Sir, You're Breaking Up The Band
On the divine agony of artist friendships
At the end of our walk — the damp night seemed to press us in a million places — I turned to my artist friend A and asked for a kiss. We had been playing characters all down the sidewalk, improvising hypnagogic scenarios, getting high off snippets of dialogue and glimmers of plot. I think I just need to reset, I said, and he obliged, and leaned over and kissed me. Everything shivered up from my feet and out my head then, a great gust of ghosts. At the end of it, exactly as I had hoped, I felt ordinary once again. I could feel the rubber soles in my boots and the cotton sleeves of my pullover; where the universe had seemed distinctly busy, buzzing with life, now it seemed suddenly quiet and unassuming. A streetlamp glowed demurely above us. Did that help? —Yes. Thank you. I must have hugged him then, just once. We must have exchanged a few more words. Then we parted ways and never spoke about that kiss ever again.
This was half a decade ago. There are other scenes from our friendship that I remember now — lugging a guitar amp at midnight to a little square between dorms; writing a performance art piece that we staged for our eccentric Russian Literature teacher, whose only feedback at the time was a stunned, so is this just the best thing you’ve ever made? (I remember meekly granting her that yes, it might have been, and I remember A’s diffident shrug, as though he couldn’t possibly be put on the line to answer such a question.) I remember, years after that, sitting with him at our kitchen table, debating the idea of the destroying angel: can pain be a form of mercy? I was trying so hard to convince him that yes, suffering could be a gift — and I wanted him to play the part of that angel in a performance we were devising. In the end, he agreed, he played the part — but with a kind of anxious hollowness in his eyes, the place where he was still human after all.
I used to tell A that we had lived many lives together, in many alternate universes — and he would agree. We would joke that we had already been soulmates so many times that we didn’t need to rehash all that in this life, now. In another context such a statement could have been a coy flirtation; in ours it was almost neurotically genuine, a good faith attempt at description between two artists who were close but not sexual. We never slept together and never would; I don’t even think we ever wanted to. Speaking only for myself, all I wanted was to make art with A: brilliant, sometimes avoidant, always quietly incisive, he was like a pocketknife you couldn’t stop playing with, something that would cut you and bleed you out before you felt anything. Working with him one felt one could do anything. If one could say this about a state of mind and not the person who occasioned it, I was in love.
Then, A found a serious girlfriend. We continued to work together, but cautiously, almost nervously, neither of us certain how meaningful our connection was allowed to be. He began coming late to our meetings, then sometimes not showing at all; priorities shifted, plans were made then unmade. In the end, without ever quite speaking about it, what we had — whatever it had been — was over. I both understood and didn’t, was both sympathetic and devastated. I wanted to argue that what we did together (which at that point was mostly sitting on the carpet of our busy shared home, listening to music and critiquing it together) was totally viable in parallel with his new romance. But I didn’t argue this, because on some level, even though we were not romantic, and neither of us had any intention of being so, I knew I would be wrong. Our closeness, however odd, however incongruent, was real — and in the light of a certain kind of monogamy, that closeness was no longer acceptable.
The problem with illegible forms of intimacy is that when they end, one’s grief is rarely recognized. To lose a friend is one thing, to lose an artistic collaborator is another thing entirely still — but in a culture that prizes consumption over creation, and monogamous romantic love over almost every other form of closeness, it is difficult to properly mourn the loss of such a person. Was A a friend? Yes, of course, but one does not free-associate gibberish over ambient music with all of one’s friends. There is an intense vulnerability to making art together — an exposure of the unconscious so routine it is like the physical nakedness shared between longtime lovers. As, eventually, it becomes no longer shocking to see your lover naked, it becomes no longer shocking to hear a collaborator’s obsessive babble, in the form of recurrent themes, impulses or flaws in their work. If our superego, our “filter” is what makes us acceptable in most spheres of life, the collaboration between two artists requires the putting away of such fusty inner instruments. It requires its own nakedness, however invisible. And it requires time and trust, light and room to grow — all precious things, all true forms of devotion.
It is perhaps for this reason, too, that our artistic collaborations can become some of the most troubled relationships in our lives.
Take, for instance, the storied collaboration between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. As Robert C. Gilbert writes in his latest on the duo, their Wikipedia article lists 8 separate periods during which they collaborated. During these periods, they produced and performed music that has so deeply permeated our social fabric and so permanently altered our sense of what music can do, they are rightly described as legendary. Separating these periods, however, are absences one cannot quite parse, gaps that do not seem to stand in the light of evidence. Simon released a secret solo single one year, “True or False”; Garfunkel was chronically late and refused to give up his weed and cigarettes. Still. One can understand an ordinary couple having a row — over secrets and cigarettes no less — and even instituting a tense separation in its wake. It rather offends the intuition to imagine Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel as that very couple — even moreso considering that they are not really a couple at all. One would like to imagine, at the highest echelons of artistic production, that even the cruelest argument might be resolved with an existential reminder: hey, wait a minute, we’re Simon & Garfunkel! But of course, this is a fantasy. The truth is both more ordinary and more disappointing: no one, not even the artistic genius, is freed from the agony of closeness.
And closeness is a kind of agony, even when untouched by the chaotic entanglements of sex. One still has needs, and feels angry at one’s needs, or embarrassed, or angry at the other for not meeting those needs — even if the other is one’s drummer, or backup singer, or dancing co-star. One wants to be recognized, respected, accepted, understood — even if it’s onstage at Carnegie Hall. One wants to know that being required is not the same as being trapped. One wants one’s freedom to be beautiful, one’s integrity to be sacred. Even in art, one still wants to be loved.
I’m remembering now an artistic breakup I had in college, a close friend whose spoken word poetry so routinely stunned and stretched me that I came to see him as a treasured competitor as well as a friend. K. We’d arrive at weekly meetings with the rest of our poetry collective, present for the others but also totally fixated on each other, eager to hear what the other had come up with, feeling both bitter and invigorated at its quality.I was intimidated by K, but I loved him too; I loved the elegance of his work, the quiet baroque of his descriptions, the pale colors of his poems spread out like so many rare feathers. When he read aloud, even silence seemed to evacuate the room. He had a gift for it -- a kind of lyric hypnotist's touch, and I admired the way his quiet cadence could make anyone stop and open their heart.
If the image of artistic collaboration in popular media is either that of the forever feud — Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis — or the arcadian union, not enough is said about the generative zone in the middle, the electric space where admiration touches threat. I was a champion of K’s work, but I longed to be better than him; each week, I laboured over my poems not only to improve myself, but to impress him, to win his acknowledgement that I had won. In this way, I like to think that we each did our best work in that period — aimed not at ourselves but at each other, absorbed not merely in the craft but also in the game. The image that came to my mind then, that I still think of every once in a while, is of Jacob wrestling the angel: of an opposition so evenly matched it can only be divine. In the binding of limbs and the exchange of quiet blows, in the closeness and the aggression and the struggling to win, we each became strong — and though we would never have admitted it, this was our secret purpose with one another.
And once again, my relationship with K was almost breathtakingly chaste. Years after we met we ended up living together in a large communal house on campus; at one point we were even roommates. But between us in the domus —in the realm of the home — in our threadbare pajamas, faces greyish from problem sets and sleep deprivation, there was none of the frisson that always appeared when we met in the outside world. The creative obsession I had with his work had nothing to do with his physical person; had we been left alone together, we may have offered to revise one another’s work, or read a bit of Gary Snyder aloud before going to bed. I felt protective of him, it was true, endlessly aware that the same mind that struggled with calculus was capable of producing extraordinary lyric poetry. But my protectiveness ended at the boundaries of his body, and his protectiveness ended at mine.
Then, shortly before his graduation and some years before my own, K announced that he was due to work at a glitzy management consulting company, one of the Big Three. I had only the barest idea of what this meant at the time — I imagined suits, power lunches and shadowy figures in corner offices — but I understood it, correctly I feel even now, to be a sort of resignation from the life of the artist. I’m embarrassed to say that I took this announcement very personally. I became angry with K for some time, though I never expressed this anger to his face. Instead, feeling furious that he would let go of his own artistic potential, that he would abandon our wrestling match indefinitely, I failed to deepen our relationship at the crucial time of his parting; instead, I allowed him to vanish into the world of markets and margins and boardroom strategy with nary a protestation. With him, so too dissolved the world we had built together: the blue folds of language, the petal-like nuance of signs and symbols, metaphor and synecdoche. All of it, all of it, washed out to sea — as though it had never happened.
I didn’t realize until later how self-centered I had been. That I had been mourning not a person, but an internal experience — the validation, even, I was receiving from K of the dramas of my inner world. What I feared most was not losing a friend, but losing the assurance of my own sanity; what I feared was the shadow that would fall inside my mind when K was gone, the inevitable questioning and jeering that was sure to arise when the warmth of his creative companionship had been evacuated. I was, then as I am now, a woman obsessed with the making of art; a woman who often prioritized her creative work over her career, love life, family life and more. I understood my society was apt to read me as insane, and in my anchoring to another artist I longed for the reality-bending assurance that in our small, shared world, I made sense.
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
—Jenny Offill, Department of Speculation
I am living out the aftermath of these revelations now. And the truth is, I still think art is worth it. I don’t know for sure what my friends experienced — what A, or K, experienced — and it’s highly likely, given their life choices, that they did not experience what I imagined them to experience, the transcendent highs that I assumed were mutual. But it’s also possible that they did experience exactly what I did, and chose to live a different life. I can see that now; I can acknowledge it, as strange as it once seemed. Such truths announce themselves to me now and I am finally able to see them, plain as apples in a still life. There are angels all around us; one wrestling match need not throw one’s entire life off course.
But as for myself, I still seek my angels, as surely as others seek romantic partners. I seek those who challenge my work, who see me clearly, who make me tremor and wonder what I am capable of. For them, I lay the groundwork and build the trust to make our bonds lasting; for them, the reading of books on intimacy and communication and commitment and love. I know these bonds may always be seen as lesser, as pale shadows or homunculi of the state-sanctioned romances that are meant to give us life. But to me, my artist friends are my lifeblood; they are my shelter and my arena of struggle, my passion and my peace. And for they who would make with me a world, I hope to offer the whole world in return.
This has been Issue 21 of Chasing the Sundog. This past week, I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of receiving a new set of banners and icons from my dear friend Hannah Lee, as well as turning on paid subscriptions for those wanting to further support the work. There are no paywalls; a free subscription will continue to get you everything. Thank you, as always, for your attention and your care with this writing project.
If you liked this essay, you might like this book of poems by Danez Smith, this article on friendship breakups or this other Sundogg essay on a friendship that I tried — wrongly, it turns out — to make into a romance. As always, you can access the entire back archive of Sundogg posts here.
Feel free to reflect by yourself, with loved ones, with other readers in the comments, or in the weekly reading group hosted by firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever had an intense creative friendship, romance or collaboration with someone? How do you think about it now?
There are many forms of closeness, but I seem to live in a culture in which we routinely venerate romance over the rest, and furthermore, fail to name or even acknowledge the many intimacies that can be possible. What are some forms of non-romantic intimacy that have contributed to your life?
Are there cultures that you have experienced or belong to that regularly name and/or celebrate other forms of closeness?
To my dear friend Johnny: writing songs, shooting pictures with you this weekend, the same weekend I received your wedding invitation, represented the perfect confluence of everything this essay is about. Thank you for your dedication to your work; I’ll always be grateful we got on the same destiny train. 🚂 !
The piece, called Scheherazade, involved the telling of “nested stories” (as in, a character in a story begins to tell a story, and then within that story there’s a new story, and so on). As we told the stories, we became the characters within them, singing, speaking to music.
The final story concerned a group of students in a Russian Literature classroom, sitting around a group of desks, the professor watching rapt…
This mixture of admiration and resentment is so beautifully put on display in this speech by the inimitable Donald Glover, in tribute to the artistic achievement of his friend and rival, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. To watch this video is to see the entire palette of emotions on display, including an intimacy between the two of them that is unmistakeable. Other artists may find this sentiment familiar — and wish, like I did, that we had a single word to describe it.
Yours is quickly becoming one of my favorite newsletters. 😍
How I savor you. I'm reading this essay in the corner of a millennial nightmare of a cafe that, to my displeasure, has the comfiest leather couch around. I surround myself with brilliant and critical people, but not artists. But I desire to partake in the artistic communion you recall in this essay. (This may derive, in part, from my reluctance to consider myself a creative.) To be opened and read by other people. Pulled by envy toward greater art. To have artistic orgies and such over coffee at lunch. Furthermore, I can see how creative relationships and experiences like you describe inform your work. Such richness, such breath, in that kind of surrender, worship, and vulnerability. Such a gift. I agree with you: I think art is worth it, and even if it is not, it is worth it all the same.