Commentary Magazine

Friendship Among the Intellectuals

“It is painful to consider,” wrote Samuel Johnson about friendship, “that there is no human possession of which the duration is less certain.”

Too true. Some friendships die on their own, of simple inanition, having been quietly allowed to lapse by the unacknowledged agreement of both parties. Others break down because time has altered old friends, given them different interests, values, points of view. In still others, only one party works at the friendship, while the other belongs to what Truman Capote called (in a letter to the critic Newton Arvin, his ex-lover) “some odd psychological type . . . that only writes when he is written to.” And then of course there are the friendships that end when one friend betrays or is felt to betray the other, or fails to come through in a crisis, or finds himself violently disputing the other on matters of profoundest principle.

These days, such principled disagreements tend often to involve ideas, and to be endemic among supposedly educated people and especially among intellectuals. The ideas themselves are as likely as not to involve politics. Even more than differences over religion, political disputes seem to ignite ugly emotions and get things to the yelling stage quickly. That may well be why, in 18th-century clubs and coffeehouses, politics was often prohibited as a subject for discussion.

Ex-Friends is the title of Norman Podhoretz’s 1999 memoir about his broken friendships with Lionel and Diana Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, and other eminences in the intellectual life of their time. In each case, politics was at the heart of the trouble. In each case, Podhoretz sets out the story of the friendship and, in a fairer fashion than I think I would have been capable of, recounts how it fell apart.

Over the four decades that I have known Norman Podhoretz, he has taken positions based on his beliefs that have cost him and his family much unjustified contumely, and at times, I have no doubt, true anguish; at a minimum they cost him a central place in what was once snobbishly considered the American intellectual establishment. He has also commanded great loyalty, which speaks to a true gift for friendship. But he knows only one way to take ideas—dead seriously. He is a polemicist, to the bone and beyond, and his has been a life lived in and through argument. Very near the pure type of the intellectual, he cannot avoid taking positions, and cannot say other than what he thinks; candor is in his nature, and he has in him much more charm than diplomacy.

In the introductory chapter of Ex-Friends, Podhoretz writes that friends can disagree about a lot, “but only provided the things they disagree about are not all that important to them.” He is in interesting company here. In 1914, with World War I about to begin, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to Bertrand Russell:

I can see perfectly well that your value judgments are just as good as mine and deep-seated in you as mine in me, and I have no right to catechize you. But . . . for that very reason there cannot be any real relation of friendship between us.

Of course, in the hothouse world of the New York intellectuals, few if any would be ready to concede that an adversary’s “value judgments are just as good as mine,” let alone forgo the right to catechize. So when Norman Podhoretz turned away from his radical-Left politics of the late 1950’s and early 60’s, arguing in print that America was on balance a good place in which one was fortunate to be living, the walls crashed down around him. He was looked upon by his former friends, he writes, “as a dangerous heretic, which I certainly was from their point of view”—just as, he adds, “I considered them a threat to everything I held dear, which they certainly were—and still are.” Those friends who did not think him stupidly or evilly wrong considered him insane. “No wonder,” he concludes, “that there is hardly a one of my old friends left among the living with whom I am today so much as on speaking terms, except to exchange the most minor civilities if we happen unavoidably to meet (and often not even that).”



Here is the question Ex-Friends raises in high relief: for what ideas would one be willing to give up one’s friends? Most of us, I suspect, would answer: none. Ideas, after all, are but abstract things and as such are not worth even a single flesh-and-blood friend. And yet, abstract as they are, in the realm of politics ideas have consequences, and those consequences can be measured all too often and all too precisely in flesh and blood.

Communism, which began as an idea, ended up causing death and misery to scores of millions of people for nearly a century. If your friend were to advocate or defend the Communist system, could he truly be your friend? Cicero defined friendship “as nothing other than agreement over all things divine and human along with good will and affection.” That is a lot to ask, but it seems undeniable that general agreement on such major matters is a great lubricant for a friction-free friendship.

For me, a person’s general point of view is more important than his opinions on specific issues, though I admit that the line between the two is not always easily drawn. I do not see how an African-American, for example, could ever overlook obvious racism in a person he calls a friend. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus broke up their friendship over Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. The book argued against political utopianism, which Camus thought was the world’s most dangerous delusion. Sartre, a utopian who lived comfortably enough with the horrors perpetrated by Joseph Stalin, felt this was going altogether too far, and closed things off. Sigmund Freud, unable to bear deviation from any of his own central ideas, broke with just about everyone in what was once called the Freudian circle.

An interesting sidelight on this point was offered by George Orwell in a letter to the poet Stephen Spender, written just after the two had met for the first time at a party. Until that point, writes Orwell, he had always thought of Spender as the sort of person he despised: a Communist fellow-traveler, an effete poet, an all-around weak type. He had attacked Spender in print on these very grounds. But in person he found Spender to be rather agreeable, and therefore felt disarmed from ever again criticizing him with a clear conscience. Orwell concluded that it was probably a bad idea to attend parties where one might meet enemies and find oneself liking them.

How many intellectual friendships dissolve over conflicts of opinion and ideas cannot be known, but the number is probably at least as great as those that fall apart through such normal perils as insults (intended or not) or wounds resulting from pride, ingratitude, feelings of abandonment, or misunderstanding. Nor are intellectuals immune from the riskiest of all maneuvers in a friendship: the effort to reshape the ideas and even the character of one’s friend in one’s own image.

A vivid instance of this in my own life was the insistence of my friend Edward Shils on remolding his then-friend Saul Bellow. I first came to know both men in the early 1970’s, when they were already on the precipice of breakup. All three of us were unmarried at the time. I met Bellow first, and he introduced me to Shils, who had been responsible for bringing him to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The two men enjoyed a rough parity of prestige, Shils as an international scholar of society and politics and Bellow as a literary artist, though Shils was about four years older and a much more forceful character.

Shils appreciated Bellow’s talent, but he wanted him to be somehow grander and graver in his person, and above all more circumspect in his private life—to be a kind of Thomas Mann, with a streak of Jewish jokiness added. Although Bellow was by then in his fifties and already world famous, Shils did not see this as any impediment to reform. A true teacher, he could not help setting people straight.

Samuel Johnson, an unreformable handful of humanity himself, instructs that we must accept our friends as they are—“not as we would make them.” Sound advice, which Edward Shils could not quite bring himself to follow. Not that all his efforts went awry. Shils had much to do with converting Bellow politically, making him, a former Trotskyite, less sympathetic than he might otherwise have been to the student revolutionaries of the age and exercising a decisive influence on his 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet.

The friendship must at one time have been very close and precious to both men. By the time I came to know them, however, fissures, cracks, and fallen plaster were already discernible. Bellow took without evident resentment a number of sermonettes on what Shils considered the shabbiness of his personal conduct, especially toward women. In phone conversations with me, however, sometimes back-to-back, each would put down the other—brilliantly, I must say. Bellow felt that Shils did not respect him sufficiently; Shils, that Bellow failed to heed his advice and was continuing to behave badly. “I refuse to permit him to use the Committee on Social Thought as a retirement home for his old girlfriends,” he once told me.

By the mid-1990’s, the two men had pulled so far apart that Shils, who by then lay dying, refused Bellow’s request to come bid him a final farewell. After his death, Bellow put him in Ravelstein (2000), where he is described by the title character as smelling musty and as probably a homosexual. Neither was remotely the case. But, as the poet Paul Valéry wrote, “No true hatred is possible except toward those one has loved.”



I would have liked to remain friends with both Edward Shils and Saul Bellow, but their rising enmity was such that I had to choose between them; slowly, over a year or so, I chose Shils, the larger-hearted and better-natured man. But I myself was never an issue of contention between the two of them, and not for a moment do I think that Bellow, to whom I was never more than a secondary friend, was jealous of my friendship with Shils.

With intellectuals as with anybody else, jealousy is one of the ways that friendship can sadly resemble love. It is not uncommon for two close friends to resent a third person who may seem to be coming between them—or for that third party to resent a close friendship that appears to shut him out, and to seek means of retribution. The novelist Paul Theroux, for example, blamed the breakup of his friendship with V.S. Naipaul on the latter’s marriage to a woman regarded by Theroux as aggressive and interfering. Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998) was the vengeful and vitriolic result—a risible and finally unsuccessful attempt to reduce Naipaul by mocking his pretensions and highlighting his cold-bloodedness.

Theroux may possibly fall into another category—that of the person who, having no real talent for friendship himself, looks to others as ostensible friends in order to be let down by them. “He was inordinately vain and and cantankerous,” wrote Max Beerbohm about the painter James Whistler. “Enemies, as he had wittily implied, were a necessity to his nature; and he seems to have valued friendship . . . as just the needful foundation for future enmity. Quarreling and picking quarrels, he went his way through life blithely.”

Beerbohm discovered a species of friendship made to be broken in the phenomenon that he named sympat. He took the word from a Brazilian he had met abroad who, after a few encounters, exclaimed, “Never, my friend, did I yet meet one to whom I had such a sympat as you!” Beerbohm used the neologism to refer especially to relationships made while traveling or on holiday, conjuring up, in an essay under that title, the initial pleasure one feels in unfamiliar surroundings upon finding someone with whom one has things in common and with whom one senses a more immediate closeness than might be the case upon meeting the same person at home. “Sympat,” Beerbohm writes acutely, “is but the prelude to antipat.” Not that he would have us avoid such friendships when abroad; the trick is to avoid them back home.

With Beerbohm’s essay in mind, I recall a time when I might have played a role resembling that of the welcome sympat turned dreary antipat. This had to do with the novelist Ralph Ellison, who had written an essay for a magazine I then edited. The essay was both beautiful and wise, and when I thanked him for it, he responded by inviting me to lunch when next I was in New York.

We met one wintry day at the Century Club, for a lunch that lasted no fewer than four hours. Everything about the afternoon seemed magical. The flow of talk was unbroken: gossip, friends we had in common, the present state of the literary world. There were jokes, much laughter, and great good feeling on both sides. It was daylight when I walked into the Century Club and dark when I emerged. In Ralph Ellison I had met a man I long admired and found him not in the least disappointing. I felt I had made a new friend.

Returning to Chicago, I wrote Ellison a note of thanks for the meal and the splendid conversation, adding my hope that he would let me know if he planned to be in Chicago so that I could stand him to a similar lunch. He did not answer. A month or so later I wrote again, this time inviting him to write another essay for my magazine. No answer. A few months passed, and I wrote to pass along a bit of news that I thought might interest him. Again nothing. Ellison and I never had another communication of any kind.

Was it me? Apparently not. Soon after Ellison died in 1994, I received a letter from a reader asking if I had known him. This man and his wife had been on a cruise and met the Ellisons, with whom, he thought, they hit it off beautifully. Upon their return, he wrote to Ellison not once but several times, receiving no reply. Did I, he wondered, have any explanation for this strange behavior?

I now think the explanation may lie in Max Beerbohm’s notion of the sympat, and, what is more, I understand and sympathize with Ellison. A naturally gregarious man, he was someone whom many people, I among them, would have been pleased to think of as a friend. He was also a man who, having published a fine novel, Invisible Man, in 1954, had not written another in all the decades since—a man, in other words, haunted by work undone. He did not need more friends filling up his days with correspondence, lunches, and the other time-consuming niceties that would follow from his natural sociability. No sympats for Ralph, evidently; he eliminated them before they had a chance to turn antipat.



I have broken off a few intellectual friendships myself, not all of them justly, and some of them much longer than an afternoon’s duration. Once, a friend sent me the manuscript of a book he was writing on Ernest Hemingway. He was a critic very much attuned to Freudianizing his subjects—an interpretative line for which Hemingway, with his super-masculine bravado, was a choice victim. But my friend, I thought, was really pushing the limit, and in replying to one of the chapters he had sent me I wrote that he seemed to be on the path to discovering that Hemingway was a repressed lesbian. He did not find the comment amusing. His response was to write to my wife, suggesting that I was in need of therapy.

That snapped it: we didn’t communicate again for fifteen years. But at some point, happily, my ex-friend began writing me brief, cordial notes, which I answered at first in a deliberately distant manner. Then I heard that he was ill, and arranged to meet him for a drink in Washington, D.C., where he lived. I was startled by how his illness had ravaged him, but we easily slipped back into our old friendship; we had both reached the grandfather stage of existence, and had a great deal to talk about. When he died not long afterward, I was left with a sense not so much of guilt as of wistfulness for the good times we might have had together, lost because of a stupid break in our friendship.

Very different was my experience with another friend with whom I had become trapped in a full-blown, decade-long relationship to which there was no way out but cruelly to end it over the telephone. I knew going in that my partner was obsessive and somewhat neurotic, but neurotics can have their own charm: Oscar Levant and George S. Kaufman come to mind. My friend, though, added to his neurosis a strong dose of solipsism, making for an exceptionally strong brew.

In some ways, the basis of our friendship was our shared contempt for those of our fellow intellectuals whom we thought naive or artistically uncultivated. He could talk for great uninterrupted stretches about the awfulness of this or that writer or teacher. (Having published my thoughts on these matters, I did not so much feel the need to talk about them.) The problem was in the word “uninterrupted.” My friend was a member in good standing of the club of non-listeners; he could have been its president. Whenever I attempted to break in, to add a point or give the conversation a slight turn, he would mutter “Yeah, yeah,” obviously not listening, and resume his tirade.

He wanted to meet once a week over coffee. As time went on, I tried to get out of as many of these meetings as I could: I had heard all of his material, and had grown restive at having my own meager attempts at conversation completely ignored. To be fair, he could be amusing, often even interesting; generous and decent, he was not by any interpretation a bad fellow, or capable of mean acts. He just could not listen.

More and more frequently I made excuses for missing our regular sessions. Sometimes I would deliberately not pick up his calls (thank you, caller ID). But then he would leave messages saying he was worried about me. Was I ill? Was everything all right in my family? He was—is—a kindly man, and I would succumb once again.

To reveal the extent of my social cowardice: it took me nearly two years to muster the courage to tell him that I wanted out. I thought so much about how best to do this that it interfered with my thinking about other things. Finally, I called one afternoon and said that I wished him well but, since he could not seem to bring his non-listening problem under control, I had decided to stop meeting with him. He felt, I sensed, that I was somehow ungrateful for what our friendship had given me—at least he used the word “ungrateful” in response to my awkward kiss-off. But in the end he manfully said, “Farewell, then, Joseph,” and hung up. I felt terrible. I also felt hugely relieved.

Every broken friendship can be thought of as a failure or a defeat. Yet, one must ask in each case, was the friendship itself therefore without meaning? Nietzsche, who himself had a famous broken friendship with Wagner—he began by idolizing the composer and ended by despising him—devotes a strangely fortifying paragraph to the subject in The Gay Science. Trying to make lemonade out of the rotted lemons of broken friendship, he suggests that perhaps, in “a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit, such friendships might be renewed and better made.” One would like to think this may be so, but the odds in favor of it are only slightly better than those in favor of the return of vaudeville.



About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.