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Posts Tagged ‘love’

26 JULY, 2013

George Bernard Shaw on Marriage, the Oppression of Women, and the Hypocrisies of Monogamy

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“Promiscuity is a product of slavery and not of liberty.”

For Charles Darwin, matrimony was the victor of a careful and comical weighing of pros and cons; for Susan Sontag, “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings”; for Charles and Ray Eames, a fairy tale of creative partnership; for Amelia Earhart, the product of medieval ideals which she was unwilling to endure; for Dan Savage, an institution that desperately needs remoralizing; for Edith Windsor and thousands like her, a cherished human right the denial of which is a death to every personal dignity and the granting of which cause for the highest public celebration.

This layered and often conflicted nature of marriage as a legal institution is what legendary Irish playwright and London School of Economics founder George Bernard Shaw (July 26, 1856–November 2, 1950) — who is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar, and who far more memorably once crashed his bicycle into Bertrand Russell’s — explores in his 1908 play Getting Married (public library; public domain), using the story of a family convening for a wedding as the springboard for his meditation on what’s wrong with marriage laws, the fundamental gender inequality on which they are based, the hypocrisies of monogamy, and, above all, why divorce laws desperately need to evolve.

Shaw writes in the preface to the play:

There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage. If the mischief stopped at talking and thinking it would be bad enough; but it goes further, into disastrous anarchical action. Because our marriage law is inhuman and unreasonable to the point of downright abomination, the bolder and more rebellious spirits form illicit unions, defiantly sending cards round to their friends announcing what they have done. Young women come to me and ask me whether I think they ought to consent to marry the man they have decided to live with; and they are perplexed and astonished when I, who am supposed (heaven knows why!) to have the most advanced views attainable on the subject, urge them on no account to compromise themselves without the security of an authentic wedding ring. They cite the example of George Eliot, who formed an illicit union with Lewes. They quote a saying attributed to Nietzsche, that a married philosopher is ridiculous, though the men of their choice are not philosophers. When they finally give up the idea of reforming our marriage institutions by private enterprise and personal righteousness, and consent to be led to the Registry or even to the altar, they insist on first arriving at an explicit understanding that both parties are to be perfectly free to sip every flower and change every hour, as their fancy may dictate, in spite of the legal bond. I do not observe that their unions prove less monogamic than other people’s: rather the contrary, in fact; consequently, I do not know whether they make less fuss than ordinary people when either party claims the benefit of the treaty; but the existence of the treaty shows the same anarchical notion that the law can be set aside by any two private persons by the simple process of promising one another to ignore it.

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his timeless essay on “crystallization” and how love works, and Shaw admonishes against using this very state of fever as the catalyst for something as serious, and as regulated by law and custom, as marriage:

The stupidity is only apparent: the service was really only an honest attempt to make the best of a commercial contract of property and slavery by subjecting it to some religious restraint and elevating it by some touch of poetry. But the actual result is that when two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. And though of course nobody expects them to do anything so impossible and so unwholesome, yet the law that regulates their relations, and the public opinion that regulates that law, is actually founded on the assumption that the marriage vow is not only feasible but beautiful and holy, and that if they are false to it, they deserve no sympathy and no relief.

Discussing the artificiality of monogamy as law rather than choice, Shaw argues:

Monogamy has a sentimental basis which is quite distinct from the political one of equal numbers of the sexes. Equal numbers in the sexes are quite compatible with a change of partners every day or every hour. Physically there is nothing to distinguish human society from the farm-yard except that children are more troublesome and costly than chickens and calves, and that men and women are not so completely enslaved as farm stock. Accordingly, the people whose conception of marriage is a farm-yard or slave-quarter conception are always more or less in a panic lest the slightest relaxation of the marriage laws should utterly demoralize society; whilst those to whom marriage is a matter of more highly evolved sentiments and needs (sometimes said to be distinctively human, though birds and animals in a state of freedom evince them quite as touchingly as we) are much more liberal, knowing as they do that monogamy will take care of itself provided the parties are free enough, and that promiscuity is a product of slavery and not of liberty.

Later, in a section titled “Hearth and Home,” he adds:

Home life as we understand it is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo. Its grave danger to the nation lies in its narrow views, its unnaturally sustained and spitefully jealous concupiscences, its petty tyrannies, its false social pretenses, its endless grudges and squabbles, its sacrifice of the boy’s future by setting him to earn money to help the family when he should be in training for his adult life (remember the boy Dickens and the blacking factory), and of the girl’s chances by making her a slave to sick or selfish parents, its unnatural packing into little brick boxes of little parcels of humanity of ill-assorted ages, with the old scolding or beating the young for behaving like young people, and the young hating and thwarting the old for behaving like old people, and all the other ills, mentionable and unmentionable, that arise from excessive segregation.

In a section titled “Marriage as a Magic Spell,” Shaw goes on to debunk the false promises of marriage as a transformative tool for the nature of the relationship:

The truth which people seem to overlook in this matter is that the marriage ceremony is quite useless as a magic spell for changing in an instant the nature of the relations of two human beings to one another. If a man marries a woman after three weeks acquaintance, and the day after meets a woman he has known for twenty years, he finds, sometimes to his own irrational surprise and his wife’s equally irrational indignation, that his wife is a stranger to him, and the other woman an old friend. Also, there is no hocus pocus that can possibly be devised with rings and veils and vows and benedictions that can fix either a man’s or woman’s affection for twenty minutes, much less twenty years. Even the most affectionate couples must have moments during which they are far more conscious of one another’s faults than of one another’s attractions.

But most poignant of all are Shaw’s insights in a section titled “The Economic Slavery of Women,” where he addresses the fundamental inequality upon which the institution, as originally designed, is built and the transactional trickeries and charades they engender:

One of the consequences of basing marriage on the considerations stated with cold abhorrence by Saint Paul in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Corinthians, as being made necessary by the unlikeness of most men to himself, is that the sex slavery involved has become complicated by economic slavery; so that whilst the man defends marriage because he is really defending his pleasures, the woman is even more vehement on the same side because she is defending her only means of livelihood. To a woman without property or marketable talent a husband is more necessary than a master to a dog. There is nothing more wounding to our sense of human dignity than the husband hunting that begins in every family when the daughters become marriageable; but it is inevitable under existing circumstances; and the parents who refuse to engage in it are bad parents, though they may be superior individuals. The cubs of a humane tigress would starve; and the daughters of women who cannot bring themselves to devote several years of their lives to the pursuit of sons-in-law often have to expatiate their mother’s squeamishness by life-long celibacy and indigence. To ask a young man his intentions when you know he has no intentions, but is unable to deny that he has paid attentions; to threaten an action for breach of promise of marriage; to pretend that your daughter is a musician when she has with the greatest difficulty been coached into playing three piano-forte pieces which she loathes; to use your own mature charms to attract men to the house when your daughters have no aptitude for that department of sport; to coach them, when they have, in the arts by which men can be led to compromise themselves; and to keep all the skeletons carefully locked up in the family cupboard until the prey is duly hunted down and bagged: all this is a mother’s duty today; and a very revolting duty it is: one that disposes of the conventional assumption that it is in the faithful discharge of her home duties that a woman finds her self-respect. The truth is that family life will never be decent, much less ennobling, until this central horror of the dependence of women on men is done away with. At present it reduces the difference between marriage and prostitution to the difference between Trade Unionism and unorganized casual labor: a huge difference, no doubt, as to order and comfort, but not a difference in kind.

In a later section, titled “Labor Exchanges and the White Slavery,” Shaw adds:

Suppose, again, a woman presents herself at the Labor Exchange, and states her trade as that of a White Slave, meaning the unmentionable trade pursued by many thousands of women in all civilized cities. Will the Labor Exchange find employers for her? … [I]f it finds honest employment for her and for all the unemployed wives and mothers, it must find new places in the world for women; and in so doing it must achieve for them economic independence of men. And when this is done, can we feel sure that any woman will consent to be a wife and mother (not to mention the less respectable alternative) unless her position is made as eligible as that of the women for whom the Labor Exchanges are finding independent work? Will not many women now engaged in domestic work under circumstances which make it repugnant to them, abandon it and seek employment under other circumstances? As unhappiness in marriage is almost the only discomfort sufficiently irksome to induce a woman to break up her home, and economic dependence the only compulsion sufficiently stringent to force her to endure such unhappiness, the solution of the problem of finding independent employment for women may cause a great number of childless unhappy marriages to break up spontaneously, whether the marriage laws are altered or not. … We may expect, then, that marriages which are maintained by economic pressure alone will dissolve when that pressure is removed; and as all the parties to them will certainly not accept a celibate life, the law must sanction the dissolution in order to prevent a recurrence of the scandal which has moved the Government to appoint the Commission now sitting to investigate the marriage question: the scandal, that is, of a great number matter of the evils of our marriage law, to take care of the pence and let the pounds take care of themselves. The crimes and diseases of marriage will force themselves on public attention by their own virulence. I mention them here only because they reveal certain habits of thought and feeling with regard to marriage of which we must rid ourselves if we are to act sensibly when we take the necessary reforms in hand.

Shaw goes on to explore the importance of loosening marriage laws and making divorce more attainable, concluding:

When it comes to “conduct rendering life burdensome,” it is clear that no marriage is any longer indissoluble; and the sensible thing to do then is to grant divorce whenever it is desired, without asking why.

Complement Getting Married with Darwin’s delightful list of the pros and cons of marriage and Amelia Earhart’s remarkably progressive 1931 letter to her husband-to-be.

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16 JULY, 2013

Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love

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“Two people … who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person … one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind.”

In 1960, Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known but masterful artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl, bed classifier — began recording a series of broadcasts for BBC’s celebrated series “The Poet’s Voice.” At least 17 known broadcasts were produced between November of 1960 and January of 1963, just weeks before Plath took her own life. From The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the magnificent collection of the surviving BBC recordings, preserved by the British Library Sound Archive, which also gave us Plath’s beautiful reading of her poem “Tulips” — comes this fascinating 20-minute interview with Plath and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, by BBC’s Owen Leeming. Titled “Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership,” it was recorded on January 18, 1961, and aired on January 31.

Though their actual first encounter was decidedly steamy and salacious, the couple concocts an intellectually revisionist history:

Plath: We kept writing poems to each other, and then it just grew out of that, I guess — a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided we should keep on.

Hughes: The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage, it took a hold. [laughs]

When asked about her childhood, Plath traces the psychoemotional backdrop against which her love of writing developed — the source of both her genius and her tragedy:

I think I was happy up to the age of about nine — very carefree — and I believed in magic, which influenced me a great bit. And then, at nine, I was rather disillusioned — I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers — and became more realistic and depressed, I think, and then, gradually, became a bit more adjusted about the age of sixteen or seventeen. But I certainly didn’t have a happy adolescence — and, perhaps, that’s partly why I turned specially to writing — I wrote diaries, stories, and so forth. I was quite introverted during those early years.

When Leeming asks Hughes whether he thinks their two temperaments are “parallel” or “in conflict” — a “marriage of opposites” — the poet gives an answer that is at once mystical, poetic, and strangely ominous in the retrospective context of what the imminent future was to bring:

We’re very alike — we like the same things, live at the same tempo, have the same sort of rhythm in almost every way. But obviously this is a very fortunate covering for temperaments that are extremely different. But they lead secret lives, you see — they content themselves in an imaginative world, so they never really come into open conflict.

In discussing the various ways in which the two have been making ends meet, Plath articulates something that would resonate deeply with most writers:

We actually look ahead from year to year, and try very hard not to look ahead beyond that … when you’re writing, you don’t do any twenty-year pension plans or anything of that sort, and need a bit more faith and brazenness perhaps than if one has a steady job. [But] I wouldn’t [have it any other way], even being a very practical and domestic housewife as I am — I think the advantages are too great to want to change.

Though jokingly offered, Hughes touches on the “hedonic treadmill” of consumerism and contributes a sad insight on material culture:

You begin to worry about money when you get a job.

(Cue in this wonderful guide to how to worry less about money.)

When asked at what stage they are going to start introducing their nine-month-old daughter Frieda to poetry, Plath, who had herself just authored a couple of little-known and lovely books of children’s verse, argues that there is no room for snobbery when it comes to priming children for poetry:

She already has listened to nursery rhymes, which I consider a poetry — I don’t believe in being self-conscious about it. I think that everything from little nursery rhymes and songs to Eliot’s Practical Cats is perfect material.

Hughes offers a beautiful meditation on the power of creative intimacy — something manifested in this lovely modern-day example — in which two people who are romantically intertwined also serve as springboards for each other’s interpretation of reality:

What she writes out needn’t be at all the contents of her own mind — it needn’t be anything she knows — but it’s something that somebody in the room knows, or somebody that she’s very close to knows. And, in this way, two people who are sympathetic to each other and who are right, who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person — they make up one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind. … It’s not that you choose the same things to write about, necessarily, and you certainly don’t write about them in the same way — it’s that you draw on an experience, it’s as though you knew more about something than you, from your own life, have ever really learned. . .

It’s a complicated idea to get across, because you’ve first of all to believe in this sort of telepathic union exists between two sympathetic people.

Pair The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath with Plath on life, death, hope and happiness and Hughes’s exquisite letter of existential advice to their son.

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15 JULY, 2013

Oscar Wilde’s Stirring Love Letters to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas

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“It is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing.”

As we make historic progress on the dignity and equality of human love, it’s hard to forget the enormous indignities to which the lovers of yore have been subjected across the 4,000-year history of persecuting desire. Among modernity’s most tragic victims of our shameful past is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned multiple times for his “crime” of homosexuality, run into bankruptcy and exile, and fell to an untimely death. But Wilde’s most “sinful” quality — his enormous capacity for passionate, profound love — was also one of the most poetic gifts of his life.

In June of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet, who would come to be the author’s own Dorian Gray — his literary muse, his evil genius, his restless lover. It was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salomé and the four great plays which to this day endure as the cornerstones of his legacy. Their correspondence, collected Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters (public library), makes for an infinitely inspired addition to the most beautiful love letters exchanged between history’s greatest creative and intellectual power couples, including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

In a letter penned on a cold Oxford day in November of 1892, Wilde writes Douglas:

Dearest Bosie … I should awfully like to go away with you somewhere where it is hot and coloured.

Several weeks later, in January of 1893, Wilde writes:

My Own Boy,

Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.

Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.

Always, with undying love, yours,

Oscar

Letter from Oscar Wilde to Bosie, November 1892 (The Morgan Library)

In early March of 1893, Wilde channels love’s exasperating sense of urgency:

Dearest of All Boys — Your letter was delightful — red and yellow wine to me — but I am sad and out of sorts — Bosie — you must not make scenes with me — they kill me — they wreck the loveliness of life — I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me — don’t do it — you break my heart — I’d sooner be rented* all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid — horrid.

I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead –

Ever your own,

Oscar

* “renter” was slang for male prostitute in London

Their affair was intense, bustling with dramatic tempestuousness, but underpinning it was a profound and genuine love. In a letter from late December of 1893, after a recent rift, Wilde writes to Douglas:

My dearest Boy,

Thanks for your letter. I am overwhelmed by the wings of vulture creditors, and out of sorts, but I am happy in the knowledge that we are friends again, and that our love has passed through the shadow and the light of estrangement and sorrow and come out rose-crowned as of old. Let us always be infinitely dear to each other, as indeed we have been always.

[…]

I think of you daily, and am always devotedly yours.

Oscar

In July of the following year, Wilde writes:

My own dear Boy,

I hope the cigarettes arrived all right. I lunched with Gladys de Grey, Reggie and Aleck York there. They want me to go to Paris with them on Thursday: they say one wears flannels and straw hats and dines in the Bois, but, of course, I have no money, as usual, and can’t go. Besides, I want to see you. It is really absurd. I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north and south, towards sun and moon — and, above all, yourself. The only thing that consoles me is what Sybil of Mortimer Street (whom mortals call Mrs. Robinson) said to me*. If I could disbelieve her I would, but I can’t, and I know that early in January you and I will go away together for a long voyage, and that your lovely life goes always hand in hand with mine. My dear wonderful boy, I hope you are brilliant and happy.

I went to Bertie, today I wrote at home, then went and sat with my mother. Death and Love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me.

London is a desert without your dainty feet… Write me a line and take all my love — now and for ever.

Always, and with devotion — but I have no words for how I love you.

Oscar

* The fortuneteller’s prophesy apparently came true — Wilde and Douglas travelled to Algiers together the following January.

Signed poster by Edward Gorey (from my personal collection)

In 1895, at the height of his literary success, with his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest drawing continuous acclaim across the stages of London, Wilde had Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, prosecuted for libel. But the evidence unearthed during the trial led to Wilde’s own arrest on charges of “gross indecency” with members of the same sex. Two more trials followed, after which he was sentenced for two years of “hard labor” in prison. On April 29 of that year, having hit emotional and psychological rock-bottom, his reputation ruined and his health deteriorating, Wilde wrote to Douglas on the eve of the final trial:

My dearest boy,

This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. If prison and dishonour be my destiny, think that my love for you and this idea, this still more divine belief, that you love me in return will sustain me in my unhappiness and will make me capable, I hope, of bearing my grief most patiently. Since the hope, nay rather the certainty, of meeting you again in some world is the goal and the encouragement of my present life, ah! I must continue to live in this world because of that.

Another letter, written on August 31, 1897, shortly after Wilde’s release from prison, reads:

Café Suisse, Dieppe
Tuesday, 7:30

My own Darling Boy,

I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.

I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other. Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,

Oscar

Oscar and Bosie in 1893

But perhaps the most eloquent articulation of their relationship comes from a letter Wilde wrote to Leonard Smithers — a Sheffield solicitor with a side business of printing erotica, who became the only publisher interested in Wilde’s books in his post-prison years — on October 1, 1897:

How can you keep on asking is Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples? You know quite well he is — we are together. He understands me and my art, and loves both. I hope never to be separated from him. He is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides — far the finest of all the young poets in England. You have got to publish his next volume; it is full of lovely lyrics, flute-music and moon-music, and sonnets in ivory and gold. He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do.

More of their exquisite correspondence appears in Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, but that one sentence alone — “He understands me and my art, and loves both.” — is an immeasurably beautiful addition to history’s most profound definitions of love, a sublime manifestation of the highest hope one creative soul can have for a union with another.

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