Monday, February 14, 2011

Rites of Friendship

Roland Barthes has a graceful, original view of friendship. In his 'autobiography' he writes about himself in the third person, which I believe allows him an insouciant distance and the appearance of objectivity:

Just as we decompose the odor of violets or the taste of tea, each so particular, so inimitable, so ineffable, into several elements whose subtle combination produces the entire identity of the substance, so he realized that the identity of each friend, which made that friend lovable, was based upon a delicately proportioned and henceforth absolutely original combination of tiny characteristics organized in fugitive scenes, from day to day. Thus each friend deployed in his presence the brilliant staging of his personality.

. . . he liked to abide by the minor rites of friendship to celebrate with a friend the release from a task, the solving of a problem: the celebration improves upon the event, adds to it an unnecessary addition, a perverse pleasure.

By "perverse" I believe he means "surprising" rather than "kinky." What were these "minor rites of friendship"? His must have included food and drink: he was French. What else: cigars? Do you celebrate rites of friendship? Tell me about them, please. As for me, I'm all for celebrating, with a friend or myself, "the release from a task, the solving of a problem." Turning the trick on work by following it with pleasure--light, graceful pleasure. When I think this way, work itself becomes less arduous, less threatening. I imagine Barthes across the table from a friend who "deployed in his presence the brilliant staging of his personality."


  1. As you mention cigars, I must speak of cigarettes. The playwright Dennis Potter referred to them as "little tubes of delight" and the lighting and smoking of them really was a lovely and daily rite of friendship. One has to give them up, of course (though Dennis Potter never did) - but nothing else really holds a candle. The brewing and sharing of a very good coffee comes close.

  2. Friendships are the place where one can lay their thoughts. As one ages friendships become like gold and are celebrated with every letter, email or meeting. -- barbara

  3. Oh, Signs, those cigarettes. I lit up with friends and remember how those smokes gave us authority as well as delight.

    Folkways, 24 caret connections!

  4. All true and so heartbreaking when the friend forsakes you, betrays you. Bereft, your love turning into something angry and hateful. Now the delicate rituals exiled far away and forever unreachable. An alchemy moving backward.

  5. Reverse alchemy, Bluedog. How does that happen? It does, but I don't understand the unraveling.

    Reverse alchemy: gold turned to . . .

  6. This may not be quite what you mean, but it struck me as the most abiding rite of friendship I've ever known: my dad and I were born on the same day 31 years apart. All my life we've shared a kind of intriguing telepathy, divining one another's thoughts, finishing one another's sentences, even speaking in code without any prior or necessary explanation, and coming up with exactly the same PIN numbers and answers to questions. We worked together on cryptic crosswords for years. Then I lived in the US for 22 years and we grew psychically apart. When I returned home we found we had fallen out of synch. The old rapport was off. But we've spent many moments together over the last 3-4 years and some resonance has returned. He was hungrier than I. Now he is dying and I'm nursing him a lot. Many think he's suffering from dementia but I can still feel the old cognitive powers, almost pre-verbally or extra-verbally. In a way, my closest friend is preparing me mentally for his absence and the greatest gift I have now is our mindless and silent little rituals.


  7. Beyond words: you and your father. Perhaps, not mindless in the way we usually think of mind as big brain but mind in clarity, beautifully receptive. You 'read' each other. It can't be easy to see him so ill, yet you understand the gift. (Barthes was deeply connected to his mother with whom he lived most of his life.)


  8. Mim-

    I do not make friends easily. I am not very good at it. But I do have some, and these I cherish. Mostly I go to some space they have and stand in it, metaphorically, and breathe in what it is like to be them and to see the glorious world through their eyes.

    Then sometimes I will tell them: "I was here. I really liked it. I really like you."

    You know, the brain doesn't know the difference between a friend that you get to actually have a drink with on the porch, staying up late as the stars spin overhead, and a friend that you only get to type back and forth to.

    And isn't that fine?



  9. Yes, dear Tearful. To see thru another's eyes, thru a friend's eyes is to forget one's self. That's fine too. Lovely to hear from you . . .

  10. I wonder how far honesty and truth should go between friends. Is there a line in the sand? Are Facebook friends really friends? I suppose there is a test one could apply, with attendant risks, of course; or, alternatively, is it possible to be friends with someone you've never met except online? Anyway, I also wonder what would Monsieur Barthes have thought of MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, etc.

  11. John:

    There's no hard and fast rule about telling or not telling the truth to friends. If they are true friends, I ask to accept them with all their quirks and troubles.

    I believe it's possible to have a blog-friend. Facebook? No. Facebook is quick and shallow. Facebook furthers either gush or jabs.