This article brought together two topics, one that has preoccupied me and another that has preoccupied many of my friends, for some time.
The first, the one I keep puzzling over, is the ‘why’ of marriage. It is something I kind of had an answer to but could never neatly articulate. De Botton does so:
..in the middle of the 18th Century, in the more prosperous countries of Europe, a remarkable new ideal began to form in one particular section of society.
This ideal proposed that married people should henceforth not only tolerate one another for the sake of children, extraordinarily they should also take pains to deeply love and desire one another at the same time.
…The new ideal set before the world the compelling notion that one might solve one’s most pressing needs all at once with the help of just one other person.
… The bourgeoisie was hence neither so crushed as not to believe in romantic love at all nor so liberated from necessity as to be able to pursue erotic and emotional entanglements without limit. The desire for fulfilment through an investment in a single, legally and eternally-contracted person represented a fragile solution to their particular balance of emotional need and practical constraint.
But what interested me more was the parallel he draws between the new ideal of marriage that emerged in the 18th C and the new attitude to ‘work’.
It cannot have been a coincidence that a very similar yoking together of necessity and freedom became apparent at around the very same time in relation to that second pillar of modern happiness – work.
… The bourgeois ideal of work, like its marital counterpart, was an embodiment of an intermediate position. One needed to work for money but work could also be pleasurable – just as marriage could not escape the traditional burdens associated with childrearing – and yet it did not have to be without some of the delights of a love affair and a sexual obsession.
Since his article is supposed to be about marriage, his conclusion deals with that and is also nicely expressed:
We cannot say, as cynics are sometimes tempted, that happy marriage is a myth. It is infinitely more tantalising than this. It is a possibility – just a very rare one. There is no metaphysical reason why marriage should not honour our hopes – the odds are just powerfully stacked against us.
Today, many are unwilling to buy into such poor odds and are rejecting marriage altogether. Others have tempered their expectation of marriage being all things at all time, that marriage will “perfectly fuse together the three golden strands of fulfilment – romantic, erotic and familial” Instead, and I suppose I am part of this group, we believe that marriage will satisfy these different needs to varying degrees at different times but that the stability and convenience of the supermarket is worth it, even if one does get better produce in specialized shops. While rejecting the idea of ‘The One’, we have made our peace with the notion of the ‘more-or-less One’, someone who more-or-less fits the bill of our requirements, though understandably might not quite be there on some counts.
But what about our attitude to work? The great conundrum of our generation, it seems to me, is not so much trying to find ‘The One’ in terms of life partner, but in terms of ‘the perfect job’. Unlike marriage, most of us cannot afford to reject the idea of work altogether. So what is the alternative?