Friends promise each other to a shared future

Creative friends are both celebrating one another in everything they share and working toward the growth of their friendship. They work like two pianists devising contrapuntally variations on great themes of mutual interest.

Friends join forces to maintain and strengthen their solidarity as they prepare for their next shared exploration. They contemplate the evening moon and plot their activist future, like the two comrades in my favorite Friedrich painting, or like Walter Benjamin and Christoph Friedrich Heinle who, as college students in Freiburg and Berlin in 1913-14, played prominent roles in the Youth Culture Movement. With its reference to the moon, sonnet 14, one of the 73 “Heinle sonnets” that Benjamin wrote to mourn (in the Freudian sense) the death by suicide of his dear friend, reminds me of the crescent in the painting as the night sends the sleepless poet her light which “turns its ray on his true worlds/No other light will bloom upon his threshold/Memory his moon and his comrade” (Benjamin: Sonnets, trans. Carl Skoggard, 2015, 115).

Collaborative friendships like that of Benjamin and Heinel were very common at the time, as a reviewer pointed out last month: “German culture has a history of lifting creative friendships into an ideal. The Classicist and Romantic periods come to mind as high points, featuring as they did a whole parade of vaunted relationships: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, Henriette Herz and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and many more. But the modernist moment, too, saw a programmatic elevation of friendship, this time in the spirit of setting oneself apart from the ethos of bourgeois individualism and conventional family values. The circle of friends around Franz Kafka and Max Brod in Prague, the coffeehouse groupings in Vienna, ties formed in artists’ colonies and youth movements, Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin in Berlin: these connections and dynamics are staple topics when talking of German modernist culture” (Paul Reitter, TLS, Nov. 3, 2017, 27). These observations apply not just to Germany but to other modern cultures as well where friendship became a collaborative life-long Bildung of two or more individuals of any gender and age.

Collaborative friendship is future oriented as it works toward shared creative ideals. As “a real person, and not an unrealizable theoretical figure” the friend in it “is an actual person in a specific moment” (Fritch et al., 2016, 162). By working together, such friends “prefigure the world to be built” (163) and, like the virtues they embody, are “in need of cultivation” (163). Fittingly, a new dictionary of keywords for radicals has an entry on the “Friend,” which argues that the radical friend “harks back to the original friend (the heroic figure existing beyond the dominant patterns and relationships that order contemporary life) while defining the basis of friendship as a shared political commitment to a different world” (163). This seems to be what Benjamin and Heinle shared during the terribly short time they spent together contemplating and plotting.

Friends are even more important when their ideals die or do not materialize. As the Invisible Committee suggests, at a time when the revolution has not come, they are our comrades at the insurrection. “We do not command a movement, we do not belong to mass parties, the ruling classes do not tremble at out utterances, we are without an institutional base — still, we will always have our friends” (165). Together we can persevere in making plans and promises.

Drawing on Derrida, philosopher Linnell Secomb advocates “for thinking friendship not as an established and definable type of intimacy, benevolence, and/or love, but as a future-oriented process or enactment — a promise and performance of possibility” (“Performing Friendship,” in Christian Hite, ed.: Derrida and Queer Theory, 2017, 235). Friendship “is always the promise in the future of friendship; the promise that – in reiterating its heritage – friendship will be performatively transformed from a canonical, fraternal friendship into an incommensurable, strange, haunting friendship-to-come… [] Friendship becomes friendship through the citation and re-iteration of a history that is, with each enactment, ‘enriched,’ transforming and reinventing ‘friendship.’ Thus friendship is always renewed. Thus friendship is promised” (249). Pantelis and I have promised ourselves to it.

December 12, 2017

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