The Politics of Friendship

“At the Cafè”
Edgar Degas, 1877

The Politics of Friendship

I have a woman friend who’s been in my life over long stretches of time, interrupted by sharp breaks in the friendship – one break from me and one from her.

Friendships have themes, I’ve noticed.  Our theme was set early: 

feminine happiness.

How do you get to be both a woman and happy?  Or, more precisely, happy as a woman?

Together, we read de Beauvoire’s Second Sex in Paris, before the rest of the world caught up with her and, instinctively, both recoiled from that brave woman’s insistence that “the feminine” was wholly a social construct.

We were just at the springtime of discovering our lives as women.  To us, it seemed like finding a scroll secreted between the stones of an ancient wall — bearing detailed instructions on womanly life, writ with invisible ink.  If you could grasp that scroll, holding it up to your own lights, the writing would become visible.  So the script, though hidden and not officially recognized, had an objective character.  We did not consider it made up — a mere artifact.

Perhaps our friendship was most authentic back then.  At least, we both look back with nostalgia at that time in Paris.  Could it be that the reality of certain friendships is a thing only disclosed in a special context – though the friendship is indeed a true one?  Like music that can only sound right when played on a certain instrument?

Our first breakup coincided with the shattering of shared feminine hopes.  Her first husband was rather a brute, with whom she persisted in playing the role of loyal wife.  She didn’t know what else to do, where else to turn.  But I hated to see her in that role.  It was an artifact!  

As for me, well, it’s one thing to reject the proffered hand of a suitor who was imprinting but unsuitable.  It was another thing when no subsequent hand was proffered, suitable or not!  No doubt my soul was elsewhere, and so did not invite courtship.  But at that time, a single woman in the field of philosophy was not regarded as a woman at all.

My friend persisted in a fiction.  I couldn’t find my way around a social fact.  We disillusioned each other!  It was I who broke it off.  

We picked it up again, our feminine friendship, at a later point.  This time we remained friends for a longer stretch of adult life.  She found a devoted husband during this period and they stayed married.  I married too, though my first marriage did not last.  At any rate, we had concrete experiences and earthbound, womanly smarts to share, meanwhile not forgetting the idealizations that had marked our early time as friends.

When Jerry and I met, the improbable way we did, it was pretty obvious that we were going to be — for each other — both ideal and real.  

This time, it was she who found a way to break with me.  When our friends marry, we can’t help but feel abandoned.  Since she had had a horrible mother, it was very easy for her to feel abandoned.  She claimed it was over political differences, but I felt that to have been the pretext, rather than the real roadblock.  Anyway, it hurt me and I never believed in that breakup, or accepted it.

Eventually, I found a way to connect again.  She was widowed by this time, but declined to be on the shelf, as a woman.  Our original theme, of how to be happy while a woman, had been interesting enough for us to want to see it still played out, on present instruments.

It was almost a restored friendship, except that, oddly, she never wanted to meet in person.  Our get-togethers were conducted behind telephones and email.  That was frustrating but better, I thought, than no friendship at all.

We come now to the present moment.  My woman friend, as I discovered without meaning to, equates Israel, the modern state, with Nazism.  A fashionable – if wildly inaccurate – view.

I’m a pretty persistent friend, but this is as close to deal-breaker as it gets for me.  At the same time, we’ve tried breaking off our friendship twice in the same lifetime, and it didn’t quite work.  So I’ll tell you how I’ve solved it, at least so far.

To begin with, I typed up a gap-free political history of The Land, for approximately the last 100 years.  Not every datum, but enough to signal that there were plenty more where those came from.  

I didn’t send it.  I realized that it would break us up again.  And that my anger would be satisfied, but I’d be sorry.  What’s really going on between the two of us, here and now?  The question kept me up through most of the night. 

Finally, here’s my surmise: She’s not wanted to see me since we reconciled.  There’s something contrived going on here, like a balloon that would deflate if punctured.  No gathering of data, no filled-in history, no personal close-ups, will have the slightest impact.  We are not engaged in an effort – quarrelsome but joint – to arrive at the truth.  She needs her narrative – much more than she needs anything I can say.

Instead of the gap-free political history, I wrote suggesting that we take Jews and Israel off the table.  She has yet to answer.

You take what you can get.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, bigotry, books, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Institutional Power, Jews, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, motherhood, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Politics of Friendship

  1. Frank J. Attanucci says:

    Two days ago, I had an exchange with a former colleague of mine (and now FB friend) who asked: “How often do you beat yourself up and not talk nicely to yourself? It’s easy to do, and I get it because it’s something I am really working on for myself.” Her response to her question, which she posted in a video, titled: “My Three Favorite Qualities” elicited this response from me:

    >>I have one “quality” in the light of which any other gifts/talents of mine find their place. That one quality: I have awakened to and am coming to understand the meaning of these words:

    “It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you to go forth and bear fruit. Your fruit must endure…” (Jn. 15:16).

    To me, what these words imply is that everything we have and do–the very fact that we exist!–is a gift. Therefore, all of our doing (and, in our better moments, our loving) is always a response to the God who first loves us as unique persons.

    But, if I dare think that of myself (as an objective reality), I must be willing to think that of my neighbor–even those who, like myself at one time, may not know this truth about themselves.
    To get any more specific than that–to see if, in fact, my understanding has born any fruit–I must defer to the (provisional) judgment of my wife, our children, my students and my closest friends; the final judgment I’ll leave to the love and mercy of God.<>Presently, I find it easier to write about such things than to speak about such things (say, in a video, like yourself)… But, I’m working on that.

    I do sense that, at some level, people are ‘starving’ to have such conversations about things that are important to them… One definition of ‘a friend’ might be: A person in whose presence you can ‘think out loud’ without ‘fear of judgment.’ But one who, when asked for their opinion, will feel similarly free to give “an honest response” (according to their best understanding of the relevant truth).<<

    Having read your post, I would add: finding such a friend is surely a great blessing and (to judge by my own experience), is something that happens very rarely. But, why is it something that I "am working on" (which assumes that I am hoping for some measure of success)? Because, I believe, that if can somehow manage to "cut through the crap" of what is really real about ourselves (and how we have experienced the world), that what we will have to say will strike a chord in the hearts of (some) others. While I know that doing so entails some level of risk (for I can not be certain of my interlocutor's response), there is still a certain "confidence" that comes from my faith in the God who loves me–and them: Who gave us a common nature and calls us to a common destiny.

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Frank, I like very much what you have been kind enough to write here. It think it’s most helpful and worth pondering. You here bring the profound truth of friendship into sharper focus. Many thanks!

Leave a Reply