Jul. 12th, 2015

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This essay is going to start on a very different subject from where it is going to end.

The highest level of artistic achievement always has a powerful ethical content, quite simply because artists of the level of Homer, Dante, Beethoven, have a broad enough insight to take in all significant parts of human experience, and morality is a major part of it. However, morality as such is not necessarily connected with artistic merit, except in the sense that artistic merit always has to do with truth to experience. Take, for instance, a song such as Tata Young's Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy. There can be no doubt that nobody would want to encourage the kind of attitude it describes, not only the tarty-ness, but the vanity and egotism that underlie it, and the parasitical overtones of such a verse as “I like all my men, I like them tall with MO-NEY!!”. But because it is the work of a young woman who has been, one way or another, in the position of feeling, experiencing, imaginatively understanding – if not necessarily acting out – the attitudes it describes, it is an almost complete success, vigorous, driving, melodious and vital. She knows that generation and those people, if she knows anything at all. And even where the lyrics cross the border from childishly arrogant to merely stupid, repeating without insight the follies of the worst pseudo-feminism (“people are intimidated when a girl is cool with her sexuality” - sorry, dear, we aren't really intimidated by any such thing, only embarrassed and rather sad), it may be said at least that this is a true-to-life part of the experience described. Teen-agers will indeed repeat that kind of rubbish. Shakespeare this is not, but it has in common with Shakespeare and all successful art that it is a true image of a true experience.

It follows, naturally, that artistic failure always tends, for whatever reason, to falsify experience; whether it distorts it by conventional and superficial notions, or by ideological blinkers, or by mere stupidity and ignorance. The worst song Frank Sinatra ever sang, Love and Marriage, belongs in this category. This car crash of a song, whose hideous jingle-like opening sticks in the mind like the worst kind of advertising music, is so steeped in sentimental falsehood that it is almost aware of it; almost. For if it really understood that “the idea that love and marriage must go together is sentimental, false and dangerous”, we would have a very different kind of song – something like, for instance, Bruce Springsteen's The River. But Love and Marriage is trying to say the exact opposite, but without any real belief, without any of the belief born from experience. It tries to be both witty and earnest, and fails at both. The material is as arbitrary (“ask the local gentry – and they will say it's ellyment'ry!”) as that of my previous instance was relevant and inevitable (“My mouth never takes a holiday, I always shock with the things I say/ I was always the kid at school who'd turn up to each class about an hour late!”). Notice, too, the modest but effective invention of that half-line, “my mouth never takes a holiday”, as compared with the utter deadness of something like “Ask the local gentry”. Why “the local gentry”? Why not the alien gentry, the overseas gentry, or just the gentry, period? Why, because about a century before the song was written, the expression “the local gentry” meant something. It was pulled from the list of old, half-remembered word groupings, purely to fill its space in a verse. From beginning to end, there is not one passage that has that sense of inevitability that is the mark of a well conceived poem or lyric. The very opening leaves the impression that the singer is repeating the words to himself in the hope that some significant rhyme will occur to him.

The reason why this song does not dare quite take itself seriously, and never seems to find the right turn of phrase, is that it is trying to assert as undeniable fact something that was, and had been for at least half a century, under concentrated cultural fire, namely, the institution of marriage. “Love and marriage, love and marriage, it's an institute you can't disparage...” - can't what? (And notice the infelicity of replacing “institute” for “institution” to make it fit the verse.) It belongs to a luckily rather small group of songs that seemed to want to use popular music to preach, any old how, attitudes that the authors regarded as desirable – although they seemed never to understand what could possibly make them desirable. Another such terrible Sinatra item was Swinging on a star, apparently aimed at schoolchildren, and promising them that if they were good hard-working schoolchildren rather than “mules” or “pigs” or “fishes”, they would grow up able to perform miracles and travel to the stars at will. Well, of course we want children to work hard and study; but to promise them that if only they work hard they can all be Thomas A. Edison or John Wayne or John D. Rockefeller is bunk so pure, so repulsive, so fraudulent, that one wonders how anyone could be so stupid as to want to propagate it to children. Luckily, the song is so bad that one doubts any child ever took it seriously, but if any one ever did, they were setting themselves up for nearly inevitable disappointment and resentment.

One great work of art that originated in the same period showed what the right message had to be, and what it should be. As Bill Mauldin, a great cartoonist, said of his colleague Charles M.Schulz, “He is a preacher. All great cartoonists are jackleg preachers... there is a high moral tone there.” What did he mean? Not, certainly, what many people imagine that the work of art “with a message” should be, that is, that the person with the right ideas and attitudes should be the winner in the end. Absolutely the contrary: what we get from Peanuts is that you can be a “loser”, a modest person with no accomplishment or glitter, a kind of punching bag for destiny, and still be better than a winner. The winner, in the world of Peanuts , is fairly clearly Lucy Van Pelt – a bully and a fool; and I don't think there is a single reader of Peanuts in three quarters of a century who has not left the strip with a strong feeling that it would be infinitely better to be a Charlie Brown than to be a Lucy. That is the moral message children and adults need to hear, reconciling us to the battle of life with its inevitable defeats, showing by example rather than by precept the hollowness and unimportance of “winning”; a message of the most desperate importance in a country where children are daily subjected to liminal and subliminal messages preaching the exact opposite - “winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.”

Swinging on a Star came out at a time when American public opinion was seriously worried about the state of the country's youth, about gangs and a growing looseness in behaviour and fashion. It clearly was intended to preach the virtues of schoolwork and learning, and by extension of hard work and discipline in general, but its scheme of thought shows that the author did not have the least idea why the life of work and study should be preferred to the life of a mule, a pig, or a fish . In fact, it shows the exact opposite: by emphasizing vast ambition and overwhelming success, swinging on a star, carrying moonbeams round in a jar, it effectively depreciates the life of hard work, moderate achievement, and “being happy at home”, that is the best most of us can realistically hope for. (Indeed, from another point of view, it is the best that anyone can hope for. The triumphant billionaire or movie star cannot really be more happy than an ordinary grandfather playing with his grandchildren in a house he has bought and paid for from his own work as a welder or as a clerk. The satisfaction of work well done, of a thriving family, of the esteem of friends and colleagues, is the same for both.) A decade later, Bob Dylan skewered all such fantasies in a few pointed and meaningful lines: Advertising signs they con/ You into thinking you're the one/ That can do what's never been done/ That can win what's never been won/ Meanwhile life outside goes on/ All around you! Indeed Swinging on a Star and Love and marriage are clearly in the style of advertising jingles. Somebody set out to advertise marriage and hard work, with the advertiser's mentality, and had been as successful as one could expect.

Swinging on a Star is not as spectacularly, unredeemably, wholly worthless as Love and Marriage. If its values and rewards are unreal and misleading, at least it is very clear about what it opposes, and when it describes the attitudes it condemns it does with understanding, sting, and even wit. A mule is an animal with long, funny ears./ He kicks up at anything he hears. / His back is brawny and his brain is weak./ He's just plain stupid with a stubborn streak./ And, by the way, if you hate to go to school/ You may grow up to be a mule. ... A pig is an animal with dirt on his face/ His shoes are a terrible disgrace./ He's got no manners when he eats his food./ He's fat and lazy and extremely rude!/ But if you don't care a feather or a fig/ You may grow up to be a pig.....A fish won't do anything but swim in a brook/ He can't write his name or read a book./ To fool all the people is his only thought,/ And though he's slippery, he still gets caught./ But then if that sort of life is what you wish,/ You may grow up to be a fish. There is no such relief of wit or realism or even real anger anywhere in Love and Marriage.

By comparison, then, we have to conclude that Love and Marriage really has no truth to offer, not even a negative kind of truth. It does not, like Sexy, Naugthy, Bitchy, depict vivacity and insight an objectively bad but real attitude; it does not, like Swinging on a Star, have a clear idea of at least the negative part of its message – much less of the positive on). Love and Marriage has no artistic value at all, no truth to experience. And the common advertiser's attitude of the two songs suggests that their flaws must be similar, rooted in the same way of thinking and doing things. And as Love and marriage is all bad, unrelieved by any quality patches, it is also likely to reflect only the bad parts of Swinging on a Star – to offer as the obvious result of hard work something – great and extraordinary success – that is by its nature open only to the lucky.

And indeed it is so. There is a relationship between love and marriage, but it is not what the song tries to suggest. Let us ask ourselves: what kind of feeling do sane people – I mean those who don't write editorials about “heteronormativity” and “matrimania” and other such ugly neologisms – have, when they hear someone like Jack Kirby say that his proudest achievement was, “I married the woman I love, and I loved her all my life”? If love and marriage went together like a horse and carriage, we should find that fairly obvious. But we don't. We react to it as to something great, noble and touching, something we admire and wish we could emulate even though we suspect we never could. Livelong married love is something like a sporting record or a great work of art: something rare and beautiful, but that makes us all feel a little better about mankind and so, in a sense, about ourselves. I may never manage to cover a hundred metres in a hundred minutes, but I can watch, enjoy and admire the sight of Usain Bolt streaking down the straight and making it look easy. I may be a disaster with the other sex, but I can still look on a life like Kirby's or many others, and feel warmer because married love really is possible.

Married love is the achievement; marriage is the activity. And that being the case, you can see exactly what is the problem with Love and Marriage and the whole set of notions it embodies so disastrously: it offers as the ordinary condition what is in fact the hard-won and somewhat lucky achievement. It offers the equivalent of a Wimbledon singles title to every entry-level tennis player. Which, of course, is exactly what Swinging on a Star does with respect to work and good behaviour in general, and work and good behaviour at school in particular.

But, you will say, people marry for love. Well, some do. Many people marry for companionship; it is that, much more than the unlikely hope that you might meet a complete stranger and just fall head over heels in love for life, that keeps marriage bureaux, websites and ad columns in business. Some marry because there is a child on the way. And even in Europe, let alone in other parts of the world, there are still a few people whose first reason to marry is that an heir is expected from them, beginning with the surviving royal families. And I would have to see the evidence that these marriages are in any way less well founded and durable than those based on romantic love. (Because, of course, what I mean by love in this context, unless I say otherwise, is exclusively romantic or erotic love, the thing that makes you feel that the whole meaning of life is wrapped up into another person, normally of the opposite sex.)

No, love and marriage do not go together like a horse and carriage. Like the attempt to justify hard work as the road to overwhelming success – rather than a necessity which, if properly carried out, might help you to a modestly comfortable later life and perhaps a nest egg for your heirs – to make love the cause and heart and constant fellow-traveller of marriage is wrong in itself and a fertile breeder of disillusionment, anger and unhappiness. One can see it in the lives of the very people who have, for more than a century, done the most to spread this false equivalence. Rich men and entertainment figures who divorce four or five times really do believe that marriage is all about love – so they break up and start again every time they think they are in love. And if anyone thinks that is an enviable situation, I heartily disagree. A single divorce (setting aside the issue whether divorce is even admissible, and treating the modern world as it is) is the most miserable thing in the world; imagine five! And let's not hear any nonsense about amicable divorce. If you can bear to separate yourself from the place you lived for years, from the objects and sights that framed your daily life, from a person with whom you once shared everything – and let's not even speak about custody – then you were never married, you were a gigolo or a prostitute now about to get a final pay-off and leave the place of employment. And in fact such things rarely happen. People, including myself, make bitter jokes about divorce lawyers, but in fact most of divorce lawyers – yes, and judges too – will tell you that most of their time is spent trying to get reason through to two people maddened by loss, anger, disappointment and jealousy. Or to put it another way: let us go from one of Old Blue Eyes' worst songs to one of the best. One for my baby (and one more for the road). As fraudulent as Love and Marriage is, so One for my baby is true to life (including the life of the much-married crooner himself) and speaks from experience. The lament for the impermanence of love, the pain in admitting that it was just “a brief episode”, the where-did-we-go-wrong, are typical of love as it often appears if you are not Jack and Rosalind Kirby, and therefore an artistic triumph. Play the two songs one after the other, and you will need no more arguments to understand how crassly wrong is the very notion that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.

What, then, is marriage about? Well, of course I could start with the Christian doctrine, which I set out in a recent essay. But that would not convince anyone who is not Christian already. More importantly, it is my view that the tenets of morality, contrary to what many Christians preach, are evident by themselves and would equally be true if no God existed. God is as it were their third dimension; they are rooted in Him and sanctified by Him because so is mankind itself. But I do not need to start from God – though I will certainly end with Him – to argue that murder or abortion are wrong, and that taking care of the old and the sick is right. At any rate, there is no originality in Christ's moral teaching; rather it amounts to “Do what you have always known you must do, only more so” (or, as an Italian patriot used to say, “When you cannot tell the path of duty, choose the hardest”). In the case of marriage, this means that marriage is for life: Jesus compared the statement of principle in Genesis, declaring the nature of mankind in mythical language, where a man and a woman are said to become one flesh, and contrasts it with the merely human and historically originated law that allows divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts”. Jesus himself said that He had not come to alter the law, but to fulfill it; and St.Paul taught that even pagans deprived of the Divine revelation are capable of being “law” to their own selves, perceiving and following the dictates of an exacting moral law. Morality is universal. Even the recognition that every man is a sinner, while it might have surprised the proud Greek philosophers, would come as nothing new to Hindus and Buddhists, each of whom knew of the burden of past karma.

And that being the case, what we have to do is see what marriage is in the daily lives of the ordinary world. First of all, then, marriage brings two families or groups of families permanently together. That is a frequent historical reason for marriage – alliances, peace-making, joining properties and inheritances. That, in a true marriage, never changes; and it is signalized by the typical marriage feast, to which every connection of the couple, however remote, has to be invited. That is because even the most distant members of a family group will know that from now on they have another connection, another link in blood and law. And that link is real and effective. How often does anyone in need of help, advice, introductions, expertise, stop to say - “Hey, isn't your cousin a conveyancing expert? Isn't your uncle's wife a friend of so-and-so? Doesn't your nephew speak fluent Swedish?” Help from in-laws is as expected as mutual concern in the lives of each other's families. This connection reminds us immediately of the words of Genesis – they shall be one flesh. The unity established between two families depend son the fact that each of the partners now has both family identities. In what sense this is more than merely symbolic or fictive is a question that can be argued, but only a fool would argue that it differs only in degree, rather than in kind, from cohabitation.

And this leads us to another central issue: children. I don't want to have to argue that children do better with a firmly married father and mother, any more than I want to have to argue that water is wet. I ask that we take this as axiomatic, as read. That is not to say that this optimal situation is always possible; even without divorce, family break-ups, family violence , or just tragedies – the early death of one or both parents – mean that a large number of people will either live without this benefit, or live in a situation where the benefit of living parents is perverted into an enduring torture. But to make these instances of misfortune or evil behaviour into a reason to attack the institution of marriage is like using the fact that some cops will always be thugs and some cops will always be on the take to call for the abolition of the concept (and the fact) of police. Marriage brings together two people, with the support of many others, for the most demanding and intensive of all jobs – one that takes a minimum of eighteen to twenty years to be considered complete, and that, especially in early years, will take every second of the day and much of the night of a strong young adult. Anyone who has had to take care of a small child, however well behaved, for one hour, ought to understand how wise nature was to ordain that a part of the process of human reproduction should involve two strong adult individuals, supported by many others, dedicating much or most of their lives to rearing their child or children. In child rearing, there is no alternative to a family structure. Institutions and orphanages are proverbial by-words for neglect and abuse, not because they necessarily employ bad people, but because it is totally impossible that a paid person with a schedule could pay a child the attention that a mother or a father are ready to pay every moment of the day. And even in this day where the disastrous worship of love has made marriage as vulnerable as an eggshell or a scrap of paper, nonetheless statistics tell us that married couples break down much more rarely than cohabiting ones,and last much longer. The ceremony of marriage really does make a difference in this central issue of child-rearing – the survival of the couple of biological parents.

Finally, let us talk of the most neglected and even occasionally abused aspect of marriage: companionship. I have already mentioned the constant and – from the romantic point of view – inexplicable flourishing of marriage bureaux, wedding contact ads, and websites; which is only explained by the fact that many people simply want to come home and find a member of the opposite sex there. Sex, as such, may or may not take place; the important thing is not to be alone in the evening and not wake up alone in the morning. I have actually seen this used as an argument for “gay marriage”: because people marry when they are aged or infertile, therefore marriage is not about fertility, and therefore “gay marriage” is perfectly all right. Now, the second “therefore” makes no sense at all: just because some instances of actual marriage are infertile, it does not mean that you should invent a kind of marriage that is bound to be infertile, and, more to the point, not involve the two sexes. Because that is the important fact about these things is that they are always about bringing together a man and a woman. Today, of course, they have little spaces for gay couples, but they are certainly in the nature of a gesture to prevailing winds. A marriage bureau that concentrated on “gay marriages” would have a very high likelihood of going bust in a few months, but bringing together lonely men and lonely women is one of the enduring and enduringly profitable businesses of the world. And that is because the two sexes really are complementary in a way that no two members of one sex can be. We have seen that the union and collaboration of a man and a woman over a matter of decades – that is, at the very least, much of their adult lives – is a biological necessity for the rearing of human children. But the complementarity built into the two sexes by this biological need is a natural part of them and can't be talked or wished away. Men will tell you that women always talk about men; but then, how often do men talk about women? Not rarely, I can tell you. No matter what the propaganda, what the pressure of politics and of politically influenced media, the presumptions, the sexes remain a wonder and a mystery to each other.

And across this wonder and this mystery, a union takes place that is more than mere friendship, more than mere feeling, more even than love. A man and a woman form a grouping that is wholly sui generis, that is not to be explained in any terms but its own. It is not friendship, even the deepest and closest and most wonderful friendship; although, if the spouses are good and decent people, it will develop among other things into an enduring friendship where the one understands the other instinctively, appreciates their views, and supports their actions. It is not love, although love is one of its highest and most admired achievements; but two people may be validly married, and even get along quite nicely thank you, without every having had a tremendous attraction to each other. It is not even only fertility, because father and mother may well, it is hoped, look to the children, but they also look to each other. It is marriage; period, end of story. And it is between a man and a woman.


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