The things we do for

Has Mar­riage for Love Failed? Vow: A Mem­oir of Mar­riage (and Other Af­fairs)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

By Pas­cal Bruck­ner Polity, 87pp, $19.95 (HB) By Wendy Plump Blooms­bury, 262pp, $29.99

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 Mus­lim­ma­jor­ity 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 so ad­vanced as to be un­stop­pable. US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has de­clared for gay mar­riage, as has 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 rather a val­i­da­tion of it.

Nev­er­the­less, it is clear that ‘‘ love mar­riage’’ is un­der­go­ing a pro­found cri­sis, one 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? French philoso­pher Pas­cal Bruck­ner con­sid­ers this ap­par­ent para­dox and con­cludes it is not re­ally a para­dox at all. In­deed, he sug­gests 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 mod­ern mar­riage.

In the past, he ar­gues, the at­ti­tude to mar­riage was char­ac­terised by ei­ther res­ig­na­tion or re­pul­sion; love was merely a lucky ex­tra. Now, love is so cen­tral to a ‘‘ suc­cess­ful’’ mar­riage that dis­ap­point­ment is in­evitable. Hav­ing thrown off the shack­les of tra­di­tional mar­riage, Western­ers 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 17th and 18th 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 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 could be com­bined. But the lofty place ac­corded to pas­sion by many 19th-cen­tury thinkers turned love into a sec­u­lar form of sal­va­tion that proved in­com­pat­i­ble with the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage. In the past, self­in­ter­est 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

In Aus­tralia, ev­ery third mar­riage ends in di­vorce, while in the US the rate is even higher

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