28 Empty Space: On Affectionate Relationships

Finally, Montaigne rules out homosexual relationship. Specifically, he ruled out the kind of homosexual relationships that existed in ancient Greece on the grounds of inequality: there was a student/master relationship to these bonds that made the rewards for such a bond unequal and fleeting. Some modern critics have claimed that since Montaigne ruled out only the Ancient Greek model of homosexuality, perhaps he was tacitly admitting that there was a physical side to his relationship with Boétie.

I find that to be an extremely unsurprising interpretation; there’s a strong desire in higher education today to find homosexuality in the past, especially among historical figures. But I believe that this interpretation is due mainly to the discomfort that modern men feel where they read this line from Montaigne:

“If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: ‘Because it was him: because it was me.’”

It’s one of the most beautiful lines written, in any language at any time. But with the exception of rambling, drunken “I love you man” moments, contemporary men are not supposed to speak that way of their friends. But never mind the words, it’s uncomfortable to imagine that feeling; it’s not a sentiment a contemporary man would easily share about any loved one.

It makes me return to the first quote I shared from this essay — that Montaigne does not expect to find one good judge of this friendship. He wrote this essay in a state of grief. He felt compelled to defend his dear friend against charges of sedition for an essay he had written about the republican form of government and the rulers of his home city of Venice. But instead of diving into the essay and proving why there was no sedition, rather he felt compelled to share his everlasting bond and only at the end dismiss the historical charges as trifling.

I think what Montaigne is really saying in this essay is the height of masculinity — if you’re going to dare to attack Boétie, you’re going to have to come through me first, because there was and will forever be no distance between us. It’s not just a deeply emotional and stirring essay, but also a courageous one.

But the essay has another, unexpected effect. By writing of this loss so intensely, Montaigne exposes a deep, dark hole in his heart. At the same time, because he explains in such moving detail this ideal of friendship, he makes this reader share in his darkness by pointing out that I have never felt this level of affection, that this part of the human experience has somehow escaped me. It leads me to wonder if it’s even possible — in this age when every true friend, acquaintance, coworker and family member are bunched together on webpages and treated equally — to form that sort of bond today.

Or maybe it’s just me who is missing out. I cannot answer for others.

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