By The Landlord
“Platonic is love from the neck up.” – Thyra Samter Winslow
“A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“True friends stab you in the front.” – Oscar Wilde
Particularly when young, insecure and single, but really at any time of life, there's perhaps nothing worse than hearing, from the person are in love with, and are very much physically attracted to, that soul-crushing phrase: "Let's just be friends". It feels like a slap in the face. A punch in the stomach. A kick in the groin. It whips you. It winds you. It wounds you. But one key reason for that, isn’t so much the rejection of your physical affection, nor even that your feelings aren’t reciprocated, but that the other’s response is simply not genuine. Honest, yes, in so much as telling you that they don't fancy you back, but that they don’t really want to return your love in a non-physical way at all. They don’t honestly want to spend time with, talk to, support, or care for you as a friend should. They are just letting you down, and not altogether gently.
But genuine platonic love is perhaps the most precious, and long-lasting of all – it's the daily nutrient that waters and feeds our emotional needs, rather than sugary sex cake of the honeymoon period that gradually crumbles and lessens during long-term relationships, relationships that over time, comprise at least as much if not far more platonic love as physical. Platonic love comes most likely from your best, long-term friend or friends, your true confidantes. Perhaps someone you’ve known since school, maybe a family member, a group of people, or even, on the simplest, most innocent and uncomplicated running, leaping, hugging, fur-stroking level, a pet. While we are designed to flirt, seduce and breed to help our genes endure, there are just as many evolutionary and practical reasons why we are also designed to form deep, trusting, all-encompassing friendships to survive, and thrive.
On a more elevated level, the formal idea of platonic love derives from Plato's dialogue, the Symposium, and the speech of Socrates, in which he attaches to the prophetess Diotima a way to ascend towards contemplation of the divine, gliding gradually up the ”Ladder of Love”, each step moving away from body obsession towards wisdom and a purer essence of beauty. Well, that’s the theory. Easier said than done, mate!
In the Middle Ages Plato’s ideas re-emerged in books - from another Greek - Georgios Gemistos (also known as Plethon) in the 15th century, the Italian Marsilio Ficino - and in English, William Davenant with his play The Platonic Lovers performed in 1635, which was a critique of the philosophy of platonic love that became popular at Charles I's court. Well, it was in between all the plotting, backstabbing and shagging. Sounds a bit like modern politics.
Classical and biblical literature has defined various types of love - these summed up by the terms Eros, Philia, Storge, Agape, Ludus, Pragma, and Philautia. Eros is a sexual or passionate, or romantic. Philia is friendship, companionship, dependability, and trust. That’s mostly what this week is all about, but also as non-sexual type - we could include Storge – that enormously powerful bond between parents and children, and we can also throw a dollop of Agape - a more universal love for strangers and the good of society, though that could be a different topic altogether. Moving further away still, Pragma is more about faithful service to a king or an employer, but it’s just as much about practical need. Ludus is just no-strings-attached looser love - flings, affairs, shallow relationships. And furthest away from this week’s topic philautia is self-love - which could be healthy, because you have to love yourself to love others, I suppose, but it could also mean a bit too much masturbation, and far more onerous, or you could say onanistic – the Narcissistic trend of modern times, endless Instagram selfies.
So there are many types of love. And yet it is the surface triggers of physical attraction that garners so much attention in media and art, and is the driving force so many songs, and yet there are others. “Art always opts for the individual, the concrete; art is not Platonic,” said Jorge Luis Borges. And with great potency, we’ve covered lust, and all kinds of romantic love on these pages and elsewhere, and in the distant past, and friendship has come up in a limited way, but there’s so much more going on. So in song, let’s get platonic. But where are the boundaries?
I have friends, single or otherwise, who, like me, love to discuss the issue of platonic love at length. One friend, who has had a long career as very attractive model, inevitably has had many issues and problems with male, straight friendships. Are they truly honest, or just a compromise? Can platonic love only really occur between two people with dissimilar sexual preferences - in other words two heterosexuals, or a straight woman and a gay man, for example? Or indeed are all lines blurred when it comes to to all sorts of love, crushes, or infatuations?
In a modern era of apps for meeting people, something I’ve never done myself, from Grinder for gay men, to Tinder for straight people (portals which may lead to something but are surely just data-gathering tools and vehicles for the classical term Ludus (see above), my model friend has suggested it would be great to have an alternative app called Tender, where you are bound to do nothing more than chat, hug each other and hold hands. Sounds easy in theory, but …
I also have a single male friend whose pragmatic policy is to do his best to stay mates with very attractive women he fancies. He just reckons it's worth it to hang out with them, because it boosts his sense of worth, and has fringe benefits. Perhaps also, he hopes, the opportunity to spend time with, get to know, and build up a sense of trust, may end up something more. But is that honest, or just a sneaky political move? I’m not sure. I doubt that I’d be able to keep up that front. The sexual drive towards someone you lust after can’t help but express itself, and likely mess things up, either destroying, or setting that friendship on fire, to burn brightly, but perhaps not last.
But let’s now colour this topic with a few examples. Who might make up some of the great platonic love couples in real, or fictional life? Britain’s great and perhaps most influential comedy duo Morecambe and Wise are seen above, best life-long friends professionally and privately, who clearly loved each other as brothers. In the 1970s their sitting-in-bed scenes didn’t seem anything other than eccentric, touching, affectionate, in the most funny and innocent way. Their genius scriptwriter, Eddie Braben, understood that balance perfectly. Retrospectively, it could be seen as odd and weirdly homoerotic, but in another context, age, and culture there has never anything strange about working-class siblings sharing beds in packed, small houses.
That platonic pairing, especially in comedy, of affectionate but non-sexual male companions, often in downtrodden circumstances, is a successful formula, born from reality, becoming entertainment. They are siblings in reality or in effect, from Laurel and Hardy to the Marx Brothers, the Likely Lads, the anarchic, infinite jest of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer to the surreal world of the Mighty Boosh in their zoo, to the struggling New-York based musical duo of the kiwi pair, Flight of the Conchords. These are true platonic friendships turned into an artform.
In the same way best friends in music have become potent creative forces, brothers or otherwise, their work so successful it gradual undoes their platonic love - Lennon and McCartney for example, creative brothers forged together by a freakish talent and the experience of losing, in different ways, their mothers. In another dynamic, the billed “brother-sister”, but originally husband-wife pairing of Jack and Meg White made for a strange concoction of non-sexual, sexual tension.
The list of songwriting partners, sibling or performers clearly fuelled by platonic love is considerable, many unstable, but some so mature and balanced, such as, for example, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
So this week’s topic could be about platonic love between real people, but also fictional characters in songs. There are of course many in other genres, from film to books. Those platonic relationships aren’t always equal. “You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion,” said Sherlock Holmes from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the more recent TV series of Sherlock as developed this platonic form of respectively sadistic, or masochistic love all all sorted of new ways.
In works of fiction, some of the greatest platonic love comes in many forms, from the adventurous fun of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to the emotional support of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Lucas, or Darcy and Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, Then there’s Sal and Dean in On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, or Sancho Panza and Don Quixote in Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
In film there are many inspiring examples, clearly emanating from a close off-screen friendship. From Withnail & I’s Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and Shaun of the Dead, Spock and Kirk played by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the begrudgingly brilliant Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as The Odd Couple, and who can forget Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.
Finally then, this topic has attracted a large number of great minds to discuss the rights and wrongs of platonic love. Literally drinking dry our flagons of wine, there’s a big table with classical heavyweights. Let’s now tune into some of their chat:
Mencius. the Confucian philosopher from the 4th century BC, opens the discussion by pronouncing: “ Friends are the siblings God never gave us.”
“Yes indeed. One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood,” retorts Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
“Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness,” adds Euripides. “One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.”
“That is correct, my friend. But what is a good friend? I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better,” concludes Plutarch.
So in a friendly way, they all start to argue and disagree …
Perhaps then it’s a good time move over now to our table of authors and more modern philosophers. But taking a quick break, his two other best pals donning a seaonal look:
“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities,” announces CS Lewis, both grandly, but also a little saucily.
“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, more soberly.
“To me, love is flower like; friendship is like a sheltering tree.” adds Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with Romantically, but not romantically, and a flourish of his quill.
“That’s all very well,” says Virginia Woolf. “Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”
“Friends! We are in agreement. Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine,” toasts a hearty Charles Dickens, quoting from The Old Curiosity Shop.
“We can all do that,” interjects the steely Jane Austen. “Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love, quoting from her own Northanger Abbey.
“I know the cause of that,” says Thomas Hardy, miserably, on the troubles of marriage. Pulling out a volume, he reads: “We ought to have lived in mental communion, and no more,” quoting from Jude The Obscure.
“That problem arises because it is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages,” suggests Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Let us at least be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” says a more upbeat Marcel Proust, munching on cake.
“Hear! hear!” everyone shouts. And then someone staggers in, and falls across the table, somewhat worse for wear. Who the hell is it? “A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself,” slurs Jim Morrison. Not everyone agrees, but a good time is had by all, and they all become firm friends.
So then, many other dear friends at this our Song Bar, over to you with your song suggestions, and another learned friend, the excellent EnglishOutlaw, who will no doubt tend the bar, and resulting playlists in the most pleasant and platonic way imaginable. Deadline is this coming Monday 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. It is the season of goodwill after all. Your good health!
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