Even institutions like marriage in whose support social conservatives stand as one have often suffered erosion due to a pseudo-conservative market mentality.
It has been suggested to me that my recent equation of bourgeois American marriage customs with society-page prostitution was excessively cynical. I might respond that the accusation belongs to the feminists of my generation and not to me; but that would be rather disingenuous, since—perhaps in this matter alone—I can see the feminists’ point. No doubt, my youthful experiences of dating severely jaundiced my outlook—or my complete inexperience of dating, I should say. I was sent to an elite private school (thanks to long hours worked by both my parents) whose august threshold someone of “my kind” ought never to have darkened. From the inaugural year of fourth grade all the way through high school, I was given to understand in ways subtle and unsubtle that I should stay away from the merchandise. Naturally, there were a few girls who shared my humble circumstances; but they were either fishing for a much bigger catch (“You of all people should understand,” they would imply), or else they served as… how shall I put it? They were “demo’s” upon whose well-worn upholstery the sons of our local swells refined their sexual driving skills.
Since I was raised to be a gentleman (as opposed to having blundered at birth into gentle circumstances), I ended up remaining a mere spectator throughout these years. It’s a habit that has never left me, perhaps. At any rate, I can lay claim to having observed many, many sizzling flares in the sexual Bonfire of the Vanities that was the late sixties and the seventies; and of these many, the few that abated into the steady burn of matrimony practically all shifted their fuel from the kerosene of hormones to the dried peat of greenbacks. Bear in mind that I speak of the privileged—the preppies who went off to college: the quintessential representatives of middle-class values in full flower. Among this crowd, a good marriage was a “good deal” for any country lass who landed a med student (like the blonde pillar of virtue I most seriously tried to court). For the less virtuous and better-healed, it was a union of two equally potent bank accounts. The annoyance of having to instruct one party or the other in driving a golf cart or absorbing booze at the proper rate during the Cotillion never arose.
It is a statistic-turned-cliché that worries over money figure prominently in the causation of most divorces. The bearing and rearing of children also seems to make the top three. If my experience of high society’s nuptial meat-market was so skewed, then why do such stats exist? On our great-great-grandparents’ farms a century and a half ago, young people undertook marriage almost as a vow of poverty. They expected the contract to involve harder work, not greater ease; and as for children, not only did they never quarrel because Jill wanted one and Jack wanted none—they had child after child without a second thought (and probably with far too little thought—but infant mortality ran high).
Only as a result of massive urbanization (and “bourgeois”, remember, derives from a word meaning “town” or “settlement”) did the “eligibility” factor begin to include the degree of luxury offered by the male and the degree of conditioning to luxury offered by the female. A man who worked up a sweat in any manner other than walking the greens with his putter or hiking up a hill with shotgun and retriever was a ruffian. A woman who acquired dirt under her fingernails in any manner other than tidying roses in the parlor (gardening was permitted, but only with gloves) was a hussy. These ways belonged to the haute bourgeoisie as intimately as their investment portfolio: they really had nothing to do with the Old World aristocracy that the great American middle class formally detested and secretly envied. A German Graf or Scots laird of the same period might have been found digging up his own grounds (or someone else’s halfway around the world) in search of pagan amulets and ancient pottery, his dungarees rolled up and his floppy felt hat pulled down. A Hearst or a Rockefeller would never have risked “being seen” in such a state.
A crypto-eugenic racism also informed the growing middle class’s marriage-and-family customs. Lower species always produced more offspring, while higher ones had fewer. (Recall the lion-mother’s boast about her one cub in Aesop’s fable.) In this neo-Darwinian atmosphere, Catholics had far too many children to be respectable: so did those yokels who remained back on the farm. Though there was probably an implicit presumption in these times before the Pill that such degenerates just couldn’t lift their minds for long out of the sexual gutter, equally implied was an understanding that smaller families meant more disposable income. And I hasten to add that one cannot deny the truth of this equation. If Victorian thought’s condescension to the world’s dark races that endured famine after famine is now hard to swallow, its ascribing such famines to constant child-bearing was also based in sound observation.
At some point, however, the bourgeois attachment to wealth occupied so formidable a chunk of the class’s collective psyche that its well-programmed members found children almost entirely dispensable. I believe this critical shift occurred at about the same time as the sexual revolution—and for the same reasons. As I argued earlier, Hollywood and feminism were not necessary to convince the young bourgeoisie of the Eisenhower Era that marriage should be about convenience and pleasure: such materialist hedonism was already the class’s creed. The purpose of life was to be happy and respected (two objectives scarcely separable in the bourgeois mind, even long after Queen Victoria was laid to rest: to this day, many Americans attend Sunday church at least as much to sustain a certain standing in the community as out of religious conviction). How does one achieve happiness and respect? By acquiring wealth and its comforts in a socially approved manner. How does marriage assist in this endeavor? Either by yoking a richer partner to a poorer one or by pairing two wealthy people—but the former scenario actually diminishes the wealth of one party. What, then, can be that party’s consolation for dividing a fortune? An increase in pleasure. What pleasure has marriage to offer if not greater wealth and social status? The pleasure of sex, of course. A wealthy man could marry a sexy starlet, and a wealthy widow could marry a lithe, lean golf pro. Nothing about that outraged the Ghost of Darwin very much.
Yet not only did children play no role in this kind of calculus; marriage itself quickly became a tortuous route to a readily accessible end once sexual pleasure was overtly admitted as a healthy, even respectable motive (which admission was facilitated by the Pill’s elimination of pregnancy from extra-marital affairs). A lifetime of happiness/pleasure with one partner indeed began to seem unnatural. One spouse might lose his or her looks or “drive” with age—or the well-documented enticements of the forbidden fruit, the greener grass just beyond the fence, might prove stronger than those of a mate who remained “hot” yet had the misfortune to be entirely licit. For women, too, a new door upon wealth and comfort opened as feminism promoted their entry into the professional world. Surely here, at last, we detect radical left-wing activism’s taking the initiative in undoing bourgeois society… but in what a very bourgeois manner! For what could be more materialist than the female CEO’s obsession with being paid at least as much as her male counterpart, and what could be more “status-conscious” than the female professor’s obsession with promotion and tenure? The community of respected peers had shifted from quiet suburbs to city skyscrapers and ivory towers—but the indexing of success to the judgments of those peers had lost none of the Victorians’ snobby tribalism and crass attention to high-priced facades.
Need I state the obvious: that once the achievement of wealth and of pleasure alike had been thus severed from marriage, bourgeois America retained little use for the institution? Nowadays conventional marriage has turned into a battlefield as homosexual couples demand its respectability for their unions. Traditionalists see this clamor as a feint in the great cultural fencing match whose objective, for the progressive Left, is to drive a blade through the heart of every reverend custom. They have good cause to hold such a view. Yet I think it not completely implausible that “gay marriage” agitators, good little bourgeois offshoots that they are, also genuinely desire the “respectability” component of the “happiness” formula. They have the wealth, and the sex… and how (they ask) is a monogamous relationship year after year with a same-sex partner less respectable than the wife-and-mistress or four-wives-in-a-decade relationship grown typical since America liked Ike? Bourgeois logic has no ground of rebuttal.
I’ve been working lately (for classroom purposes) on a video about the medieval romance. This is a variety of story where heroes—and, often, heroines—wander far and wide haphazardly through many exotic lands (as opposed to the mythic hero, a demigod who ranges from Olympus to Hades on specific missions). Sexual love is not always an element of such tales, despite the word’s associations for us today; but historically speaking, as enterprising members of vibrant societies begin to trade and travel and the extended family of the tribe is forgotten, relationships with a single “soul mate” do start to grow more common. Especially in the European Middle Ages, the journeys and the love affairs of written romances acquire a mystical power through allegorization. We are seldom entirely sure that the knight isn’t doing a penance or learning a catechism as he pursues a perilous quest, and his courtship of a fair lady often seems strangely like an adoration of Heaven’s guiding light.
It has occurred to me in the course of this project that we very much embraced the notion of allegory in our personal romances when love ennobled us—i.e., before the bourgeois mind made marriage a fine calculation of material profit + good sex + respectability. Our mate once drew us closer to God. A man’s lady made him more of a gentleman—more charitable, compassionate, selfless, and courageous. In her approval was mystically bound the approval of God on High. The fair lady in the tower, for her part, kept herself more aloof from vulgar words and crude acts that she might more closely resemble the ideal that her knight saw in her. Her duty was not to be perfect, for no human being is that (and none but a mad Orlando would expect his lady to be a marble statue): it was to aspire to be perfect, and especially to let her man understand that his vision of her assisted her in approaching so lofty an aspiration.
The man, in return, loved his lady the more for finding her flawed yet sensing that he helped her to prevail over her flaws. Most of us like feeling needed, and that like can multiply the power of devotion, just as feeling quite unneeded usually destroys devotion. The lady, in return, loved her man the more having recognized the despair that assailed him when he did not have her to lift him from self-preoccupation; for a man without a woman is almost always a study in despair. This indefinite reciprocity of inspiration—a mirror placed before a mirror in such fashion that all images were shared by both and none began in either—created a bond of innumerable knots. One plus one became more than two.
When the pop psychology—the “you’re okay, I’m okay”, “self-actualizing” pap—of the late sixties and seventies declared all such starry-eyed mysticism dead, it made big bucks; and it did so because the bourgeois mind had long ago rejected the allegorical life. Objects are commodities, and people are consumers. Things objectively are no more than what they appear: market forces determine their perceived (i.e., illusory) value. When feminism of this era declared the chivalric ethic of self-sacrifice a patriarchal trick to preserve the existing power structure, it was speaking in the same tongue. Sex is just sex. If you have an itch, scratch it—and don’t let marketers convince you to pay a dime for what you can have free. Rivals for the same debased turf, both the commercialist Right and the iconoclastic Left agreed that you and I are static, unitary quantities—that our souls do not mysteriously grow or mingle with other souls. The epistemology of both sides was empirical. The Right, of course, has found our natural desire to change and grow—to seek the Other, the Higher—very marketable, like the snake oil of the prototypical frontier huckster. The Left has also, especially in recent years, perversely doubled back on its “you’ve come a long way, baby” solipsism (a slogan originally penned by marketers to sell cigarettes!) to a nanny-statism that requires “baby” to cling gratefully to Big Brother. Such contradiction shows only that we humans cannot live without a belief in higher mystery—not that the mystery’s persecutors have seen the error of their way. Where productive mystery has been systematically uprooted, degenerate mysteries spring up like dandelions in April.
If I were to attempt a book instead of an essay on this subject, the rise of empirical science would also have its share of the villain’s role—for the cultural forces that fueled the scientific revolution substantially overlapped those that fueled the middle class’s growth. All the same, science cannot fairly be charged with having objectified all of man’s creative and spiritual life, any more than Darwin can correctly be accused of having taught Victorian society to disparage the underclass. The real lesson to draw here is that bourgeois society must constantly police its acquired reflex of assigning value based on marketability—on convenience, ease, novelty, “sex appeal”, and the rest. This approach doesn’t work for all aspects of reality. The free market is an economy’s best friend, but it can also be the soul’s worst enemy. Our society will never be able to identify and avoid the pitfalls of progressivism, feminism, and other kinds of introverted idolatry until it recognizes the risk factors at the very core of its own foundation.