In a corner of my bookshelf, stacked to save space, is a series of books by Patrick O’Brian. They don’t have a collective title, usually being referred to simply as the Aubrey-Maturin series after the names of the two lead characters. Set in the very early 1800s and spanning some sixteen years, the books follow the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, a captain and surgeon in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and the golden age of sail.
Jack is large and loud. Stephen is thin and introspective. Jack can navigate a 28-gun frigate through the eye of a needle, and is described more than once as a creature “nine-tenths marine,” but by land he’s a simpleton who gets himself hopelessly entangled in get-rich-quick schemes and debt. Stephen can never climb into a ship without falling into the sea, but he is also one of Britain’s best intelligence agents as well as a keen naturalist. Jack is a patriotic Englishman with a near-fanatic sense of duty. Stephen is a former Irish rebel with a Catalan mother, disillusioned with republicanism and loyal only to individuals.
Despite these differences, the charm of the books is based completely on the deep and long-lasting companionship between the two men. Each describes the other as his “particular friend” (such a felicitous, Regency-era expression). For Jack and Stephen, the thing which connects them most fully is music; Jack plays the violin and Stephen the cello. During their voyages, evenings after dinner usually find them in the captain’s cabin either playing a Boccherini sonata or improvising on their own themes, conversing wordlessly as particular friends are wont to do.
This kind of intimacy between men is rare in fiction, and likely even rarer in real life. It is a genuine intimacy, the kind born from opening minds and hearts to one another. But in our culture the word ‘intimacy’ is reserved for romantic, sexual relationships—so men can’t be intimate without homoerotic undertones. Critics always pick apart Shakespeare’s sonnets on the assumption he must be gay since no man would speak to another like that. Some readers of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson speculate endlessly on the same grounds; two men living together for so long? (The running gag in the BBC series Sherlock is that people assume John is gay even after he marries a woman.)
The sexualization of intimacy is a strange phenomenon but also understandable. We are speaking, after all, of closeness and union; it’s little wonder that sexual love is often seen as the summit of that closeness. But what if it weren’t the only summit? What if, having scaled that mountain, we looked around and noticed that there were others—that what had seemed like such a lofty and solitary peak was in fact only part of a vast range of relationships? Some of us have perhaps experienced exactly that: the realization that we cannot survive on just one relationship alone, and that despite what so many spiritual guides would like to believe, we need friends as much as we need God. And yet we still go on thinking that sex is the highest and even only expression of intimacy.
Other people have spoken much more eloquently than I on the need to decentralize sexuality in our view of relationships. And if there’s one thing a pandemic-induced social isolation has taught me it’s that I long for more than one kind of intimacy. I crave deep friendships; even the people who are ostensibly my closest friends don’t feel as close as they once did. There’s no forcing such a thing, it seems, which is probably for the best. A contrived relationship of any kind would be no relationship, but a façade.
Patrick O’Brian’s books are certainly a remarkable portrait of an era painted by an obsessively accurate historical novelist, but what keeps me coming back is the portrait he paints of male friendship; without contrivance, without making a statement, the books calmly reject any notion that men cannot be intimate apart from sexuality. And it is a beautiful thing. Jack and Stephen meet under such a cloud of animosity that they nearly fight a duel. But the discord quickly grows into counterpoise, a different harmony from that of lovers. The kind of music that can only be played by particular friends.