EXPOSING JOSEPH EPSTEIN'S 'FRIENDSHIP'



Hearing a colleague boast of 'ex-friends' as a putative measure of his intellectual integrity, I thought how few I had, notwithstanding how provocative my work as both a writer and an artist has been. Those who came immediately to mind were lovers whom I disappointed, some of them still angry at me, no doubt justifiably. (Otherwise, betrayal and disappointing friends is not my style.) Some ex-friends were colleagues self-consciously on the way up (and perhaps insecure about their status as well), who thought it opportune to discard previous acquaintances less upwardly mobile, much as they dumped old clothes. Others were editors no longer publishing me--people for whom the rituals of friendship were a prerequisite for getting better work out of me, sometimes for a lower price (if not nothing). Were there a contest for living writers having the most ex-friends, I suspect the winners would be abusive magazine editors long tenured at, say, American Scholar, Commentary, Harper's, and National Review. The book editor, Jason Epstein, might top them all.
 
All these people I would distinguish from former friends, as I shall call them--people who have moved away from NYC--and from Enemies, which I have indeed made, sometimes inadvertently, especially if they envied self-made success, more often intentionally, nearly always in print (rarely personally), recalling advice that the composer Milton Babbitt proffered me forty years ago: 'When I was a young man, I had the good fortune of making all the right enemies.' When I recently asked Babbitt whom he had in mind when he told me this, he replied it was the composer Randall Thompson (not Virgil T.), less than a generation older, who, because he had the composition chair at Harvard, was more prominent seventy years ago than now. More than one colleague has envied me for making many of the Right Enemies. Not everyone can be so shrewdly selective.

A sometime lover who never taught, though she took her doctorate decades ago, once told me that had I become an academic I would have had many more ex-friends, not just among those regarding themselves as on the way up, as the disintegration of tenuous alliances appears to be a disease afflicting academic turfs. When some of my higher-flying ex-friends become more secure or decline, how should I respond if they want to befriend me again? Would they mind my disrespect?

These thoughts came to mine when I read parts of Joseph Epstein's Friendship: An Exposé
(2006), because Epstein had been for many years the chief editor of The American Scholar, which meant that he had long made friends and dropped them with ease. A glib facility in befriending and defriending came with the job, so to speak.

The odd thing is that for all his attempts to appear candid Epstein appears not to know this last truth. On the website Arts & Letters Daily
(aldaily.com) I once found a pathetic excerpt from the book that relates how Epstein was unable to befriend the novelist Ralph Ellison, even though he published him. What makes this memoir pathetic is that Epstein the sometime editorial powerhouse never considers the option occurring to any critical reader--that Ellison, suspicious of false friends and editorial sycophants, might not have wanted to befriend him. (Arnold Rampersad reports in his recent biography of Ellison that not even Prof. Henry Louis Gates, who believes in befriending Everyone Important, 'was never invited to visit him.')

Epstein reminds me of one book editor who told me how surprised he was, genuinely surprised, that attractive women published by him rejected his sexual advances after an alcohol-fueled dinner and another who characterized a personally popular writer as 'difficult' because butt-kissing the powerful was not among his acquired skills. Perhaps Ellison knew that butt-kissers such as Epstein invariably turn out to be less attractive and less friendly than they initially present themselves to be.

One truth I've learned over the decades is that those with literary ambitions, but without any talent for strong original work, had better first get power embedded in a position, preferably tenured, before they disappear. People especially doubting their capacities for literary excellence know in their gut that they need power to compensate. That was the implicit theme of Norman Podhoretz's Making It
(1967). Without the leverages bestowed upon him by the American Jewish Committee, the publishers of Commentary magazine, Podhoretz wouldn't have been a writer, let alone a cultural celebrity. (Later hearing about his memoir titled Ex-Friends, all of whom were prominent writers he had or could have published, I initially felt relieved Podhoretz never befriended me.)

The most pathetic power-seekers believe that none of the rewards of life would come to them otherwise--no publications, no lovers, no helpers, no friends. In their self-assessment, they are, needless to say, probably right. Bumptious Joseph Epstein puts himself squarely in this class apparently without realizing it. That's what could make his memoir an unwitting classic at a level none of his earlier books have attained--a kind of Pale Fire
or The Good Soldier that isn't fiction. What this Expose is finally about is the psychological distortions, especially regarding human relations, that afflict those who desperate for power.

Respecting the value of honesty, I should mention that twice I asked for a review copy of this book, as twice did a magazine publishing my reviews; but no book ever came--not even a letter explaining why. Only the chapter found on Arts&Letters prompted this review. (Oddly, it has since disappeared from the website and its self-archives, perhaps in response to an earlier draft of this review that was passed around, someone embarrassing both Epstein and the website as he or she thought they were protecting him.)

Believing that people should be fully accountable for their behavior, may we thus assume that the publisher or its author lacked respect for his book or me as a reviewer, notwithstanding elite recognitions. Not even power can overcome the disadvantages generated by those lacking respect for their own work.

     © Richard Kostelanetz 2007


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