Male ‘BFF’ Turn-of-the-Century Style

As A.O. Scott points out in his (tepid) review of Hollywood’s latest Sherlock Holmes adaptation, “Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, with his violin, his deerstalker and his steel-trap mind, has been one of the most resilient and adaptable figures in Anglophone popular culture.” The resilient appeal of Conan Doyle’s original stories and the detective himself, however, owes as much to the friendship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, his loyal companion/friend/sidekick/wingman/[pick your term] as to Holmes’s deductive powers and amusing eccentricities. The friendship itself so moved detective novelist June Thomson that she wrote a biography of it.

Neverthless, the two men’s close attachment to one another pricks the modern (American?) sensibility, fueling speculation that the friends, flatmates and work partners must also have been lovers – indeed, there’s nothing to stop them from becoming so in the incredibly fecund world of online fan fiction. About one year ago, a flip comment by Robert Downey Jr. inspired a torrent of speculation as to whether Guy Richie would pull Holmes out of the closet in the just-released sequel to his adaptation; Conan Doyle’s estate threatened to block the film’s release.

If Holmes is a “man for all seasons,” it’s because he’s so successfully slipped his original tether, but the original books and stories provide a window onto a time in which male friendship embraced an intimacy now mostly lost, at least to the Western World. (It’s still quite common and, to my mind, utterly charming to see male acquaintances and friends blow each other kisses in Lebanon or walk down the street with their arms thoroughly entangled in Cairo.)

Husband and wife team Brett and Kate McKay wrote, a few years ago, about the history of male friendships on their website The Art of Manliness:

Man friendships during the 19th century were marked by an intense bond and filled with deeply held feeling and sentimentality. Man friendships in many instances had a similar intensity as romantic relationships between men and women. Essentially, it was a continuation of the heroic friendship of the ancient world, coupled with the emphasis on emotion common to the Romantic Age. A fervent bond did not necessarily imply a sexual relationship; the idea that these ardent friendships in some way compromised a man’s heterosexuality is largely a modern conception.

As the McKays go on to describe, male friendships changed dramatically in the 20th century due to new anxiety following the emergency of homosexuality from the proverbial closet; increased competition for jobs leading men to see each other more as rivals than potential friends; and the rising mobility of the post-industrial working world, among other causes.

The men of the 21st century, in other words, may be even more in need of Holmes’s and Watson’s example than the their turn-of-the-century counterparts. Regardless, displays of emotion between male friends have apparently become so problematized today that The Art Of Manliness provides an entry instructing men on how to hug each other. Awkward.

Middle East politics alone, however, suggests that more men hugging men does not, by itself, generate progress in human relations, and, barring a psycho-social revolution yet to come, we may just have to reconcile ourselves to the rise of the fist bump.

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