Notes inspired by The House of Mirth
Is marriage an unsolvable problem?
It certainly seems that way from the case studies offered in Western literature where happy marriages are few and far between and often of the long distance sort of Odysseus and Penelope who didn’t have to manage living together for twenty years. Barriers seem to foster romance- some of the most romantic writing comes from the medieval courtly love tradition, in which the beloved generally has the flaw of being married to someone else. Or, take the great love of Abélard and Héloïse which was cut short by their mutual betrothal to Christ.
George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The confusion of marriage with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other single error” with just a touch of hyperbole. Moral aims can’t hope to hit a target as quickly moving as marriage, which is forever in flux. In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton’s character Lilly Bart is an entrant in a new (c. 1905) competitive game of marriage, wherein the rising new money New Yorkers of the early 20th century vie for suitably wealthy mates to serve as luxury items. The story is a satire but it reads like a Gothic horror. High society is depicted as an endless string of bloodless gladiatorial games with cigarettes and coffee cups filling in for spears and shields. Lilly’s every word and expression is scrutinized by predatory courtiers lacking any court worth the name. Things go south in her life like they do in nightmares: with logic but sans raison. When her life is ruined on a false charge, Lilly recognizes its deeper truth. None of it is particularly amusing, not even darkly.
We recoil at a love story- more one of love voided and avoided- that reads more like an economics textbook because we identify with the ideal of the love match that was then but a specter haunting the Western world. Lilly Bart is somewhere betwixt and between, past the older ideal of the family-arranged marriage and not quite ready for the love match; here the social class facilitates what we might call a ‘smart marriage’ or a marriage of ambition. Today, we might call Lilly an ambivalently aspiring trophy wife, but for her time and milieu, she is just a woman doing what she was raised to do: look pretty, say clever things, and find a man whose wealth will allow her to continue looking pretty and saying clever things. Of course she’s ambivalent. She beats against the bars of a cage not noticing its door hangs open.
Isak Dinesen, who was really Karen Blixen, wrote a treatise “On Modern Marriage” in 1923 when she was caged in Kenya with a deadbeat husband and an aristocratic lover, trying to work out a marriage regime that might make sense. Her conclusion was that love and marriage are dissimilar and need a higher ideal to motivate them, which was once the clan, then the Church, and now, “for the present young generation, who prize individualism above all else, who see love as the highest thing in human life, and whose ideals, when they have any, are freedom and beauty, every love affair that can be conducted freely and beautifully, and in which the personalities can understand, help, give joy to each other has every possibility of existing ideally in itself, without any external enlightenment.” Of course, freedom and beauty are external ideals. Can we ever be fully free in a living, needful relationship with another fully free being? Freud would have said no, and thus ambivalence- we want attachment, just not to be attached ourselves!
I quote Dinsen at length partly to show that people didn’t begin writing that way in the 1960s, but also because the passage seems to sum up the modern ideal ninety years on. Love matches (and no-fault divorces) are the norm for now. If a marriage is founded on freedom and beauty, in spite of the power struggle within every romantic relationship, it seems cruel to expect couples to remain together once that has passed, which is generally the price of being married. And yet, the couples who still report the highest level of “happiness” in their marriages are those from south Asian countries where arranged marriages are the norm.
And yet, there’s something stultifying about spending the rest of your life with someone who makes you happy. Maybe it’s better to settle down with someone who obsesses you instead. Even unhappy erotic obsession seems to renew itself perpetually in a way that happiness seldom does. Reason is a thin reed to hang romance upon. Existence brings any number of unsolvable problems with death being the last and greatest and erotic love as a close second. Humans cannot be expected to be fully rational because rationality cannot solve all of our problems. Marriage could be a quasi-rational solution to an irrational problem.