us with, God has also supplied us with friends” (1). Some of us will feel this one with pain; others with fun. I’m in the latter camp.
He looks at acquaintances, comrades, companions, old friends, out-of-town friends, professional friends, secondary friends, male-female friends, and ex-friends. I can’t say I look at my friends in all these categories. Do you?
He’s got another barb for Freudians: “Freudianism, whose main ideas … have now been plowed under by scientific evidence and covered over by common sense” (8). I feel that way about some theological ideas, like … I’ll leave that for another time lest I offend friends.
What is a friend? Chp 2 deal with defining “friend.” (He doesn’t do that until the end, so I’ll wait too.)
How’s this for one to think about, especially for us emerging types: “Tocqueville, in this connection, remarks that in politics ‘[shared] hatred is almost always the basis for friendship’ ” (p. 12). Not without some accuracy, many have said emerging types tend to be disaffected. D.A. what’s-his-name made a deal of this. It only goes so far; and it is much more a thing of the past.
In talking about his own penchant to be liked, which led him to make friends like eating routine meals, he says he made friends with kids a year or two older than himself — “a vast patch of time when one is in one’s adolescence” and that he was “on the road full-time with no product in my sample case other than myself” (14, 15). “If this were a stage and not a page, I should here have to take a bow” (15). A little cute for Epstein, but still pretty good.
Here’s his “baggy-pants” definition: “friendship is affection, variously based on common interests, a common past, common values, and, alas, sometimes common enemies, in each case leading to delight and contentment in one another’s company” (21). What do you think of this?
By the way, it seems Epstein says our spouses are not “friends” in his book. This saddens me, but I’ll get over it for this book. When I’m done with this book, I’ll surely contend that Kris is my best friend. What about you? Do you consider your spouse a “friend” or do you use “friend” only for non-spouses? I had never really thought about this, and a few times today it sauntered through the room of my mind quietly and I watched the thought and everytime I said to myself, “Can’t agree with Mr. Epstein on that one.”
Epstein falls for the American silly word “delimit.” I tread on dangerous ground in criticizing this master of language, but I find this word useless: What is the difference between “delimiting” and “limiting”? Nothing, I say to myself, in spite of what those blasted dictionaries say. In fact, to “de”limit might mean “expand.”