A Fair-Weather Friend Weighs the Value of Amity

A few years ago, Joseph Epstein, author of the popular collection of essays Snobbery: The American Version (2002), began to notice that he wasn’t enjoying many of his friendships the way he once did. They took so much time, he calculated; they required so much in the way of obligation and reciprocity; and so many of the friends were so needy or loquacious that the spiritual payback to the author’s amour-propre for having expended energy on them wasn’t, so to speak, keeping up with inflation. The curating and maintenance of these friendships—through e-mail, phone calls, occasional letters and/or actual encounters—were getting in the way of his life.

And, for a self-described “gregarious melancholic, a highly sociable misanthrope,” Mr. Epstein is fortunate to have a rather lovely life: a wife he calls his best friend; reasonable health for a man in his late 60’s who has undergone bypass surgery; literary work as a writer of essays and short stories—his new collection, Friendship: An Exposé, is his 17th book—that challenges and rewards; and, by his estimate, around 75 friends. ( Friendship is dedicated to one of them, a former bookseller named Arnie Glass who suggested the topic.) Furthermore, unusually for an American today, Mr. Epstein still lives close to where he was born and reared; he has the security of rootedness. Although retired from university teaching, at Northwestern, he seems to possess resources at the ready to go out for lunch or dinner with the least objectionable of his friends whenever he and his wife can find the time.

Mr. Epstein’s privileged perceptions of the 21st century’s shrinking clock, and his irritability over extended intrusions into his day by individuals outside his family and his profession, are hardly news. Yet it’s the rare chronicler of the evaporation of grace in contemporary life who frames his own observations with what Aristotle or Samuel Johnson had to say—and then unflinchingly explains how it’s impossible nowadays to derive comfort from them. Mr. Epstein attempts to set out a taxonomy of his own friendships, from spouse-soulmate to long-dead friends he still thinks about, with a hierarchy of friendship built in. He’s willing to lose friends by articulating some rather hard truths about them as individuals in the context of a “friendship diary” that records a week’s worth of pesky obligations and meetings he wishes hadn’t been scheduled. And he’s also willing to own up to hard truths about himself, such as examples of how his thoughtless cruelty severed friendships forever (though his appetite for le mot juste converts the confession into a boast). He confides that on hearing the news of the death of a good friend who suffered from a torturing disease, his first response included relief that he no longer had to make awkward visits to the dying man. Hard truths like these, Mr. Epstein promises, will “say something” about the reader’s own friendships.

All of this is set out with Mr. Epstein’s much-admired literary wit, every sentence weighted and balanced so that, like a maxim of La Rochefoucauld, it could stand on its own as an essay in miniature. Among the essays, one finds unsentimental (even acidulous) reflection, fine language, amusement and an intolerance for embarrassing confession, at least when others do it in conversation. One also finds a sophisticated appreciation of literature; a practiced storyteller’s finesse; a clear understanding that actions and choices have consequences; a moral stance that values “above intellect—kindness, generosity, amused self-deprecation.” Why, then, does the book have the effect of what editors like to call a “downer”?

Mr. Epstein has noticed this valedictory element himself. As he puts it in the conclusion: “At moments in the course of writing this book I had the staggering thought that I seemed to be coming out against friendship …. That is not at all what I had in mind when I began …. What I wanted was to take some of the air out of the idealization of friendship, so that a friend, like a teacher or a clergyman, need not always feel that he or she is falling short of an impossible ideal.”

But despite Mr. Epstein’s efforts to soften his thesis (he believes that modern friendship is decisively different from friendship as described by philosophers and poets of the previous two millennia), and despite his lively portraits of the friends who’ve mattered to him, he leaves the distinct impression that not only has he personally crossed some sort of Rubicon concerning his capacity to be a friend, but that he represents American society as well. And he may be right, to judge by the brutal depictions of friendship currently on network television and in other mass-market media, some of which he discusses.

I’m not sure whether the author of a book on friendship who thinks of himself as a “trophy friend”—someone so important and successful that, in order to become his friend, it’s necessary to offer him extensive praise of his writing—can be a representative figure. He’s certainly unconvincing when he defends himself against the charge of being a spoilsport who pokes at the idealization of friendship because he, Joseph Epstein, is so exhausted from fielding—or having to provoke—encomia during the periodic lunches that friendship entails.

Of course, he’s thought of this long before any reviewer has, and, as a master of self-deprecation as a way to provoke affection, he has built into his book many ingenious passages that read like little trials, in which the author functions as perp, arresting officer, judge and jury—thereby retaining as much control as possible of the critical process. Indeed, perhaps the biggest exposé in Friendship: An Exposé is Mr. Epstein’s recognition of his capacity for selfishness and its dampening effect on his friendships, even the closest and most long-lived. This effort to control the uncontrollable—to shape and guide a reader’s opinion in detail—is the most vulnerable element of Mr. Epstein’s writing and, in its quixotic quest for complete self-preservation, perhaps the most lovable.

Less lovable are some of the details of the preservation process. Mr. Epstein—a sports fan—thinks of life as a “game.” It turns out to be a tragic one for all players, but he doesn’t want to hear any whining about the cards his friends may have been dealt; in fact, he’d prefer not to have to discuss any personal miseries, his own or anyone else’s—a preference he assures us is shared by most heterosexual men, along with a need to say “boobs” with impunity from time to time and a disinclination to hug another guy anywhere, for any reason. Male competition is the oxygen that keeps the author vital; irony is what he eats for breakfast; and shared laughter at the pitiable foibles and excesses of the human condition— levity—is what he craves.

In several chapters, Mr. Epstein has made an effort to examine the possibility of friendships between men and women that do not admit an erotic dimension. His motives appear to be gallant, although it’s a little vitiating to read him on the subject: There’s something punishing to the imagination in his ideas about what men and women think (or should) and may feel about one another.

Although his characterizations of the women whom he counts as friends are mostly flattering, he states as general fact several presumptions concerning women and friendship that, in my experience, at least, are simply untrue. It is not my experience that men, as a sex, are more forgiving than women; indeed, if one steps outside the upper-middle-class bubble of academic intellectuals in which Mr. Epstein lives, I think one quickly finds that people are in danger of being maimed and murdered—by both sexes—for offenses that Mr. Epstein feels are peccadilloes. And perhaps I was lucky to come of age during a time of vibrant feminism, but I must say that I know many women who not only can tolerate being told that their ideas are, in Mr. Epstein’s word, crap, but can also defend them. Finally, I was astounded to discover his explanations for why women have male friends who are homosexual, declared or undeclared—especially when I compare them with the author’s painstakingly uncategorical account of his own relationships with homosexual friends. As for his speculations in “Disparate Friends” on whether individuals of different social classes, races or ethnic backgrounds can be friends, I found what he writes so disheartening (and foreign to my own experience) that I almost couldn’t continue past the chapter.

One wonders whether the book’s 19 interlocking essays were written more or less in the sequence one finds them. If so, that could explain why the second half of Friendship is better than the first: less dependent on the paradoxical consanguinity of rigid assertion and free association, more reflective, more sensitive to exceptions and individuals. Although he has no use for therapy as a way to help resolve one’s thornier relationships or mend one’s character flaws, I also sometimes wondered whether Mr. Epstein was dissing Freud or competing with him. (Portions of the book sound like syntheses of patient monologues and physician responses from psychoanalytic sessions.)

My deepest reservation about Friendship concerns the anecdotes (most of them about individuals who are still alive) that Mr. Epstein uses to illustrate the limits of particular friendships. Some of the portraits are very bruising, and the fact that the friend described is not named won’t soften the hurt when he tries on the details and finds that they fit him to a T. This willingness to hurt people in public suggests a capacity for malice that surpasses the mischievous and enlightening. It smacks of vendetta.

At least it does on the page. Could it be that a book of essays isn’t the best vehicle for the author’s particular brand of humor on this subject? Maybe a sitcom would be a more congenial medium. In fact, many of the cameos that Mr. Epstein presents are startlingly reminiscent of episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Sex and the City and Friends.

Twice, Mr. Epstein refers to Seinfeld to make his points. Oddly, one show he invokes, “The Deal,” he uses inappropriately to make a psychoanalytic point about how sex and friendship don’t mix. (In “The Deal,” ex-lovers Jerry and Elaine once again get to have their cake and eat it, too.) Perhaps Mr. Epstein ought to send a copy of Friendship to Jerry Seinfeld. Or at least check the script, which is posted on the Web.

Mindy Aloff’s Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford) was published in May.