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