Marriage, what a glorious and godawful, tremendous and terrible thing it is! Of all inventions one of the few rightfully enduring ones, but surely an invention. Not something born into one automatically. Only quirkily imaginable among cavemen and women, or what else would so many New Yorker cartoons revel in?
Precarious in some ways, yet almost universally desiderated, even unto some seemingly unexpectable ones. I refer to the same-sex kind, which a gay friend of mine couldn’t see the purpose of, and a lot of people deplored unless they could find some other name for it and leave the traditional kind, for better or worse, alone.
Even at a time when homosexuals no longer had to hide in the closet or (term courtesy “The King and I”) kiss in the shadows, marriage became highly useful to gays for all kinds of legal, financial or just existential purposes. And yet, and yet . . .
Although I approve of same-sex marriage with both my brain and heart, there are times when a small twinge, I can’t deny it, persists. It is by no means a twinge of disapproval, only a twinge of the unexpected, as if, say, something I dreamt about the night before actually came true in the morning, or someone I approved of managed to obtain a genius award rather than the customary politically correct winners in the arts.
But to get to the conventional marriage. The rare case among spouses is a couple whom a friend of mine knew very well since school days. They were college sweethearts who after many years of marriage remained just as emotionally and sexually attracted to each other as before, gung ho in bed and everywhere else. I take that friend’s word for it, although I myself never encountered such a couple. The nearest thing to it I have known is a couple where the wife wore a different wig to bed every night and made her husband feel he was conquering a new woman. But even there, I wonder, how many different kinds of wigs are there in the world and would a Lady GaGa or other kind of fright wig do the trick?
I also wonder what happens when a, let’s say, ordinary guy marries a gorgeous woman, e.g., a Diane Lane or Laura Osnes or Laura Dinanti, or even a more modest but enormously pleasant-looking Laura, her looks clearly supplemented by intelligence, like Laura Linney? A woman, let’s further say, who manages to look terrific even in her later years? Can sexual attraction possibly not wane much or at all?
Marcel Proust, who knew about such things, stipulated that sexual passion could not outlast two years, and I have heard similar things from less authoritative sources. Thus I have gathered from some smart and trustworthy couples that, although it now occurred only once or twice a week, they still had some pretty good times in the sheets.
And then, too, sex isn’t everything, in marriage as out of it. Charm, brains, wit, jolliness, genuine deep goodness, manifold individuality, and all-around helpfulness go a long way toward cementing marriages, don’t they? Besides, there is a kind of manifest attractiveness possible in a woman who, without being explicitly pretty, is hugely appealing, perhaps just by looking winningly different. Originality is a magnet not to be underestimated. I myself have been attracted to such women almost as often as to very beautiful ones.
There are to be sure marriages that end up in pure mutual hatred. I have never encountered one such, but have heard or read about plenty of them. There was even a recent cartoon in the New Yorker (one of the now relatively rare not inscrutable ones) with an ordinary couple facing each other across the table and the caption reading something like “Isn’t it time we started hating someone on the outside?” Indifference is more frequent than such an extreme, but not, I believe, all that much more.
Probably the more common type is what a colleague has called a Strindbergian marriage, though in a somewhat less August fashion. That means steady petty bickering, though possibly with a more hostile implicit undercurrent. There are apt to bethough not so much in real Strindberg) real brief reconciliations, even some dormant affections mostly through habituation, but the stream of insult or injury soon dependably recommences. This is especially embarrassing when there are visitors present whom this spectacle acutely discomfits.
Perhaps the most Strindbergian marriage, albeit without outside observers, is not even by Strindberg, but—you guessed it—Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which manages to shock no matter how often we experience it, and can even achieve new, startling dimensions of horror, as it apparently does in a current London production. Albee, by the way, has acknowledged his debt to the great Swede. What makes his play particularly frightening is that it contains two embattled marriages, young and middle-aged, taking place in Academia, with the elder spouses both intellectuals from whom you would expect something more civilized.
But the sad truth, mined by the play, is that intellectuals may be even better at hurting each other, although lesser couples do it well enough too. The obvious reason is that marriage partners come to know each other’s vulnerabilities and Achilles heels better than anybody else, and can thus hurl all the more hurtful darts at each other. Fiction and theater provide infinite examples of this, something so real and pervasive that neither authors nor readers or audiences ever get tired of it. It also has the advantage of lending itself to every kind of treatment from deeply tragic to madly farcical.
Lord Byron famously, though not necessarily correctly, observed something like “Women, we cannot get along with or without them.” Something similar might be applicable to marriage as well. To be sure, there is the confirmed bachelor who voluntarily, and the spinster wallflower who involuntarily, go through life alone. This is unfairly much easier for men, who can readily get their sex while single, than for women, who, save for some exceptional ones, only relatively recently acquired such sexual freedom. But the vast majority of men and women seek out marriage, sanguinely or precariously. As the seventeenth-century poet, Sir John Suckling put it (I quote from memory), “One is no number till that two be one.” (Quite a character, Sir John, who also wrote “Love is the fart/ Of every heart:/ It pains a man when ‘tis kept close,/ And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose.”
Perhaps the best proof of the value of marriage—other than the obvious one, progeny—is that throughout literature and history we get impassioned utterances by men and women about their spouses, and is there a greater fictional ending than Charlotte Bronte’s “Reader, I married him”? And is there a more exalted term in the language than “helpmate”? (“Helpmeet” by the way is incorrect, based on the Bible’s“help meet,” where, however, “meet’ is an adjective meaning suitable, as Bryan Garner reminds us in his invaluable ”Garner’s Modern English Usage.”)
Yes,history and literature provide far more examples of amazingly noble wives than of like husbands—which has me using the nowadays most abused word in the English language, “amazing,” without which television would apparently be inconceivable. This fidelity goes back at least to Homer and faithful Penelope, whose husband Ulysses was repeatedly unfaithful—but then what man wouldn’t be during a troubled twenty-year absence from home? Still, where is there a husband quite like Boccaccio’s patient Griselda, faithfully obedient despite her tyrannical spouse’s monstrous meted out trials?
Offhand I cannot think of a husband so faithful. There is even the one who allegedly put a chastity belt on his wife’s vagina while he was off on the Crusades. In literature, the tendency is for men to be supremely devoted to other men, as for instance, in myth, Damon and Pythias, and in literature, the two friends in Schiller’s poem “Die Buergschaft.” In both cases, a friend is willing to endure execution in place for an absent friend. How selfish, by contrast, are Shakespeare’s Claudios, either the one in “Measure for Measure” or the one in “Much Ado About Nothing.”
But what about marriage, for which, in literature, Menander (342 BC to 292) set the tone: “Marriage, if one will face the truth, is an evil, but a necessary evil.” And so it usually figures, from Socrates to Emma Bovary and beyond, rather like Tolstoy’s families, noteworthy only when unhappy. It took a solidly Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, with a beautiful wife, to come up with a work called “The Angel in the House,” the ultimate sentimental tribute to the missus. There is, however, no lack of uxorial tributes, sometimes even to promiscuous wives, though the latter usually from homosexual writers, who didn’t have any (viz. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, etc.).
I could go on, but let me conclude with a well-deserved paean to Ingmar Bergman’s “Story of a Marriage,” the uncut version, which manages to say everything that is good and everything that isn’t about modern marriage. It is a kind of compendium packed into a few hours of magisterial film that everyone concerned with marriage, as well as everyone who is not, should see and reflect about. It is by a genius who was both obsessed with and clear-eyed about who loved them and left as he was loved and sometimes left by them. In the end, though, he settled into what was a calm marriage with an extremely understanding woman who, after his quiet demise, singly outlived him. A mother figure, perhaps, and certainly the fitting haven for a profuse serial womanizer, several times previously married, at last, come to conjugal rest.
But not until he had said everything that could be said about men and women, together or apart.