Marriage Thrives in Reality, Not in Our Dreams
by Nathan Schlueter
I am honored to be asked to deliver the annual Last Day Lecture here at Hillsdale College, and to be included among the distinguished faculty who have gone before me. This is a formidable subject for a lecture. It requires one to think about and imagine an unpleasant event: death. For me, however, the assignment is not as daunting as it might be for others. As my last name suggests, I have German in my blood, which means I often think about death.
I wish I could describe this as a philosophical experience, in the way that Socrates describes philosophy in The Phaedo, as “learning to die.” Then I would deliver an impersonal lecture on some fine point of philosophy, such as the adequacy of St. Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God, or the perverse effects of Kantian deontology on contemporary ethics.
But no, this experience of mine has all the marks of a German thing, not a Greek one. It involves the silent mourning of the passing of time, of the rapidly closing circle of possible selves into a solid and fixed point. I never cease to be stunned, even scandalized, by photographs of the aged when they were young: How could that smooth flesh, straight form, and clear eyes have suffered a sea-change into this faded, wrinkled man propped up in a wheelchair? I think of the inevitable unfolding of my own future.
And yet to look on death is to look on reality. To be human, to be an embodied soul, means to suffer time, change, and death, and our responses to these experiences are determinative of how we will live, and ultimately, of our happiness. So my lecture cannot be about learning to die in the Socratic sense. It is rather about learning to live in the Christian sense, and this means seeing reality as it is.
The (very) loose model of my reflections is The Confessions of St. Augustine, in which personal experiences of time, change, suffering, and death are illuminated by the mysteries of Creation, Incarnation, and Redemption. As with Manicheanism in the time of Augustine, so in our own time there lurks a dangerous heresy that twists both the truth and a good many lives. I call that heresy Romanticism.
By Romanticism I mean the impulse to escape, through passionate idealization and fancy, from the real world of mortal man, the world of suffering and change, the world of what it means to be in a body with concrete limits. Gustave Flaubert provides an exemplary model of the essential pattern of this sort of Romanticism in his novel Madame Bovary, especially in his depiction of the heroine, Emma Bovary. He also subjects it to a devastating, if rather hopeless, critique. That pattern has five features.
The Five Features of Escapist Romanticism
First, Flaubert locates Romanticism in a disordered imagination. Like Plato, Flaubert was profoundly aware of the essential connection between the imagination and desire, and of the singular power of art to shape the imagination. He describes in detail the influence of the popular romance novels of the day on Emma’s conception of happiness, especially in marriage, an influence that ultimately proves her undoing.
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And she tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.
A second feature of the Romantic imagination is itinerancy. Filtered through the imaginative lens of the literature she has read, Emma experiences as unrelieved boredom her ordinary life as the wife of a simple (and admittedly rather dull) doctor of a small town. Happiness is always elsewhere, there, just over the ever-receding horizon. As such, it is a flight from home, and from domesticity. Not only does Emma press her husband to move from one small town to another in the hope of finding excitement, but she spends her spare time dreaming of a happier life elsewhere:
It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could she not lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills?
Flaubert expresses his judgment of this aspect of Emma’s character with consummate irony: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”
The Romantic seeks flight from domesticity not only in a spatial sense, but also in an ontological sense. He refuses to be himself in his given, concrete particularity, and instead makes various attempts at self-creation. Thus, the Romantic imagination is behind the demand for autonomy. This is a desire the market is ever ready to supply. Consumerism, therefore, is a third feature of Romanticism.
One of the ironies of the quest for autonomy is that it inevitably results in the imitation of models provided by someone else. Advertisers and marketers elicit, feed upon, and profit from Romantic desire by providing an endless diversion of goods, and by promising ever-new identities. In Madame Bovary the merchant Lleureux is the pander of Emma’s illicit desires, profiting handsomely at each step of her demise. “Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.”
The ultimate futility of the consumerist promise rests in the fact that the “home” of human nature is to be in a body with an unchangeable genetic makeup and history. The trappings of fashion cannot re-create one’s identity but only change it in the most superficial way.
Emma also manifests a fourth aspect of Romantic escapism: adultery and promiscuity. She is only alive in the thrill of her extramarital affairs:
She repeated ‘I have a lover! A lover!’ delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. She felt herself surrounded by an endless rapture.
She also “recalled the heroines of the books that she had read . . . an actual part of these lyrical imaginings.” But her affair, like her marriage, inevitably becomes ordinary, a point Flaubert again makes with laconic precision: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”
Finally, and at its deepest level, Romanticism is motivated by an existential escapism. It is a revolt against humanity itself, against one’s limits as an embodied soul and creature. Autonomy leads to death, often by suicide. Like the Romantic heroines who have gone before her (Dido, Iseult, Juliet), Emma finds in her death by suicide both the liberation from and the consummation of her Romantic desire. Yet her dying words suggest that this end is anything but Romantic: “God it’s horrible!”
Emma’s extravagant expectation of happiness, her vagrant homelessness and boredom, her alternating states of misery and euphoria, her promiscuity, her addictive consumerism, and her suicide all follow a pattern that is familiar to careful observers of popular modern American life. We have become a nation populated by Madame Bovarys.
Two Partial Truths
I have called this form of Romanticism a heresy. We should consider further what this means. John Cardinal Newman described heresies the following way:
Heresies are partial views of the truth, starting from some truth which they exaggerate, and disowning and protesting against other truth, which they fancy inconsistent with it. All heresies are partial views of the truth, and are wrong, not so much in what they directly say as in what they deny.
If true, Romanticism should include at least a partial truth. In fact, it includes two partial truths.
The first is that while man longs for wholeness and for happiness, he can never quite be whole or happy in this world, because his real home is elsewhere. We are all in some sense pilgrims in this world, wayfarers. Our citizenship is in heaven. We can never forget the haunting words of Christ in the Gospel of Luke: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (14:26).
The second partial truth Romanticism captures is the proper and necessary role the imagination plays in human knowledge and action. This relationship was clear to the classical and medieval writers, a fact evident in great works stretching from Plato’s Republic to the Utopia of St. Thomas More.
It was Machiavelli who first sought to sever the link between imagination and reality in the fifteenth chapter of The Prince. By driving a wedge between the “effectual truth” and the “imagination thereof,” Machiavelli prepared the way for the many separations that characterize the modern world, separationsbetween facts and values, science and religion, nature and grace.
But the genius of Machiavelli rests in the fact that he knew what seems to have eluded the rest of us: that his alleged “realism” was itself a work of imagination, an abstraction from the way things really are. The result of the concealment has been a culture deeply divided between a science without poetry (i.e., Scientism) on the one hand, and a poetry without intellect (i.e., Romanticism) on the other, and nothing to bridge the gap.
It is important to see that the alternative to the Romantic imagination is not “Realism,” an opposite and perhaps equally prevalent heresy exemplified in the way of life of those who hope to overcome the painful longing of Eros by directing its attention exclusively to the needs of the body, to physical security and material prosperity. This, however, only amplifies man’s misery, as he feels it more acutely in his prosperity before the inevitable and yawning chasm of death. The calculating homo economicus of economic theory is no more likely to discover the right road to human happiness or justice than the Romantic.
Thus, both the Romantic and the Realist imaginations involve a falsification of reality. Neither can deliver what it promises, and both meet at the same dead end. What alternative remains?
The Extraordinary Ordinary
What is required is a truly realist imagination, one that captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life. Such an imagination would restore the “chest,” the locus of the imagination, to its rightful place as the mediator and integrating principle of intellect and appetite, soul and body, in the human person. The pressing need for such a restoration is one of the central arguments of C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man.
Such an imaginative vision rests at the heart of the Christian story: the Creator is born to a lowly virgin in a stable, and angels, shepherds, cattle, and kings all come to pay him homage. In taking on flesh, Christ raised up the most ordinary things—water, wine, bread, marriage—and made them the means of sanctification. Here is the true Romance of Domesticity in all its glory, the very revelation of the extraordinary in the ordinary.
This discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary is part of the “romance of the faith” that G. K. Chesterton discovered in orthodoxy, a point he puts with his uncommonly common wit in his book by that name:
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but He has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Splendor & Humility
Josef Pieper makes a similar point in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, where he argues that philosophy itself is rooted in the capacity to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary:
If someone needs the “unusual” to be moved to astonishment, that person has lost the ability to respond rightly to the wondrous, the mirandum, of being. The hunger for the sensational, posing, as it may, in “bohemian garb,” is an unmistakable sign of the loss of the true power of wonder, for a bourgeois-ized humanity. To find the truly unusual and extraordinary, the real mirandum, within the usual and the ordinary, is the beginning of philosophy.
Notably, Pieper makes the same claim for poetry: “According to Aristotle and Thomas,” he writes, “the philosophical act is related to the poetical: both the philosopher and the poet are concerned with ‘astonishment,’ with what causes it and what advances it.”
One of my favorite expressions of this imaginative vision is a barn my wife’s late grandfather, William Schickel, converted into an oratory in Loveland, Ohio. Schickel’s remarkable life raising eleven children on a farm while working as an artist is captured by Gregory Wolfe in Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel. Wolfe quotes Schickel describing the idea behind the oratory this way:
The barn is a blend of frugality, simplicity, and poverty seen as a positive force. . . . There is a wonderful deep-rooted consciousness that our Savior came to dwell among us in a building that was constructed for the shelter and care of animals. . . . The barn at its best is an integration of splendor and humility that is . . . expressive of the most foundational Christian outlook.
A Brutal Assault
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville provides a dire warning that the Romantic imagination is not merely an individual affair, that its influence inevitably affects the political order as well. Captain Ahab is a quintessential Romantic, in rebellion against his own limits and the order of reality, and the Pequod is a haunting symbol of an America that has revolted against nature in its mad quest for unlimited commerce and empire. “Then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into the blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac’s soul.”
But midway through the novel, the sometime Romantic narrator Ishmael, who cooperated in the catastrophe of the novel and barely escapes to tell of it, makes a remarkable confession:
Now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.
Ishmael’s observation points to the intimate connection between domesticity and ordinary life (and by extension, patriotism). Given this connection, it is not surprising that no other institution has been so brutally attacked by the Romantic imagination as marriage and the family, an assault that continues unabated in popular culture today.
If there is truth in what I have said thus far, the recovery of stable marriage and family life depends upon more than preserving the correct legal arrangements, or even providing marriage instruction and moral and spiritual guidance for the young. These things are necessary and good, but without a correct formation of the imagination, they are precariously inadequate solutions. What is wanted is the kind of poetry Pieper describes, a poetry rooted in the romance of domesticity, which reveals the real beauty of ordinary life within limits and shows the dignity of what it means to be what Wendell Berry calls a “placed person.”
I began these remarks by pointing out that my experience of death is an existential German thing rather than a Greek philosophical one. It seems appropriate therefore that I offer a more personal reflection on the romance of domesticity.
For years, it has been my habit to write poems on special occasions (anniversaries, birthdays, etc.). Here, then, is a verse from “Clarity,” a poem I wrote on the occasion of the birth of my first child, Leo, in 1999.
How is it that from this grotesque display
of sight and sound, smell and touch
concrete as weary hands and tears and blood-splattered shoes
comes beauty so ineffable that the heart stops in awe and adoration
of the primordial breath of Spirit over the abyss?
My shoes really did have blood on them. I wore them, still dazed, to the local restaurant to pick up the steak dinner my ravenous wife requested after the delivery. (To my amazement she ate every bite, while Leo slept soundly next to her in bed). And for years I continued to wear them, bearing these ineffable marks, while working around the house and the yard. Most times this was an unconscious thing, but once in a while, in the midst of raking leaves or taking out the trash, I would look down and notice and remember, and be stunned once again.
I don’t deny that I often envy my bachelor colleagues who can retire to quiet homes after a long day at work, and spend the rest of the evening reading their favorite books or developing a talent or hobby. My latest talent is that I can get five children tucked in bed, with teeth brushed, pajamas on, and spirits more or less settled for rest, in under five minutes. And yet it has become evident to me beyond doubt, precisely in the midst of these labors, that this is my vocation. This is how I expressed it to my wife:
Real Love (2006)
When I am overwhelmed by the thickness of the world
I understand why God chose this life for me
Because I don’t paint pictures I write poems
Because I don’t eat chocolate I drink gin
Because I don’t read history I study mythology
Because I don’t tell jokes I listen to music
And soon I find myself grasping, desperately.
Then I return:
to the smell of Emil’s diaper,
Helen is in despair (her baby is cold),
Leo can’t get his Lego car to work (the wheel keeps coming off)
And dinner isn’t ready, you tell me,
All at once
I am grateful for you, beyond words,
Beyond all reckoning, for your splendor
And your solidity.
Zossima was right: Love in reality,
compared to love in dreams,
Is a harsh and terrible thing.
So be it! So be it!
I once had a disagreement with a colleague who was an economist. His daughter had recently been married, and though he liked the young man well enough, he told me that he had advised his daughter always to keep her job, “just in case.” While lifelong marriage is fine when you can get it, he told me, it is foolish and naïve to trust in it overmuch.
On the contrary, I argued, a withholding of trust in the initial promise strikes at the very root of what a marriage is. There is a difference in kind, and not merely in degree, between a relationship rooted in an unconditional pledge of fidelity and a relationship with an exit strategy.
This is not merely a philosophical distinction; it has incredible consequences for human experience. Marriage is not a contract—or at least it is not like any other contract—for it establishes a community that, in turn, transforms the individuals that comprise it. Wendell Berry makes the point beautifully in his novella Remembering, when he describes the marriage between Andy and Flora Catlett:
They were two longing to be one, or one dividing relentlessly into two. . . . It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage, but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined.
The romance of domesticity must be rooted in a culture that nurtures our ability to experience wonder in the ordinary. In the end, however, this romance cannot be completely borrowed. Every domus, like every person, involves a singular and deeply personal encounter with the divine that must be cultivated on its own terms. Only from the heart of this encounter will come the new “epiphanies of beauty” called for by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists. If such epiphanies cannot quite “save the world,” at least they may save a few from the fate of Emma Bovary. •
This article is adapted from a "Last Day Lecture" delivered at Hillsdale on December 4, 2009.
Nathan Schlueter is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he lives with his wife and six children. He is currently writing a book entitled Utopian Fiction: Recovering the Political Science of the Imagination. His latest book, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (ISI Books), will be out this spring.
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