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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Has Marriage for Love Failed?

Pascal Bruckner
Publisher
Polity
Price
£16.99
ISBN
9780745669786

 EXTRACT

In his novel
Une Vie {A Life, 1883), Guy de Maupassant tells the story of a young woman of the minor Norman nobility, Jeanne, who falls in love with a local viscount, Julien. On their wed­ding night, her father, urged on by his wife, takes her aside and delivers an awkward speech about what awaits her:

My darling, f. . .] I don't know what you know about life. There are mysteries that are carefully concealed from children, and especially a girl, who must remain pure in mind, irreproachably pure, until the time when we put her in the hands of the man who will see to their happiness. It is for him to lift the veil cast over the sweet secret of life. But girls [. . .] are often revolted by the somewhat brutal reality hidden behind the dreams. Wounded in their souls, wounded even in their bodies, they refuse their husbands what the law, human law and natural law, accords him as an absolute right. I can't tell you any more about it, my dear; but don't forget this: you belong entirely to your husband.

 This sermon, full of allusions and evasions at a time when the very idea of sex education was inconceivable, plunges the bride into a state of dread. Having emerged from the convent, she is about to move directly from the state of innocence to that of a wife. She allows herself to be undressed by her chambermaid and awaits her new husband with the feeling that she has fallen into marriage the way one falls into a bottomless well. The husband knocks softly three times on the door, himself paralysed by an attack of nerves and inex­perience. He has come to claim his due, and asks her permission to lie down beside her. She cannot hide her reluctance, he is offended, and goes off to get undressed in the bathroom. He returns in his underwear and slippers and slips into bed. When she feels 'a cold, hairy leg' touching her she sti­fles a cry. To understand all the piquancy of the situation, one has to realize that at a time when bathing at the seaside was still a privilege reserved for a minority, girls and boys, at least among the well-off classes, had few occasions to examine each other's anatomy; the situation was different in the countryside, where heavy labour performed in common, and seeing animals copulating, caused the young to lose their innocence earlier.

The rest of the night is a disaster. Julien, eager to exercise his right, forces his hand towards Jeanne's breast, and she resists. He becomes impatient, grips her roughly in his arms, and covers her with kisses, finally taking her in what is for her a moment of pain and horror. When he attempts to assault her again, she pushes him away. Thinking with repulsion of the thick hair that covers her husband's chest, she moans: 'So that's what he calls being his wife; it's that, it's that!' Despite an episode of happier sensu­ality that occurs during a later trip to Corsica, this dreadful night determines the rest of Jeanne's life and ultimately causes her death from 'carnal needs'.

The trauma of the wedding night, which is a mixture of rape and clumsiness, has been replaced by the trial of 'the first time', which is rarely glorious, save for men and women lucky enough to be initiated by charitable souls. It generally takes place between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, the age at which the loss of innocence takes place having remained remarkably stable for the past few decades: boys and girls can now hardly wait to rid themselves of a virginity that handicaps them and slows their entrance into maturity. In the late 1960s, one-third of women were virgins before they married; at the end of the 1980s, only one tenth. Except for Christians, Jews, and fundamen­talist Muslims who still assign a symbolic value to the hymen and make its preservation a token of purity, waiting is no longer synonymous with maturation but with stupidity. This is illustrated by Ian McEwan's short novel On Chesil Beach (2008), whose action is set in 1962, a few years before the sexual revolution, right in the middle of the transitional period. Edward and Florence, who have just married, have booked lodging in an inn in Dorset, near the beach. Worried about finding themselves alone in their room, they linger over dinner and fear the face-to-face test that awaits them. Florence is revolted by the idea of being naked in the arms of her husband, whom she nonetheless adores, while he knows nothing about sex except masturbation. The night passes and nothing happens; the young couple is paralysed by inhibition. A gesture not made, a word not uttered, and a promising union founders. Chastity is not beautiful, it is grotesque. Because they have not overcome their preconceptions, Edward and Florence destroy their love story: they are not moving, they are pathetic, and the reader laughs at them, glad that he no longer lives in that period.

The revolt against old-fashioned marriage is marked by an inversion of priorities: marriage used to be a matter of self-interest or reason, now it is a matter of inclination, even if considerations of status and money may still be involved. It used to be chaste — 'Marriage is a religious and holy bond', Montaigne said. 'That is why the pleasure we derive from it should be a restrained pleasure, serious, and mixed with some austerity' - now it is sensual for both sexes. It used to be sordidly mercantile - 'Look at the purse, not the face', said a seventeenth-century German proverb from Baden - now it is disinterested. It used to be cold - 'Man has two fine days on Earth: when he takes a wife and when he buries her', says another proverb from Anjou that dates from the same period, wife and children counting for less than the livestock, which was a source of profit and food - now it is bathed in mutual affection. It used to be coerced, now it is free. It used to mark a break, the entrance into a new state, today it is often preceded by a trial period of living together. It used to teach renunciation - 'in all things, we must know how to suffer in silence', said a mother to her daughter who was about to marry, to enter into a reclusion in which so many women buried their youth, their hopes -, it claimed to be Edenic, a garden of happiness, a portal leading to mutual fulfilment. It used to require the agreement of the families involved, now it defies their veto even if it is still preferable to have the family's approval.

Everything that was formerly difficult has become simpler, people now become lovers after a few days or weeks, but everything that was once taken for granted has become problematic: people deploy Talmudic subtleties in trying to decide whether they are going to move in together, and in what way, whether one partner will accept the keys offered by the other or instead take fright and disappear. The fear of losing one's independ­ence takes priority over the 'modesty' of earlier times. That is the gamble made by modern socie­ties: putting the law in the service of the passions rather than restraining the passions by the law. Founding the durable on the transitory, adopting the slightest inflection of manners and if neces­sary throwing institutions into turmoil the better to adapt them. Riding the tiger at the risk of being thrown off, channelling by assent the impetuous torrent of emotions that our ancestors held back by prohibitions. A mad ambition whose effects will continue to dog us....