Friendships, Moons, and Jousting

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November 6, 2021 by libroshombre

            Michel Montaigne had a lot to say about friendship.  In his essay, “On Friendship,” a paean to his deceased BFF Étienne de La Boétie, he wrote, ““Oh, a friend! How true is that old saying, that the enjoyment of one is sweeter and more necessary than that of the elements of water and fire!”  Most everyone craves friendship, but sometimes even the best of pals grow apart.  The spring edition of Lapham’s Quarterly contained a short article titled “Good While It Lasted: Friendships with Expiration Dates” that described some famous ones that failed, like that of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.  “Desperate to contact his son who had died during the First World War, Doyle comes to believe Houdini has supernatural powers.”  Four years later Houdini published a public letter wherein he declared “that he never once in twenty-five years of investigation seen compelling evidence that it is possible to communicate with spirits,” after which Doyle responded, “I felt rather sore about it.”

            Author Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s attachment lasted from their childhood for thirty-five years.  Tomboy Lee protected sissy Capote from bullies as children and she was his main research assistant for his 1965 book, “In Cold Blood.”  Lee was furious that Capote mentiond her only in the book’s dedication and didn’t mention her extensive background work on it.  Lee claimed that Capote was jealous of the commercial popularity of her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  “His compulsive lying was like this,” she later explained.  “If you said, ‘Did you know JFK was shot?’ He’d easily answer, ‘Yes, I was driving the car he was riding in.’” 

Then there are imaginary friendships, like the main characters in Bill Waterson’s masterful comic strip, “Calvin & Hobbes.”  In the 1505 “Book of the City of Ladies,” the author, Christine de Pisan, the first Western woman to earn a living with her writing, had her narrator, also named Christine, lament the diminished plight of women in her era.  She meets three imaginary women befrienders: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, who “restore Christine’s faith in the female sex by offering examples of outstanding women throughout history.”

            On the flipside of friendship were de Pisan’s contemporaries: Diane de Poitiers and her archrival Catherine de Medici.  De Poitiers, who lived in France from 1500-1566, is a fascinating study in political manipulation.  Her dad was a minor nobleman, and she grew up with a decent education and a lifelong love of exercise and fitness, especially riding and swimming.  At fifteen she was married off to the Grand Seneschal of Normandy, 39 years her senior.  He died in 1531 and Diane thereafter wore widow’s weeds of white and black, which Wikipedia says, “were among the permitted colors of mourning and the symbolic colors of the sides of the moon, playing on her name which derived from the Roman moon goddess,” Diana.

When the French King, Francis I, was defeated and captured by the Spanish King Charles V, who was also the Hapsburg Emperor, he surrendered his sons, Francis and Henry, eight- and seven-years old, as hostages.  When their dad failed to pay the ransom, the boys were captive for four years in “a bleak castle” near Madrid, during which time Henry read and re-read a popular book about chivalric romance and knights errant titled “Amadis de Gaula.”  Henry apparently fixated on Diane de Poitiers as “the very embodiment of an ideal gentlewoman,” beginning when the motherless boys left for Spain, and Diane gave Henry his farewell kiss.  More kisses were to follow, for when Prince Francis died after falling ill during a tennis match, Henry became Francis I’s heir apparent, and Diane was his best friend.  Upon Henry’s release, he quickly came to rely on the advice and conjugal comforts of the mature (19 years his senior) Diane.  However, his father didn’t approve of his son’s liaison, but when the old king died on his son’s 28th birthday, Henry quickly named Diane his official mistress (an official and lucrative position at the French court), and “For the next 25 years, she was one of the most powerful women in France … Diane’s position in the Court was such that when Pope Paul III sent the new Queen the ‘Golden Rose’, he also presented the royal mistress with a pearl necklace.”  Henry made his paramour duchesse of several large estates, and … Diane’s sharp intellect, confident maturity and loyalty to Henry II made her his most dependable ally in the court. He trusted her to write many of his official letters, which were signed jointly with the one name: ‘HenriDiane’.  Until 1551, she was in charge of the education of Henry’s children.”

When they were both 14, Henry married Catherine de Medici, daughter of Lorenzo de Medici (to whom Machiavelli dedicated “The Prince”).  His daughter should have read it, for as long as Henry lived, she was thoroughly outclassed by Diane, who was a savvy student of economics and government and an accomplished political mover and shaker.  Henry and Catherine were childless for a decade, and Diane did everything possible to encourage them to have a baby, even offering boudoir advice, for she feared Henry might divorce Catherine, who was firmly under Diane’s thumb, and marry someone more attractive who might displace her in the King’s affections.  With Diane’s and a doctor’s advice, Catherine produced eleven children, six of whom survived childhood.

Henry remained true to Diane until his untimely death in a tournament.  He insisted on jousting against a younger and more accomplished knight whose lance shattered in the king’s face, leaving five large splinter protruding from his face, including his eye and brain.  He lingered for ten days, calling for Diane constantly, and when he passed, his 11-year-old son became King Francis II, with Catherine his mom serving as his regent.  He died in less than a year, and his ten-year-old brother became King Charles IX, who was a truly rotten ruler.  He died without an heir 14 years later, and his brother became King Henry III, with Catherine still firmly in charge to such an extent that the years her three sons ruled became known as “the age of Catherine de Medici.”  Catherine took away most of Diane’s estates, and it’s telling in an era when symbolism carried immense weight that while Diane’s symbol was the moon, with its dark and light phases corresponding to her iconic black-and-white colors, Catherine, whose “ruthlessness can be found in her letters,” wore only black, and she “took a broken lance as her emblem.”

The inverse to Catherine and Diane is Montaigne and his closest friend, La Boetie, whom he had in mind when he wrote “On Friendship.”  Their friendship lasted only four years, but it was so profound that Montaigne mourned his friend’s death for the remaining 30 years of his life.  He never had another friend like La Boetie, and it’s believed that Montaigne wrote his essays because he could no longer express his thoughts to his BFF.  La Boetie died of the plague, but when from his deathbed he called for Montaigne, his friend went to him and stayed at his bedside until the end.  For his part, La Boetie bequeathed to Montaigne his extensive and valuable library which the latter installed in his tower and spent his remaining, and happiest days, reading from numerous titles at once and drawing inspiration from them for his essays.

That’s not surprising since, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Montaigne fancier, wrote, “Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries, in a thousand years, have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom.”  And remember: your public library is no imaginary friend.

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