The soul grows refined
"Recently I happened to read the letter in which Montaigne relates the death of his friend de la Boétie: afterwards I couldn't fall asleep for crying, but to my shame this crying returned the following evenings with no apparent cause: you can imagine that I did not give in to it easily, I had books in front of me - but alas, these books: one sends me back to the other, basic knowledge is everywhere lacking, soon I will be sitting back behind the first vestiges, and what will I do there without memory?"
That sounds like a lot of crying, but the quote is from Rilke, after all - he's writing to Lou Andreas-Salome (from the new book, Rilke and Andreas-Salome: A Love Story in Letters, translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler). Sometimes we turn to our friends, and sometimes we turn to our books, and they seem strangely to be related. Is that an extravagence? Vivian Gornick, in her essay on literary and other friendship is the July/August issue of Poetry , writes:
In the centuries when most marriages were contracted out of economic and social considerations, friendship was written about with the kind of emotional extravagance that we, in our own time, have reserved for an ideal of romantic attachment. Montaigne, for instance, writing in the sixteenth century of his long dead, still mourned-for friend, Étienne de La Boétie, tells us that they were "one soul in two bodies." There was nothing his friend did, Montaigne says, not an act performed or a word spoken, for which "I could not immediately find the motive." Between the two young men communion had achieved perfection. This shared soul "pulled together in such unison," each half regarding the other with "such ardent affection" that "in this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed," were not taken into account. So great was the emotional benefit derived from the attachment that favors could neither be granted nor received. Privilege, for each of the friends, resided in being allowed to love, rather than in being loved.
This is language that Montaigne does not apply to his feeling for his wife or his children, his colleagues or his patrons—all relationships that he considers inferior to a friendship that develops not out of sensual need or worldly obligation, but out of the joy one experiences when the spirit is fed; for only then is one closer to God than to the beasts. The essence of true friendship for Montaigne is that in its presence "the soul grows refined."
Sounds like Montaigne and Rilke could've been pals.
It's not all that easy to avoid the sensual need, though; also in this issue of the magazine you'll find Fanny Howe's remembrance of Edward Dahlberg. Their own correspondence, she says, changed the course of her thinking life - but:
Dahlberg left a burn mark on whomever he met; he branded his students and friends and then abandoned them as his mother had for a time abandoned him... My friendship with Dahlberg ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down, having locked the door from the inside, and I had to leap out a window to get away from him. My last letter from him was a racist diatribe against my marriage and the wasting of my "sweet, honeyed flesh."
What I received from him, before this event, was invaluable: the sense of the writer's life as a religious vocation. You had to protect yourself from Philistines, and read what he would call "ethical" writing. That is, writing that is so conscious of potential falsehoods, contradictions, and exaggerations in its grammar, it avoids becoming just one more symptom of the sick State."
That sense of the writer's life is one gift of literary friendship. But as Gornick observes,
In both friendship and love, the expectation that one's expressive best self will flower in the presence of the beloved other is key. Upon that flowering all is posited. The relationship fails, in friendship just as in love, when that best self ceases to feel itself served.
Again and again, she writes, poets
have acted out of the impassioned belief that poetry, through the extravagance of feeling that it generates, bestows on friendship the strength to defeat the ever-present drive toward self-division. If, ultimately, their friendships go under, as do those of the rest of us, that insistent effort of theirs to light up the hunger for connection keeps us concentrated on the glorious stubbornness of the need.
Your comments are welcome, dear friends.
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...