How to be a good friend

I finished How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton on last week’s bus trip. I read his writings discriminately, because he’s not a Christian and all (though I think he badly wants to be really), but I do enjoy them. I love a good British sense of humour and he opens the way into other less penetrable works. This one has almost tempted me to have a shot at the massive tome that is In Search of Lost Time. There are many snippets from Proust in the book how to write well and how to express yourself and how to open your eyes to the ordinary world around you, that lead me to conclude I’d actually enjoy his enormous novel.

For now I thought I’d quote a few bits from the chapter on How to be a Good Friend, which has some goodly things to say. Moving towns always prompts one to consider the how and what of friendship. Proust himself had a very generous approach to friendship, being a people pleaser in the extreme, which certainly gained him many friends, though there are hints that it was, in the end, rather unsatisfactory for him. Still, it gave me cause to ponder, though I don’t know that I’d want to settle completely on his approach. Here are a few snippets from the chapter:

… it is often assumed, usually by people who don’t have many friends, that friendship is a hallowed sphere where what we wish to talk about effortlessly coincides with others’ interests. Proust, less optimistic than this, recognized the likelihood of discrepancy, and concluded that he should always be the one to ask questions, and to address himself to what was on your mind rather than risk boring you with what was on his. To do anything else would have been bad conversational manners: ‘There is a lack of tact in people who in their conversation look not to please others, but to elucidate, egoistically, points that they are interested in.’ Conversation required an abdication of oneself in the name of pleasing companions. ‘When we chat, it is no longer we who speak … we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people, and not of a self that differs from them.

It was not for elucidating, egoistically, things one was interested in, it was primarily for warmth and affection, which is why, for a cerebral man, Proust had remarkably little interest in overtly intellectual friendships …

I do my intellectual work within myself, and once with other people, it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent, as long as they are kind, sincere, etc.

Of course, he wasn’t always so benevolent and had his bad days, where he came out with such things as “‘Friendship doesn’t exist,’ and ‘Love is a trap and only reveals itself to us by making us suffer.’” He also wrote:

In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.

Ultimately, it would seem his approach to friendship was a little impoverished (when he actually observed things acutely and felt things deeply), though are certainly things one could learn from it, and it might shed a clue as to why he wrote a novel seven volumes long. De Botton writes:

How are we to respond to the level of insincerity apparently required in every friendship? How are we to respond to the two habitually conflicting projects carried on under the single umbrella of friendship, a project to secure affection, and a project to express ourselves honestly? It was because Proust was both unusually honest and unusually affectionate that he drove the joint project to breaking point and came up with his distinctive approach to friendship, which was to judge that the pursuit of affection and the pursuit of truth were fundamentally rather than occasionally incompatible.

… Though the dominant view of grievances is that they should invariably be discussed with their progenitors, the typically unsatisfactory results of doing so should perhaps urge us to reconsider …

Instead, these awkward thoughts were better entertained elsewhere, in a private space for analyses too wounding to be shared with those who had inspired them. A letter which never gets sent is such a place. A novel is another.

So, who is going to write a novel then?

Ideas of friendship and what it should be are a many and varied thing. CS Lewis, it would seem, had a rather different criteria when he wrote “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one”. I think I might view the whole enterprise of friendship as having concentric circles. If I ever create a diagram, I shall post it here first.

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