- A Tremendous Thing: Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet by Gregory Jusdanis
"Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods," according to Aristotle. We often idealize friendship, and it is one of our most important social ties — but what is it, exactly? Does friendship require reciprocity? Can genuine friendship also be instrumental? What [End Page 645] barriers do politics and gender create? Such questions have engaged philosophers and intellectuals for millennia. In this erudite and eloquent book, classicist Gregory Jusdanis draws on these rich debates and disquisitions to explore "the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of friendship" (19).
In what is fundamentally an effort to connect the history of friendship to the history of literature, Jusdanis investigates portrayals of friendship in Western literature — from the Iliad to the Internet, as the subtitle puts it. Though he draws on the work of historians, sociologists, and philosophers to contextualize his literary sources, the book's claim to novelty lies in its examination of how a few select themes relating to friendship have been portrayed in works of fiction. Using such works, where one finds rich, vivid descriptions of relationships as lived experiences, it is possible to explore in-depth the varieties and complexities of friendship. In four thematic chapters that draw on a range of texts from widely different historical contexts (all in the Western tradition — a limitation that the author does not acknowledge), the book dissects several core questions about the meaning of friendship. What distinguishes it from other relationships? What does it mean for a friendship to cross political boundaries? Why do we associate friendship with mourning? Can friends desire each other erotically? The product of unspecified selection principles, the eclectic mix of texts analyzed here includes poetry and films and ranges from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Anthony Swofford's recent memoir, Jarhead. Jusdanis includes short, broad-brush sketches of historical changes in the social construction of friendship, but the structure of the book punctures historical chronology, and historians will find jarring the leaps across time and place: Alfred Lloyd Tennyson on one page and Zorba the Greek on the next; a discussion of the television sitcom Friends next to comments about the classic 1942 film Casablanca.
A brief Afterword considers friendship in the age of the Internet and social media. Jusdanis acknowledges that there has never been an era of "perfect" friendship and that the nature of relationships must change over time, with no one period having a "correct" view of friendship. But the chapter begins as a lament: for the loss of once-intense male friendships, valued as a social good, and for the loss of privacy in an age when "intimacy makes money." "The Internet converts Aristotle's category of friendship of pleasure into an instrumental relationship — profit for Facebook," Jusdanis writes. Facebook enables us to stay in touch with a wider range of people, he comments, but "no one pretends that it is a vehicle for warmth" (165). And yet he ends optimistically, with the contention that the Internet's connectivity is converging with literature's capacity to foster empathy. Most social-scientific research suggests the opposite: that smart phones and social media are shrinking, not expanding, our capacity for empathy. [End Page 646]
Scholarship moves in cycles, and the renewed interest in friendship among many disciplines in the last twenty years is surely connected to the communication technologies that have so profoundly changed the way we interact. The questions posed by A Tremendous Thing overlap with many of the concerns that are drawing historians, too, to the study of friendship and its political and social ramifications. But what will historians gain from a work that seeks to understand friendship through literary analysis? Fiction is an important source for scholars who are exploring the meanings of friendship in history, but historians will not find great relevance in Jusdanis's core theme that friendship draws on the same capacities as reading literature: the capacity to use our imaginations to inhabit...