by Jason Peters
I expect most people agree that by making too much of a thing we can easily make too little of it—and also that as far as platitudes go that’s a fairly solid one.
For example, we can overthink friendship and in doing so underthink it. And so it is our good fortune to have an embarrassment of riches in our cultural tradition to help us think about it carefully and well. We have Aristotle in the Ethics and Cicero in De Amicitia. Aristotle tells us that “without friends no one would choose to live, even though he possessed every other good.” And Cicero for his part says that, with the exception of wisdom, friendship is the greatest gift the gods have given us. (He also says that we’ve been given friendship for the increase of virtue.) And even if we stop with C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, which first appeared over sixty years ago, chances are we will have passed through Plato, Epictetus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Sir Thomas More, Hannah Arendt, and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name only a few thinkers who have written insightfully on the topic of friendship.
But in thinking about this we might ask a question too infrequently asked: what does the belletristic tradition offer that the philosophic tradition does not?
For three paragraphs now I have been theorizing (a little) about friendship, not writing a poem or a novel about it. But a poem or novel, in treating of friendship, if it is to be a good work of art, must stop where theory begins; that is, it must stop short of a thesis. It will ruin itself with a thesis. A thesis is the surf it will wreck itself on. Its job, rather, is to present a mystery that its own presentation can only deepen. Its job is to open the door to a small wardrobe wherein lies a vast country. Criticism can unpack but it cannot exhaust the mystery of Narnia. It can pick out meaning, but in a good work of imagination there will always be a surplus of meaning. That is one characteristic of good art that distinguishes it from the criticism attempting to complete it. At the most fundamental level the best example of a semantic remainder occurs in metaphor, or saying one this is another. Milton said that time is “the subtle thief of youth.” Only by getting to the end of what a subtle thief is can you get to the end of what time is. But because a subtle thief is endlessly imaginable (and the harm he is capable of incalculable), we’re left with a surplus. “Time” has been clarified but also rendered more mysterious.
The belletristic route is, so to speak, a safeguard to prevent us from making too little of a thing by making too much of it.
Consider the example of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mr. Flood’s Party.” If you have never read the poem before you might find it a little flummoxing at first, but only a little. That is the way with most poems and our first readings of them. But if you come to your first reading prepared to understand the poem’s situation and arc, you will find the going much easier. Read the next paragraph and then stop and read the poem.
The poem is about an old man, Eben Flood, who lives alone outside of town. He has outlived all his friends, and on this night in autumn (there’s a harvest moon) he is walking home in the dark after having gone to town to get his whiskey jug filled. And he’s having a kind of party with himself. He talks to himself, offers himself a drink, accepts his own offer, ironically proffering an injunction not to drink too much—though he apparently already has, because he’s seeing double (he sees two moons). But then at the very end, after he shakes his head to clarify his vision, the devastating realization of his utter loneliness returns to him. It returns to him when he tries to sing out “auld lang syne” and cannot. The last word catches in his throat. It is an arrestingly sad moment in an otherwise very funny poem, a poem that has Robinson’s distinctive touch: an ability to treat our often dark solitary condition with good humor and compassion.
As I said, old Eben Flood’s misfortune is that he has outlived everyone he knew except the self he sometimes talks to on his way home from filling his companionable jug. We should smile as we read. The poem means for us to smile. But in the end this poem is no joke. Mr. Flood, alone on a dark road illumined only by the harvest moon, hears a “phantom salutation of the dead” ringing from “the town among the trees, / Where friends of other days had honored him.” Once he has had his conversation with himself and taken a drink “for auld lang syne”—and also discovered that he can’t get the words out—he comes to himself; he returns to his solitary existence, or rather it returns to him. Reality returns: there aren’t two moons anymore, only one. The party is over. He knows it, and so do we:
There was not much that was ahead of him, And there was nothing in the town below— Where strangers would have shut the many doors That many friends had opened long ago.
“We’ve each a darkening hill to climb,” as Robinson put it in another poem, “Flammonde,” and old Eben Flood is climbing his. But he is friendless, and no one would choose to live without friends, even though he possessed every good thing. This includes a full whiskey jug, which can neither honor a man nor open a door to him. And of course there is the sadness of a man taking comfort in drink, which with “friends of other days” would have complemented the friendship and fueled the conversation that, according to Aristotle, is the sine qua non of friendship.
But of course without the drink there wouldn’t be the hilarity, and without the hilarity there might not be the compassionate treatment there in the “silver loneliness / Of night,” where a man, “as if enduring to the end / A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,” hasn’t so much chosen to live without friends as, rather, a life without friends has chosen him.
And I have said nothing of form, or of the “trembling care” with which Mr. Flood sets the jug down, or of the tender maternal simile Robinson uses there, or of the pervading sense of life’s uncertainty on this otherwise “firm earth” where “most things break.”
This is what I mean when I say there is always a surplus of meaning. Try as you may you will never exhaust a work that brooks no thesis. What is irreducible will not suffer its meaning to be reduced. The wonder of “Mr. Flood’s Party,” or one of its wonders, is that it says almost nothing in particular about friendship and yet speaks volumes about it.
Why an essay here on a short narrative poem that takes up friendship—not public life or service but friendship—only in a kind of ancillary way? Both traditions I mentioned at the start, the philosophic and the belletristic, suggest to us that we can no more hope for a good life without friendship than we can expect to breathe without air. But bear in mind also that our cultural heritage is clear on another point—a point at least as old as Cicero—that even despots understand: friendship is one of the greatest threats to tyranny. Today the law might take umbrage with Mr. Flood’s “open container,” and there’s no end of codes to restrict the conditions of his purchase, but at least he is free for the moment to walk the “whole harmonious landscape” alone at night and to sing and to remember friends of other days—until such time as there no longer is a whole harmonious landscape for a free man to sing in and walk through.
Mr. Flood’s Party
Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.” He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: “Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.”
Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.
Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!”
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
“Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.
“Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.”
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang—
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.