There is a sentence that has been weighing on me that also seems to haunts anyone who has turned their thoughts to what friendship might be: ‘O friends, there are no friends,’ wrote Aristotle. Or, at least, one dubious translation presumes he did and, either way, everyone was doomed to repeat it and watch it echo through centuries of writing on friendship: it tumbled from Cicero to Michel de Montaigne, to Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben. I was thinking about how much of what I think or who I am is indebted to my friends. The majority of our opinions are shaped by the five people with which we have spent the most time. Yet friendship, as an undefined relationship, seems an inherently creative one: a way of being with others that has to keep being reinvented, renegotiated.
The world of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts (1950–2000) is a place where friendship is scrutinized in a world beyond time. A two-dimensional plane of distinct voices that together make a chorus. It balances cruelty with achingly acute descriptions of something like an essence, but is certainly the best description of a fundamental truth that is always two opposing things at once. ‘I need all the friends I can get,’ sighs a forever-lonely Charlie Brown to his friend Lucy. Schulz typed many aphorisms on friendship in his 50-year odyssey: ‘A friend is someone who understands why you like your strawberry sodas without any strawberries in them,’ states one.
There are three types of friendship: one based on pleasure, another on utility and a third, moral equivalence, which is best understood as intensity, or internal synchronicity. Our clocks keep perfect time. It is this third type of friendship which I think is responsible for so much innovation, creativity and social transformation. It allows you to ask of the other anything, precisely because you cannot ask of them something they would not already be prepared to do. When we witness this in someone, it produces an infectious enthusiasm, something that draws us out of ourselves. It allows us to create small alternatives that are more than the sum of us; it can eventually contribute changes that other regulated social structures can never hope to achieve.
Yet, because friendship is so hard to define – in all its variations from civility and friendliness to indefinite trust and aching intimacy – ‘there are no friends’ seems to provide us with the only certainty: that we are forever alone. That intense friendships are almost impossible to maintain across a life-time, and that to want the best for someone is often to mean you can no longer be friends, it’s easier to assume that an unachievable ideal doesn’t exist. We can lower our expectations, return to an underlying pessimism, but in the moments of intense friendship pure enthusiasm is more than anywhere else possible. In the golden hour of friendship, the goodness of the other feels far greater than our own, but in that moment our drive to be more than we are opens us up to the world. Friendship teaches us empathy; by forgiving those close to us, we understand the choices made by those who we will never have the chance to know. Friendship offers ways of navigating other more rigid structures, expanding oneself from the outside by having around you those who can say things others cannot say. Moments of togetherness seem the most precious. It is from these I draw enthusiasm – and without which I’d not be writing this.
Main Image: Steve Martino, The Peanuts Movie, 2015. Courtesy: 20th Century Fox
Andy Holden is an artist and filmmaker based in Bedford, UK, where he runs the project space Ex-Baldessarre from his studio. His new film Oh! My Friends … (2018) is showing as part of the exhibition ‘Good Grief, Charlie Brown!’ at Somerset House, London, UK, until 3 March. He is currently preparing to release a new album with his band, The Grubby Mitts.
First published in Issue 200