The Beats, including Jack Kerouac (second from left) and Allen Ginsberg (far right) in 1957.
From the T Magazine blog at the New York Times, this is an interesting post on the uniqueness of the male bond, the male friendship, as exemplified by some rather well-known men.
By ANDREW O’HAGAN
MARCH 8, 2013
Paul Newman and Robert Redford on the set of ‘‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’’ in Mexico, 1968. Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images
A woman may represent a man’s better half, but his friends are his other self. Whether they involve arguing, competing or doing nothing much at all, male friendships are elemental — and a salve to the soul.
Male friendship is one of the great mysteries, and even those of us who depend on it can only struggle to say why. I once sat up half the night in the company of Christopher Hitchens at the Plaza Athénée in New York. We didn’t agree about a single thing: not about the merits of Paul Wolfowitz, not about the bad character of Bill Clinton, not about the writing of Evelyn Waugh, or about whether Catholicism was basically sentimental. But the night was fantastic and memorable. Why? Christopher was good at male friendship and at provoking affection, a genius in the old art of fellowship and tapping the male psyche. Male friendship, he seemed to believe, or hope, was the answer to just about any of the problems that mattered to him. He hated falling out with Sidney Blumenthal, an adviser to President Clinton, over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and he adored being friends with Martin Amis, with whom he enjoyed a kind of ego-marriage.
Christopher believed that men could provide something for one another that women weren’t part of. And sometimes he wasn’t even sure himself what that was — a kind of freedom, yes, a sort of flirtatiousness that didn’t portend to sex. One time in Washington, D.C., at a dinner given by the critic James Wood, he almost drove me out of my mind with his defense of Margaret Thatcher and her behavior during the Falklands War. But the more we argued, the closer we got, and the more I wanted to punch him, the more likely it seemed we would hug, which we did, pathetically, while swinging a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black.
My former girlfriend hated what happened when men got together late at night and drank whiskey. Given that I come from Scotland, and drank the hard stuff in place of milk as a baby, it was hard to avoid those occasions when red-faced philosophers would come bursting through the door after midnight, thirsty for camaraderie and the sauce of life. One night, after several grown men wept and then danced to the radio, she left the house in a rage and booked herself into Claridge’s. And if I’m desperately honest I have to say it was one of the best nights of my life. It certainly ruined our faith in each other forever, but it made perfect sense to me that, occasionally, a man has no choice but to consort with his own kind. No amount of socialization and no number of baby manuals, mortgages, or prams in the hall can alter the fact that when men get into the open air, they tend to fly like starlings, turning this way and that by some collective instinct.
It’s not about the nagging wife. It’s about the nagging self. Men don’t really compare themselves with women, not even with those whom they love. We compare ourselves with other men, and we get bigger or smaller in our eyes depending on how well we can compete. My girlfriend is sedate by nature, but you can see her eyes roll and her tongue flick off her top teeth at the notion, my notion, that I must immediately go to Ireland with my friend Will, who was feeling jumpy. She’s not the nag. I’m the nag who wants to fulfill my primordial duty. “I’m just, like, you know, it’s Will, and, like, he’s my best mate, and, well, he needs me, and I feel good when I’m with him, no, don’t take it. . . . Men just need each other, babe.”
I might leave me if I were her. It’s just not going to get any better and it might even get worse. The truth is that men fire each other up for manhood, even if, like me, you might spend the rest of your time pointing out the virtues of the pocket square and the delightfulness of Virginia Woolf. Men give each other the pure, golden excuse of identification: you can love a woman to death but she can’t give you that. You just know with a good male friend that they get your male crap without judging you for it or even noticing that much. And it’s not about being agreeable, because most of my male friends aren’t that agreeable. “The only things Mick and I disagree about,” Keith Richards once said, “is the band, the music and what we do.” Yet they are superb examples of male friendship at its most inspiring.
The oddest thing about my late father was that he didn’t have any male friends. Well, he had one. His name was Archie, and he lived 200 miles away. My father depended on women to answer the call of his self-questioning, and that was an awful mistake. He didn’t see the way male friendship could just fire a different part of your brain. He was surrounded by bright women, women brighter than him, but he missed out on that egotistical refurb, that cool, rough blast of alternative selfhood, which can only come from human adults who pee the same way that you do.
A male friend can’t ask you for anything at the end of the night. He can speak wise or dumb. He can agree or disagree. He can go that way or this way. It doesn’t matter. His job is to be who he is and witness who you are. When you consider old male friends (and co-stars) Paul Newman and Robert Redford, you don’t look for the joins and the similarities. You don’t examine them for correspondences. You just see two guys. And so do they. It might amount to a really great friendship, this coexisting sense of them having things in common but no obligations. And that is what we depend on with our best male friends: the unspokenness that guarantees the closeness, the ease that masks the fear. And every man fears being a failure. We do. That’s why we need great buddies to fail right by our side.
But there are friends for all seasons. They can also succeed. The ones who succeed have a way of making us try harder. I love talented men because they strengthen my belief in the power of a good example. You can get that from female friends too, of course, but male friends carry it into your conscience in an almost physical way. I’ve got a pal who has a play that’s about to open on Broadway. The fact that he’s a man and has been my chum for 20 years could be tricky — it is for a few of our other friends — but to me it is the occasion for a sweet and uncomplicated sense of joy. We have been through everything together, including things that men and women just don’t share and nobody knows why, and the result is that I root for him now like I’m rooting for a better self. Not just a better self for him, but for me. That’s what male friendship can be if you don’t kill it with anxiety. I remember Christopher saying he only needed one friend and that was Martin. I remember thinking, on hearing, that we should retool the meaning of the phrase “my other half.” A woman is not a man’s other half: she might be a whole in herself, made from what matters to her and is suited to her specialness. But a man’s other half is his best friend and his vital spark. The connection is more elemental than intellectual, a rare connection, a sort of existential empathy. Call it what you must, but let it be.
A version of this article appeared in print on 03/10/2013, on page M286 of the NewYork edition with the headline: The Male Bond.