Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Signifiers


My new old friend. An odd formulation. And yet….

Wilfred M. McClay

Nina Grieg and Percy Grainger play a piano duet together. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I hadn’t ever considered the matter until a few years ago, when I heard a dreamy little number by the jazz pianist Alan Pasqua called “My New Old Friend.” It’s a strictly instrumental affair, a subdued and contemplative piano trio, full of subtle unresolved suspensions and wafting dissonances, conveying a late-night mood of solitary and slightly bittersweet remembrance—one of those moments of quiet grace when the passage of time slows to a crawl, past and present seem to intermingle, and joy and sorrow become hard to tell apart.

But it was the song’s title that captured my attention, even more than the music itself. My new old friend. An odd formulation. But one I’d been looking for, without even knowing it.

It’s not obvious to me why I should have been looking. In a different moment, I would have been far more likely to react against the phrase, striking it down with a reflex of indignant linguistic puritanism. After all, the noble term friend has already been so diluted and cheapened in our times, like so many of our most important words of personal and social connection, that it has become like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep. Such cheapening has occurred not only in our personal usage but in public discourse. When Abraham Lincoln concluded his First Inaugural Address with a heartfelt plea to the seceding Southern states to recall that “we are not enemies, but friends,” the word had great emotive power, describing the very bonds of public affection that were being sundered. Such earnest usage has all but disappeared. Friend as we now use it embraces a particularly large portfolio of evasions and line-blurring maneuvers, especially useful in the hands of diffident teenagers, as in this familiar exchange: Mother: “Who was that on the phone?” Daughter: “A friend.”

As this example illustrates, friend can designate anything from a mysterious or otherwise uncategorizable love interest to a study-group classmate to a business associate to a helpful neighbor to the “friends” who accumulate on people’s social media accounts, where they are as plentiful and enduring as the daily harvest of low-tide sea shells on a beach. The television series Friends (1994–2004) became one of the most successful sitcoms in TV history by depicting a collection of very attractive twenty- and thirtysomethings “hanging out” together as a kind of quasi-family, a light and frothy fantasy that transposed the social life of the college dorm to not-quite-adult life in implausibly toney Manhattan apartments. For its characters, friendship was that relatively flexible and easygoing state of social relations before the hardening categories of adulthood come along.

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