A Requiem for Friendship by Anthony Esolen


A Requiem for Friendship

Why Boys Will Not Be Boys & Other Consequences of the Sexual Revolution
by Anthony Esolen

Sam Gamgee has been fool enough to follow his beloved master Frodo into Mordor, the realm of death. To rescue Frodo from the orcs who have taken him captive and who will slay him as soon as he ceases to be of use in finding the Ring, Sam has fought the monstrous spider Shelob, has eluded the pursuit of the orcs, and has dispatched a few of them to their merited deaths.

Finally he finds Frodo in the upper room of a small filthy cell, naked, half-conscious, lying in a heap in a corner. “Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!” he cries. “It’s Sam, I’ve come!” With a bluff tenderness he clasps him to his breast, assuring him that it is really he, Sam, in the flesh.

Still groggy, Frodo can hardly believe it, but he clutches at his friend. It seems to him all the tissue of a dream—that an orc with a whip has turned into Sam—and it is all mixed up with the sound of singing that he thought he heard and tried to answer. “That was me singing,” says Sam, shaking his head and saying that he had all but given up hope of ever finding his friend again. He cradles Frodo’s head, as one would comfort a troubled child.

At that a snigger rises from the audience in the theater. “What, are they gay?”

An ignorant but inevitable response. Shakespeare, or his narrative persona, expressed in his sonnets a passionate love for an unnamed and not too loyal young man, so Shakespeare must have been homosexual—despite the absence of evidence, and despite his persona’s explicit statement in sonnet 20 that the young man’s sexual accoutrements are of no interest (or use) to him whatever.

The bachelor Abe Lincoln long shared a bed with his closest friend, Joshua Speed, and later wrote letters expressing, with what seems a touch of self-deprecating irony, his fear that he would be lonely once Speed had taken a wife. Lincoln therefore must be homosexual. No matter that men (and women too) commonly shared beds, and also commonly spoke of their friendship in strong, earthy language that now embarrasses. The poet Edmund Spenser, celebrator of his own wedding in one of the most brilliant poems in English, used to share a bed with his friend and fellow scholar at Cambridge, Gabriel Harvey. There you go.

“Your love to me was finer than the love of women,” laments David in a public song, when he learns of the death of his friend Jonathan. We know why. The godlike hero Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu walk hand in hand into the dark forest of Humbaba. No wonder then that at Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh will weep inconsolably, letting his hair grow long, flinging away his royal robes, and leaving the city to wander in the wilderness.

One Tiny Insight

For many years I have smiled as that ballast known as the Academic Left have taken one tiny linguistic insight, that the sounds we use to denote things are usually arbitrary, and have elevated it to the single law of the universe. It was not a terribly great insight, nor was it at all new.

Plato had broached it in the Cratylus, associating it tentatively with sophism, and having Socrates argue, I fear not convincingly, against it. Dante seems to have accepted it: In the Paradiso Adam himself states with shocking matter of fact that even the name for God had already changed before that unpleasantness at the Tower of Babel, implying that no particular human word to denote him takes precedence over any other. Man’s ability to speak, says Adam, is the work of Nature, but as for the actual words we use, they lie within man’s choice:

Before I went to banishment below
“ Yah” was the name on earth for the high Good
that now has clothed me in the robe of joy;

And then they called it “El”—right that they should,
for mortal use is like a branch’s leaves:
where one may fall, another springs to bud.”

Even so, Dante does not assign language to the arbitrary human will alone, but also to Nature, the agent of God’s providence. The medieval dictum nomina sunt consequentia rerum—names are consequent upon the things they name—does not hold true, if man expects the causal link between thing and name to be clear and determined, but does hold true, in the mysterious working out of God’s order. If a leaf cannot fall without the will of God, then neither can the leaf be named; our language assumes its place in the providential chances and changes of time.

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Thus Adam’s discussion of linguistic change is preceded by his revelation of how long ago and how many years he lived, and then by his revelation of how long he and Eve managed to enjoy the bliss of Eden before they were cast out forever: six hours, from dawn till noon.

Six hours is not long—and that is part of Dante’s point. Man’s loss of Eden and his consequent aging and death may appear as senseless as the change of a word, arbitrary and fleeting. Yet neither the loss of Eden nor the fall of the word, even of the holy word Yah, escapes the governance of Nature and the wisdom of God.

Arbitrary Words

And that order is what the linguists a sinistra object to. For their hearts lie not with words but with what the apparent arbitrariness of words can achieve, if that arbitrariness is assigned to everything else in human life. Again, they are partly correct. Language is a fit metaphor, or a powerful structuring concept, for our customs. As Dante saw, language is itself a custom.

Thus we have a language for the formal introduction of a stranger: the clipped “How do you do” with a nod and a firm handshake, for American men; the automatic smile, head tilt, “It’s nice to meet you,” and presentation of hand, for American women. We know that a certain style of sign outside of a restaurant means you had better go home and put on a tie (or take it off and leave it in the car). We know that if a grown man and woman are walking hand in hand, they are not brother and sister, though there seems nothing inherently untoward about brothers and sisters holding hands. We know what the teenage boy’s modest crew cut means, when all around him are dyeing their spiked hair grape.

Thus the Left proceed syllogistically. Language is utterly arbitrary. Social customs form a kind of language, and sexual customs form a very powerful language. Therefore social customs are arbitrary, and therefore sexual customs are equally arbitrary.

There is no more reason, essentially, for a man’s choosing a woman as his mate rather than a man, than there was for the Hebrews to name God Yah rather than El. The man may of course want children, and having a woman for a mate would obviously facilitate that desire, but that is as it happens. Sexual difference is no more an essential part of the relations between man and woman, and of a man’s sexual being as a man, than the vowel “ah” is an essential part of the name of God.

A Faulty Premise

Well, the syllogism is faulty: Even its major premise, that language is utterly arbitrary, seems to be contradicted on the level of phonology, or sound, by the human wish to use words that correspond delightfully with the objects they denote. Thus it is hard to imagine a language in which a word like “lalala” means “repulsive” or “muscular” or “impenetrable.”

Nor is language arbitrary on the level of syntax, the ordering of our thoughts by means of words. No language has as its typical sentence pattern Object-Verb-Subject; not one. The human mind does not like to work that way, probably because the human mind recognizes an order in actions, namely that some subject does some verb to some object, and likes its sentences somehow to respect the order.

Nor is it arbitrary in its semantics, the relation of words to meanings. That is because language has that annoying habit of referring to what the typical human being perceives as unitary things belonging to a recognizable kind. The typical human being, in his solid naiveté, believes that words have something or other (perhaps something mysterious or other) to do with things, with nature. No language invents a word to describe the union of the top half of your uncle in Milwaukee with the bottom half of your uncle in Baton Rouge.

But even if it were true that our spoken language were utterly arbitrary, it does not follow that the language of our customs is, or that our sense of good and evil is, or that the idea of human nature is. That is an unwarranted leap from phonology to anthropology to moral philosophy to metaphysics. It is a leap the Left makes precisely to attack the notion of order.

A strange double life they lead: professing fascination with language, yet abandoning any deep study of it; using it instead as a tool for dismantling the idea of natural order, or, since even academics abhor a vacuum, using it as a tool for establishing their own order and imposing it on everyone else. The language war of the early feminists—a war they have won resoundingly, despite the occasional embarrassing rout (anyone remember “waitron”?)—was about the ushering in of a new order, or rather a new and unnatural disorder. They were wrong who thought it was only a silly argument over words.

Pansexual Language

What does all this have to do with sex, or with friendship? A great deal, I am afraid. The pansexualists—they who believe in the libertarian dogma that what two consenting adults do with their privates in private is nobody’s business—understand that the language had to be changed to assist the realization of their dream, and also that the realization of their dream would change the world, because it would change the language for everyone else.

Language is not language if it is not communal; it is a neat trick of political abracadabra to argue for an individual’s right to change the very medium of our thought and our social intercourse. If clothing is optional on a beach, then that is a nude beach. It cannot be a nude beach for some and an ordinary beach for others; to wear clothes at that beach at the very least means something that it had not meant before. If you may paint your house phosphorescent orange and violet, and you persuade a couple of your neighbors to do likewise, you no longer have what anybody would call a historic neighborhood.

If all of Kate’s friends leap into bed with whatever male gives them a hearty dinner at Burger King and a round of miniature golf, and Kate chooses instead to kiss her date once on the cheek and leave him on the porch, she will suggest to everybody that she is a prude. She may be, or may not be; she may be more firmly in the grip of lust than they are, for all we know, and may just detest the boy. But her actions have connotations they did not use to have.

Imagine a world wherein the taboo has been broken and incest is loudly and defiantly celebrated. Your wife’s unmarried brother puts his hand on your daughter’s shoulder. That gesture, once innocent, must now mean something, or at least suggest something. If the uncle were wise and considerate, he would not make it in the first place. You see a father hugging his teenage daughter as she leaves the car to go to school. The possibility flits before your mind. The language has changed, and the individual can do nothing about it.

By now the reader must see the point. I might say that of all human actions there is nothing more powerfully public than what two consenting adults do with their bodies behind (we hope) closed doors. Open homosexuality, loudly and defiantly celebrated, changes the language for everyone. If a man throws his arm around another man’s waist, it is now a sign—whether he is on the political right or the left, whether he believes in biblical proscriptions of homosexuality or not.

If a man cradles the head of his weeping friend, the shadow of suspicion must cross your mind. If a teenage boy is found skinny-dipping with another boy—not five of them, but two—it is the first thing you will think, and you will think it despite the obvious fact that until swim trunks were invented this was exactly how two men or boys would go for a swim.

Because language is communal, the individual can choose to make a sign or not. He cannot determine what the sign is to mean, not to others, not to the one he signals, and not even to himself.

Friendship Without Blood

Friendship and the signs upon which it must subsist are in a bad way. I will focus on the friendships of men, since that is what I know about; many comparable things might be said about the friendships of women. We still have the word “friendship,” and we still have something of the reality, but it is distant, dilute, bloodless. For modern American men, friendship is no longer forged in the heat of battle, or in the dust of the plains as they drive their herds across half a continent, or in the choking air of a coalmine, or even in the cigar smoke of a debating club.

That is partly because our lives, for better and for worse, no longer involve the risk and the sweat that was the cement of deep friendship. No man will help hew the oaks for our cabin, because we no longer live in cabins. No man will stand by as we jump overboard to set the trawling net, because we have no boat and set no net; we live too comfortably for that. Under such fortunate circumstances, we need all the more the camaraderie and intellectual risk of the club.

But gentlemen’s clubs have vanished or have been sued out of existence. (The Citadel is not the Citadel, as the woman lawyer who sued it to death herself admitted, unwittingly and with amazing intellectual amnesia; on Monday arguing that her client wanted the same experience the young men then enjoyed, and after her victory on Tuesday crowing that a student’s experience at the Citadel would now be forever changed.) More than ever do men need to come together to eat and drink and argue and think, because more than ever their work separates them from each other; but now they are virtually forbidden to do so.

It is but more of the devastation wrought by the sexual revolution. That we fail to see it as such is no surprise: Naturally, when we think of that recrudescence of paganism, we think first of its damage to the family and to relations between men and women. We think of divorce, pornography, unwed motherhood, abortion, and suicidally falling birthrates. But the sexual revolution has also nearly killed male friendship as devoted to anything beyond drinking and watching sports; and the homosexual movement, a logically inevitable result of forty years of heterosexual promiscuity and feminist folly, bids fair to finish it off and nail the coffin shut.

What is more, those who will suffer most from this movement are precisely those whom our society, stupidly considering them little more than pests or dolts, has ignored. I mean boys.

Safely Shared Beds

How is this so? Return to the example of Lincoln. His age was surely not more tolerant of homosexuality or of sexual deviancy generally than is ours: Accounts of the Civil War show young men brought to the brink of blackest despair by their inability to break the habit of self-abuse. How, then, if deviancy was such a reproach, could Lincoln risk sharing a bed with a man and having the fact be publicly known? But that is precisely the point. Only in such a case is the bed-sharing possible.

I am sorry to have to use strong language, but only when sodomy is treated as a matter of course for everyone (as in the institutionalized buggery of boys and young men in ancient Sparta) or when it is met with such opprobrium that nobody would assume that a good man would engage in it, could Lincoln and his friend share that bed without suffering ridicule. The stigma against sodomy cleared away ample space for an emotionally powerful friendship that did not involve sexual intercourse, exactly as the stigma against incest allows for the physical and emotional freedom of a family.

In Japan, families bathe together, and it is considered a mark of the highest honor—the deepest trust—to be invited, as an outsider, to join them. This custom is only made possible by the assumption that any sexual dalliance among family members, including anyone invited to “belong” to the family, is absolutely out of the question.

The converse is also true. If your society depends upon such emotionally powerful friendships—if the fellow feeling of comrades in arms is necessary for your survival—then you can protect the opportunity for such friendships in only two ways. You may go the route of Sparta, or you may demand on pain of expulsion from the group that such friendships will not be sexualized. Essentially you must do for all-male groups exactly what a husband and wife must do with regard to other members of the opposite sex. Adulterers and sodomites there will be—but they must be called so, that we may have chaste spouses and bosom friends.

How does this latest twist of the sexual revolution hurt boys in particular? Some will say that it leaves them more vulnerable to be preyed upon by older men, and I have no doubt that this is true, given the psychological springs of male homosexuality, given the historical examples of ancient Greece and samurai Japan (among others), and given the terrible fact that many homosexual men were themselves abused as boys.

But I do not wish to overemphasize this; certainly most homosexual men abide by the law. I mean something quite different.

Men’s Signs

The prominence of male homosexuality changes the language for teenage boys. It is absurd and cruel to say that the boy can ignore it. Even if he would, his classmates will not let him. All boys need to prove that they are not failures. They need to prove that they are on the way to becoming men—that they are not going to relapse into the need to be protected by, and therefore identified with, their mothers.

Societies used to provide them with clear and public ways to do this. The Plains Indians would insert hooks into the flesh of their thirteen-year-old braves and hang them in the sun by those hooks, for hours—a test of endurance and courage. At his bar-mitzvah the Jewish boy reads from the Holy Torah and announces, publicly, that on this day he has become a man.

In our carelessness we have taken such signs away from boys and left them to fend for themselves. Two choices remain: The boys must live without public recognition of their manhood and without their own certainty of it, or they must invent their own rituals and signs.

And here the sexual revolution comes to peddle its poison. The single incontrovertible sign that the boy can now seize on is that he has “done it” with a girl, and the earlier and more regularly and publicly he does it, the safer and surer he will feel. If sex is easy to find, and if (as mothers of good-looking teenage boys will testify) the girls themselves seek it out, then you must have a pressing and publicly recognized excuse for not having sex. To avoid scandal—think of it!—you must be protected by your being a linebacker on the football team, or by being too homely for any girl to be interested in you.

A boy who does not agree to a girl’s demand for sex will be tagged with homosexuality. She will slander him herself. Ask teenagers; they will tell you. But even a linebacker known as a rake will not dare to venture into the dangerous territory of too-close association with the wrong sort. He, too, will avoid the close male friendship. The popular and athletic boys will thus have their tickets punched, while the others live under suspicion, alienated from the other boys, from the girls, and from one another.

This must happen. In large part, it has already happened. But we must try to remember when it was not so, if we are going to gauge what we have lost.

So far, I have lamented the attenuation of male friendships, which suffer under a terrible pincers attack: The libertinism of our day thrusts boys and girls together long before they are intellectually and emotionally ready for it, and at the same time the defiant promotion of homosexuality makes the natural and once powerful friendships among boys virtually impossible.

Anyone can count up the resulting cases of venereal disease and teen pregnancies. A few social analysts of more penetrating insight can note what is unquantifiable, the despair among our young people, the dullness in the eye, the feeling that people are never to be trusted, that to fall in love is to be a contemptible fool.

Audacious Men

Yet the most daunting task of all is to mark the good things that this sexual precocity has smothered in the very birth. It is one thing to say that it has made friendships among boys more distant and difficult, and to suppose that that is a bad thing for the emotional lives of those boys. It is quite another—and it takes someone willing to see through our jaded dalliance with androgyny—to see that the loss of such friendships stunts the boys intellectually and goes a long way towards depriving everybody of the benefits that such intellectual development used to provide.

That is, after all, one of the great things that male friendships are for. Consider how strong and audacious are the emotions of the young man. Suppose these are not directed towards sexual liaisons with young women, towards playing house. They do not therefore cease to exist; they must find some object. In the past that object would be the world and the group’s conquest of it.

The boys might get together to build a car from scratch. They might set up a series of telegraph connections. They might pitch themselves into learning everything they could about aircraft carriers and bombers. They might form a club to read Nietzsche, or to read the Scriptures, or to read both—audacity at this age can be wildly inconsistent. They might attach themselves to an acknowledged teacher, as did the young men of Athens who followed the chaste Socrates, or, dare I say, the young men of Palestine who followed Jesus. They might form guilds to ensure that the men they paid to teach them actually followed through on their end of the bargain—and thus would they create the medieval university. They might invent jazz music. They might rob banks.

They might do a thousand things fascinatingly creative and dangerously destructive, but one thing they would not do. They would not, as our boys do now, stagnate. They would be alive.

Edison formed such attachments—as early as age thirteen he had sought and found the men who could teach him all they knew about the telegraph. Louis Agassiz and his comrades defied death in mapping and studying glaciers. George Gershwin one day left one group of buddies playing stickball in the streets to go to the house of the boy who would be his lifelong friend and associate, Maxie Rosenzweig (later Max Rosen), from whom he learned the wonders of music. Lewis and Tolkien and their friends formed the Inklings and set their stamp on literary Christianity for a century.

Read the correspondence of Louis Pasteur, and you will come away thinking that the entire edifice of chemical research in France and Germany was built upon male friendship, the bonds of comrades going forth to battle. The language of these letters, to and from dozens of fellow scientists, is powerful and unashamedly personal. “I am touched by your acknowledgment of my deep and sincere affection for you,” writes the elder chemist Jean-Jacque Biot to Pasteur,

and I thank you for it. But whilst keeping your attachment for me as I preserve mine for you, let me for the future rejoice in it in the secret recesses of my heart and of yours. The world is jealous of friendships however disinterested, and my affection for you is such that I wish people to feel that they honor themselves by appreciating you, rather than that they should know that you love me and that I love you.

What man has the space to feel anything comparable now, or the language to express it?

Failed Boys

Our boys are failing in school. Has it occurred to no one that we have checked them at every turn, perversely insisting that they must not form brotherhoods, that they must not identify their manhood with practical and intellectual skills that transform the world, and that they must not ever have the opportunity, apart from girls, to attach themselves in friendship to men who could teach them?

For good reason boys used to build tree houses and hang signs barring girls. They know, if only instinctively, that the fire of the friendship cannot subsist otherwise. If the company of girls is made possible, then the company of girls becomes a necessity, if only to avoid having to explain to others and to oneself why one would ever prefer the company of one’s own sex. Thus what is perfectly natural and healthy, indeed very much needed, is cast as irrational and bigoted, or dubious and weak; and thus some boys will cobble together their own brotherhoods that eschew tenderness altogether—criminal brotherhoods that land them in prison. This is all right by us, it seems.

And what about the emotional damage? We learn from researchers who are willing to be derided by the sexual politicians that one of the causes of male homosexuality is precisely the disappointed desire, in certain boys, to form strong and physically expressed friendships with other boys. In our careless cruelty we have failed to protect all those whose feelings, as teenagers, are confused or ambiguous. If a teenage boy knows that nothing can happen between him and another boy, and if he knows that everybody else, including the other boy, knows it too, that knowledge must provide him the assurance that he can draw close to his friend.

He can “know” that it means only friendship, even if in another and fouler world it might mean more. He can rest easy with himself, because the meaning of his gestures and actions depends not on his confused and turbulent feelings, but upon an objective linguistic fact. Such a young man can thus negotiate his way through troubled times, fulfilling his need—and, if he has had a cruel father, it may be an aching need—for friendship, without corrupting his sexuality and without rejecting the possibility that he will become a true father and husband.

I do not know what agonies of loneliness and insecurity Abraham Lincoln, who did indeed have a cold father, suffered. But I assert that his lifeline for not becoming homosexual was the very same friendship that our pansexualists say was proof that he was. In the name of protecting homosexuals, we ignore the feelings of boys and snatch from them their dwindling opportunities to forge just such friendships whereof homosexual relations are a delusive mimicry.

Neither Frodo Nor David

On three great bonds of love do all cultures depend: the love between man and woman in marriage; the love between a mother and her child; and the camaraderie among men, a bond that used to be strong enough to move mountains. The first two have suffered greatly; the third has almost ceased to exist.

Think about that friendship, the next time you see the perpetual adolescents in feather boas as they march down Main Street, making their sexual proclivities known to everybody whether everybody cares or not. With every chanted slogan and every blaring sign, they crowd out the words of friendship, they appropriate the healthy gestures of love between man and man. Confess—has it not left you uneasy even to read the words of that last sentence?

What do the paraders achieve, with their public promotion of homosexuality? They come out of the closet, and hustle a lot of good and natural feelings back in. They indulge in garrulity, and consequently tie the tongues and chill the hearts of men, who can no longer feel what they ought, or speak what they feel.

Reader, the next time you feel moved to pity the delicate man in the workstation near you, give a thought also to an adolescent somewhere, one among uncounted millions, a kid with acne maybe, a kid with an idea or a love, who needs a friend. Know then that your tolerance for the flambeau, which is little more than a self-congratulating cowardice, or your easy and poorly considered approval of the shy workmate’s request that he be allowed to “marry” his partner, means that the unseen boy will not find that friend, and that the idea and the love will die.

No doubt about this: If you are a modern man, a half-man, many such ideas and loves have already died in you. For as much as you can admire them wistfully, from a half-understanding distance, you can be neither Frodo nor Sam, nor the man who created them. You dare not follow Agassiz, alone, to the Arctic. You will not weep for Jonathan. You once were acquainted with Enkidu, but that was all. Do not even mention John the Apostle.

Friendship, rest in peace. •

Work Friends

by Anthony Esolen

In our day, if any friendship is to be had, it will be had at work. Even women seem to need to earn a wage, not always for the wage or for the love of the particular task remunerated, but for escape from being the only person at home in an empty neighborhood—a perverse development, this.

I have good friends at the school where I teach, friends far closer to me than most that are made in academe. I thank God for them. Even so, friendships that center upon the modern workplace—not upon a farm or a range or a street or a town rampart, or down a mine or in a boat—can be flimsy things. We like someone at work, we might have lunch now and then, might even visit his house once a year, but it seldom goes beyond that. We share gossip, political opinions, the chatter about the local ball club.

We get along. And if he died in a car wreck tomorrow, we’d shed a tear, and would be sincerely disturbed by it, maybe for a week. Jonathan’s lament would strike us as absurd; Gilgamesh’s throwing over his kingship, childish, even obscene. After all, the separation might not have occurred because of death. He might have moved to another town to take a better job, or he might have changed shifts. We ourselves might move.

One sure sign of the desiccation of friendship is that the word is used to describe relations between a man and a woman at work, relations that involve at most a chatty raillery and a genuine, though always emotionally distant, appreciation of the other’s wit or intelligence or good nature.

Such “friends” cease to think of each other instantly upon leaving the lunch table, nor could they imagine what it might be like not to be able to imagine life without the other. They don’t have to imagine life without the other. Essentially, they live quite well without the other, and do so all the time, even when they are in the other’s company.

Outside of a few old haunts, like a fire-station or a road crew, friendship in its fullness is not to be found: the feeling that you and I, fools that we are, have always been together and always will be, that before you I can be utterly frank or cheerfully gross or plunged in the depth of grief or giddy with triumph. Men do not talk about such things; in some ways, men will easily resign themselves to the loneliness.

But I fear that more than their emotional health hangs in the balance. No civilization has been built without that foundation of male camaraderie directed toward civic ends: not Athens, not Rome, not Japan, not India. It remains to be seen whether any civilization can long endure without it. Looking at what used to be our cities, I’d say not. •

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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