The Second Library: Erotic Friendship


The Second Library: Erotic Friendship


“To define force—it is that x that turns everybody who is subjected to it into a thing. …A soul which has entered the province of force will not escape this except by a miracle. Such miracles are rare and of brief duration.”

—from “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” by Simone Weil


Niels was especially quick to suppress everything in himself that was not part of Erik’s world, and with the passionate zeal of a renegade he mocked and ridiculed Frithiof, whose slower and more loyal nature could not all at once abandon the old for the new. But what actually drove Niels to this unkind behavior was jealousy, because from the very first day he had fallen in love with Erik, who, shy and reserved, only reluctantly and somewhat contemptuously tolerated allowing himself to be loved.

Of all the emotional relationships in life, is there any more delicate, more noble, and more intense than a boy’s deep and yet so totally bashful love for another boy? The kind of love that never speaks, never dares give way to a caress, a glance, or a word, the kind of vigilant love that bitterly grieves over every shortcoming or imperfection in the one who is loved, a love which is longing and admiration and negation of self, and which is pride and humility and calmly breathing happiness.

—from Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen 


In cold Norway, an erotic tale unfolds between friend and friend. To early readers of the Norwegian classic, Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne, the above passage was the first intimation that the protagonist, Niels, was bi- or homosexual. And yet, what is at play here is not a matter of sexual orientation, but a matter of eros: to label Niels thus homosexual is to misunderstand “eroticism” entirely, and just how it operates in the space of what the Germans call the Freundschafterotik—an ‘erotic friendship’. (It is important to note that the erotic friendship, while often homosocial, has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality or sexual orientation in general.)

What is erotic? Let’s abandon our customary understanding of preoccupation, of its functioning, and we’ll get closer to an answer. For what if preoccupation does not signal desire, but evasion? Then the object of preoccupation would merely be the location of our displaced desire: in the case of Niels, for example, his preoccupation with Erik would not indicate his desire for Erik, but rather his desire to escape or evade something else, something prior. Erik, then, is his red herring, his erotic—a thing Niels uses to de-emphasize and dislocate the real, desirous space of a discourse that frightens him. Niels’ obsession with Erik is his way of throwing himself off the scent of himself—of avoiding an ultimate encounter with his own soul, and facing up to what such an encounter would prescribe.

And so Freundschafterotik becomes friendship as escape: the essential question being, how can I use you, my friend, to escape what is terrifying and prior about this world? How can I construct the space of our friendship as a safe haven? What sacrifices are necessary for this safe haven to be maintained?

It is for this reason, perhaps, that deep homosocial bonds abound in the context of war. I take liberties with the word “war,” understanding it to mean any conflict—physical, emotional, ontological, sexual, social, economic (you get the idea)—whose resolution demands a complex network of stratagems, divisions of labor, etc. Which is to say, any conflict that engages the planned, considered, and systematic use of force to, as Carl von Clausewitz writes in On War, “compel our enemy to do our will.” (Clausewitz’s further point, that war is just “the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of further means,” is also salient here: because when we consider the war waged by a man’s soul and desire against the world that he finds unjust, it is important to remember that such wars are preceded by a political negotiation—between society, God, and others—which has become impotent, and now must be empowered with the muscle of “armed” force.)

In the midst of such war, a friendship can provide a welcome escape from the realities of the battles underway; it can also serve to make a soldier feel more human, even as his vicious actions turn him increasingly, in his own eyes, into a thing. If the soldier maintains one space where he is good and free—where he is not obsessed with power and dominion; where he is humble and lower, weak and selfless and self-abnegating—then he can assure himself of his own soul, his eternal non-thingness, because it is in this space that he has relinquished all those insatiable drives (power, dominion, control, absolute compulsion to satisfy one’s own will) that transformed him from his “former,” innocent self into a man who must kill to survive. (Here, recall the Liam Neeson-like character of Michael Kohlhass, the eponymous hero of Heinrich von Kleist’s novella: at first, Kohlhass was just a normal, good, loving husband—but later, having seen what the world really is, he must carry out heinous, increasingly extraordinary acts of violence. He is insatiable because his “good” desire—justice—can never be fulfilled. But even after this character is transformed into the ontological vigilante, he is restored to his former humanity whensoever the signifiers of that former humanity—son, lover, farm, Martin Luther—instantiate themselves in the new, post-revelation world of war). Because he is convinced that it is an external order (e.g., the world or the society) that has occasioned this regrettable transformation, the friendship must act as a space within, a world within the world that is beautifully different and stands in complete contradistinction to the outer world.

Yet because this “bad” outer world makes necessary the construction and endurance of this inner sanctum, sustaining the two loci perpetually in an uneasy feedback-loop, there is a bitterness that pervades both. “Such a heaping-up of violent deeds would have a frigid effect,” writes Simone Weil (in her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”), “were it not for the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard…” As Weil describes it in the context of the Iliad, such bitterness attends the interpolation of descriptions of peacetime, friendship, and love which weave into “this study of extremes and unjust acts of violence.” For, when these flashes of peace, of beauty, of the “old days” arrive, they come as miraculous interjections, something other than what really is: “These moments of grace are rare…but they are enough to make us feel with sharp regret what it is that violence has killed and will kill again.” Friendship in the context of war, in the context of an embattled life, is precisely that: a moment of grace. The erotic friendship corrupts this grace by infusing it with the perversion of force—but force here is exerted not upon the friend, but the befriender himself…

What does Niels, who is so frightened and resentful of the world, do to become Erik’s friend? He ‘suppresses everything in himself that is not a part of Erik’s world’: he longs and admires; he negates himself; he bitterly grieves every imperfection in Erik; he acts with the “passionate zeal of a renegade.”

In other words, he applies force to himself as a way of engendering the ‘delicate, noble, intense’ miracle of his and Erik’s shared affection, as well as the world that this shared affection might yield. And because force lay at the origin of this relationship, its perversions, both subtle and explicit, also reveal themselves in this relationship’s realization…

What we are trying to approximate in erotic friendship is the purity of true friendship, the grace of a real miracle that can deliver us from the terrors of reality. True friendship has the potential to free one from the stranglehold of force. It, too, like its “perverse” counterpart, is best understood as a space of moments—the moments Weil describes, the “brief, celestial moments in which man possesses his soul.”:

The soul that awakes then, to live for an instant only and be lost almost at once in force’s vast kingdom, awakes pure and whole; it contains no ambiguities, nothing complicated or turbid; it has no room for anything but courage and love.

In erotic friendship, however, shared moments rarely manifest such purity, because force constantly deforms the interaction. If friendship is a space where, momentarily, you might see yourself as a soul rather than as a thing, erotic friendship is a space where you are always a thing, because you are always less than the friend with whom you are obsessed or preoccupied. There is a ‘refusal to believe you both belong to the same species’: there is something about your friend that is stronger, better, more suited to life than you, and you submit yourself before that…something.

The resulting relationship bears striking resemblance to the slave/master relationship of the Iliad, which Weil describes. Like the slave of the Iliad, you ‘have no license to express anything, except what is pleasing to your friend/master, and it follows that the only emotion that can touch or enliven you a little, that can reach you in the desolation of your life, is the emotion of love for your friend/master’. After all, “there is no place else to send the gift of love; all other outlets are barred, just as, with the horse in harness, bits, shafts, reins bar every way but one.”

The result is, ironically, the very opposite of camaraderie: as Weil attests, “the man who knows himself weaker than another is more alone in the heart of a city than a man lost in the desert.”


But don’t be confused: an erotic is an erotic, and it’s a fool who thinks it will be any easier to tear a person away from an erotic that takes the form of friendship, than one that takes the form of Furries and leather whips. To truly befriend a man who is alone in the city is as difficult a task as befriending a man wandering in the desert: there is a hunger and a thirst that must be addressed before anything proceeds—and, should you have the means to fulfill that need, you run the risk  of being reified as a fetish object—He or She Who Satisfied My Need—rather than appreciated as a friend. (As for you that have no bread or water on hand—you’ll simply be rejected outright.)  It seems so easy at first, so simply done, this task of freeing yourself or another from the grip of an erotic…

Yet in the case of any perversion, as in the case of self-subjugation (for perversion is just a synonym for this)—although “the mind ought to find a way out, it has,” to re-appropriate Weil, “lost all capacity to so much as look outward”:

The mind is completely absorbed in doing itself violence. Always in human life, whether war or slavery is in question, intolerable sufferings continue, as it were, by the force of their own specific gravity, and so look to the outsider as though they were easy to bear; actually, they continue because they have deprived the sufferer of the resources which might serve to extricate him.

Since he has deprived himself full access to his own soul, this mind can only understand the world through violence and force. The possibility of his liberation from his “erotic”—friendship or otherwise—is likewise situated within the context of violence. He depends upon his erotic (Niels depends upon his friendship with Erik, the soldier depends upon his image of Troy at peace, etc.) because that erotic allows him to live in a world at war. The removal of his erotic would cast him back completely into intimate conversation with the unjust world he sought to evade: a world that he ultimately wants to, but cannot, destroy. After all, he distances himself from his own soul deliberately, lest that kind and noble thing reason with and blunt his violent desire, making him merciful on this world, removing the satisfaction of vengeance.

Though this sufferer wanders with a wailing cry for deliverance, he cannot, in his perversion, see the possibility of a nonviolent salvation. Whatever it was that set him into painful Diaspora must first, following the immature logic of his perversion, be utterly destroyed if he is to survive: ‘this town ain’t big enough’, etc. And so, as Weil, says:

The soul that is enslaved to war cries out for deliverance, but deliverance itself appears to it in an extreme and tragic aspect, the aspect of destruction. Any other solution, more moderate, more reasonable in character, would expose the mind to suffering so naked, so violent, that it could not be borne, even as memory.