28. On Affectionate Relationships

Si l’on me demande avec insistance de dire pourquoi je l’aimais, je sens que cela ne peut s’exprimer qu’en répondant — Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi. 

I love the construction of this phrase. Montaigne is making clear that it isn’t easy for him to say these words. So he starts off saying, if you demand that I give you an answer about why Etienne de La Boétie was so important to me, fine, I’ll tell you. And then gives us the most simple, beautiful answer possible: because he was him, and I was me.

Why have I never done justice to this essay? Maybe it came too early in the Montaigne corpus the first time around and I didn’t grasp just how much de La Boétie meant to Montaigne. The entire essay project would not exist without the mourning Montaigne still inhabited over the loss of this soul-brother. The discussions they could have or letters they could exchange were no more. Montaigne instead had to write these essays to no one and hope someone would relate.

In 2011, I had lost people by this stage of my life, but still had enough good friends who I could share my thoughts with easily. At the time, I didn’t feel like any of my friendships had risen to the level that Montaigne attained with de La Boétie. When I lost my best friend Chip about five years later, I had a new perspective — and sense of loss about that.

Something odd happened to me after Chip died. I stopped making new friendships with men and saw my existing ones slowly wither away. I met plenty of men with similar interests through my music hobby, but I kept them at a distance. I started to drift away from a fantasy baseball hobby, and the friends attached to that. And my friends from high school no longer felt like mine without Chip being there as the center of gravity. My conflicts with them became magnified over time.

But I didn’t stop making friends, I just shifted my attention to women. In retrospect, perhaps it just felt safer to me … men in my life kept leaving and dying. Women tended to stick around. I’m fortunate right now to be surrounded by a number of wonderful women and I value their friendship highly.

It isn’t without periodic challenges, however, especially since my marriage ended a few years ago. At this stage in my life, there’s not that much difference between what I’m looking for in a friendship with a woman and what I theoretically seek in a romantic partner. To avoid that kind of tension, my friendships tend to develop with women who are already partnered. 

In most cases, that’s enough to create safe distance, but sometimes it’s not. That’s when confusion and tension sets in, which actually makes the relationships more important and appealing to me. They enter this gray area of friendship-love. Which is precisely the topic of this Montaigne essay.

Well, not exactly. I mean, Montaigne explored the question of whether men and women could form the kind of strong, loving, Platonic bonds that I’m describing here, but he mostly dismissed them because he didn’t think women were capable of holding up their end of the intellectual bargain to have a truly equal friendship. He didn’t say it so bluntly, but it’s clear that was his intention.

Montaigne seemed to think that perhaps there was an ideal loving friendship form between men and women out there, but sex would need to be a part of it. And interestingly enough, he uses the Athenian Greek model of pederasty between old and young men that included both sex and a love of knowledge as his model, even while (as one would expect for someone as conservative as Montaigne) he dismisses homosexuality as something not worth considering.

As a guide for modern behavior, Montaigne is obviously not terribly helpful. But in describing the nature of his relationship with de La Boétie, the beauty of their bond tells so much more than any description of an ideal. The only conclusion anyone could draw from the descriptions is that these two men loved each other and Montaigne’s grief was intense.

How intense? This should dispel any doubts:

Since that day when I lost him, 

[quoting Virgil] quern semper acerbum, Semper honoratum (sic, Dii, voluistis) habebo, [which I shall ever hold bitter to me, though always honour (since the gods ordained it so),] 

I merely drag wearily on. The very pleasures which are proffered me do not console me: they redouble my sorrow at his loss. In everything we were halves: I feel I am stealing his share from him: 

[quoting Terence] Nec fas esse ulla me voluptate hic frui Decrevi, tantisper dum ille abest meus particeps. [Nor is it right for me to enjoy pleasures, I decided, while he who shared things with me is absent from me.]

I was already so used and accustomed to being, in everything, one of two, that I now feel I am no more than a half: 

[quoting Horace] Illam meæ si partem animæ tulit Maturior vis, quid moror altera, Nec charus æque, nec superstes Integer? Ille dies utramque Duxit ruinant. Maturior vis, quid moror altera, Nec charus æque, nec superstes Integer? Ille dies utramque Duxit ruinant.[Since an untimely blow has borne away a part of my soul, why do I still linger on less dear, only partly surviving? That day was the downfall of us both.]

There is no deed nor thought in which I do not miss him – as he would have missed me; for just as he infinitely surpassed me in ability and virtue so did he do so in the offices of friendship.

Why would we consider attaching any word other than love to those expressions? Is our attachment to love and sex so complete that we cannot permit ourselves humanity and reality?

Love is a word so powerful that we seek various ways to back away from it or to qualify its meaning. It’s like there’s a standard package that you buy when two people mutually declare their love that includes romance, sex, monogamy, perhaps children, and a lifelong commitment. If that’s not what was intended, then the love lawyers and wordsmiths emerge to define the boundaries clearly so no one is put in that box or others aren’t offended and no one feels misunderstood. Safety first when it involves a word so strong.

I spent three months this year exploring the various definitions and theories surrounding love. And in the end, it all felt like a ridiculous waste of time. Why can’t we all just be as clear as Montaigne when he was describing his friend: that they loved each other, and their love was inevitable because of who they were.

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