Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Barth On Marriage

No, not THAT Barth. I'm reading John Barth again, after a twenty-five year hiatus. He of CHIMERA and THE FLOATING OPERA. He's gotten older, mellower, less flashy. He's more reflective, more given to thankfulness. Not really too bad for an atheist.

I'm reading ONCE UPON A TIME. No, I'm not necessarily recommending it. But I'm enjoying it a lot. Here is Barth going on about his marriage:

"...What do I know, having lived with the woman for only twenty-plus years and in the world for some forty before that?...

I know that now we're in love and trouble, is about all--the love abiding, the trouble not--and that in this couple's chemistry neither of those precludes the other. Given the closeness of their connection, the differences between them, the amount of time they spend in each other's company, and the very little time they spend apart, these domestic storms used to beset them once or twice per season, interstitched with passionate reconciliation and overarched with indubitable love. In latter years, the love and commitment have, if anything, grown; time, experience, fatigue, and reciprocal understanding have happily decreased the frequency, duration, and damage (if not the occasional intensity) of such in-house blowups. Perhaps for that reason, they have still a way of taking us by surprise: The emotional fuel-air mix builds almost imperceptibly in the house until some spark--typically a thoughtless word of mine, some small thing done or neglected, inconsequential in itself--blows the roof. Our adrenalines surge; each charges the other with initial provocation; we watch and listen appalled as the angry words scarify; we exhaust ourselves in the night (What home-brewed tempest ever didn't rage past bedtime?)...
Thanks be, then, that since this pair's early years together such full-blown storms have come to buffet them ever more rarely. Both of them are abler than once they were at containing and deflecting the inevitable frictions of conjugality. Weather the storm you cannot avoid, goes the old sailors' proverb, and avoid the storm you cannot weather. Every lasting marriage follows those advisements..."


Anonymous said...

I love this passage. I certainly reflects my personal experiences of 27 years of marriage.

I personally think a good marriage needs to include the fact that the two people are committed to the institution of marriage. There are times when we want to kill each other. There are times, if we were dating or simply living together (and without children), it would have ended. But we made a commitment to each other ... to the institution that is marriage ... to stay together for better or for worse and, over my dead body :-), that is what we are going to do.

Bruce Gee said...

Yes, I sort of agree. There is something, I dunno, repellent about being committed to "an institution of marriage". Not sure what it is. I mean, I'm committed to the institution of marriage. But at the same time, I don't think of my marriage as "the institution of marriage." But anyway, I know what you mean. It is what my wife means when she occasionally opines, "We're stuck with each other."
Of course, that's the nadir view of the relationship. There is a whole world of better stuff. Perhaps what I'm saying is, using "the institution of marriage" as the raison d'etre for a marriage is a kind of marriage reductionism. But I'm probably wrong about that too.

Anonymous said...

I understand your reluctance over the phrase 'institution of marriage'. But if I said committed to the marriage, would that have been better? There has to be something beyond the physical person you married as there are those few times in your married life where you would rather be anywhere else than with that person...but you stay.

Why have you and your wife been married for 31 years, my wife and I 27 years, and yet so many people get divorced? I don't believe it is because I'm lucky enough to have found 'the one' and they weren't. It was because, even in those moments of intense dislike, my commitment to the marriage ... our binding ... and my wife's commitment pulled us through to better times.

Bruce Gee said...

I agree with all you've written, whoever you are. I have so many friends named "Anonymous".

I'll go you one better: I have an old friend who years ago told me that when she was really tormented about her faith, she would ask herself the basic question: "Well, is it going to be 'God', or 'No God'?" She always came up with "God" as the answer. I think when we are tormented, or unhappy, about our spousal relationship, we not only fall back on our commitment to marriage, including our vows, but also we, quite honestly, mull what it would be like to be on the other side: divorced, single, "out there". Ugh. Sometimes, an acute eval of how lousy post-marriage single life is will be the apologetic which tempers the disenfranchisement you might be feeling about your current situation. The grass is almost never greener, etc.