The Friend by Alan Bray - review by Simon May

Simon May


The Friend


University of Chicago Press 380pp £28 order from our bookshop

FRIENDSHIP, FOR ALL its delights, is often seen as a poor relation of passionate love. It has long had what one might call its 'romantic' and 'ethical' critics. The romantic critic (like Proust) finds it a thin-blooded alternative to more robust forms of love and desire, or a condition into which those passions degenerate when exhausted, or a distraction from really creative devotions. The ethical critic, such as Kierkegaard, berates friendship for friends to be unconditional and universal - the two touchstones (supposedly) of the highest love, commonly denoted in the Christian tradition toby the Greek word agape. For, according to this account, friendship, unlike agape, is both selective - we can't even aspire to be friends with everyone - and deeply conditioned by the qualities of the other person. This is why we can imagine loving a murderer as a human being, but not counting from among our close friends.

The Friend, by the late historian Alan Bray, shows how impoverished these views of friendship are. He describes friendships of great and enduring intensity - all of them in England between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries. He points to unions between men that involved a shared bed and perhaps physical

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