Generation Ex

Considered in theoretical terms, the modern ideal of ‘marriage for love’ has never been more popular. In traditional societies such as India and China, arranged marriages (and certainly forced marriages) are less common than they used to be, while for many artists and activists in Muslim-majority communities the freedom to choose one’s life partner has become the emblem of freedom in general. Meanwhile, in those (largely Western) societies where marriage for love has long been the norm, the campaign for equal marriage rights is now so advanced as to be unstoppable. Barack Obama has declared for gay marriage, as has the British Prime Minister David Cameron. Even social and religious conservatives are coming round to the (correct) opinion that the clamour for marriage equality is not an attack on the institution of marriage but a rather a validation of it.

Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘love marriage’ is undergoing a profound crisis – a crisis of which the statistics are eloquent. In Australia, every third marriage ends in divorce, while in the US the rate is even higher, closer to every second marriage. A certain cognitive dissonance regarding marriage is evident in the West: even as novel-readers and cinema audiences thrill to tales of consensual love – especially love against the odds – consensual marriage is under threat, not from outside forces but from within. A new generation – Generation Ex – is emerging in the heartland of marriage for love.

In his excellent little book Has Marriage for Love Failed? the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner considers this apparent paradox and concludes that it is not really a paradox at all. Indeed, he suggests that desire and disaffection are, in this instance, connected at a deep level – that the very terms in which the argument against traditional marriage was made have served to undermine marriage for love. In the past, he argues, the attitude to marriage was characterised by either resignation or repulsion; love was merely a lucky extra. Now, however, love is so central to a ‘successful’ marriage that disappointment is inevitable. Having thrown off the shackles of traditional marriage, Westerners now find themselves the prisoners of unrealistic expectations.

Before the Enlightenment, Bruckner suggests, marriage was anti-egalitarian and despotic. It objectified women and led to adultery, prostitution and illegitimacy. A woman was either a virgin or a prostitute – pure as the driven snow or common as muck. (As Bruckner puts it: ‘The virgin must be denied entrance into sexual life, the prostitute must be forbidden to leave it.’) The result was an unhealthy attitude to sex – at once apprehensive and unrealistic. For the majority of women, and for many men too, the wedding night was something to be feared – less a night of passion than a rite of passage.

This situation began to change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Armed with the arguments of Enlightenment thinkers, for whom traditional marriage was contrary to the spirit of individual liberty, marriage reformers in Western societies agitated for the liberalisation and democratisation of matrimony. According to Bruckner, the reforms they advocated tended to stem from three broad principles: that feelings should take priority over obligations; that the emphasis on female virginity was the source of much societal strife; and that badly matched spouses should be able to separate more easily and without undue sanction from the state. Marriage, in short, should be a ‘chosen destiny’ based, not on responsibility, but on compatibility.

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable. But as this view of marriage gained political currency, so too did an idealised conception of love that served, in the long run, to undermine it. Reformers in thrall to Enlightenment principles looked forward to a time when individual ardour and institutional stability would combine; but the lofty place accorded to passion by many nineteenth century thinkers turned love into a secular form of salvation that proved incompatible with the institution of marriage. In the past, self-interest was the primary motivator for anyone entering into marriage; now, it is personal inclination, but inclination marinated in an unrealistic view of love. For Bruckner, this unrealistic view is in some respects no less tyrannical than the marriage arrangements of times gone by. As he puts it: ‘to judge a couple solely by the yardstick of vehemency is to condemn it to insufficiency’.

Though much shorter than Bruckner’s previous books, Has Marriage for Love Failed? does occasionally suffer from its author’s tendency to make an interesting point and then repeat it in ever more colourful ways. Nevertheless, it is beautifully argued and, for the most part, beautifully written. It is also a very interesting development in the context of Bruckner’s thought more generally. After the publication of The Tyranny of Guilt, which anatomised Western masochism in the face of the threat from Islamic extremism, it was not unusual to see Bruckner characterised as a shallow cheerleader for ‘Western values’. Here, however, he invites us to consider how a value commonly associated with the West is in many ways a mixed blessing. ‘If we want [marriage] to last,’ he writes, ‘let’s stop subjecting life in common to the despotic law of exuberance.’

The despotic law of exuberance is certainly on display in Vow, a ‘memoir of marriage and other affairs’ by US journalist Wendy Plump. Indeed, if Plump’s book has any value it is as an illustration of Bruckner’s thesis that marital disenchantment is all the greater when marriages are chosen rather than imposed and that unrealistic expectations serve to drive a wedge between couples. ‘I was committed to one man wholeheartedly until suddenly I wasn’t’, writes Plump, before adding: ‘What I wanted most, what drove me in every affair I had, was the drug and energy of passion, of new intimacy.’

There is more – much more – in the same vein. According to my instruments, Plump has four affairs in the book, all of them described in such volatile prose. (Her husband, Bill, has a number of affairs, too, one of which results in an illegitimate child; here, the prose cools off a little.) None of them is remotely interesting, even at the level of gossip. Certainly, Plump’s informing assumption that her personal experiences have impersonal resonance – an assumption reflected in her tendency to slip from the first to the second person (‘What you want may be injurious, but the fact of want overpowers’) – remains stubbornly unjustified. Vow, I’m afraid, is an insight-free zone.

Such conclusions as Plump draws are invariably limp – a fact that the faux profundity in which they come wrapped only serves to emphasise. (‘Explanation is a powerful seducer. We use it to keep uncertainties at a distance.’) Nor does her penchant for bizarre metaphors and sentence fragments help her case. Consider, for example, the following strophe:

And so I concluded that nothing all that terrible was going to come of my having another [affair]. Even if I behaved like a reckless adolescent. Even if I stayed out all night. Even if I blew that vow out of the water. Even if I did jump off the roof clutching a lighted blowtorch into a pool of knives.

If breathlessness is what Plump is seeking to convey with this outbreak of dependent clauses she’s certainly achieved her goal: at times, the book reads as if it was dictated by someone suffering with emphysema.

I’ve always been suspicious of confessional literature; but at least the effusions of Lowell and Snodgrass had the benefit of literary merit. By contrast, Vow tells us little of interest, in prose that is interesting only for its badness.

Pascal Bruckner, Has Marriage for Love Failed?
Polity; $19.95; 87pp

Wendy Plump, Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs)
Bloomsbury; $29.99; 262pp

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First published in The Australian.