Monday, 26 April 2021

Cemeteries and 'correspondence of deep affection'

I have been visiting some of the 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries, all of them dating from the Victorian period. I have already been to Highgate and to Abney in Stoke Newington. Next on my list is Brompton, where my 'spiritual mother' - I call her so - the Divina Marchesa about whom I wrote in an earlier post, is buried.  Most fashion designers hail her as their muse, and recently Indonesian fashion duo Sebastian Gunawan and Cristina Panarese conceived a whole show inspired by and dedicated to her. 

I am fascinated by Victorian cemeteries and am revisiting them all, taking in everything afresh. 

Cemeteries were what Graveyard poets of the late 18th century sang of and their influence on the Romantics was massive, the common thread being a reflection on emotional states - think of Coleridge and Keats. And of course Gothic literature has its roots in Graveyard poetry. 

The fascination with cemeteries and old graves is known as taphophilia and visiting cemeteries is also referred to as necro-tourism. Please do not be put off by this term and imagine anything sinister. It simply means visiting cemeteries 'with the aim of discovering their artistic, architectonic, historic and landscape heritage, apart from knowing legends of death' and it is none other than a form of cultural tourism. 


Archaeologists deal with death all the time. They study death and memory, they investigate the material culture of burials, trying to understand how past communities and individuals remembered their past  through social and ritual practices and how important mortuary practices were in such processes of remembering, and also forgetting, the past. 

The Italian poet Ugo Foscolo, who lived in exile in London from 1816 till his death in 1827 wrote a celebrated poem entitled Sepulchres intending it to be a protest against Napoleon's decree which forbade tomb inscriptions in an attempt to erase social distinctions. In the poem, Foscolo talks of a 'correspondence of deep affection' (corrispondenza di amorosi sensi) between the living and the dead which is facilitated by marked burials as opposed to common graves. 

 Hannah Malone (2017) believes that  the feelings of the Italian elites towards cemeteries were  influenced by  British Graveyard poetry, which "sensitised" European aristocracy to the notion of burial within the landscape "paving the way for the eighteenth  century Elysium or the idea of a garden with tombs and cenotaphs that emerged in England as the precursor to the modern landscaped cemetery".  However the Italian variant of  Graveyard poetry, such as the poem by Foscolo,  had a distinctly civic and social value would be directly linked to the Risorgimento movement, whereas British poetry was more focussed on private feelings, introversion and nostalgia. 


When I visited Abney, on the day of Prince Philip's funeral  I wrote the following on Fb :

"Abney is not far from where I live...Today I strolled around and took photos with my phone. It is smaller than Highgate and the main difference is that it is a proper park, with no entry fee. People come in and sit by the tombs or on the benches, eating sandwiches, or they do a bit of jogging. Some people look at the tombs and statues with interest, there was a small impromptu tour today and I joined from a distance, and there were a few toddlers playing hide and seek with their parents. Various signs remind people that Abney Park's wildlife is exceptional and care should be taken to observe specific insects/birds/plants. And everywhere there are tombs, some with fresh flowers on them because it is a living cemetery. I love the fact that it is so alive, a place for the living to enjoy, not just to visit when in mourning. Respectfully, of course, just like we do when we visit churches, without necessarily wanting to worship, but only to admire the artwork. I really enjoyed visiting Abney Park. Highgate overawed me, Abney Park made me wonder at how the living and the dead are intertwined, life and death are a continuum. Apt thoughts, on a day when the nation is in mourning.



Sunday, 28 March 2021

Empowering not exploiting

Migrants du Monde, Lecce

It has been in the news: fast fashion brands have been using cotton picked under slavery conditions by the Uighur minority in China, who are deprived of their human rights. I always find it very hypocritical when brands issue statements to the effect that they knew nothing about exploitation, that they actually condemn such practices and will now make sure their (whatever) is sourced ethically. 

These arguments about not being aware of what is going on were also put forward when there was the Rana Plaza fire in which so many women and children, crammed in a physically unsafe sweatshop, died. Brands were quick to dissociate themselves, blaming local contractors, but we know that they were involved or at the very least, they turned a blind eye, pocketing huge profits. It's a pass the buck mindset. 

The fashion industry does not hesitate to exploit the labour of the most vulnerable people in society. A good example is how fashion brands treat refugees. The Panorama investigation of 2016 showed us Syrian children working in garment factories in Turkey making clothes for M&S and ASOS in the UK.  Since then there has been some improvement, but there is still much to do. The website of the  Clean Clothes Campaign has much to report and it is important that we begin to ask questions about who is making our clothes and whether the garment makers  are being exploited.  Fashion Revolution, an initiative that  came about soon after the Rana Plaza tragedy, has also launched the campaign #whomademyclothes to highlight the condition of garment workers.

Everywhere in the world voices of protest are being heard, we all know we cannot go on the way we have done for so many years, that a change is needed,  but  not enough is being done.  

Thus when we hear of projects which are empowering for the people who make the clothes we wear it is definitely very uplifting. There are a few brands operating in the UK that work with vulnerable women, for example, Beulah London who support trafficked women.

Model: Giuse C.

In Italy, there is Migrants du Monde, an offshoot of Migrants du Monde Rabat, which uses a South/South approach to the whole issue of refugee resettlement. 

Covid19 has slowed things down but it has also shown that exploitative fashion has to end, for the survival of the industry. 

It's important that we should know how the clothes we wear are produced and that we should take some steps towards eradicating exploitation. 

Please also see my blog post for Fashion Revolution here

Sunday, 21 March 2021

The apocalypse of Salento


Xylella fastidiosa. The Apocalypse of Slento 

I am pretty sure not so many people have been aware of the devastation caused by  xylella fastidiosa, a
bacterium from Latin America, transmitted through insects, that has been destroying the olive trees of Apulia since 2013, with irreversible  damage to the ecosystem of the region and to its economy.

I came to know about it when I went to the Salento on holiday last summer. An acquaintance who owns some farmland in the region told me of it, sounding pretty glum, but I really did not grasp the gravity of the situation until I saw with my own eyes the decimated olive trees on my way from the airport in Brindisi to the city of Lecce. 

I must confess that even then I did not realise the extreme consequences of the onslaught, not until I started doing some reading. I came across the brilliant documentary film by Paola Ghisleri, a filmmaker trained in the UK who currently lives in Geneva. Her father owns a farm in the Salento region and was desperate about the xylella hitting his olive trees.   Paola decided to make a film documenting the impact of this bacterium and the significance of the death of the olive trees in a region that has been defined by their presence.

Olive trees are very important in the landscape of southern Italy. They go back millennia. As Autorino writes: 

" traditionally the olive tree has been deemed as the pillar of the Salentinian agrarian culture and landscape; thus upheld with pride by many. Olive groves are often inhabited and retained like actual eco-museums; photos of the most twisted and embroidered exemplars are exposed in people's shops and private homes; whilst tours and walks are often organised for tourists around the oldest exemplars. The passion for this plant is most commonly exemplified in the celebration of its aesthetics and forms". 

At the moment two practices are followed in an attempt to eradicate xylella. They are 1) eradication of the olive trees and 2) the abundant use of pesticides. But these are not regarded, locally, as viable solutions. 

According to Comitato SOS – Salviamo Ora il Salento (Save Salento Now Committee), the best course of action is to implement ecological resilience, understood as 'the ability of an element to self-repair after damage and to return to the initial state after being subjected to a disturbance that has removed it from that state' by adopting less exploitative agricultural practices.

In his photoblog that documents the impact of xylella, János Chialá, wrote in 2019 of the horror felt by the local people at the idea of eradicating ancient olive trees and the number of conspiracy theories that have begun to circulate, fuelled by social media, which seem to deny the existence of the bacterium  -one can see here a parallel with Covid-19, which is decimating human beings and which a number of people deny the existence of, only today I met someone that vowed there was no Covid 19 and vaccine is intended for genetic control.

Dead olive trees. Photo: Chialá, 2017

Yet xylella fastidiosa is a real threat and it is likely to spread to other countries, such as Spain and Greece, where too olive groves are found in significant numbers. But the xylella problem is compounded by other issues relating to our current intensive agriculture practices and our overall relationship with the eco-system. 

"We do not know whether the scientists will ever find a cure to xylella fastidiosa" reports Chialá "what we do know is that we will continue to eat a lot of olive oil, and that our relationship to olive trees will continue, as it has done for thousands of years. What form it will take in the future is up to us to decide, and in doing so we should not repeat the mistakes of the past, ignoring the social and environmental aspects of the relationship between people and olive trees"

Friday, 12 March 2021

Calling versus texting


Salvador Dali 'Lobster phone' 

I grew up in a household in which the telephone, that contraption, as my father would call it, was not allowed. My father hated phones with all his might,  and feared that having a phone  at home would encourage my mother to chat on the phone endlessly - she rather liked calling up her friends. And us girls, he reckoned, thinking of me and my sister, we would just be glued to it and would never do any homework. Friends were people you visited or who came to see you - not that my father liked receiving people, but that's another story. 

We lived in the country and the lack of telephone was a great nuisance. People would have to call up a neighbour to pass on a message or to get us briefly on the phone but obviously only for very important matters, we could not chat endlessly at someone else's  - not to mention that the neighbours would pretend not to listen but always found a reason to hover by the phone, taking in every word that was uttered and then spinning stories of their own.

Of course, there was a phone in my father's  office, which was in a nearby town - its use was strictly for business. But my mother, on a sunday, would sneak into the office and make a couple of calls to her friends and to my sister in Turin, who at the time lived with her father.

When I moved to London the ritual of the sunday call was quickly firmly established. By then the office no longer existed but it was the era of phone cards , so my mother would get hold of a couple of them and she 'd call me. In London  I always lived in flats or houses where there was a phone, often shared with flatmates, with endless rows over bills and how they should be split. 

Fast forward a few years during which I married and lived in a flat with a telephone, then my husband and I split up.  Soon after  mobile phones became the norm and landlines slowly became obsolete (but I still have one). 

I was one of the early adopters of mobile devices. I still remember when someone's phone would go off, on a bus, and the person would then shout 'I am on a bus' at the top of their lungs and proceed to have a very private conversation, also at the top of their  lungs and people tuttutting and then asking rhetorically, after the person had got off, were these mobile phones not so intrusive?

Calling Photo: Donato Cinicolo

I never liked calling, I would text but I would call a few people. When my son was a  teenager I bought him  a cheap phone, the idea being I would keep track of his whereabouts and check up on him. Not only has my son  inherited his grandfather's dislike of phones, he was also not keen on me tracking him. The first thing he implemented was a policy of switching the phone off, so that no one would be able to reach him - he still does it, though a little less, he just does not reply. I used to be mad at him, and clearly I was not the only one, his girlfriends were livid and I do remember one who used to call on the landline asking me in a tearful voice where he was, at which I simply would, most truthfully, reply 'Sorry, I don't know. Can I take a message?'

I have recently read an article about people not phoning at all, these days,  but relying on texts and those rather weird voice messages, of which my Italian friends seem to be great fans. The thing is, calling someone is spontaneous and thus very scary.  Also, you cannot edit the replies you give to questions. You can do so with texts and recorded voice messages. Ever found yourself being about to listen to a whatsApp voice message and suddenly that message is deleted by the sender, just as you start listening to it, because they have changed their mind?

Texting. Photo:Donato Cinicolo

Texting gives you a false sense of intimacy, but in reality texting is extremely misleading. You are interacting with a screen.

So my advice is: let's try and call more. I do not mean we should  engage in video calls all the time - now those can be quite intrusive, what if you are  slouching on the sofa in your pyjamas, still unwashed? A call does not have to last hours, but it's nice to hear a friendly voice at the other end of the phone. 

As Rebecca Nicholson writes in her piece: "by texting less and calling more, I was reminded that people are almost always nicer on the phone than on text. Face to face, they’re even nicer than that. Arguments are resolved more quickly. It is much more difficult to be rude, and we could all use a bit of that."

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Walt Whitman posing with a butterfly

Walt Whitman, posing with a butterfly in 1883. Image via The Grolier Club

 I first came across Walt Whitman through Cesare Pavese, the great 20th century Italian writer, plagued throughout his life by suicidal urges, who,  at the age of 21, introduced Italians to American literature, during the fascist era. He wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman, later published as a book about the American poet, and embarked on translating many great American writers, including Hermann Melville. In some of his work as a poet in his own right, Pavese referenced Whitman. 

 (NB. Pavese though he accomplished much, did not fully understand the nuances of Melville's thunderous and majestic prose and was not able to convey in Italian the language shifts of Captain Ahab. I realised this when I read Moby Dick in English and was overawed by Melville's prose, akin to poetry. Moby Dick remains one of my favourite books to date. See my post on Moby Dick here ).

 It was only after coming across the poignant article written in 2011 by Michael Bourne on how Walt Whitman saved his life that I felt compelled to pick up Leaves of Grass (1855) and realised what I had been missing.  That extraordinary Song of Myself, with its opening - "I celebrate myself and sing myself/And what I assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you",  or  I sing the body electric, which was also, I realise, the title of an album by Weather Report  which I loved in my younger years but never knew had a link with Whitman - "I sing the body electric/ The army of those I love engirth me and I engirth them/ They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, / And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge/of the soul" are now forever etched in my memory. 

Nothing prepared me for the sheer beauty of Whitman's free verse. He is the epic poet of America. He "made poetry out of making poetry", as Pavese said. 

Whitman's verses convey passion, euphoria and joy,  speak of love, sexuality, nature and are full of zest and respect for life. He was a humanist, who believed in freedom and who, with his poetic legacy,  inspired many generations to follow - the Beat generation poets, Allen Ginsberg and the recently departed Lawrence Ferlinghetti in particular.  Whitman spoke openly about sex, extolling the beauty of loving both men and women. The world in the 19th century was not yet ready for someone like him, with his ability to tune into his own humanity and proposing such an intense, free, joyful and energetic celebration of life.

Leaves of Grass will be my companion for a long time to come. 

" I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell

are with me.

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I

translate into new tongue"

Monday, 22 February 2021

Glad I quit...the academy

Students at graduation (Shutterstock)

Eight years ago I quit my post at the university where I had taught for almost 15 years. I felt disheartened at the time with everything that was going on in the world of academia. A casual conversation with the editor of Times Higher Education led me to write an article in which I voiced my discontent and my concerns for how things were going.

Leaving my job felt like walking out of a 'bad' marriage ( a tweet exchange with a celebrity academic prompted the reply 'What about the children?'). I felt free, though I was also scared and had occasional waves of regret sweeping through me. I still thought that I might go back to teaching after a break, somewhere else, obviously. It was not to be, other things awaited me. I relished the freedom I suddenly enjoyed (and a little less the lack of financial security, but I learnt to adapt).  I was able to do more writing in my own time, securing funding for a project that then led me to publish a full length monograph - Contemporary Indonesian Fashion. Through the looking glass (Boomsbury 2019),  the outcome of that research project in a new field of studies, fashion. 

Meanwhile, modelling really took off for me, especially after I joined Grey Model Agency and I embarked on a new career as model, fashion writer and fashion activist. 

King's College, Cambridge (Google images)

A recent conversation with an overseas student who had failed her master, having submitted a dissertation that did not match the course requirements, brought it all back. Whatever I wrote in that THE article back in 2013 is still valid and perhaps even more relevant today, at a time when COVID-19 has disrupted academic teaching even more.  Students do fail their courses, but it is important to understand why this happens. It is not always the case that they are bad students, it is often because the teaching is inadequately structured. I am not blaming tutors either. They work very hard, it is, as I said a structural problem.

Rather than rewriting my article of 2013, I am providing a link to it here. Leaving the academy was not easy, but I survived and thrived. 

It is sad though to realise that eight years on things have changed, yes, but for the worse.

(Disclaimer: the images for this post have nothing to do with its content) 

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Valentine's Day

Card made using one of Michael Culhane's photos, with myself and Mike Cooney as models

Valentine's Day has a long history but it came to prominence in the 20th century when it became a rather commercial celebration in the English speaking world. By way of imitation, it spread to other countries around Europe and also in the Far East, in the same way that Halloween has. 

When I was growing up in Italy, Valentine's Day was not all that popular. We did not get 'valentines' in school, and receiving a 'valentine' was not a measure of a girl's popularity.

But when I moved to the UK  at the end of the seventies,  I became more and more aware of the significance of Valentine's Day. 

It sure matters. Valentine's Day is mostly about lovers but friendship is also celebrated. In pre-Covid times Valentine's Day was when restaurants were at their busiest, as well as florists. 

I still remember the year - it must have been 2010 - when my son, then at university and very much in love with a very sweet girl, a bit younger than him, asked me to make myself scarce on Valentine's Day as he wanted to cook her a meal and propose. He even asked for my engagement ring, which was not amazing, but he could not afford to buy a new one. I complied, fervently hoping the girl would see some sense and would not accept a proposal from a (then) penniless student. She said 'nyes' (which later became 'no') and then I knew she was sensible and took to her at once.

As for my son,  he is now, several years later, happy with someone else and they have a wonderful little  girl...

No matter what, if I do not get flowers and cards on Valentine's Day I do feel something has gone awry. These days the flowers are mostly virtual and so are the cards. A former boyfriend of mine regularly sent me, for years, eye-catching cards, through the post, with his own poetry (rather imitative, but I never told him)  then he stopped. I was surprised but was also glad he did. Yet I kind of miss it now,  it was fun after all. You never realise the value and importance of what you lost until you lose it. 

Today I bought myself roses from my local Waitrose. I always buy myself flowers, I just love them, but today I bought myself some red roses. There was a rather frantic young man who wanted a single, long stemmed red rose, just the one, and could not find any. It was late afternoon. 'Too late, mate' said one of the assistants. I don't remember ever seeing anyone so disappointed. He wanted to surprise his girlfriend...

I was feeling positively morose at the lack of 'valentines' and told a dear friend about it. Five minutes later he sent me a beautiful bunch of flowers (virtual of course). I was so moved, I burst into tears. 

Valentine's Day can bring up lots of pent-up emotions. But it's worth remembering receiving a 'valentine' is nothing to do with your self -worth. At the end of the day, the most important love is the one you give yourself. If you do not love yourself you cannot love anyone...

Friday, 29 January 2021

Remembering Michael Culhane

'Our sacred bodies 1' Models: myself and Mike Cooney

 It's bad enough when a friend dies, but when you only find out a year later it's even more devastating. Those things one does, like sending condolences to family and partners, sending flowers, maybe attend, if only in thought, the funeral, are suddenly redundant. You keep on asking yourself why you were not told earlier. You may even have attempted to contact the deceased, without knowing of course, of their departure, and on not receiving a reply, you may have wondered whether they had suddenly taken umbrage and maybe felt put out...

I am saying all this because this is exactly what happened to me. Michael Culhane aka Solus, a wonderful friend and collaborator, a talented photographer with whom I worked for a period of, altogether,  three and half years, died on 19.01.20  but I only found out yesterday, 28.01.2021, via Messenger. Mike Cooney, a former model and dancer now turned fashion designer, who knew Michael and with whom I did a couple of shoots for Michael, told me in a message he had only just found out too.  Earlier we had both wondered why Michael never got back to us, whenever we attempted to contact him. There was our answer: Michael was no more.

I met Michael via the online creative community DeviantArt, of which I was - still am, loosely - a member, in 2009. I was doing a lot of artistic nude modelling at the time, it was an extension of my life modelling. Micheal liked my look and invited me to do a shoot in Dublin, where he lived. He was not a professional photographer, in the sense that he did not make a living out of it, but he had trained to a very high standard, having been a photographer's assistant and pursued photography as a serious hobby, serious enough to invest in good equipment, hire models, hire studios. 

I looked at his portfolio, found it rather beautiful and agreed to shoot with him. So off I went, my first time in Dublin actually.  We shot indoors and also outdoors in a derelict building - I could not tell you where it was, we drove out of Dublin.  When we did not shoot, Michael took me round sightseeing. It always rains in Dublin...On the day I had to get back to London, Michael had work to do and I went off on my own to admire Trinity College. 

Trinity College Dublin  Library , Image via sivribiber

We then agreed to work together again, this time with another female model (whom I cannot name as she has now given up modelling due to pressure from her partner) and the male model and dancer, Mike.   For a third shoot Michael , who by then had become a friend, suggested Mike and I should do a love inspired shoot, which ended up being called 'Our sacred bodies'.  It was an interesting concept and I relied on Mike's experience as a dancer, he basically choreographed it, it was shot without breaks, we were continuously moving and changing poses, Michael shot whenever he saw something that caught his eye. It lasted several hours. At the time Michael had a young assistant, Odile, who then ended up being his model for a few years.  I was keen on taking self-portraits and Michael lent me his medium format Bronica which he no longer used (I no longer have it, but that's another story). 

My 'self-portrait' at The Sketch Club, Chelsea

Michael became interested in fetish photography but that genre did not suit me at all, so we did not work together for quite a few years. He went to Thailand then he went to Saudi Arabia (he was still holding down a rather high powered exec job) and when his contract ended, somewhat abruptly, he came to London, where his company's head office was. We got together and did another shoot at The Sketch Club, in Chelsea. He was in London for nearly a week then he left. That was the last time I saw him, it must have been 2014. He told me he was not in great health and would be back in the autumn for check-ups but did not elaborate. 

I then found out he was somewhere in Scotland, but he never replied to any message I sent him and I gave up contacting him. 

I remember the week we spent together in London with great pleasure. It was late spring. With his help I took some self-portraits with the Bronica - he helped me to set everything up and advised on aperture etc. Basically, he composed the pictures  I just pressed the button (with a remote).  So, in fact, they are his pictures, but he was too much of a gentleman to take credit and for a long time I believed I was a photographer, till I realised I did not have the know-how nor was I diligent enough to acquire the technique. 

We strolled around London, ate fish and chips, generally had fun, just like we did when he invited me to shoot in Dublin. 

I have a few pictures, in digital form, taken by Michael. Last night I put them all together in a folder and looked at them very carefully. If I am not mistaken, one of them was exhibited in the US and got a mention but I forget which one.

The Three Graces (detail), sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I put up one on my Instagram feed, and a couple of them are in the 'stories', soon to be archived.  Michael has gone, but I will never forget him. A tall man, with an intelligent face and a great smile, we shared a love for Kandinsky and an interest in psychoanalysis.  When he was in London he wanted to see 'The Three Graces' by Canova, which he loved, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but it was not on display - it has not gone back, last time I checked in October this year it was not there, I believe it is always on some loan, somewhere in the world or maybe kept away from the public.

It was an honour to meet you, Michael, and a sheer delight to be your model.

(Michael's work can still be seen on DeviantArt, no one has closed that account yet. A lot of his work is an exploration of fetish and erotic imagery but there are also some wonderful landscapes. His website is no longer accessible)

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Friendship part 2


Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits (2011)

Having started my discussion about friendship, I now wish to add to it, hence this part 2. I will probably also write a part 3, in which I will discuss social media friends, as these are becoming the new normal, due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

In part 1 I talked about friendship as discussed by Plato and Aristotle. I mentioned how for ancient Greeks friendship was something that involved men alone, women being so marginal, especially in Athenian society, and also how their concept of friendship encompassed an erotic dimension, as erotic friendships between adult men and young boys were acceptable, even though adult men would also  have wives and children. Some such friendships were true passions - how can one regulate a human relationship? - but they were usually regarded as friendships with a sexual connotation.

In our contemporary world, this kind of friendship would be inadmissible, as it would be regarded as paedophilia. Not only that. Same-sex relationships between men (and women) are acceptable provided all the people involved are over the age of consent, but they are not regarded as friendships,  they are viewed as full-blown intimate love relationships. Somehow, the concept of a friendship with an erotic dimension is generally frowned upon. 

Achilles and Patroclus, mythical loving friends 

The phenomenon of 'friends with benefits'- named after the 2011 movie with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake -  is regarded as somewhat 'unnatural'. We tend to differentiate clearly between love and friendship. We also tend to worship Romantic Love (in capitals, RL for short). Thus having sex with a friend is almost unacceptable or regarded as a poor choice. Yet sex with no love exists in abundance, it's even commercially available. Such are the contradictions of our society. Friendship is based on affection, but,  we are told, love in the context of a friendship is absolutelky non-sexual. 

This is a relatively controversial subject and ultimately there is no right or wrong view. I can only venture a personal opinion here. I am not fully convinced about the existence of RL, in my own experience, it has revealed itself to be more often than not rather chimaeric. But friendship is something that I have always felt as being very real. Obviously, not all my friendships with men do or have involved a sexual connection. Still, some have, and I have to say that without being overloaded with expectations of RL,  they were very genuine connections. Maybe I am in the minority believing that love is essentially a deep friendship.

I remember reading a while ago a  story about a now-married couple who were friends for 12 years before they decided to get together. They met at Uni, lived together as flatmates, had other relationships,. Still, their friendship was solid, and they eventually opted to have a go at conventional coupledom, as they wanted a family and viewed that as a continuation of their friendship. They are still best friends, acknowledging that being a couple works for them precisely because their solid friendship sustains the endeavour.

There are many books and articles which try to make sense of love and friendship. Many, though distinguishing between the two, also recommend that intimate relationships should be based on friendships as constitutive of love, rather than infatuation, which seems to be the basis of romantic, passionate love. In hindsight, I can say that my own infatuations never gave way to friendship. A couple of former lovers are still my best friends and that was essentially because we started off as friends.

In one of the most defining movies of the 20th century, Saturday Night Fever, the closing scenes are about invoking friendship as the basis of a meaningful relationship between a man and a woman. 

I love SNF not because of the glitter of disco music and the great dancing it displays, not because of John Travolta on whom I had a proper star crush, not even because it is an intelligent movie that  deals with significant issues, and is quite disturbing in its portrayal of violence towards women and life at the margins of society, exemplified by underclass Brooklyn youth.

Tony and Stephanie promise to be friends. Screenshot from Saturday Night Fever

I love it precisely because of those closing scenes. Stephanie asks a repentant Tony, who has fled Brooklyn for Manhattan, staying up all night, shaken by his friend's involuntary suicide and who, the night before, had tried to have sex with her without her consent, whether he can believe in friendship between a girl and a boy. Tony replies he can try, he will try. Then there is a close up on them holding each other's hand, and their embrace which is telling of so many possibilities. Yes, they might become a couple but their relationship is going to be based on the promise of friendship.  It is a powerful and positive message, a glimmer of hope for better human relationships, in a movie that remains essentially very dark in the sexism, homophobia and racism it portrays. 

As I said, there is room here for different views. Should you wish to add your own please leave a comment. 


Monday, 11 January 2021

Friendship Part 1


While rummaging among old papers I chanced on a battered typewritten piece, probably belonging to my father (I recognised his handwriting in the corrections that were added to the text). It was a discourse on friendship which he might have copied, in translation, for reasons known to him alone, from one of the ancient philosophers who wrote on friendship. I tried to make out who it could have been, but it was hard, there was no frame of reference. There was a passage that struck me, in which the author claimed that no friendship was possible between a man and a woman because friendship is based on a physiological affinity and among people of different sex the physiological element gives rise to fusions or clashes which are typical of love. If you recognise the argument, please let me know. 

My view is that only an ancient philosopher would have written that,  for friendship in the ancient world was something that pertained to men and men alone. Also 'physiological affinities' strikes me as being connected to the theory of body humors, which is associated with Hippocrates.

As I said, I could not identify the source but this reflection on friendship sent me straight to the great writings on friendship by Plato and Aristotle. Let's deal immediately with the elephant in the room: in the ancient world, women had virtually no status, thus these discussions of friendship are about men. This, however, does not mean that we should dismiss the writings of these philosophers, for indeed there is much we can derive by mining the ancients and applying their thinking to our contemporary world, with due changes. 

Friendship is a slippery concept in the day and age of social media friends, who could not be further from the φιλοι of the time of Plato and Aristotle.  Friendship ( or φιλια)  is discussed by Plato in the Lysis .  Friendship and love have much in common, says Plato, but then in the dialogue Socrates (Plato often discusses his ideas using Socrates as his main character and narrator) raises the fiollowing points:

Friendship occurs between people who are similar, interpreted by Socrates as friendship between good men.
Friendship may arise  between men who are dissimilar.
Friendship arises between men who are neither good nor bad and good men.
Friendship arises between those who are related (οἰκεῖοι "not kindred") by the nature of their souls.

The Lysis  is an early Platonic dialogue and much of what is put forward will then be elaborated further in the Symposium.  Nevertheless the Lysis is important in suggesting that desire, in itself neither good nor evil, is the primary cause of friendship, and  that desire may only occur  when there is 'congeniality'.

Aristotle, on the other hand, distinguishes between  genuine friendships and friendships based on mutual usefulness, and on  pleasure. Friendship based on pleasure or usefulness has a  limited shelf life whereas genuine friendship is long lasting. Friendship  takes place between good men: ‘each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves...and it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality’ (Aristotle 1976, The Nicomachen Ethics: 263).

These theorizations of friendship have provided the blueprint for further discussion and conceptualizations, down to  our days. For us today, friendship remains an individual rather than civic tie - a dimension that was explored by Aristotle.  But as Doyle and Smith write, quoting Allan, "through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, and an important contribution to our personal identities. Friendship also helps us to integrate us into the public realm and acts as a resource for managing some of the mundane and exceptional events that confront us in our lives"

We all need friends, genuine friends. Friendship needs to be cultivated, it can die if neglected, like a beautiful plant it needs tending to. Love is always part of friendship, a disinterested kind of love and it is often the case that couple relationships begin as friendships and then change into love. 
Friends are precious, let's not forget that.