Let the Circle Be Unbroken: friendship and eros in stories

[Note: this essay is from my Best of Blog archive, originally published 12/31/13.]

Every so often I get the urge to worry away at a conundrum that has preoccupied me over the years: the qualitative difference(s) between romantic love and friendship, as types of human love. I suppose the preoccupation dates to the first time I read C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, which I found illuminating but ultimately very unsatisfying. This recent Sojourners article brought the subject to mind again, along with perennial fandom wrangling about bromance vs. slash, and of course my novel project, Ryswyck, rendering in the background.

I don’t think I’m any closer to mastering the subject than I was when I started, but this time I decided to focus on one particular aspect of it, which is the writer’s point of view — the kinds of stories we tell about friendship and romantic love, and what kinds of stories that each love drives. It’s timely because I’m seeing other writers in various venues writing about ways to “rehabilitate” friendship as a valid love in its own right, and it’s important to me because — well, we shall see.

I had the privilege last year of participating in the wedding of my sister, who joined the Eastern Orthodox church some years ago. If you’ve never been to an Orthodox wedding, go, at the slightest invitation: it’s enchanting, like literally. The priest crowns the bride and groom with jeweled crowns and proclaims them the Eve and Adam of the world; the priest who gave the homily at this ceremony told us that in doing so, he was proclaiming this marriage to be part of the mending of the world, and a visible sign of it.

It was a remark that stuck with me as I entered into the worldbuilding phase of my novel project, and it has given subtle color to my thoughts about stories I’ve read since then.

I think Fr. G was right, at least as far as stories are concerned. Romantic love is a sign and symbol of things being mended, and the ultimate image of that love is a wedding feast where such a mending is celebrated. And it’s no wonder that stories about ultimate redemption often involve the crowning grace of eros: that someone, even in the direst of straits and the deepest of moral disasters, has redeeming grace because they are loved like that by another person.

In fact, I have often heard people talk about romantic love as if denying it to a character is to deny them salvation; sometimes the characters themselves say so. And it is indeed a frustrating denial, one of the most frustrating denials we can experience; we cannot bend the universe to give us grace; we cannot do a mending by ourselves. We cannot force one person and another to adhere.

This is why I think friendship is important. If eros is the sign of what is mended, friendship is the sign of that which is still unbroken — indeed, in some cases, that which is unbreakable. If the image of eros is the wedding feast, the image of friendship is multifoliate and fractal: the sharing of a table, the sharing of a journey; the exchange of minds by letter, by email, by chat; the parallel toil of souls in harmony, at prayer, at war, at study, at justice and ministry. In friendship pleasures are multiplied exponentially, and pains are divided and dissolved.

Friendship is an accomplished grace. In a story, it may be accomplished long in the past; it may be the subject of the present. The accomplishment may even be in the future, but it is as sure as magnetized iron. It is something in the universe working sacredly right. The presence of real friendship in a story is like the relief of a siege, like the infusion of strong medicine. It is an affirmation of one’s deepest truth. If you have a friend you are able (if you have the courage) to work from the basic premise that you and the universe are not at odds with you as the bad guy.

This also cannot be forced.

Two corollaries are related to this, from a writer’s and fandom point of view:

1) It is true that romantic love depends on friendship for its longevity. That supreme moment of mending is like a dip of kairos into the mortal here-and-now, but friendship is what prevents people from breaking things so they can re-mend them over and over. If more people understood the nature of friendship they would not make this fatal mistake, nor would they hold to the opposite idea that friendship is unfulfilled without romantic love. I have heard too many people say about some pair that they are “just” friends, or that they were friends and “became something more” or “took it further,” as if friendship were this sort of primordial goodwill out of which homo erectus (puns intended) climbs out to stretch in the light of day. I don’t deny such a primordial goodwill exists, but friendship is a love, not an indifferent chaos, and the coexistence of two modes of love in the same pair of people is not a mere matter of addition and subtraction. There needs to be a better way to talk about this. I want to read stories in which people can talk about friendship and eros without disadvantaging one or both.

2) The image of the wedding feast naturally makes us associate romantic love with marriage and sex, and, until recently, to the exclusive complement of male and female. We then take the sign for the substance and involve ourselves in fatal error. Not all who are lovers have sex, and not all who have sex are lovers. People go to bed on many different occasions and for many different reasons, and when they do they do it according to the operating principle of their relationship: if as lovers, then in eros; if as friends, then in friendship; if as obligated, then in obligation; if as cruel, then in cruelty, and so on. This is true regardless of the gender of the participants. Many a naive reader, in horror at discovering slash, will say, “But X and Y are friends, they don’t want to screw each other!” as if friendship magically neutralizes appetite or gender by definition neutralizes eros. That is when some slash defender will say something like the above about friendship leading to “something more” or “taking it further.” No, no, no, and no.

I wish people would say (or refrain from saying): “I don’t want to read a story in which X and Y have sex.” or, “I don’t want to read a story in which the redemption, the resolution of discord, the mending, involves X and Y falling in love.” There are a lot of such stories that I don’t want to read. Neither congratulations nor censure are in order.

I use fandom as an example here, but three-quarters of the chapter on Friendship in The Four Loves is devoted to the gender of Friendship’s participants, as if gender itself were some sort of bright line between friendship and eros which it would be fatal to cross. (Harry Burns, of When Harry Met Sally, would agree with him.) Equally noxious is the phrase “friends with benefits,” as if there are no benefits to friendship unless the friends are having sex.

There are stories in which I think romantic love is too easily and glibly written in so as to be an image of redemption — or written in and then snatched away, as if to underline the failure of grace in a character’s life: lots of fridged heroines testify to the misuse of that trope, and the abrupt wedding at the end of Measure for Measure does leave one glancing around uneasily. If people go to bed together according to the principle of their relationship, I think stories should proceed according to the same principle, should be whole things, should relate to their moving parts as fractals relate to their iterations. They should be messy and complicated — but unitive. They should acknowledge the presence and influence of others: no wedding happens without witnesses, and no party thrives without guests. But the achievement is elusive.

I think this may be in part because we are so cynical about grace in this age. We think that redemption is fleeting at best and a cruel sham at worst, and so we are careless with its image. We are tempted to think that nothing about our universe is really right, and so we conceive of friendship as a mirage, or the faint tickle that comes before the itch of appetite. To write, or to read, a story about eros or about friends, feels like striking a blow for justice.

And it is! We are here to tell stories, with grace and not too clutching a grip. We are to take up that in us which is unbroken and we are to take part in the mending of the world. We are to have friends and lovers, some of whom are the same people.

Call for wine; let there be an enchantment.