“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time.”
By Maria Popova
Eudora Welty on Friendship as an Evolutionary Mechanism for Language
“I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary as he turned forty and found himself contemplating the most succulent fruits of existence. But where exactly does the sweetness of friendship reside? How is it synthesized on the tongue of being?
In my recent effort to counter the commodification of the word “friend” and reclaim the meaning of friendship through a taxonomy of platonic relationships, I was led to something rather beautiful and rather forgotten that Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote on the subject in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — a 1991 treasure trove of literature’s greatest letters, poems, stories, essays, and other wisdom on friendship, which Welty edited together with her dear friend Ronald A. Sharp.
In her introduction to the anthology, Welty considers one of the central perplexities of friendship — the way in which it weaves itself in and out of what we call love, a word with very particular cultural baggage, and the way in which we, in our effort to disentangle this entwinement into neater and more comprehensible categories, draw a somewhat arbitrary line between the two. She writes:
Friendship and love … know each other and avail themselves of each other. The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.
To this I would add that in the fullest and most rewarding of friendships, the two friends are always a little bit in love with one another. We need not classify the type of love as erotic, romantic, creative, intellectual, spiritual, or some other kind, only to know that a great friendship cycles, at one point or another, through each type.
Welty examines the singular magnetism of friendship in our lives and in our art:
“Friendship” is inherently a magnet. As with its own drawing power, it locates and draws to the surface, spreads before our eyes poems, stories, essays, letters, in the widest variety.
Certainly friendship has proved a magnet to literature, an everlasting magnet. History, poetry, drama, letters have been drawn to the subject of friendship, not simply to celebrate it but to discover, perceive, learn from it the nature of ourselves, of humankind, the relationships we share in our world.
Friendship has inherited its literary treasury; it lies in the language… And in that treasury’s further stories of pure gold are the works of the imagination, some old as time, some coined only yesterday.
Welty’s most salient point has to do with precisely this linguistic dimension of friendship — it might be the basic necessities of friendship, she suggests, that sparked in us the evolutionary need for language. It’s a notion both wonderfully poetic and rather plausible — we know that music and language helped us evolve, and what is friendship if not learning the song of another’s heart and singing it back to them?
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry
Did friendship between human beings come about in the first place along with — or through — the inspiration of language? It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time. Might it possibly have been the other way round — that the promptings of friendship guided us into learning to express ourselves, teaching ourselves, between us, a language to keep it by? Friendship might have been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication. Which came first, friendship or the spoken word? They could rise from the same prompting: to draw together, not to pull away, not to threaten any longer.
Friendship lives, as do we ourselves, in an ephemeral world. How much its life depends on the written word. The English language itself is friendship’s greatest treasure…. Do we not owe friendship, as we owe Shakespeare, to language?
The Norton Book of Friendship is itself a great treasury, containing such gems as Emily Dickinson’s letter to her best friend, foundational meditations on friendship by Aristotle, Cicero, and Montaigne, John Donne’s touching ode to a friend, and Aesop’s classic fables of friendship. Complement it with C.S. Lewis on the purpose of friendship, Emerson on its two pillars, Andrew Sullivan on why friendship can be a greater gift than romantic love, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend,” then revisit Welty on the poetics of space, her impossibly charming job application to the New Yorker, and this rare recording of her reading her quietly heartbreaking masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”