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To let her appreciate the meaning

October 17, 2016

[Second post of two on novels of interest-bearing marriage, the first being this reflection on a scene from Silas Marner.]

From near the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier:

Of course you have the makings of a situation here, but it is all very humdrum, as far as I am concerned. I should marry Nancy if her reason were ever sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. But it is probable that her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. Therefore I cannot marry her, according to the law of the land.

The irony here, in contrast with the passage discussed previously, is dark and bitter—a medicinal tonic, versus a pint a the local pub. And of course here it’s the narrator, not just a minor character, who is unreliable—we have to read past John Dowell’s telling of the story to reach that of Ford himself. At this point in the story Nancy has gone mad, repeating ad nauseum “Credo in unum Deum” and “shuttlecocks”—she is caught, in other words, between the peace of divine simplicity and the multiform chaos of the all-too-human passions that bat us back and forth willy-nilly. Aren’t we all? Like most literary madmen, Nancy understands better than most, and if she cannot “appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service” (the phrase repeated twice for emphasis), neither can anyone else. The Anglican marriage service, Ford leads us to suspect, has no meaning to be appreciated.

But what makes it meaningless? We find a clue in the beginning of the next paragraph: “So here I am very much where I started thirteen years ago.” No one can appreciate the meaning because the meaning does not appreciate; there’s no return on the investment. Or, at least, no intrinsic appreciation—the value of the marriage might increase, decrease, or remain constant, but these changes will have nothing to do with the marriage paying dividends, and everything to do with extrinsic market fluctuations. The important point is that the marriage’s value is always uncertain—at least until it’s cashed in. A marriage a kind of empty cipher, at any moment worth only as much as the interested parties happen to believe it is worth. Ford agrees with Eliot that a marriage can be seen as an economic enterprise, but Eliot can tend towards an overly sentimental view of what this means, analogizing it with the solitary laborer, and opposing to it only miserdom and prodigality. Ford follows Melville in fearing the economic vantage point will have the labor-alienating effect of a joint-stock company, which encourages the vice neither of miserdom nor of prodigality, but rather of speculation.

The narrator here is talking about the Anglican view of marriage, and Ford’s novel is deeply concerned with the difference between the Anglican and the Catholic sacraments, so we might shift our discussion from an economic to a theological register (not that the two can be entirely divorced): the Anglican view in this novel stands for the idea that a marriage does not perdure through time, but is re-created anew ever moment, and at any moment might cease to be re-created and so cease entirely to be. I’m reminded here of Stanley Cavell’s idea of “remarriage”: once marriage transcends its origin in religious and economic necessity and becomes a union based on mutual love, it is dependent on a continuous free renewal of that love, such that whenever the love ceases to be given, the marriage ceases, at least temporarily, to be. The marriage, it seems, is temporally discontinuous—or, perhaps, a marriage is less an action than a state; it would be a bit strange to ask whether, when anger returns after a period of calm, it’s the same anger.

Such a view seems in one way like a natural development of George Eliot’s suggestion that “everything comes to light sooner or later,” that the truth of a marriage depends on whether things “turned out all right”—but in another way, like a complete reversal of it. (A fact which perhaps should not surprise us, given that both Eliot and Cavell were greatly interested in German dialectical philosophy.) A development, in that we have a natural tendency to trace any failure of amatory renewal back to an originary failure: if two people fall out of love, they were never really in love to begin with. Eliot says that we can say whether a marriage was “real” based on how it turns out; Cavell makes explicit the one-to-one correspondence, “love-filled marriage = real marriage, loveless marriage = fake marriage”. But a reversal, in that Cavell excises any sense that a marriage can grow, and particularly, any sense that the natural outgrowth of marriage is children. Put more simply, for Cavell, a marriage is not a thing that either happened, or didn’t; a marriage is something that either is happening, or isn’t.

Which is itself a natural consequence of the economic metaphor, updated for the modern age of easy bankrupcy and no-fault divorce. Cavell thinks that “remarriage” arises when marriage is liberated from economic necessity—but such a liberation is always an illusion, and to succumb to it is to remake marriage along entirely economic lines. Eliot recognizes on some level the problems posed to marriage by modern ways of thinking, by the twin spirits of capitalism (wherein enterprises must thrive to survive) and Protestantism (wherein God makes the world anew in every moment), but doesn’t know quite what to make of them. It’s symptomatic that all of her novels are set at least a generation years prior to their writing, and in a rural England quite different from the cosmopolitan London in which she spent her adult years. It’s perhaps also symptomatic that most of her novels end in more-or-less-happy marriages among skilled craftsmen and minor gentry, whereas Eliot (or, rather, Mary Ann Evans) moved among the literati and lived scandalously for twenty years in the house of married man. (Ford, a not-particularly-devout Catholic convert, had a far less stable romantic life, which perhaps makes him more scandalous qua borgeoisie but less qua Catholic.)

For myself, I think this “remarriage” business is all a great misunderstanding. Truth will out, sooner or later—but that doesn’t mean that the truth isn’t already determined. Though the reality of a marriage cannot be determined through inspection of the moment of the wedding, that moment is still the moment at which it took place—after all, there’s no other moment of significance for the question. (“Her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service”.) We look to future events, not for their own sake, but for evidence of what took place in the beginning, and it’s the overall trajectory, not any particular moment, to which we attend. Occasionalism is no more plausible when it comes to marriage than when it comes to cosmogony. Just as the world began with a never-to-be-repeated “Fiat lux,” so every marriage began with a never-to-be-repeated “I will.” (Not, contra J.L. Austin, “I do.”)

Which means, crucially, that when we look to see whether a marriage is real, we’re not just looking to see whether it turned out well. We can draw no one-to-one correspondences. An annulment is not just another word for a divorce, because a marriage is not an economic action, but a living sacrament (albeit a sacrament of oikonomia, of housekeeping): a failed enterprise might be no enterprise at all, but a marriage does not cease to be because it’s failing, any more than does a human being. Alas, this is not, it seems fair to say, the Anglican view.

A possible TL;DR: Anglican marriage is neoliberal. Catholic marriage is radically centrist.


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