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Not much progress

April 1st, 2007

BY DAVID MACLAINE

durermarriage.jpgI can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a skeptic about marriage. It seemed at best a boring commonplace. I remember my utter puzzlement when the girls in kindergarten invited me over to the corner with the tables and chairs and toy stove and refrigerator and asked me to play “house.” Why would anyone choose to play the role of “husband” or “daddy” and act out the routines of everyday life rather than the far livelier alternatives of “cowboy,” “pirate,” or “Robin Hood”?

The most prominent marriages on television offered me little inspiration; Alice Kramden had spunk, but she had married a big dope, and the combo of Cuban bandleader and wacky redhead did not seem a plausible model. Those were the best cases; otherwise one was left with the deadly insipidity of Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, or Beaver Cleaver’s parents Ward and June. I did catch an occasional interesting model in the slot where they reran old movies: the spirited back and forth of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib seemed promising, and the pairing of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate (pre-Hays Office, when Jane wore a skimpy loin cloth, too) with lots of sexy swimming in between adventures with lions and evil White Hunters had a certain allure, if one could ever find a suitable jungle home. But the only male-female relationship of 1960s TV that seemed genuinely adult was the sly intimacy between John Steed and Emma Peel in the British import The Avengers, and they were not married, at least to each other. (I still remember the carefully controlled pathos when Mrs. Peel’s mysteriously lost husband was rediscovered and the partnership came to an end.) Television didn’t really know what to do with wives, really preferred them dead, and scarcely an evening went by without at least one show built around a widower coping with children: not just My Three Sons, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and Family Affair, but also Bonanza and The Rifleman. Even the one-season “alternative” Western Hondo began its story line after the brooding hero’s Indian wife had been killed.

I was a fairly precocious reader, but the results there were not much better. Granted, I had not yet sampled Flaubert, Tolstoy, or Updike, so the classic novelistic treatments of adultery were still ahead of me, but the bowdlerizations of The Boys’ King Arthur couldn’t mask the way the marriage of Arthur and Guenevere broke down under her love for Lancelot, or the even more dramatic adultery of Tristan and Isolde. My forays into adult literature were likewise dominated by cautionary cases: Henry Miller’s doomed marriage and spirited infidelity in Tropic of Capricorn or the ghastly union of Captain Dynamite Holmes and his wife Karen in From Here to Eternity, which led, in the movie version, to that iconic image of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster (as Mrs. Holmes and her lover Milt Warden) embracing in the Hawaiian surf. You could hardly blame her, since her adulterous husband had infected her with gonorrhea which had in turn led to an early hysterectomy. I did not know then the old family history that topped that story, that the grandmother who sometimes took us out for steaks had been orphaned very young after her father brought home to his wife a case of syphilis which soon killed them both. Nor did I realize that the hazy step-grandfather Skipper, who died when I was very young, had been a married executive that same grandmother had seduced in her middle age, successfully breaking up his first marriage.

But even without access to all the grown-up gossip, I could tell something was fishy about the way people talked about marriage. I grew up in a neighborhood where girls were more plentiful than boys, and I was dumbfounded when the girls next door (and down the street) began to fantasize about their weddings. It seemed very much as though they felt that the choice of a partner and the marriage that would follow were inconsequential, mere means to the end of a glorious wedding day. This misguided focus on the day of joining was matched by contradictions in how the institution was supposed to work afterward. The 1950s model of marriage, in which the man went off to work while the woman stayed home, did not exactly match my family history. Both my grandmothers had worked (Granny was a secretary in his office when she snagged Skipper) and my mother had, too, first before marriage and again as soon as my sisters and I were old enough for school. Her job was essentially clerical; my mother had been denied the chance to go to college, while the brother she had always surpassed in school had gone, and had become an engineer.

I was, as you can see, predisposed to accept the sweeping critiques of marriage that came along in the late 1960s, beginning with the sexual revolution and the Free Love movement, which made an irresistible case against the idea that one should wait for marriage before sampling sex, and the general notion that love should must lead at once to a monogamous marriage and the conventional roles of husband and wife. The feminist critiques of marriage that dominated the early 1970s also seemed pretty logical to me. I had exceptional parents whose work I couldn’t hope to surpass, and I was strongly disinclined to become a parent. The new model of non-sanctioned union (this was the heyday of “Why do we need the state to certify our relationship?”) was appealing indeed. When I did indeed break down and marry the woman I’d been with for four years, I was told, incorrectly, that I needed the certificate to get a joint bank account, and we were nervous about living in married student housing at the University of Chicago. I did everything I could to treat the deed as an irrelevance. I married in a civil ceremony during a lunch break from my job. There was no ring (we borrowed something to fill the symbolic moment). But the effort to pretend it hadn’t happened was in vain; other people saw us differently, and the strain of their altered expectations immediately added stress to a relationship already prone to frequent storms. Because the crisis of our eventual separation was far more memorable than the anticlimactic moment the divorce decree came through, I always have trouble remembering exactly how long the marriage lasted.

Marriage in America is one of those areas where our culture’s dogged insistence on how things “should” work prevents any serious consideration of the evidence that suggests failure at the level of basic design. We all know the basic stats, that half of all marriages end in divorce, that adultery by one or both partners is equally common, but we keep insisting that the problem, and the dire effect on families that results, is nothing to do with the institution itself but results from a very long string of individual failings on the part of the spouses themselves. If a similar approach applied to aeronautical engineering, our airspace would be dominated by hydrogen-filled Zeppelins, our skies alight with recurring Hindenberg disasters, which would merely set the pundits chattering about those irresponsible people who can’t seem to learn how to douse their cigarettes properly. (It never occurred to me that there was smoking on the Hindenberg until I saw them appraise one of the souvenir ash trays on Antiques Roadshow.)

Because I’m working on a book about some medieval ancestors, I spend a lot of time and effort pondering the success and failure of marriages contracted over a thousand years ago. The institution was obviously a bit different back then. Parents almost always made the decision to wed for their children, indeed often when they really were still children, and did so almost always for reasons purely political. It’s useful to be reminded that marriage is a fluid custom that did not always purport to be the joining of two individuals for life based on the transient fact of their mutual attraction, but those attractions still existed and could at times disrupt the parental control system. Charles the Bald married off his daughter Judith to a fifty-year old king when she was only thirteen years old. When that king died within two years, his oldest son by a previous marriage stepped in and became his former step-sister’s husband. After the step-brother/husband likewise died quickly, Judith came home to Francia and apparently decided she was tired of life as a political pawn. She was still only nineteen when she eloped with a man named Baldwin, and thanks to an interfering Pope who was enjoying standing up to Carolingian kings, she was able to make it stick and get her chosen husband set up as the first Count of Flanders.

Things didn’t work out as well when teenage boys tried to follow their, um, hearts. The second Empress Theodora (not the sixth-century porn-star-turned-empress, but a ninth-century bride from Paphlagonia who restored the adoration of icons to the Byzantine church after the death of her husband Theophilus) tried to choose a respectable bride for her teenage son Michael. She arranged one of those odd pageants known as bride shows. The method had worked for Theodora, winner of an earlier pageant. Her marriage, while not without conflict or tragedy — their first son died when as in infant when he crawled into an open cistern and drowned — had been fairly successful. Her son’s was a failure. The bride of choice, Eudocia Decapolitissa, was almost completely ignored in favor of the boy’s already established girlfriend Eudocia Ingerina. Eudocia the mistress was eventually married off to Michael’s best buddy, a Macedonian horse-breaker named Basil, when she was already pregnant, but their rooms were kept conveniently close to those of the young man, who had cast off his mother’s rule, had her chief counselor murdered, and had taken over as emperor Michael III. (In title anyway; the boy was really more interested in drinking, screwing, and watching sports, and delegated most of the work to his uncle Bardas.) It would appear that the mistress’ marriage was a sham — at one point Michael pulled an older sister out of a nunnery, apparently to set her up as Basil’s consolation bedmate — and that Michael was the real father of at least two of the couple’s children.

In our time they’d be candidates to sort things out during a chair-throwing session on Jerry Springer, but the ninth century was, alas, even more violent than daytime television. Michael had murdered the uncle who was running the empire and set up buddy Basil as co-emperor. Basil apparently didn’t care for his role as beard, and his wife Eudocia decided her official husband offered more than her unofficial lover. At a private party they liquored Michael up and sabotaged the locks on his door, and after the emperor had dropped off to sleep Basil came in with the same team of assassins that had offed uncle Bardas. They cut Michael to pieces; Basil took over the throne and founded what was later called the “Macedonian” dynasty, although it’s doubtful it was really his bloodline passed on through his official “son” Leo. On his ascension Leo reverently moved Michael’s body from its shabby grave to the main mausoleum of the emperors.

One of the landmarks in the process during which the Western church hardened its position on marriage and divorce came with the decade-long controversy over the marriage of Charles the Bald’s nephew Lothar II, who was king of the handily-named Lotharingia. It was fairly common for a teenage prince to take a mistress, and if things worked out, he might be able to set her up as an accepted wife. But Lothar, who had enjoyed and fathered a son by a concubine named Waldrada, found himself driven to try a political marriage with a woman named Theutberga, in hopes of reigning in her brother Hubert, who was a notorious troublemaker. That didn’t work, and Theutberga didn’t get pregnant. Kings usually found ways to ease out wives who couldn’t provide heirs, but Lothar’s attempt to divorce Theutberga and properly marry Waldrada failed despite some spectacular accusations.

When she was at her husband’s mercy Teutberga confessed that before their marriage she’d committed incest with her brother, anal intercourse at that. Lothar was trying to win his freedom with the claim that his wife had done it with her brother, but he was stuck with having confirmed that his wife was a virgin when the married. His supporters also trotted out the claim that Theutberga had become pregnant with her brother’s child and had aborted the fetus through witchcraft. I’m assuming this is what led Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, to explain that a virgin really could get pregnant, because it was possible by witchcraft for sperm to enter the womb. That’s what one of my sources claims, anyway, although another quotes Hincmar as insisting that for a woman to conceive “even though her uterus was closed and her vulva unopened” had never, ever happened except for the very special case of the Virgin Mary. Whatever his precise beliefs on sperm attraction, Hincmar remained a hardliner, opposing Lothar’s divorce and divorce in general.

These claims of witchcraft could cut both ways, and at various points Waldrada was accused of using sorcery both to lure Lothar from his lawful wife and to prevent Theutberga from conceiving. Hincmar thought exorcism would solve the latter problem. As it was, the same Pope (Nicolas) who had busted Charles’ balls over his daughter’s elopement lined up against Lothar in this struggle, and after Lothar had bribed papal legates and persuaded his own bishops to support him, the pontiff came down hard and actually ousted two archbishops. No doubt he and the other churchmen who prevailed in the end were sincere, but the political pressure that kept the case steaming came from the surrounding kings who had a lot to gain if Lotharingia lacked a male heir.

They got their way, and after Lothar died, they were able to add another task to their already daunting duty of fending off incessant Viking assaults. Charles and his older brother Louis the German began a distracting struggle to snap up as much as they could of Lothar’s former realm. Lothar’s messy divorce had other secondary repercussions. His brother Louis, who was King of Italy, had a spouse named Engelberga who had started off pretty much like Waltrada, with a union that had not been sealed by the official transfer of property that signified a “real” marriage. Louis was happy with his mate — she was a formidable political figure, an outstanding diplomat — so he had papers forged to show those property transfers, and thus secure his marriage against the sort of pressure that had sundered Waldrada and Lothar. This came back to bite Louis in the ass when his wife bore only daughters. He had fortified her position enough by his clever fraud that his later attempt to set her aside in favor of a new wife who could give him sons was pretty much doomed from the start. So after Louis died, there was one more kingdom up for grabs, one more distracting prize that diverted attention and troops from the effort to fend off assaults by Danes, Magyars, and Saracens. The squelching of those two divorces led to chaos and destruction, but what else is new? Divorce and its prohibition are both losing propositions.

We haven’t progressed much since the ninth century. Choosing spouses based on youthful lust is a crap-shoot, and the refusal to provide any internal prop for a family besides the durability of that lust has led to a country littered with broken families. Marriage is about securing partnerships, providing for children, and integrating families into larger communities. Stability can’t simply be imposed from without, as kings, empresses, and Popes all learned, but neither can it depend upon pledges to resist powerful human drives, with no decent fail-safes in place in case those pledges fail. The idea that the sexual pair-bond is a secure basis for long-term stability is as about as scientific as Hincmar’s witchcraft theories about conception and infertility, or the idea that hydrogen would be a safe prop for airships. But as long as the fundamental flaws in the machine are considered our most cherished ideals, we’ll continue to ignore the mountains of evidence that what we urgently need is to send the whole rickety institution back to the shop for a complete redesign. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Marriage Issue, Maclaine | Link to this Entry

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