Issue 36 Friendship Winter 2009/10

Scenography of Friendship

Svetlana Boym

We live in the world of friending, not friendships. Friend has become a euphemism for something more or less than friendship; a “friend” is a conspicuous casual acquaintance who overcrowds our homepage, or an inconspicuous lover who likes to escape home.


The word friendship shares etymologies with freedom in English, freude (joy) in German, and with philia (affectionate love) in Romance languages and Greek. In Russian, the word for “friend,” drug, is related to “the other,” but not a foreign other, for which there is another word, inoi. The aspect of otherness is important because there are many things friendship is not. Friendship, in my understanding, is neither a conventional intimacy, nor a brotherhood or sisterhood, nor a networking opportunity. Rather, it is an elective affinity without finality, a relationship without plot or place in our society, an experience for its own sake. It is not always democratic or egalitarian, but rather selective and not entirely inclusive. 


Hannah Arendt wrote that friendship of a serious kind is what makes life worth living. Yet she also emphasized that friendship should not be confused with romantic love for a “single one,” which for her can become “a totalitarianism for two” because it makes the whole world around the lovers vanish. Nor is friendship the confessional intimacy advocated by Rousseau, an echo chamber of one’s overflowing narcissism: “We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy, in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands.”1 Friendship for her is, in fact, precisely about being molested by the world and responding in kind—by expanding, so to speak, the dimensions of existence and by co-creating on the worldly stage. This stage has a particular scenography. Neither brightly lit nor completely enlightened, it has a scenography of chiaroscuro, of the interplay of light and shadow.


Writing about men and women in “dark times,” Arendt observed that in circumstances of extremity, the illuminations do not come from philosophical concepts but from the “uncertain, flickering and often weak light” that men and women kindle and shed over the lifespan given to them. This luminous space where “men and women come out of their origins and reflect each other’s sparks” is the space of humaneness and friendship that sheds light on the world of appearances we inhabit. In other words, friendship is not about having everything illuminated or obscured, but about conspiring and playing with shadows. Its goal is not enlightenment but luminosity, not a quest for the blinding truth but only for occasional lucidity and honesty. 


Philosophies of friendship go back to ancient Greece and Rome, where friendship was part and parcel of both vita activa and vita contemplativa, of politics and of philosophy (itself etymologically related to philia). These philosophies have alternated between the political and the apolitical, between the worldly and the utopian, but all of them, including contemporary analyses by Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Giorgio Agamben, speak mostly of male friendship. Friendship between women is somehow deemed to lack philosophical gravitas, even though ancient Greece had the occasional heroine—from Diotima, the teacher of Socrates, to the anonymous “Thracian maiden” who, as Arendt noted, laughed when philosophers barricaded themselves in inner fortresses or romantic huts on the tops of mountains.


Hannah Arendt’s own unlikely relationship with Mary McCarthy provides a way to examine these issues in their specifics. The two women, who theorized and practiced friendship in a passionately non-euphemistic manner, had the type of relationship that can be described only through a series of expressions whose oxymoronic character allows us both to get to its passionate core and avoid the touchy-feely confessional mode for which the two women had little patience—luminous opacity, diasporic intimacy, asymmetrical reciprocity, impolite tactfulness, homoerotic heterogeneity. Unlike recent philosophical reflections of friendship, what is offered here is not a theory but a theoretical fable that requires rigorous storytelling. 
Such storytelling works like a fermenta cognitionis (literally, “yeast of knowledge”), producing and rescuing insights and intimations that, in Arendt’s description, are not “intended to communicate conclusions, but to stimulate others to independent thought, and this for no other purpose than to bring about a discourse between thinkers.”2

“Oh”: On Tact, Taste, and the Anchovy Paste


The story of their friendship begins with a misunderstanding. Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), political thinker and refugee from Nazi Germany, and Mary McCarthy (1912–1989), writer and political journalist, met in New York in 1944 and then again in 1945. Their second meeting turned into a war of words. Talking at a party about hostile French attitudes toward the Germans, McCarthy commented that she felt sorry for Hitler, who was so absurd as to desire the love of his victims. Arendt was enraged: “How can you say such a thing in front of me—a victim of Hitler, a person who has been in a concentration camp!” It was three years before the two women would talk again. Coming home from a meeting in which the two found themselves in the minority in a discussion of politics, Arendt approached McCarthy on the subway platform and said, “Let us end this nonsense. We think so much alike.” At that point, McCarthy apologized for her comment about Hitler, and Arendt confessed that she had not in fact been in a concentration camp, but only an internment camp for enemy aliens in France. Theirs was no small talk. After this fortuitous encounter on the subway platform and mutual admission of mishaps and errors, the two very different women became friends for life. Theirs was not an agonistic competitiveness characteristic of the New York intellectuals of the time, but an agnostic erotics of difference. 


In her text “Saying Good-Bye to Hannah,” an unlikely funeral oration written right after Arendt’s death in 1975, McCarthy tells a curious story of a rejected gift of friendship:


She had a respect for privacy, separateness, one’s own and hers. I often stayed with her—and Heinrich and her—on Riverside Drive and before that on Morningside Drive, so that I came to know Hannah’s habits well, what she liked for breakfast, for instance. A boiled egg, some mornings, a little ham or cold cuts, toast spread with anchovy paste, coffee, of course, half a grapefruit or fresh orange juice, but perhaps that last was only when I, the American, was there. The summer after Heinrich’s death she came to stay with us in Maine, where we gave her a separate apartment, over the garage, and I put some thought into buying supplies for her kitchen—she liked to breakfast alone. … I was rather pleased to have been able to find anchovy paste in the village store. On the afternoon of her arrival, as I showed her where everything was in the larder, she frowned over the little tube of anchovy paste, as though it were an inexplicable foreign object. “What is that?” I told her. “Oh.” She put it down and looked thoughtful and as though displeased, somehow. No more was said. But I knew I had done something wrong in my efforts to please. She did not wish to be known, in that curiously finite and, as it were, reductive way. And I had done it to show her I knew her—a sign of love, though not always—thereby proving that in the last analysis I did not know her at all.3

Why is this story of an unrequited gift in the middle of the laudatio for a dear friend? The anchovy paste, that “foreign object,” covers up and reveals intimate boundaries of friendship and tender paradoxes about taste and tact, love and knowledge. 


In the spirit of Cabinet, I did research on anchovies (and ate anchovy while writing this essay) to get a taste of this mysterious friendship. I learned that the anchovy is a small silvery fish from the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea, though it is also known in India. Perhaps the anchovy paste functioned for Arendt like a Proustian madeleine, triggering the recovery of lost time and the memories she had of her lost European home. Yet there is something about the enforced attempt at an intimate recreation of home away from home that becomes intrusive. Nostalgia on steroids was not Arendt’s style. She believed that one cannot imagine a perfect homecoming without self-delusion, and preferred the hospitality of plural homes to a return to a “single one.” 


Wikipedia informed me that anchovies were ancient Roman aphrodisiacs, but I let this intimation pass without comment, so as not to engage in over-
reading; for this is not a cultural history of anchovy paste, but a cross-cultural story of friendship. The paste was not “shared” or consumed because true friendship is not always about instant gratification. To love a friend is to recognize the difference and estrangement of the other. It is important not to overly psychologize this kind of friendly love, not to exhaust it with the search for hidden meanings, repressions, or denials. Such total exposure would kill the play of light and shadow that constitutes that special realm of existence. 


McCarthy thinks that Arendt didn’t wish to be known as a private person in this kind of “finite way.” But maybe this is another misrecognition? Perhaps the Arendtian “Oh” is not a rejection of the “sign of love,” but only a repudiation of the conventional language of friendship and gift giving. In telling her story, McCarthy remembers a gesture of Arendt’s own hospitality—offering McCarthy orange juice for breakfast (which Arendt herself never drank at that time) hoping, perhaps, that in this way a German Jewish refugee might make an American repatriate feel at home with her. This orange juice might have been Arendt’s version of the “anchovy paste,” an ordinary American drink that could help her soften her foreign accent. While the two women enjoyed giving each other presents for more than twenty-five years, and even writing about them, these friendly gift exchanges might not have been about reciprocity or giving the other the object of her desire. For such an object must remain unknowable, and friendly love, which is based on asymmetrical reciprocity, demands the recognition of the foreignness at the core of intimacy. This deeper intimation involves a perpetual de-reification of gifts. 


Through the story of the anchovy paste, McCarthy is given knowledge about the boundaries of the other, and such recognition moves her to a deeper stage of friendship and a greater understanding of love’s foreign language. The anchovy paste becomes a madeleine of memory for McCarthy herself; it allows her to suddenly hear the voice of a dead friend, even if the only thing she is saying is an undecipherable “Oh.” As much as we learn about the anchovies, in the end, this is only a Kierkegaardian fish—a pretext for understanding, where what matters is the process and not the object itself. The recipes for friendship are always imprecise.


Tactfulness: Touching without Tampering


This story of friendship is about differences in taste, and about a particular balancing act between tact and touch. The word tact derives from touch, but, at first glance, the concept seems to have reversed its meaning and come to signify delicate distance and respect, a displacement of contact away from the domain of physicality and into the domain of sociability and the aesthetic arrangement of everyday life. But this is only at first glance. The more we look into the notion of touch itself, the more ambivalent it becomes. It was Aristotle who observed the elusiveness and mystery of touch in his De Anima. Unlike the other senses, we don’t know what the “organ of touch” is and whether it is superficial or deep, visible or hidden. Can touch really be only skin deep, or is there a mysterious psyche somewhere that guides our tactile experiences? Touch appears to be at once the most syncretic of all senses and the least representable.


The organ and representation of tact are equally elusive. According to Derrida, tact is the “sense of knowing how to touch without touching, without touching too much where touching is already too much.”4 Tact, in other words, is connected to the art of measuring that which cannot be measured. In my view, tactfulness is less about abstinence than about conscious reticence, less about an interdict than about a deliberate choice not to violate certain boundaries and to touch without tampering. Tact points to the untouchable but also begs us not to forget the effect of touch, not to rush into the virtual or the transcendental. 


When we read the letters between Arendt and McCarthy, we see how they not so much violate as play with boundaries—of truth and lies, of girls’ talk and philosophical reflection, of erotic tenderness and epistolary distance. In one letter, Arendt makes an ironic comment on Rousseau, Sartre, and the “bad faith” embedded in the ostentatious proclamations of sincerity and authenticity that go together with a careful remaking of one’s “sincere” confession: “It reminds me of what I heard recent scholarship unearthed about Rousseau—he did not have five children in the orphanage for the simple reason that he was impotent, which I think is most likely. Sartre’s case [concerning his participation in the French resistance] is precisely the same. You tell a seemingly outrageous “truth” with a great show of sincerity in order to hide better what actually happened.”5 It is a parody of revelation: Rousseau’s revealed secret hides from the paparazzi of the confessionate another, less glamorous, secret. Moreover, such revelation lays bare the scenography of “bad faith.” Rousseau, who despised the theater of public life—advocating instead intimate identification and the total community of the “general will” which does not tolerate much dissent or difference—stages his own selective confession in the hope of gaining the public’s empathy and identification. Arendt and McCarthy, who don’t believe in the “dictatorship” of sincerity, don’t play this game: their secrets are there to be shared between friends, as landmarks of their common world, intimate yet also connected to their broader public existence.


Diasporic Intimacy: Playing with Daimons

This kind of friendship resembles what I have called elsewhere a “diasporic intimacy,” especially since we are speaking of friendship between an immigrant and an expatriate. Intimate means “innermost,” “pertaining to a deep nature,” “very personal,” “sexual.” Yet, “to intimate” also means “to communicate with a hint or other indirect sign; to imply subtly.”6 In contemporary American pop psychology, one is encouraged “not to be afraid of intimacy,” which presumes that intimate communication can and should be made in plain language, that you can say “what you mean” without irony and double-speak. Diasporic intimacy, on the other hand, can be approached only through indirection and intimation, through stories and secrets. Spoken of in a foreign language that reveals the inadequacies of translation, diasporic intimacy is not opposed to uprootedness and defamiliarization but is constituted by it. In contrast to the utopian image of intimacy as transparency, authenticity, and ultimate belonging, diasporic intimacy is dystopic by definition; it is rooted in the suspicion of a single home, in shared longing without belonging. It thrives on the hope that human understanding and survival are possible, but this hope is not utopian. 


Diasporic intimacy is not possessive but tender. Tenderness is not about complete disclosure, saying what one really means, and getting closer and closer. It excludes absolute possession and fusion. Not goal-oriented, it defies symbols of fulfillment. In the words of Roland Barthes, “tenderness ... is nothing but an infinite, insatiable metonymy” and a “miraculous crystallization of presence.”7 In tenderness, need and desire are joined. Tenderness is always polygamous, non-exclusive. “Where you are tender, you speak your plural.”8

Most importantly, this form of diasporic intimacy and friendly love does not exclude amor mundi but constantly reconstitutes it. For Arendt, a conversation between true friends, “(in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world, which remains ‘inhuman’ in a very literal sense unless it is constantly talked about by human beings.”9 Arendtian friends don’t only talk about themselves, but also take as an object of discourse the world, which they humanize and reinvent through language. Writing about Lessing, Arendt speaks of the friendship between a Jew and a German that for Lessing becomes a particular form of “worldliness,” which she describes as a “vigilant partiality” that tests the boundaries between personal affect and worldly concern. In her texts, Arendt describes the common world in the twentieth century as something uncanny and on the verge of disappearance, comparing it to a table, which both unites and separates the people gathered around it but can also vanish, as in a spiritualist session. This conception of worldliness is not synonymous with globalization or universalism. It consists in the recognition not only of the external pluralisms of national, cultural, and religious identities, but of the inner pluralities within oneself and one’s culture.


Who is talking when two friends like McCarthy and Arendt talk about the world? Reading the letters, we are impressed by the multiplicity of voices—tender attentiveness, impatient desire for the other’s presence, mischief and playfulness, sharp intellectual observations, philosophical discussions. In other words, the voices of intimate friends, writers, political observers, philosophers, and adventurers. Only this worldly interspace of friendship allows for such exuberance of freedom that it does not conform to any divisions of labor, disciplines, or social roles.


With friends, one can take part in multiple dialogues and share solitudes. Arendt wrote that solitude is different from loneliness because in solitude we are in dialogue with ourselves and with the world, while loneliness makes us isolated and tongue-tied. When experiencing solitude, we are playing on our internal stage with what the Greeks called “daimons” (not to be confused with demons; daimons are not to be exorcized since they are the voices of our invisible selves.) When you speak with a true friend, she sees the daimons speaking over our shoulders, or perhaps our daimons confront each other in friendly recognition. With a single good friend, we are in good and diverse company. In such a deep friendship, we multiply, create, and discover our actual and potential selves, not fall back stubbornly into the claustrophobia of our supposedly “true self.” Friendships are extensions of ourselves into the realm of liminal adventure. 


In an essay on friendship, Giorgio Agamben comments on a mysterious passage in which Aristotle writes that friendship is not merely the pleasure of finding an alter ego but a revelation of the very “sensation of existence.” In Agamben’s reading, to find a friend is not to find another self; rather, “friendship is desubjectification at the very heart of the most intimate sensation of the self.”10 Agamben recalls a Renaissance painting by Giovanni Serodine in which the apostles Peter and Paul, on their way to martyrdom, are shown “so close to each other (their foreheads are almost stuck together) that there is no way they can see one another.”11 For Agamben, this closeness marks the space of friendship, a conception that is radically different from Arendt’s—and would be incapable of illuminating the friendship between Arendt and McCarthy. The two women were no saints and their relationship is very far from a lovingly ascetic Christian proximity. Instead, their friendship is about affectionate, worldly theatricality with shadows and distances not commemorated in any painting. For such friendship, a different metaphor is more apt— not “desubjectification” and saintly proximity, but worldly play and open expansion of the self. Friendship is not utopian or teleological; it is worldly as well as lively. It belongs to the arts of existence of the broadest, non-
disciplinary sort. 


“Ach:” The Furrows of Friendship


McCarthy remembers Arendt as if she were a great actress on the existential stage: 


What was theatrical in Hannah was a kind of spontaneous power of being seized by an idea, an emotion, a presentiment, whose vehicle her body then became, like the actor’s. And this power of being seized and worked upon, often with a start, widened eyes, “Ach!” (before a picture, a work of architecture, some deed of infamy), set her apart from the rest of us like a high electrical charge. And there was the vibrant, springy, dark, short hair, never fully gray, that sometimes from sheer force of energy appeared to stand bolt upright on her head.12

In this wonderfully electric and theatrical portrait of Arendt, McCarthy doesn’t stage any psychological drama but the life of the mind itself.13 Ach is another interjection, this time expressing the wonder and astonishment of a true thinker. So much of this story of friendship is told through such interjections—in which one can almost hear the guttural sounds of the friend’s dear foreign accent.


In the last paragraph of McCarthy’s essay, the masks multiply only to reveal the friend’s fragile body:


Her eyes were closed in her coffin, and her hair was waved back from her forehead, whereas she pulled it forward, sometimes tugging at a lock as she spoke, partly to hide a scar she had got in an automobile accident—but even before that she had never really bared her brow. In her coffin, with the lids veiling the fathomless eyes, that noble forehead topped by a sort of pompadour, she was not Hannah any more but a composed death mask of an eighteenth-century philosopher. I was not moved to touch that grand stranger in the funeral parlor, and only in the soft yet roughened furrows of her neck, in which the public head rested, could I find a place to tell her good-bye.14

This is an ending that refuses closure. The description is both more intimate and more estranging than customary—it violates the boundary of convention, but not of the impolite tactfulness of love. The immortal mask of a generic philosopher and the mortal and particular beloved body of a woman cohabit here. This is a body that is not one; it is at once public and private, untimely and contemporary, foreign and intensely familiar, with soft yet roughened furrows that belong to no traditional obituary. Only a woman writer and a time-tried friend could commemorate such furrows with vigilant partiality, before tears come.


  1. Hannah Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts on Lessing,” in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1968), p. 24.
  2. 
Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times,” op.cit., p. 10. The conception of worldliness and freedom in Hannah Arendt is further discussed in my forthcoming book Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  3. 
Mary McCarthy, “Saying Good-bye to Hannah,” The New York Review of Books, 22 January 1976.
  4. Jacques Derrida, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 67.

  5. Carol Brightman, ed., Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949–1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995), p. 172.
  6. American Heritage Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985) p. 672.

  7. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 224–225. For a discussion of diasporic intimacy, see my Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

  8. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, op. cit., p. 225.
  9. Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times,” op. cit., p. 24.

  10. Giorgio Agamben, “The Friend,” in What is an Apparatus?, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2009), p. 35. Agamben refers to some of the same texts on friendship as Arendt (though without reference to her work), but their conception of worldliness and the space of friendship is very different. See my forthcoming Another Freedom, op. cit.
  11. Ibid., p. 30.

  12. McCarthy, “Saying Good-bye to Hannah,” op. cit.
  13. In the tradition of Diderot’s “Paradox of an Actor,” Arendt is present there with her many mysterious phantoms that only a friend can recognize.

  14. McCarthy, “Saying Good-bye to Hannah,” op. cit.

Svetlana Boym is a theorist and media artist who teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. She is the author of The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001), the novel Ninochka (SUNY Press, 2003), and Architecture of the Off-Modern (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008). She has recently completed Another Freedom, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in 2010. For more information, see www.svetlanaboym.com.

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