‘Peter must learn that being able to understand poetry is not a reflection on his manhood.’
This was the comment of my English literature teacher in my school report back in the mid-1970s.
It reflected a widespread fear of homosexuality, which had only been legalised a few years before, in 1967. As a straight, young, working-class boy, the fear of any sort of attraction to ephemeral or artistic subjects, like poetry, dance – even music; weighed very heavily and designated all sorts of areas as off-limits.
So what did I do? I joined the school band at the age of 16, I left school and joined the army as a musician. An army musician occupies a liminal space somewhere between an officer and a squaddie. The number of times our sexuality was questioned by squaddies was quite notable. However, the army does throw you together and that creates male bonds which can be very strong.
Forty six years later, many of those military men remain close friends and I have one friend still from that time. He and I were strange outsiders back then, even within the band. Outsiders to the outsiders and doubly questionable as a result. That one friend – who took me hitchhiking round Europe while we were on disembarkation leave, and with whom I spent two years stationed in Germany – remains one of the standout influences in my life. He was someone who changed the way I thought about, and interacted with the world.
Male friendship can be a potentially very risky thing. In the recent film the Banshees of Inisherin set on an isolated island, is a multilayered allegory of the Irish Civil War, of marriage, of friendship and of love. Although not explicitly about the love that exists between the characters played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the fact that the latter breaks what is a very close friendship for no apparent reason, and expresses it with self-castration (a violinist who cuts off his own fingers can only be seen in this way) is, in so many ways, about the end of a marriage.
‘I just don’t like you no more’ is the sort of phrase uttered and a sentiment felt by so many men trying to explain what is going on when relationships break down. It is not that we are dissembling or attempting to hide a deeper truth. It really is that simple. Men have a tendency to bundle individual emotions and feelings up into larger and simpler categories that can be more easily – although for women much more frustratingly – expressed.
It is here that we can perhaps best see the damage that patriarchy does to men as well as women around the question of male friendship. Too often, the friendship that men develop is underpinned by assumptions of sexuality on the part of those looking in from the outside. Although the situation is undoubtedly better now than it was in the past, heterosexual men who form close relationships with a friend immediately become suspected of ‘homosexual tendencies’. Most straight men brought up in the 1950s and 60s will have encountered this attitude and – not wishing to be thought of as gay in anyway – will have embedded their friendship in areas that are seen as indisputably masculine. Football, fishing, sport in general, play such an important role in men’s lives precisely because they provide this sort of safe forum. The number of out gay professional footballers, for example, can be counted on the fingers of one finger.
I remember that moment the one teacher wrote in my report that I was ‘easily led’. Perhaps as a fatherless child, perhaps because of some epigenetic inheritance, this remains undoubtedly, true. After the army, which gave me an HGV license as well as a completely useless facility on the tuba, I drove lorries for a living for a couple of years. During this period, I met a man who again led me easily into radical politicisation as well as an academic future. I became a student of German (something else the army gave me), a Trotskyist (everyone was in the early 80s) and eventually, a university lecturer in German. Although he was only 11 years older than me, he functioned very clearly as a father figure and maybe that is what is at the root of close male friendship. Perhaps the bond is the ideal one that one wishes one had had – with one’s father, who, for our generation at least, remained a distant and forbidding figure.
And it is that forbidding nature of the father figure that we seek to replace within male friendship. And as a result, men are very good at superficial friendships. Banter, flirtation with women, licentious and aggressive behaviour towards women, all of that comes very easily to men when they are in a pack. All of these activities are essentially about proving who is the silverback within the group, and who the others are to subordinate themselves to, even against their own best interests. Indeed, ‘it’s just banter’ is a phrase often voiced to excuse behaviour that is also often much darker and which masks real harassment and abuse. Developing a deep friendship with one other man, on the other hand, requires the sort of close emotional vulnerability that is not possible within a group of males. Women are much better at that sort of thing and male anger at women is often a misdirected jealousy of their ability to express themselves on an emotional level. Whether this is a biological difference or a cultural one is less important than the fact that the divide exists.
And yet friendship – maybe especially between men (again, women seem to have this sorted) – plays an important role in preparing us for living as a member of society. There is always an internal conflict between the need to be alone and to think in one’s own space about one’s own issues and the need to be fully integrated into a larger group. Both are needed at the same time and this unity of opposites between narcissism on the one hand and the submergence into the group on the other is a vital part of social integration. Even the monk in his cell needs to be integrated into the larger group of monks for communal worship, and they often see it as the preparation for whatever it is that they think comes next.
And thought itself is the perfect example of this unity of opposites. Of course, thought takes place, can only take place, in the individual mind. And yet the shape that thought takes and the way in which we express it is essentially social. Human thought uses language to express itself, maybe thought is language, and yet what is language other than a means of communication between members of society. The destruction of the Tower of Babel was god’s rather intemperate response to the human desire to know everything, even god himself, and his response was to cast humanity into the loneliness of no longer being able to understand each other.
It could be argued that we therefore still live in a post-Babel world in which an army of interpreters, psychologists, quacks and religious thinkers are constantly engaged with trying to find the key to unlocking our loneliness and our narcissism in favour of a collective being.
Male friendship can best be seen in this light. It is an attempt to create a close consciousness between two male protagonists who are both in conflict and competition, and yet also fundamentally dependent on each other. This conflict is nothing new. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics says that ‘without friends, no one would choose to live’ (it goes without saying that Aristotle saw no place for women in this relationship. He meant only friendship between men). In Homer’s Iliad the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus is of central importance and has often been interpreted as an almost erotic or marital relationship characterised by their love for each other. Zeus and Ganymede, too, have an intensity of love between them that bonds them together. In more modern times we see this tradition played out in the buddy movie and bromance films of Hollywood, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid through to Brokeback Mountain, via Starsky and Hutch (interestingly, James Bond – despite his surname – remains the lone womaniser) et al.
What all of these depictions of male friendship have in common is that in order for each within the friendship to thrive; there has to be conflict and competition and there has to be a form of love to overcome that conflict. In Freudian terms, we could say that all of these depictions of male friendship represent the Id and the Superego of the individual psyche working both against each other and together to produce either a healthy ego, or – more often – a destructive spiral into death; for sure, always a heroic death but death nevertheless.
But what of we mere (male) mortals? Do we still struggle with the meaning of male friendship? As we get older our capacity to maintain close male friendships dwindles. I have one close male friend, a fellow university lecturer, perhaps the closest male friendship I have ever had, and more than once our students assumed that we were in a gay relationship.
Indeed, we have more than once, and less than jokingly, said that we were like a gay couple who happened to be straight and that we should live together as a platonic couple. We even have our arguments and rifts before coming back together again, probably closer than before.
I would contend that there is another unity of opposites that we need to consider here. Is a close male friendship possible alongside or in competition with a heterosexual ‘marriage’? The tension between the needs of a close friend and a partner can be a very difficult one to reconcile. Even in Gavin and Stacey we see the competition between that couple and the sometimes almost homoerotic bond between Gavin and Smithy. The question is whether this conflict can be resolved. The point is that the social isolation (the central conceit of the Banshees of Inisherin) can only be overcome collectively and with the recognition that everything is always in flux, even our relationships.
Rather than being something that happens over the water on the mainland, the civil war is here inside us and within our relationships.
Fix that and we fix everything