And the experimental marriage, like the experimental novel, is often a study in "botched idealism," writes Marjorie Kehe in a review of Katie Roiphe's Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939:
It was an electric time, both heady and messy, vibrant with new ideas. And that's exactly the state of the seven marriages Roiphe observes: heady, messy, and, all too often, doomed by the very bold ideas that spawned them. [...]
None of these arrangements brought much satisfaction to any of the participants, and the selfishness involved is often breathtaking. For instance, Roiphe asks, did anybody bother to think about the children brought into these oddly configured unions? (The evidence she cites suggests that most of them did not fare too well.)
Very sharp comparison, marriage and the novel. You could say their fortunes have fluctuated together, and for the same reason: the elevation of the individual above those larger organisms, family and society. I've been thinking a lot about marriage lately, provoked by Ann Althouse's repeatedly brushing by it as a possible topic for a diavlog. "You're married and I'm not," she said, as if that might be a philosophical as well as circumstantial difference between us, both because our respective marital statuses are presumably matters of choice, and because the one true thing Karl Marx ever said was, "The conditions of existence determine consciousness." Only if the conditions of your existence have undergone dramatic change (and mine have) can you confirm how true that is, and yes, he said "determine."
I love analogies from science, and when I think about marriage I think of stem cells. No, not because of anything to do with reproduction, but because stem cells, like unattached selves -- "stem selves?" -- are "pluripotent," they have the potential to become many different things. Once a stem cell is assigned a role in the developing embryo, the rest of its potential is suppressed, and it becomes one kind of tissue in a larger organism.
That's not to say that "stem selves," if they are ever to become or accomplish anything, don't also have to select some aspects of their potential and neglect or suppress others. But the driver of that selection is oneself, not the needs of any larger organism and the requirements of specialization and cooperation with its other parts. Nowadays we, unlike earlier generations, tend to regard self-driven specialization as "authentic" and family- or society-driven specialization as compromised, a sacrifice or a sell-out. We are all romantics whose role model is the artist, even if no great creation redeems our reckless pursuit of self-centered intensity.
If I were to debate Ann on this, I would not simply be the advocate of marriage; more the questioner of both ideals -- fidelity to self and sacrifice of self. Buddhists question whether there even is an "authentic self," and it's interesting to think about what makes some selves feel more "authentic" than others. I have really lived up to my blog name and been as ambivalent on this issue as it's possible to be. For one thing my marriage was not a "normal" one (if there is such a thing; actually, I doubt it). It demanded much more self-sacrifice, which I long resisted (becoming stronger but barer in the process, like a tree that's all trunk and no branches), but it also forced me down to qualities I might otherwise never have found in myself. Unmarried or divorced I would have achieved more, and chased burnin' love more, and made a more manic-depressive, creative life, and that would have been more "me" along the fault lines of my childhood, my neurosis, my times. Instead I went against myself, in an exaggerated version of what all marriage requires, and did not so much close as minimize those windows (to go all computer-metaphor on you all of a sudden) that could not be reconciled with being, say, the liver of this particular two-backed beast. (A cyborgian mixed metaphor straight out of "The Terminator," I know, I know.)
It's 3 A.M. and this has stopped making sense and I have no business writing it instead of sleeping, working, and caregiving.