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“I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary as he turned forty and found himself contemplating the most succulent fruits of existence. But where exactly does the sweetness of friendship reside? How is it synthesized on the tongue of being?
In my recent effort to counter the commodification of the word “friend” and reclaim the meaning of friendship through a taxonomy of platonic relationships, I was led to something rather beautiful and rather forgotten that Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote on the subject in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — a 1991 treasure trove of literature’s greatest letters, poems, stories, essays, and other wisdom on friendship, which Welty edited together with her dear friend Ronald A. Sharp.
In her introduction to the anthology, Welty considers one of the central perplexities of friendship — the way in which it weaves itself in and out of what we call love, a word with very particular cultural baggage, and the way in which we, in our effort to disentangle this entwinement into neater and more comprehensible categories, draw a somewhat arbitrary line between the two. She writes:
Friendship and love … know each other and avail themselves of each other. The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.
To this I would add that in the fullest and most rewarding of friendships, the two friends are always a little bit in love with one another. We need not classify the type of love as erotic, romantic, creative, intellectual, spiritual, or some other kind, only to know that a great friendship cycles, at one point or another, through each type.
Welty examines the singular magnetism of friendship in our lives and in our art:
“Friendship” is inherently a magnet. As with its own drawing power, it locates and draws to the surface, spreads before our eyes poems, stories, essays, letters, in the widest variety.
Certainly friendship has proved a magnet to literature, an everlasting magnet. History, poetry, drama, letters have been drawn to the subject of friendship, not simply to celebrate it but to discover, perceive, learn from it the nature of ourselves, of humankind, the relationships we share in our world.
Friendship has inherited its literary treasury; it lies in the language… And in that treasury’s further stories of pure gold are the works of the imagination, some old as time, some coined only yesterday.
Welty’s most salient point has to do with precisely this linguistic dimension of friendship — it might be the basic necessities of friendship, she suggests, that sparked in us the evolutionary need for language. It’s a notion both wonderfully poetic and rather plausible — we know that music and language helped us evolve, and what is friendship if not learning the song of another’s heart and singing it back to them?
Did friendship between human beings come about in the first place along with — or through — the inspiration of language? It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth processing, for the rest of time. Might it possibly have been the other way round — that the promptings of friendship guided us into learning to express ourselves, teaching ourselves, between us, a language to keep it by? Friendship might have been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication. Which came first, friendship or the spoken word? They could rise from the same prompting: to draw together, not to pull away, not to threaten any longer.
Friendship lives, as do we ourselves, in an ephemeral world. How much its life depends on the written word. The English language itself is friendship’s greatest treasure…. Do we not owe friendship, as we owe Shakespeare, to language?
In 1865, a Victorian mathematician wrote a fairy tale that would go on to live parallel lives as one of the world’s most beloved children’s books and a modernist masterwork of philosophy that mushrooms its yield of wisdom with each reading — one of humanity’s very few works, alongside perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which subtly and seamlessly fuse art, science, and philosophy.
Nearly a century later, in a 1961 lecture titled “Where Do We Go from Here,” Marcel Duchamp prophecized that tomorrow’s emerging artists “like Alice in Wonderland … will be led to pass through the looking-glass of the retina, to reach a more profound expression.” He was the first to intuit the conceptual common ground between the story that the mathematician Charles Dodgson had dreamt up on an afternoon boat ride a century earlier, before he became Lewis Carroll, and the budding surrealist art movement, which was just beginning to find its sea legs. Duchamp’s insight materialized into concrete form eight years later, when a visionary editor at Random House commissioned surrealist kingpin Salvador Dalí (May 11, 1904–January 23, 1989) to illustrate the Carroll classic for a small, exclusive edition of their book-of-the-month series. Dalí created twelve heliogravures — a frontispiece, which he signed in every copy from the edition, and one illustration for each chapter of the book.
In the introduction, Burstein considers the natural creative confluence between Carroll and the surrealists:
For both Carroll and the surrealists, what some call madness could be perceived by others as wisdom. Even the creative processes of Carroll and the surrealists were similar. The surrealists practiced automatism in their writing and drawing; Carroll called the initial telling of the tale … “effortless,” saying that “every such idea and nearly every word of the dialogue, came of itself… when fancies unsought came crowding thick upon [me], or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action more because she had to say something than that she had something to say.”
In addition, collages were a serious apparatus in the surrealists’ arsenal; Carroll invented the term portmanteau — combining words — and produced “Jabberwocky,” the most famous example of pure neologistic nonsense in the English language (or close to it, anyway). His bestiary of mome raths, toves, and Bread-and-butter-flies, also from Through the Looking-Glass, could easily have been products of the surrealists’ game of Exquisite Corpse.
Dalí himself applied a number of surrealist techniques to his interpretation of the story. To represent Alice — the sole character who appears in every chapter — he reused an image of a girl skipping rope that he had first painted more than thirty years earlier. He placed this strange, static, mid-motion figure, almost an icon, in each of the twelve illustration — a choice that was part automatism, part cut-up technique, as if echoing Carroll’s incantation from the first page: “The rest next time — ” “It is next time!”
Salvador Dalí, Landscape with Girl Skipping Rope, 1936
“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne observed in his sixteenth-century meditation on death and the art of living. “The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it,” the late surgeon and bioethicist Sherwin Nuland wrote half a millennium later in his foundational treatise on mortality.
I am yet to encounter a human being who embodied and enacted these difficult truths more wholeheartedly than Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).
He confronted death directly, with courageous curiosity and radiant lucidity, in one of his New York Times essays posthumously collected in the small, enormously life-affirming book Gratitude (public library) — that great parting gift which gave us Dr. Sacks’s warm wisdom on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, edited by his partner, the writer and photographer Bill Hayes, and his friend and assistant of thirty years, Kate Edgar.
After learning of his terminal diagnosis, the irreplaceable Dr. Sacks peers into the depths of existence from the bittersweet platform of a long and, suddenly, immediately finite life:
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
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