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In Defense of Misery

Beyond Monogamy

edited by James R. Smith, edited by Lynn G. Smith
Johns Hopkins, 336 pp., $15.00

Divorced in America

by Joseph Epstein
Dutton, 318 pp., $8.95

We have done it again we are still living. Sit up and smile God bless you. Guilt is magical.
“Adultery,” James Dickey

The essential choices are always made far too early for informed free will to function. How, after all, can we know what life is about until we have lived it—too late then to decide. But choice is forced on us by events, by time. Passivity has its own consequences equivalent in impact to the wildest flurry of activity. To do nothing is to waste one’s life. To do something has equal potential for ruin.

How shall we conduct our lives with one another: to marry or not; whether to reproduce; to be monogamous, polygamous, or some combination of both; to act out fantasy with its compelling promise of permanent exhilaration or to sublimate all for stability—neither result guaranteed? We make our beds and lie in them tossing, sometimes exchanging them for others—leaving behind, in most cases, a great pile of dirty linen.

In modern history, traditional sexual behavior was so well sanctioned by society that its approval created a buffer between failure of expectation and feelings of failure. Who ever was entirely happy with family life? Or at least happy in that eternally romantic way which endured only as a conspiratorial myth, passed on by elders to the young—that venus flytrap which ensured the continued propagation of our species, catching generation after generation in its bright petals. Along with the legend of married happiness there was a concomitant conspiratorial silence—omerta—about the real realities of family life.

In an earlier time when there was little privacy for adults within families, the young knew more of what they were getting into. But economic survival, not happiness, was the motivating force for marriage then. Some knowledge, little choice. In the more recent past, as life became less rural, less close to the bone, a way of living evolved in which children were shielded from the nastier aspects of their parents lives. While we then had the choice of saying no to married life, we had little sense of what it meant to say yes to a structure which demanded that we subsume ourselves in other human beings.

I married and first had children in the Fifties—a time when these old survival techniques were no longer necessary or even desirable on any large scale. We had not been informed of this, however, and my generation leaped into the production of families somewhat like chickens hopping about the barnyard without the brains to realize that their heads had been cut off. “My God,” an old college friend said to me recently after she had spent a particularly harrowing family year, “if I had known what it was going to be like to grow up I never would have gotten out of bed.”

In the next decade, however, when the discontent of many groups became audible, the roseate vision of family life disintegrated under a barrage of books, articles, and lectures by those who had been there and didn’t like it much. For the first time, in a public sense, people were telling each other about their own sexual behavior, their own families, their own lives.

It seemed as if everyone had come out of that closet which, like the tiny circus automobile which releases streams of clowns, had contained an extraordinary variety of sports in its capacious interior. Some days one wishes everyone would go back in. But once out, they moved inexorably toward absolute individual autonomy. Freedom for oppressed people included us all. Who, after all, is more oppressed than oneself? It followed then that perhaps we should be freed of one another—a thesis sometimes expressed more euphemistically as free with one another.

There is an old joke about the manager of a performing troupe describing to a booking agent the troupe’s routine which was to perform, on stage, varieties of then-unspeakable sexual acrobatics.

And what do you call this act?” asked the agent.

The Aristocrats,” the manager answered.

On reading Beyond Monogamy one begins to see America as a nation of middle-class aristocrats—rich in leisure time, freed from working-class religiosity and taboos, enlightened by Dr. Albert Ellis, the O’Neills, and Playboy—who play at the sexual games heretofore reserved for an unburdened elite. What went on in the chambers of the great châteaux continues in the playrooms of split-level colonials.

Beyond Monogamy implicitly holds out the lure that we can eat our cake and have it too—as well as creating a better world through our sexual openness with one another. In their introduction to this collection of articles and reports on sexual alternatives in marriage, James R. and Lynn G. Smith (directors of the Self-Actualization Laboratory) write:

Sexual liberation in the form of realistic individual autonomy in a viable dyadic relationship is at least as relevant and necessary for personal and interpersonal fulfillment in marriage as liberation from socio-economic dependency and pro-creative (and anti-procreative) institutions which serve the continuance of traditional family structures. That is to say, in practical terms, all the ranting and hooplah over open, free, or otherwise permissive marriage must be tempered by a recognition of the fact that for most couples, the most difficult part of achieving such a relationship is liberation from sexual possessiveness and all that it feeds and thrives on in the self and the environment. This is the damnable consequence of a process of repressive primary sexual socialization which in fostering the cultural ideology of monogamy and perpetuating the procreative sex ethic as the indispensable….

Is this thicket of language an attempt to legitimatize all this plain old fooling around? Why not just do it in the road?

In a report on group marriage, Dr. Albert Ellis finds that a participant is likely to “know herself as a person better and develop along several fulfilling lines that she easily could have failed to know.” “Under monogamy,” he writes, a woman’s “intense and deep encounters with other human beings…tend to be quite limited; by the time she dies it may be questionable whether she has ever truly lived.”

A paper on “swingers” tells us who they are and something about how they live (white, middle-American, no avid interests other than swinging and television—their hobby apparently having taken the place of bowling and bingo). The Smiths, in another report, tell us that “consensual adultery” is less likely to evoke a jealous response than conventional adultery—a statement that is probably true because the humiliating sting of secret betrayal is absent.

But is the absence of jealousy necessarily a splendid advance? Jealousy, after all, is one of those old thundering words like fidelity, duty, sacrifice, and sin which helped to define those boundaries within which we struggled, trespassed, and repented—filling our lives, in the process, with more drama, more heightened experience than can be found in the new modes here proclaimed. Are we to be left with no evil slipping and sliding self to battle? To succumb to?

The old sexual and familial conventions were, of course, often honored in their breach. But, even so, can the frissons of a couple flogging lagging sexual desire through orgies, or the titillations of a man and wife telling each other of their separate sex experiences be favorably compared with the intensity of an adulterous love affair, fraught with risk, passion, and the bittersweet sense of impending loss?

In Beyond Monogamy, the O’Neills expound again on how “open marriage” actually promotes strong marriages. Their argument is that while commitment is wholly given, the possibility exists that it may be just as wholly withdrawn at a time when a newer commitment or none at all seems preferable. This, of course, has always been inherently possible in any alliance. But the problem with such advance notice is that if we do not resist but instead welcome total involvement with others, it surely follows that there will be times when anyone will be found preferable to what we have at home.

Traditional marriage does indeed imply possession, but what is a family but a league against time and chance, a league against the world?

Joseph Epstein is a victim of the new morality—one of those who found the rules had been changed in the middle of the game. In Divorced in America, he writes of what it means to be divorced and, in his case, in custody of his children. Mr. Epstein is a traditionalist, somewhat stuffy, often self-righteous—yet clearly a decent man. His wife left him because she was not happy—with him, with life at home with their sons. Reading him, I can understand her reasons for wanting to leave. But I do not know how she could bear to go.

There is an underlying sadness in Mr. Epstein’s book that wistfully undermines the new conventional wisdom that divorce is really better for the children, better for all. Mr. Epstein is making do. The boys are growing up OK. But what is missing is that sense of wholeness—or whatever it is—that an intact family imparts to its members.

And it is exactly this lack of concern for family that in some ways distinguishes this decade from the recent past when we were appallingly “child-centered.” The new propaganda (which serves society in much the same way it was served by the “happy family” legend) is that not only monogamy but parenthood as well is something of a horror.

Coincident with the panic over population growth, it became fashionable for mothers to decry motherhood. I do it all the time, complaining endlessly to friends, to my own mother. “You have exhausted me with your infinite demands,” I say to my children. “Don’t have children,” I advise the childless, “you will never be the same again.” All of which is true. One loses, dealing with children over the years, one’s own childhood. But what is lost is not all badly lost. It is difficult to remain a narcissist surrounded by gaping maws. Certainly one loses autonomy.

Still…after a particularly unpleasant scene of conflicting interests at home, my four children and I get into a car. In the traffic jam we play a dumb game—guessing what vile things people in the other cars do for a living. We laugh all the way uptown—our nastiness and humor so like one another’s. “Nobody else is like us,” my elder daughter says. “Right,” my ten- year-old son agrees proudly, “no other family is as crazy as we are.”

Family glue, family pride. Momentarily we adore one another, knowing that above God, country, and self-actualization we are tied together—probably by those archaic qualities of clan identification, pride, and guilt which I have worked mightily to instill.

Nonetheless, I expect the futurists are right and family life as we know it, along with the sovereignty of nations, is doomed. Genetic technology keeps moving toward laboratory propagation, toward vast prolongation of life. The achievement of either would make traditional families, however miserably cozy, something of a social nuisance. In life, form does not long outlast function. Technology, not biology, is our destiny.

It will all change, ineluctably, in ways the most radical of the sex theoreticians cannot yet comprehend. New ways of birth, of coming together, of going. Although I have always suspected that life at its best is pushing the stone farther up the hill than anyone could have logically expected, eventually, over my dead body, perhaps we will all be one with one another, at ease on our planet, tensions gone.

But when there is no more guilt, mystery, conflict among us because we owe nothing, hide nothing—what will we dream of in the long days on the flattened hill?

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