By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, August 22, 2008
A Contrarian History of Marriage
By Susan Squire
Bloomsbury. 258 pp. $25.99
Susan Squire, a journalist who has written about couples and parenthood, has bitten off a huge chunk of subject for herself. Contrary to the "contrarian" in her subtitle, she doesn't provide an argument against marriage; she simply records what people (i.e., men) in Western civilization have thought about it -- "why it came about, what it was supposed to accomplish, who was behind it, and how it was implanted into the minds of the many" -- up until the time of Martin Luther. (There's a good reason why she stops with him.)
Squire gets off to a shaky start, hypothesizing a hunter-gatherer society in which " 'women's work' has yet to be downgraded . . . each sex contributes something essential that the other isn't equipped to procure or produce on its own -- and therefore [is] of relatively equal stature." It's a little dizzying to think of a skin-clad savage grunting out a pleasantry like "I really appreciate these wheat cakes you've made. I certainly wouldn't have the time or patience to crank these things out myself!"
Parts of this book are breezy, almost windy. Squire refers to the Bible as the "best-selling book on the planet for the last million centuries," since writers of the Old Testament put together the story of Adam and Eve. That's an awful lot of centuries; we've had only 20 of them since the birth of Christ, but she just whisks along, giving us her version of the history of marriage, which includes words from mainly ancient Greeks and Romans, early Jews and the Catholic Church.
Men don't seem to have been that fond of women down through the years, and they haven't been shy about sharing their opinions. We read insults from the likes of Euripides, who chivalrously opined, "Better a thousand women should perish than that one man cease to see the light"; Cato the Elder, who rather fretfully complained that "woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal. . . . What they want is complete freedom -- or, not to mince words, complete license" (what Roman women were asking for in this case was the right to dye their clothes); and a 14th-century nutcase who called himself Le Ménagier and wrote that a good wife should be like a dog who "always has his heart and his eye upon his master; even if his master whip him and throw stones at him, the dog followeth."
So you can see up front why marriage in our civilization has never worked out very well. The Greeks, Romans, early Jews and Christians wanted silence and, above all, obedience from their women. (They'd obviously never heard the Chinese proverb "Obey, obey, and do what you like.") The Jews were obsessed with increasing their population ("Be fertile and increase," God told them), but the Catholic Church fathers, believing the end of the world was nigh, decided that marriage and children were a comparative waste of time and that sex was really, really awful. (The handbooks used by parish priests to interrogate penitents during the Dark Ages are far too gross to quote here.)
The thing was, for all the male rhetoric, women went on living. It drove some men crazy and still does -- as the ritually desecrated female corpses on television police procedurals remind us nightly. And women, though they weren't allowed until comparatively recently to read and write, must have always laughed and whispered and wanted sex at different times than their husbands.
Even though Martin Luther did, according to Squire, introduce the idea of "love" into marriage way back in the 16th century, institutionalized misogyny has stayed deep in the culture. Luther himself remarked, "Girls . . . begin to talk and to stand on their feet sooner than boys because weeds always grow up more quickly than good crops."
Squire herself doesn't seem to take this dreary "history" seriously: She affectionately includes her husband in the acknowledgments as "the man of my dreams."Sunday in Book World
· The Bacardis mix rum and revolution.
· Terrorism remakes the legal system.
· Leopold and Loeb commit a crime.
· Jesus Christ runs for president.
· And a splashy collection of graphic novels.