—In Memory of Philip Brett
THERE ARE VERY FEW WAYS to describe male-male intimacy, even in an age of increased openness about questions of sexuality. Friendships are often misunderstood, not because they harbor an erotic valence but because that valence is often used to explain homoeroticism, as if that were enough to give meaning to those friendships. In 1580, Montaigne articulated the concept of loving-friendship between men as a “perfect union and congruity”: “In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: ‘Because it was him: because it was me.’” Although Montaigne distinguishes this model of loving-friendship from pederasty, he connects it to something closer to what we would think of as marriage: “For the perfect friendship I am talking about is indivisible: each gives himself so entirely to his friend that he has nothing left to share with another…. [I]n this friendship love takes possession of the soul and reigns there with full sovereign sway.” This intense intimacy, which might suggest something less erotic than conjugal, signals a kind of friendship that shares features with other forms of intimacy but distinguishes itself, at the same time, from those forms with a distinctiveness that this article will try to describe.1
E. M. Forster’s interest in this topic is clear from the many novels in which he addresses the question of male friendship. Early in The Longest Journey, Forster’s second novel, Rickie Elliot is discussing with his Cambridge friend Stewart Ansell the nature of male friendship. It is a familiar and much-discussed passage, but it is nonetheless rich and suggestive. Here is that passage once again: [End Page 155]
[Rickie] was thinking of the irony of friendship—so strong it is, and so fragile. We fly together, like straws in an eddy, to part in the open stream. Nature has no use for us: she has cut her stuff differently. Dutiful sons, loving husbands, responsible fathers—these are what she wants, and if we are friends it must be in our spare time. Abram and Sarai were sorrowful, yet their seed became as sand of the sea, and distracts the politics of Europe at this moment. But a few verses of poetry is all that survives of David and Jonathan.
And after thinking these thoughts, Rickie says. “I wish we were labelled”:
He wished that all the confidence and mutual knowledge that is born in such a place as Cambridge could be organized. People went down into the world saying, “We know, and like each other; we shan’t forget.” But they did forget, for man is so made that he cannot remember long without a symbol; he wished there was a society, a kind of friendship office, where the marriage of true minds could be registered.2
This is so familiar a statement that it became a starting point for David M. Halperin’s discussion of friendship in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality.3 Halperin registers his appreciation for Forster’s account of “the irony of friendship” and
its paradoxical combination of social importance and social marginality, its indeterminate status among the various forms of social relations. Friendship is the anomalous relation: it exists outside the more thoroughly codified social networks formed by kinship and sexual ties; it is “interstitial in the social structure” of most Western cultures. It is therefore more free-floating, more in need of “labeling” (as Forster puts it)—more in need, that is, of social and ideological definition.4
Halperin does not pay too much more attention to Forster in his chapter, but what he says in these few short sentences reminds us of some of the crucial issues besetting friendship studies.5 Descriptions of friendships often founder on the eroticism of the language that is used to express intimacy. Either the erotic potential is explained away and/or it is argued...