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Love Among The Ruins


Love Among The Ruins

June 25, 2000

Just when you thought American culture couldn't sink an lower, along comes Fox TV's "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" During the two-hour show this past February, 50 young women vied in a beauty contest, which included a swimsuit parade, to marry Rick Rockwell, a California real estate developer, motivational speaker, and aspiring comic. Rockwell picked from the pageant of lovelies an emergency-room nurse named Darva Conger, went down on his knee, and when she accepted, married her. (Since this was Las Vegas, the producers were able to have a license made out in the five-minute commercial break between the proposal and ceremony).

Though the show was an immediate success—twenty-two million Americans tuned in—the aftermath was a disaster. Apparently unmoved by the ceremonial kiss, the bride wept through the entire airplane trip to her Caribbean honeymoon as her beloved snored away in the next seat. It was just a matter of days before it emerged that Rockwell was not just a dolt but a brute—his previous girlfriend had had to take out a restraining order against him—and a fraud. He was not Rick Rockwell from Los Angeles (surprise!), he was Richard Balkey from Pittsburgh. Moreover, he wasn't a millionaire but a mortgaged-to-the-hilt, Mametesque schemer. Inevitably, Conger filed for an annulment. And in a fitting coda several weeks later, Jay Thomas, the host of the show, revealed that his own marriage had ended with even greater speed after he and his wife of one hour began squabbling in the car on the way back from the church. Meanwhile, rising from the ashes, the abandoned Rockwell took his comic act on the road for a "National Annulment Tour."

The spectacle of 50 women making fools of themselves at the prospect of marrying a rich man elicited a good deal of commentary, mostly from feminists, who shook their heads in disgust, and evolutionary psychologists, who said I told you so. Yet the carnival atmosphere should not prevent us from grasping what the whole episode reveals about the ambiguous health of marriage in America today. While the poor thing is mocked and paraded through the airways in circus tights, marriage nevertheless remains among life's most valued goals. Those millions of women viewers—can anyone doubt that almost all were women?—did not just watch in order to sneer. They wanted to see a wedding, and they wanted to believe, despite all odds, it could lead to happiness. That they hoped to see this all happen on a game show may make them seem foolish, but the truth is today no one has a clue about how to seek a happy marriage anyway.

The predicament of young women nearing marriageable age on our college campuses hints at the depth of the problem. Some weeks after Conger and Rockwell tied the knot, the New York Times ran a story on Wesleyan University's "naked dorm" where, as one 19-year-old male student told the reporter: "If I feel the need to take my pants off, I take my pants off," something he evidently felt the need to do during the interview. A less persuaded female student recounted her worried phone call to her parents when she first realized that she had been assigned to a "naked dorm." In a gesture that sums up about all we need to know about the prospects for serious emotional bonds among young people today, her father "laughed."

Into this blasted cultural landscape strides University of Chicago professors Amy and Leon Kass with a splendid anthology, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying.1 (The title comes from a poem Robert Frost wrote on the occasion of his daughter's wedding.) The book may require an elder Virgil to explain its mysteries, but it is aimed at today's dazed and confused young. Its purpose is to help them explore the "meaning, purpose, and virtues of marriage and especially, about how one might go about finding and winning the right one to marry." The volume spans centuries of Western texts from Homer to Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and includes writings from philosophy, theology, history, literature, and anthropology. Yet despite a premise that may seem quaint and its sometimes hoary sources, Wing to Wing does not come off as a cabinet of curiosities. It is a stirring anthology of human aspiration-aspirations that the Kasses contend are still beating, however faintly, and however challenged by Fox TV and naked dorms, in the hearts of young people.

Divided into seven sections—with headings like, "Is This Love?," "Why Marry?," and "How Can I Find and Win the Right One?"—Wing to Wing sets out to tour a different world than that inhabited by such celebrity gender theorists as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. Yet the plainness of its language is far from pandering; it is designed to help the gender—and MTV—hardened reader recall what were once mundane, though profound, truths. Throughout the anthology the reader is reminded how love and marriage answer fundamental human needs, helping to assuage our inevitable loneliness and feelings of incompleteness. "It is not good that man should be alone," God says as he fashions Eve from Adam's rib in one of several selections from Genesis. In Aristophanes' famous speech from Plato's Symposium about the origins of erotic longing, it is Eros "who tries to make one out of two and to heal their human nature," for each of us is a mere "token of a human being."

Love and marriage also pay homage to the relentless cycle of life. By announcing the couple's readiness to procreate, marriage simultaneously accepts and resists death, for by giving birth, the couple both acknowledges that they will be replaced and insists that they will endure. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis explains in an elegant selection from his 1960 book The Four Loves, because of its universal historical and sacramental character, marriage teaches us that "forces older and less personal than we work through us." Thus the theologian William May in a paper entitled "Four Mischievous Theories About Sex" alludes to Hugh Hefner's one-time policy of never allowing a story about death in Playboy, for as the name suggests, the playboy is a child oblivious to the passage of time and his own insignificance.

Wing to Wing is an unabashedly and plain-speaking pro-marriage anthology; don't come here looking for Flaubert or Ibsen. But it is not naive. The editors are well aware that many powerful forces, including feminism, reproductive technologies, and the sexual revolution, have rendered obsolete easy prescriptions for "how to find the right one." And they believe that more than a behavioral script has been lost to these forces. Traditional forms of courtship did not merely prescribe "the rules"; they contained within them a tacit understanding of the nature of love, human sexuality, the individual's place within the social order, and the larger purposes of human life. In setting before the young some of the greatest works on these subjects, Leon and Amy Kass do not hope so much to provide answers to these questions—about which many of their own authors would in any event disagree—as to instill some consciousness of the alternatives to our present benighted predicament. Most young people today receive no guidance in the "momentous undertaking" that is courtship. "I don't think I ever made a decision; I just sort of did it," said Darva Conger, and though her situation was extraordinary, her sentiments are probably not. At the very least, Wing to Wing is meant to wake the Darva Congers of this world from their sleepwalking.

The conflict between the fleeting nature of romantic passion and the permanence of marriage is one of the large recurring problems the Kasses want their readers to wake up to and ponder. Some of the thinkers selected, such as Erasmus, Ben Franklin, and the contemporary theologian Gilbert Meilaender, seem to get around the problem by valuing marriage not for its promise of romantic bliss but for its potential for companionship and friendship. Of course, through much of history, people solved the problem by drawing a firm line between eros and marriage. No self-respecting Greek, with the possible exception of Homer, whose Odysseus and Penelope appear here as an example of domestic love, ever imagined that marriage was anything more than an economic and social arrangement. In the Middle Ages, though romantic passion became a mark of gentility, it was strictly extramarital. Using the legend of Tristan and Iseult as his starting point, the Swiss philosopher Denis De Rougemont argues that in fact passion thrives only when lovers are prevented from satisfying their feelings; marriage, which removes obstruction, is the "negation of passion." "Just think of Mme Tristan!" he scoffs. (Could Homer be pertinent here as well? Decades of wandering may well have been the obstruction that fueled Odysseus' passion for Mme. Odysseus.) It was only in the late eighteenth century with the rise of the novel, the concept of individualism, and the right to emotional happiness, according to the historian Lawrence Stone, that people in the West begin to imagine that romantic love should be the basis of marriage.

The Kasses openly admit to being partisans of this latter tradition, as are doubtless their intended readers, and much of Wing to Wing is really an attempt to address its central challenge: What can we do to ensure that love, whom we all know to be blind, guides us into a strong marriage? How do we know that the one we love is the one we should marry? For the editors, this is the purpose of modern courtship. And given the fickleness of passion and youth, they view courtship's greatest challenge not, as finding love but as disciplining raw passion, youthful impetuousness, and immature egotism. They illustrate the difference between the head-over-heels cravings of Romeo and Juliet and the mindful restraint of As You Like It's Rosalind as she coaches the impulsive Orlando toward mature passion. Rosalind aches with feeling—"O coz, coz, coz", she swoons to her dear friend Celia, "that thou / didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But / it cannot be sounded"—yet she will be neither overthrown by love's crude power nor its sonnet artifices. In testing a lover's suitability and worth through courtship, a young woman—the authors argue that given men's more impulsive sexual nature, it is women who must hold the reigns—may also come to self-awareness. Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett, for example, tames Mr. Darcy's pride and prejudice at the same time that she comes to understand her own. This self-knowledge is not merely a narcissistic adventure in therapy; it humbles her and thereby enlarges her own capacity for self-giving.

Most of the passages in Wing to Wing balance the lyricism of human longing and the substance of reason and philosophical thought in this fashion. The few selections that fail may tell us something about the complexity of our romantic predicament today. In a formulaic short story called "The Word Love," by Chita Banerjee Divakaruni, an unhappy young Indian woman finally leaves her callous lover when she realizes her need to hew to her mother and the tradition of premarital chastity she represents. A passage from a novel by Pearl Abraham, which tells the story of a rebellious young Orthodox Jewish woman who finally and happily conforms to her parents' choice for a marriage partner, is similarly programmatic. Both of these contemporary works evade a serious encounter with the conundrum of our liberal individualism, an individualism that, while heightening our expectations for erotic and romantic happiness, corrodes our capacity for long-lived marriage. Their easy commitment to traditional forms of courtship makes them subject to the charge of quaintness and irrelevance, which the editors otherwise so successfully avoid.

More compelling are other modern writers who attempt to speak to the fierce struggle between our modern autonomy and our archetypal longings. In a fascinating selection from his letters, Rilke proposes, in ways reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence (noticeably absent from Wing to Wing), that rather than lovers giving themselves up in momentary passion to one another, "Each should stand guard over the solitude of the other." It may be more provocative than satisfying, but it embraces the truth that even young people today know too well: "Love is something difficult."

Amy and Leon Kass do not fool themselves that they can deliver a new language and narrative for attaining this "something difficult." But what they do accomplish is still something wonderful. Wing to Wing cannot help but awaken a salutary awareness of our often contradictory desires. Most of all, it opens up vistas of human potential for our malnourished youth, stunted by years of gender theory, Fox TV, and parents who laugh at naked dorms. Read Kierkegaard's reflections on marriage: "Marriage in many ways is really a venture in natural magic." It transforms ordinary life "by a miracle into something significant for the believer." Or study Edwin Muir's ecstatic "Annunciation": "Now in this iron reign / I sing the liberty / Where each asks from each / What each most wants to give / And each awakes in each / What else would never be." Try laughing at that.