Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Good News about Sex and Marriage (or Not)

From the Chronicle of Higher Education's review of the first volume of her journals, Susan Sontag's grim view of marriage:

It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies. Quarrels eventually become pointless, unless one is always prepared to act on them — that is, to end the marriage. So, after the first year, one stops 'making up' after quarrels — one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.



meyermeyer said...

You gotta be kidding me. It doesn't surprise me that Sontag would be the one to say this--maybe Steinem too. I agree with her on the side of disagreements, that without the threat of ending the marriage the disagreements are futile. They can end in charged silences that fade eventually to just silence that fades into oblivion and a hole in the soul. However, I think this happens only if both parties are completely unwilling to change. I'm perfectly willing to accept that I'm wrong when I'm convinced, though as most people I'm pretty convinced I'm right--but unlike most people that feeling is based on extensive reflection. The argument then becomes a way to figure out a compromise for both people. Instead of the life changing decision of ending the marriage, why couldn't the change be something positive? Why couldn't quitting the job you dislike in the first place to move to a new city with your spouse and her job be a good, if difficult, thing? I think Sontag takes too narrow a view on what marraige can accomplish. Of couse, I could go on.

framiko said...

I agree that her view is shockingly narrow. To be fair, though, this was from her journal, where I assume she tested out ideas and worked out her anxieties on the page, and she was embroiled in a miserable and seemingly ill-considered marriage.

I think the shock of the statement was what appealed to me about it, in a perverse way, along with the grain of truth that sometimes in long-term relationships one just lets conflicts go without necessarily fighting them to the bitter end. And that's not always a bad thing, really.

missey said...

I was thinking about this quote last night while I was painting our den a second color after Julie decided she didn't like the first one. I don't know by what measurement you distinguish between shades of color (perhaps an habitual perseverator / blogger would care to spend some time finding that out), but the difference between these would be expressed in the smallest of fractions. Anyway, I was certainly stewing, sort of quietly, but the thought that the only existentially fruitful outcome my stewing was to end the marriage seemed to me, as to you two as well, shockingly narrow.
But like Frank, I also found a small but perverse appeal in its grain of truth (on a related note, I also thought of the disturbing habit I've developed of laying out everybody's breakfast for the following morning and my lunch for work, so that my life is sort of ready for me to be dropped into it like one of those cartoon characters that gets dropped into a suit—repetition). I also found it appealing in the chance it offered me to feel the tang of righteous indignation—how limited, how narrow, how sad, how wrong. It also scared me a little to see ways in which what it was saying might be true for me.
But marriage of course is about much more than fighting, hence our objection to the narrowness of the entry, unless the marriage in question is as Frank says it was for Sontag. I think of the poet Mark Jarman's vision of the repetition of marriage, and life:


by Mark Jarman

Beautiful repetition, the caress
repeated, again,
That makes one say and repeat,
"Don't stop."

Reiteration, restatement, the beat
brushed into skin,
The pulse responding to breath,
counted, touched.

Beautiful pattern of change,
cyclical as blood,
The axle pivots, the planet wanders.

The moon comes back and leaves, a
total story or slice
Of life, shining with meaning, like
a life.

Beautiful repetition, the haze of
new grass
Rises from scattered seeds, a green

A chickadee's claim rings the seed
bell by the window.
The world tilts too, a ball dented
by song.

Look at it happen again, always in
a new pattern:
Famine again, war, after the odd

Habit, the great deadener, narrows
our affections
To one face, reappearing in the

Look at it happen again, always for
the first time:
Death of the father, the mother,

No way to bring them back, except
to become them.
Tragic re-enactment, beautiful

I guess if the same face you see in the mirror (self, spouse) is always fighting, then the picture gets grim. Hence, Larkin's grim ditty:

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

And on that note, I'll end this too-long post.