92 Expectations: On Three Good Wives

I remember when I was a kid – maybe about 7 or 8 – on a long car ride going somewhere, or maybe nowhere, in New Jersey, listening to one nauseating saccharine song after another (from “Morning Side of the Mountain” to “Have You Never Been Mellow”) and finally losing it. I blurted out: why does every one of these stupid songs have to be about love? My parents laughed, my dad responding “what do you want them to be about, baseball?” My parents were divorced within three years.

And I still think that I’m right. I suspect that Montaigne is with me on this score as well.

In his account of three exemplary wives, Montaigne seems to suggest that only a woman willing to kill herself upon her husband’s death should be deemed “good.” This certainly helps build a case for Montaigne’s sadistic side – it’s bad enough that his wife had to put up with unkind words in his essays, his isolation in the tower and his apparent philandering, she also had to suffer in death?

But I think his cause isn’t really to fight for perfect love, but rather to point out the barbarism at the heart of it. Montaigne begins by saying that you know a good marriage because it’s lasted a long time. Or do you?

The touchstone of a good marriage, the real test, concerns the time that the association lasts, and whether it has been constant – sweet, loyal and pleasant. In our century wives usually reserve their displays of duty and vehement love for when they have lost their husbands; then at least they bear witness to their good intentions – a laggardly, unseasonable witness, by which they prove that they love their husbands only once they are dead …. Just as fathers hide their love for their sons so as to keep themselves honored and respected, so do wives readily hide theirs for their husbands. That particular mystery-play is not to my taste! Is it not enough to raise a man from the dead out of vexation, if a wife who had spat in my face while I was still there were to come and massage my feet once I am beginning to go!

Montaigne suggests that we shouldn’t believe the tears of widows and instead should note just how well these women seem to get along without their dead husbands:

Let those widows who wept when they were alive laugh outwardly and inwardly once they are dead. Moreover, take no notice of those moist eyes and that pitiful voice: but do note the way they carry themselves and the color of those plump cheeks beneath their veils! There are few widows who do not go on improving in health: and health is a quality which cannot lie. All that dutiful behavior does not regard the past as much as the future: it is all profit not loss.

As is often the case, Montaigne turns to Seneca when he needs a guide through proper behavior between husband and wife. It’s the proper punctuation to an essay that takes a particularly macabre turn – riddled with the kinds of love suicides that likely inspired Shakespeare:

Sometimes we must make a loan of ourselves to those we love: even when we should wish to die for ourselves we should break off our plans on their account. It is a sign of greatness of mind to lay hold of life again for the sake of others, as several great and outstanding men have done. And it is a mark of particular goodness to prolong one’s old age (the greatest advantage of which is to be indifferent to its duration and to be able to use life more courageously and contemptuously) if one knows that such a duty is sweet, delightful and useful to someone who loves us dearly …. What can be more delightful than to be so dear to your wife that you become dearer to yourself for her sake?

For his time, Montaigne was being somewhat rebellious. He was skeptical about the nature of love and how much happiness it actually creates for men and women. In our own age, the tyranny of love has been taken to an entirely different level … and now I turn to Laura Kipnis and her controversial book “Against Love: A Polemic” for some thoughts in the spirit of Montaigne, written for a modern audience.

As Kipnis admits right on the cover, her book is a polemic and in that respect it tends to take extreme, often foolish positions. But she makes some important points about how we have turned modern relationship into just another form of work and how we’ve become enslaved to a constant PR campaign in the popular culture about the indestructibility of romantic love.

It’s her culture argument that I find most compelling. Even if you take the post-modern position that every couple should be allowed to define their own relationship however they see fit … there’s our humid culture smothering you, demanding that you accept banal platitudes about love and how it’s supposed to guide your existence:

Consider the blaringly omnipresent propaganda beaming into our psyches on an hourly basis: the millions of images of lovestruck couples looming over us from movie screens, televisions, billboards, magazines, incessantly strong-arming us onboard the love train. Every available two-dimensional surface touts love.

So what’s wrong with that? Why not make it all about love – you want those songs to be about baseball? Well, maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with it … but it does beg the question, why our culture demands that we accept their premises, lest we be judged as psychologically deficient:

So deeply internalized is our obedience to this capricious despot that artists create passionate odes to its cruelty; audiences seem never to tire of the most repetitive and deeply unoriginal mass spectacles devoted to rehearsing the litany of its torments, forking over hard-earned dollars to gaze enraptured at the most blatantly propagandistic celebrations of its power, fixating all hopes on the narrowest glimmer of its fleeting satisfactions. But if pledging oneself to love is the human spirit triumphal, or human nature, or consummately “normal,” why does it require such vast PR expenditures? Why so much importuning of the population?

Montaigne hints that stringing together a few clichés — and gruesome tales of sacrifice — about love and selling them to the masses is all too easy. He basically advises writers to plagiarize liberally when it comes to love stories:

I am amazed that those who engage in that activity do not decide to choose some of the ten thousand beautiful historical accounts to be found in our books. In that they would have less toil and would afford more pleasure and profit. If any author should wish to construct them into a single interconnected unity he would only need to supply the links – like soldering metals together with another metal. He could by such means make a compilation of many true incidents of every sort, varying his arrangement as the beauty of his work required, more or less as Ovid in his Metamorphoses made a patchwork of a great number of varied fables.

And if any songwriters wished to find some sickening clichés for new pop songs, I’m sure that poetry in the public domain would provide all the material needed as well. Juvenile exploitation is timeless.

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