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Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married

August 15, 2016

[First post of two, and a sequel of sorts to last year’s meditations on modern marriage. I might want to add some George Eliot (perhaps Silas Marner and Middlemarch?) to the syllabus offered in the last of those posts.]

In chapter 6 of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a conversation in the tavern takes a strange turn, and one not particularly relevant to the plot, though of great thematic significance:

Here Mr. Macey paused; he always gave his narrative in instalments, expecting to be questioned according to precedent.

“Aye, and a partic’lar thing happened, didn’t it, Mr. Macey, so as you were likely to remember that marriage?” said the landlord, in a congratulatory tone.

“I should think there did—a very partic’lar thing,” said Mr. Macey, nodding sideways. “For Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him, though he’d got a bit confused in his head, what wi’ age and wi’ taking a drop o’ summat warm when the service come of a cold morning. And young Mr. Lammeter, he’d have no way but he must be married in Janiwary, which, to be sure, ‘s a unreasonable time to be married in, for it isn’t like a christening or a burying, as you can’t help; and so Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him—but when he come to put the questions, he put ’em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?” says he, and then he says, “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?” says he. But the partic’larest thing of all is, as nobody took any notice on it but me, and they answered straight off “yes”, like as if it had been me saying “Amen” i’ the right place, without listening to what went before.”

“But you knew what was going on well enough, didn’t you, Mr. Macey? You were live enough, eh?” said the butcher.

“Lor bless you!” said Mr. Macey, pausing, and smiling in pity at the impotence of his hearer’s imagination—”why, I was all of a tremble: it was as if I’d been a coat pulled by the two tails, like; for I couldn’t stop the parson, I couldn’t take upon me to do that; and yet I said to myself, I says, “Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married, ’cause the words are contrairy?” and my head went working like a mill, for I was allays uncommon for turning things over and seeing all round ’em; and I says to myself, “Is’t the meanin’ or the words as makes folks fast i’ wedlock?” For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.” And I was worreted as if I’d got three bells to pull at once, when we went into the vestry, and they begun to sign their names. But where’s the use o’ talking?—you can’t think what goes on in a ‘cute man’s inside.”

“But you held in for all that, didn’t you, Mr. Macey?” said the landlord.

“Aye, I held in tight till I was by mysen wi’ Mr. Drumlow, and then I out wi’ everything, but respectful, as I allays did. And he made light on it, and he says, “Pooh, pooh, Macey, make yourself easy,” he says; “it’s neither the meaning nor the words—it’s the regester does it—that’s the glue.” So you see he settled it easy; for parsons and doctors know everything by heart, like, so as they aren’t worreted wi’ thinking what’s the rights and wrongs o’ things, as I’n been many and many’s the time. And sure enough the wedding turned out all right, on’y poor Mrs. Lammeter—that’s Miss Osgood as was—died afore the lasses was growed up; but for prosperity and everything respectable, there’s no family more looked on.”

Every one of Mr. Macey’s audience had heard this story many times, but it was listened to as if it had been a favourite tune, and at certain points the puffing of the pipes was momentarily suspended, that the listeners might give their whole minds to the expected words.

If Macey’s story raises questions about the efficacy of the sacraments, the gentle irony with which Eliot describes his telling of it expands the scope of the problem. What guarantees the validity of any significant action, given that there’s always a threat that it might not have been really meant—it might have been performed, as it were, by rote?

The “learned” solution, that any question of validity can be settled by the written record, is obviously no solution at all. The expanded scope makes that perfectly obvious: no record is kept of the occasions on which Mr. Macey and his audience enact the ritual of storytelling, but that does not mean the ritual did not take place. Moreover, even for significant actions of which there usually is a record, the absence or presence of a record guarantees nothing. Records can be erased, or lost, or forged, or misinterpreted. An appeal to the written record turns out to be no different, metaphysically speaking, than any other appeal to physical evidence. Just like the spoken word, the written word can be lost to the ravages of time, and it does not interpret itself. Who can now say whether Mr. Macey heard the erroneous vows correctly? And who can say whether vows being spoken wrong really makes a difference to what their vowing them accomplished?

But Mr. Macey is also right to reject the appeal to “the meanin’.” Not only is it the case, as he points out, that intentions do not always hit their mark, but—as philosophers like J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe would argue a century later—there’s no such thing as an “intention” floating free of the physical world. It would be, not just baseless, but nonsensical, to say that someone “intended” to be φ‘ing when they were neither φ‘ing nor doing something that could be described as failing to φ (whether due to accident, or mistake, or whatever). Knowledge of the couple’s intentions at the time of the wedding might help us determine whether they indeed wedded, but it cannot resolve the question entirely, and in any case such knowledge will just be a summary description of what the couple actually did, which is what we wanted to know in the first place.

Though George Eliot doesn’t suggest a plausible solution in the immediate vicinity of the story, I think Silas Marner as a whole does offer us a way out. At the climax of the book, one character pronounces, just prior to confessing their greatest sin, a hope basic to philosophy: “Everything comes to light, [Wife], sooner or later. When God Almighty wills it, our secrets are found out.” Instead of the passage of time obscuring the meaning of one’s actions, it reveals it. The “meaning” is indeed what matters, but this isn’t something that can be accessed through any inspection of the physical action itself, even if that action was the writing on a piece of paper of words whose meaning we think we know. Rather, the meaning is determined by the context, and the context cannot be limited in advance; it will become apparent either sooner, or later.

For example, much of the drama of Silas Marner revolves around another marriage than that Mr. Macey describes—in fact, one involving the daughter of that marriage—and the question of its validity. The presence or absence of a child is central to our judgment on that question, in complex ways I won’t go into here. And this is entirely appropriate. Whether a union is fruitful is the kind of evidence that by definition cannot be present at the time of marriage, but which can be crucial to determining whether the union was ever open to fecundity. Which matters, of course, because a marriage not open to life—for an Anglican, I think, as much as a Catholic—is no marriage at all.


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