29 Rivalries: Nine-and-twenty Sonnets of Etienne de la Boetie

Modern editions of Montaigne’s essays do not include the sonnets of Etienne de La Boetie in this chapter, only Montaigne’s dedication. To me, the inclusion of his dead friend’s work seems odd, like Paul McCartney singing John Lennon songs on Saturday Night Live. A tribute, sure, but in the case of Lennon and McCartney, there was rivalry as well.

Perhaps it is a modern phenomenon, but it seems to be that rivalry is an inextricable element of male friendship. Early death tends to cement an idealized memory of the friendship — the movie “Brian’s Song” serving as the template in our day. Roger Ebert tweets often today about his lost friend Gene Siskell, yet we’ll always remember their disagreements most (I’m still on Gene’s side about “Blue Velvet.”)

If Bill Clinton had suffered a fatal heart attack during the Lewinsky controversy, no doubt Al Gore would speak fondly of him today; instead, he can barely conceal the bitterness of being second best and the one ultimately punished for President Clinton’s indiscretions. Male relationships are thorny, alpha dog battles that usually contain a moment of ideal fraternity that’s either remembered last and best or, in the case of one who dies too soon, is frozen in amber.

To me, there is danger is idealized human relations in all forms. When we define true love and friendship as something otherworldly, we draw a line between ourselves and other relations that fail to meet that measure. Even worse, we can look at the ideal in comparison to our own lives and wonder what is missing, when in fact all that might be missing is a grandiose ability to conflate the good and a too easy instinct to walk away from the difficult.

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