Monday, January 5, 2009

Separate Tables: Why Don't We Know More About Friendship?

According to many people friendship is one of the most vital elements needed for a happy life. And happiness, as the American Declaration of Independence helpfully points out, is one of the big items that inhabitants of the United States are supposed to be pursuing. I half remember a whisper that the word happiness was a late substitution for the word 'property' in 1776, but this is what it actually says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Some years ago when I was quite vigorously pursuing what I hoped would be an academic career, I looked into scholarly work on friendship (and happiness), and it seemed to be very thin on the ground (for both). On looking again, the situation does not appear to have improved much.

One sociologist who has studied friendship starts a paper published in 2002 entitled 'Towards a more significant sociology of friendship' by lamenting the way in which the language of social psychology has influenced sociological studies of friendship into seeing friendship as floating "freely from any connection with the broader social structure". Maybe that mirrors to a great extent the way in which late modern life is so rootless, but it doesn't help one understand positively what friendship is nor how to create it.

I think we are going to need a lot of friendship as we enter these new hard times, as we try, I hope, to share more, cooperate more, and compete just a bit less. As I believe the Russians say, if you don't have a hundred rubles, you need a hundred friends. Otherwise life will be lonely and indigent indeed.

What prompted me again to think about friendship in a more scientific way was seeing the film of Separate Tables. The film, released in 1958, stars David Niven, Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth amongst a stellar cast and was written by British playwright Terence Rattigan. Rattigan often deals with loneliness in his works, but in Separate Tables just about every character is suffering from terrible lack of friendship.

The director of the film, Delbert Mann, said that Rattigan based the main characters on stories from real life at the very retirement home in Bournemouth where his mother lived and that he often visited. Learning that fact added an extra layer of poignancy to a film that leaves one thinking hard about friendship and what the point of life is if you don't have it, especially when you are getting on in life.

The few studies I found in the academic literature about friendship almost invariably looked at children and adolescents. There is very little about adult friendship and nothing that I could see for people over fifty. But friendship counts at every stage in life, and whilst it is important in the heyday of one's working years, in some ways it is even more important in older years and, as we are starting to see now, when working life gets interrupted by an economic meltdown.

There is interesting parallel work in the area of social capital and social networks, but I think the lack of a major body of serious work on friendship in adults is unfortunate. We are after all reputed to be social beings, but too much of the time we seem to behave in rather unfriendly and anti-social ways. Maybe the rise of social media will trigger some new effort in both helping us gain a better understanding of this essential trait of being human and in how to make more and better friendships.

(There is a three minute video version of Chris De Burgh's song Separate Tables that uses some of the wonderful Burt Lancaster-Rita Hayworth scenes, but you might want to see the whole film first, lest it spoil the end for you.)


Bill Winschief said...

I've just left a long comment prior to signing on to a Google account. Was it by chance erased???

Bill Winschief said...

Thanks for some very thoughtful commentry on one of my favorite films. I wonder if this classic black & white film would hold any sway for younger viewers today, those more attuned to often violent action, a very quick pace and splashy color.

"Separate Tables" is a film I never tire of seeing and it brings to bear so many disparate types, clustered together in search of meaning or escape, in some cases their behavior being governed by shifting alliances within the group at the hotel. David Niven is stunning but even those in cameo roles are memorable.

I'd love to see the more recent British version, with Alan Bates, Julie Christie & Clare Bloom, not presently available in the U.S. It was performed as Terrance Rattigan wrote it, in two one act plays.