The Warmth of Friendship in a Cold Season

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I went to an academic dinner not long ago at which the subject was friendship. It might have been called something grand like "The Metaphysics of Friendship." The discussion ascended to a high altitude. The air got a little thin.

Someone remarked: "The opposite of friendship is death." Melodramatic, I thought. But also true, up to a point. Death has many opposites, and so does friendship. At a lower metaphysical level, the opposite of friendship is loneliness, or isolation, or narcissism--all of which of course can be lethal. You could hold the death/friendship sentence up to the light and turn it in your hand and find interesting meanings glinting off it.

Someone posed the question: "If there is love at first sight, is there also such a thing as friendship at first sight?"

I thought, yes, there is. It has happened to me once or twice. Love at first sight sets you on fire. Friendship at first sight kindles a steadier and, well, friendlier heat.

And someone said: "Never be friends with a politician. Politicians are always selling someone out. What they want is power, not friends. Friendship for them is only a means to an end, and always dispensable."

I agreed. I have watched a number of politicians (including the departing president) who have left behind a trail of the bleached bones of former friends. I might have added, "It's not such a hot idea to be friends with a writer, either. A writer will write you up. A writer, like a politician, lives under a mighty temptation to use people, even friends. Maybe especially friends, since the writer knows their stories best."

But what a strange story one guest had to tell---of a great public intellectual, a Jew and survivor of Nazi death camps, who eventually became friends, long after the war, with a powerful French politician. They discussed literature, philosophy, metaphysics. Then late in the politician's life it came out that for a time during the Second World War the politician had worked in the Vichy government. It came out he had been a friend of a monstrous collaborator with the blood of many French Jews on his hands.

This monster was still alive---and still a friend of the politician! The Jewish survivor was bitterly astonished to think that the politician's hand that he had shaken at five in the afternoon might have been shaken at noon by the killer.

When confronted, the politician blandly---bizarrely---insisted that he was genuinely the friend of both the Jewish survivor and the Nazi collaborator.

How could that be?

It is true that friendship is sometimes an exercise in compartmentalizing. We have all been friends with A. and with B., even though A. and B. hate each other. But to have one compartment for a friend who is a survivor of death camps and another compartment for one of the murderers---here broadmindedness approached the grotesque.

And so our discussion entered into the mysteries of friendship---the risks and tolerances. Friendship is a form of faith. But when faith in the friend and the friendship is confronted with hideous facts about the past, what are the limits of forgiveness? I'd say to hell with the politician and to hell with the collaborator, too.

In any case, I am not sure that friendship, a warm-blooded organism, can survive on so much abstraction. That metaphysical dinner was weeks ago. Now it's the season of real friends gathering to warm themselves with the heat of one another's company. We need that when days are shortest and coldest. We need friendship pulsing in our veins when the pipes freeze in the kitchen.

Friendship likes a Dickensian glow, and so my friends and I, who have incorporated ourselves as the Chuck Jones Fan Club of America, Chester A. Arthur Post Number One, gathered the other day for our annual Christmas lunch, presided over by the distinguished author Stefan Kanfer, whom People magazine designated as "The Sexiest Man Alive" in 1947, and by the distinguished columnist John Leo, who is also cute as a button. The distinguished critic R.Z. Sheppard, for his part, is short-listed by People magazine as one of the "Most Intriguing People of 2001," although, frankly, I can't quite see it.

And so the pipes thawed, and we talked for half the afternoon.