Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thoughts on Friendship (after reading Jack Holmes and his Friend)

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Plato and Aristotle, lifelong friends

Is it possible for a straight man and a gay man to be friends? The question sounds absurd, at first. Certainly in college or among young single men, the answer ought to be yes.  Edmund White's latest novel Jack Holmes and his Friend looks deeper into this seemingly easy question. Set in the time period from the Fifties up to the advent of HIV in the early Eighties, we find two men who are strangely unaffected by the Beat or Hippie movements, though they live in New York. They appear more like the characters in the T.V. drama Madmen. Though Jack Holmes starts out bisexual, he is soon bedding only men, none of whom can take the place of his true love, Will. Meanwhile, Will turns to Jack for women, first his wife, Alex, Jack's good friend, and later Pia, who becomes his mistress. Jack also provides Will with a place to bed his women. That Will produces a gay son is the only real comic relief to what I found to be a bleak and pessimistic answer to my first question. For all their confiding in one another, for all their meetings, and despite Will having not one other male friend, the two men never find love for each other. While Will is happily, or complacently married, there is no friendship at all. Make no mistake, this is a bitter view of friendship.

My personal experience supports the view of the novel. My beloved straight friends of the past, all of whom sought and promised life-long friendship, quickly disappeared when they married, one of whom emerged, exactly as Will did, years later after his divorce. He vanished all over again into his second marriage. Yet there is a caveat, in those relationships, there was sexual attraction, and sexual contact. In the case of my life long straight friend from my childhood, sexual attraction never entered the picture, and we are friends to this day, still managing to get together here and there, though he lives in another city, and has a wife and three grown sons.

White's novel raises many questions, besides the one about friendship between a gay man and a straight one. How ought we to live our lives, should we be promiscuous or monogamous? Neither choice produces happiness for the two men. Jack winds up settling down to avoid the new "gay plague." Will returns to his wife after getting the clap and crabs. The novel offers no moral about either man, but leaves me with a sense of emptiness. Why can't these two men who ought to share ideas and the ordinary qualities of friendship keep in touch, continue to be friends? Are Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, really the only forces that motivate us? My own novel deals with this dilemma, with the gay and straight friends ultimately parting ways, and the two gay characters coming to realize a life-long bond, regardless of their age difference.

It has always been my hope that Kinsey is correct, and for that matter, Freud, Jung, Sabina Spielrein, and Otto Gross, that we are all bisexual; that enlightenment means coming to accept that fact in our lives, however tilted they may be one way or the other. Beats and Hippies fought the pigeonholing, but our moralistic, religious, prudish society has won out, forcing the suppression of  much creativity and, yes, love, with it.There is no place for Aristotelian friendship, or an Epicurean Garden of like minded people in today's cut throat world of narcissism, self absorption, deception and raw materialism, is there?

Jack 4/12

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