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.

This resonated with American audiences, including aging boomers who were nostalgic for the friendships of their college days. But when we’re confronted with the far profounder ideas about friendship put forward by Aristotle, the greatest of all writers on the subject, or by C.S. Lewis in his splendid account in The Four Loves, we tend to be nonplussed. Such heights seem beyond us. For Lewis, Friends would have to be considered a show about companions, not friends, since friendship is something weightier and inherently exclusive. In this, Lewis was in tune with the earlier observations of Aristotle: “Great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people…. One cannot have with many people the friendship based on virtue and on the character of our friends themselves, and we must be content if we find even a few such.” Far from being something breezy and easy, like a glass of sparkling spring wine, friendship in the fullest sense is a rare and precious thing, much more like an old single-malt Scotch.

As I’ve said, the Platte River principle has come to apply to many of our words of human connection, perhaps partly reflecting the automatic generosity of the democratic spirit, and also the way we employ the language of false personalization in our speech, routinely appropriating the most charged words in doing so. Some of this is vaguely sinister, as when corporate bosses try to persuade us to think of ourselves as part of “the Sprocket Corporation family,” especially at times when the budget needs cutting. Community is a word that comes in for similar abuse, and has been almost emptied of meaning in this respect, standing for any aggregation that it is politically or financially useful to treat as an aggregate. Here, as in the use of the language of family and almost any other affective term, Silicon Valley has led the way to perdition.

So you can see why I would be initially averse to the idea of “new old friends,” which might sound at first like more linguistic inflation, the equivalent of preripped jeans or “distressed” furniture, something new that is made out to look old, and thus is doubly phony. To make matters worse, as my old friends can readily confirm, I have for years been prone to saying, in an earnest imitation of Shakespeare’s Polonius, that “you can always make new friends, but you can never make new old friends.” And it’s true. There is something irreplaceably special about the people who have been down the road with you—those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried—and whose friendship has endured through the sheer passage of years, through the steady artillery of time, even if such friendships lack the lively intensity of newer ones. People who “knew you when” can never be replaced, and a wise person will not seek to do so.

But such friendships have their limitations. For one thing, it’s not always helpful to be reminded constantly of who you were “then.” Life does move on. And there is also something very true in the Simon and Garfunkel song “Old Friends,” about the two men who “Sat on their park bench like bookends…. / Winter companions… / Lost in their overcoats / Waiting for the sunset…. / Memory brushes the same years / Silently sharing the same fear.” There is a bond being described, if an unutterably sad and resigned one. It is an existential bond of the deepest and most universal sort. But there are some respects in which this “old friendship” falls short of the fullness of friendship as Aristotle and Lewis describe it.

And here I come to the heart of the matter: There is no denying the phenomenon of a new old friend. I have acquired a couple of them in recent years, people with whom I have found a near-instant bond whose depth is hard to explain, whose friendship feels as old and rooted as an ancient sequoia, even though I know it is as new as a sapling. Moving about in such friendships, I’m wary at first, thinking they may be too good to be true, fearing to trust too much in the sensation of oldness, fearing, much as one fears when living in a foreign culture, that my habitual ways of being will suddenly be misperceived or strike the wrong note. There is something deeply mysterious about such friendships, and mystery induces caution, as well as awe.

But perhaps the mystery has to do with the mystery of friendship itself. Lewis remarks that what finally hold us together as friends are not the “unconcerning things,” facts of biography and shared experiences. Of course, one brings the residue of all such things to the activity of friendship. But the friendship itself stands apart from such things. It concerns itself, Lewis argues, with nothing less than a shared quest for the truth about things. In the very act of sharing in this one thing, friends gain access to an astonishing degree of freedom. “In a circle of true Friends,” Lewis insists, “each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself”:

That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections.

Friendship represents a rare kind of freedom, an “exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility,” as Lewis puts it, precisely because it liberates us into a way of being fully human that rises above all the desiderata and conditioning factors that otherwise impinge upon us, the very factors that form what we are now accustomed to call our “identity.” But why shouldn’t an entirely new friendship have that power, as much as an old one has? Or perhaps…even more, since it is no longer the facts, but rather the search, the quest, that the new old friends share?

Lewis was not alone in connecting the disinterested love of truth and goodness with the highest forms of friendship. “The real community of man,” wrote Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, “in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know.” Bloom, too, understood that the quest for truth is what unites us most deeply and most reliably. The greatness of the Great Books, in his view, was their ability to lift our minds and thoughts out of the realm of contingency and “fact,” into a realm higher and more essential, more conducive to the flourishing of friendship—not as a goal of the quest, but as a byproduct of it.

Maybe this way of phrasing it will sound too specific to the academic world. And not everyone has the time or inclination to reread Plato’s Republic every few months (preferably in Greek). But the larger truth, that the deepest friendship can take root in the sparsest biographical soil if some high and shared animating spirit is present, seems right. I’m guessing that’s how we make new old friends. Though in the end, it is a mystery.