Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Russian, French, Chinese

I have noticed a number of writers lately taking a stand on the subject and experience of marriage. Cristina Nehring’s book A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century totally kicks the ass of “companionate marriage;” as does Sandra Tsing Loh in her Atlantic article “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” which narrates the story of her surprising divorce after a long union. Most recently, there is Lori Gottleib’s book rather provocatively titled Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

I find myself very interested in the discussion because I have been trying to conclusively decide stuff about marriage—or, the most intimate one-on-one relationships we can have, whatever their legality—in my own life. 12 years ago an astrologer (don’t laugh: this was an Ithaca astrologer: brilliant, had studied Sanskrit) told me that if I ever figured this issue out, I would die. I believe his words were: “Your marriage certificate is your death certificate.” After this prediction, I should not have expected any marriage I entered into would have a good outcome (to my ex-spouse, now happily remarried: sorry about that). However, what he meant was less dire, and more metaphorical: basically, that this area of life is a complex and passionately meaningful one for me—and, clearly, for so many other people—and in that sense it can never be resolved, in the box, finito. (I think he also described my relationship life as being “like a Russian film with French subtitles, dubbed into Chinese.”)

As I see it, there are two basic ways of thinking about the whole romance/marriage conundrum—not that these ways can’t overlap, but they can become very polarized. You can try to be wise, or to go deep. If you are trying to be wise, you want to approach the whole thing rationally to achieve the most positive and successful “result” possible. Dating websites, which I explored recently, are a good example of this kind of attempt. On such sites, you clearly articulate, or try to, just where you are in life and what you’re looking for: your qualities, the qualities of your ideal mate; your astrological sign, salary, body-type, who lives with you (dogs? kids?), what you do on weekends. You try not to be sucked in by the bad guy with tattoos with whom you could have bottomless, but non-practical, sex; instead, you look for a life partner, someone who will not emotionally body-slam you but who will nicely complement your life and goals. You say lucid, absolutely true things like: “No relationship is going to completely fulfill me, and there is no ‘The One’ (sniff sniff); I just need to be a certain percent happy and get X and Y needs met…I’m going to need to compromise and to work hard for the commitment I want. And listen to a lot of Dr. Phil…” You go out with the person who is perfect “on paper” (similar interests, intelligence, values, charm, perhaps a skilled and considerate lover), at “the same place in life,” but somehow does nothing for you from day one. You keep going out with him or her, even as that doesn’t really change. Eventually, you can marry this person—probably with the full support of your mother. I think you’ll be pulling your hair out soon enough due to repressed desires and a sense of suffocation. But go ahead…

Partial kidding aside, Lori Gottleib has the right to nurture this results-oriented vision of marriage and relationship, and so do millions of other people. Personally, I think this approach, if taken on its own, fails to invite a certain kind of depth (maybe why Gottleib is still unwed: she is, after all, not so compelled by her own idea of how such a relationship should come together). What I mean by depth is that you are listening to your real desires and irrational knowledge, the kind of knowledge that maybe “sounds crazy” at first, and makes you feel vulnerable and uncertain. This listening is not the same thing as what some may call perfectionism, or super-pickiness. It is being real and not lying to yourself, and I assert that whatever form it takes, it is the making of your psyche (or soul, if one cottons to that concept), drawing you into an experience with uncertain results; possibly ending in futility or “failure," if any relationship that doesn’t last forever is somehow invalid (questionable).

The force that initiates one to the unknown may be called intuition, imagination, whatever…madness, inspiration—Andre Breton’s Amour Fou. This kind of shit is outside the social structure. Maybe for some people, following such inklings in themselves actually leads to happy marriages with compatible partners. I imagine it could, maybe (certainly, the mojo could be expected to fade over time), if the people involved are self-aware enough, had healthy childhoods, or are just lucky. For me, following my romantic impulses has led to some pain and hardship that has come with divorce, and now, with being a single parent. I feel caged in relationships, eventually; and lonely when single. But after chewing this over for years, and trying to be wiser, I decided I am going to keep on. (If not, this blog probably would not be titled “Falling Over.”) The positive thing is that over time, living this way, you actually act less crazy and more intelligently, even as you are still guided by insane-making feelings and impulses…you aim to surf the turbulence and Do No Harm.

I can’t recommend that everyone, or anyone, follow my lead, though some already do and will recognize this kind of path (if “lead” it can be called, since we don’t know where we’re going). But I am aware that these disparate tugs toward eros and love—rational and irrational—are ancient. They’re not going anywhere. Many more books and articles (and blogs) will be written, and have been. In Russian, French, and Chinese.