Monday, September 22, 2008

No, they can't "marry"

Luncheon in Fur, Meret Oppenheim, 1936. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Working at a wine shop is not quite like being a bartender, but one does hear stories, and one does get a chance to observe human nature. What I notice more than anything else in my customers across the counter, it seems, are the love troubles of an aging Baby Boom generation. To be fair, I do see them at a certain time of the day, and when they are soaking up a certain kind of influence on their emotions and garrulity. One man, a widower nearing sixty, is frankly "trying to meet women," but he's an anomaly. More often, I see women coming in, in groups of friends, not necessarily admitting that they are looking to meet men but certainly free, dressed to show it, -- and wounded. Divorce, not death, is where they come from.

Among these Boomer women I've seen more drawn faces, stiffly composed blonde hair, and half-exposed, shrunken breasts than I ever cared to. I look at them and, in my mind's eye, I strip away the makeup and wash the hair gray. The resulting image is often that of an instant seventy-year-old. This makes the words coming out of their mouths still more jarring. "My boyfriend," "then he asked me out," "we broke up," sound odd and artificial. "My grandchildren" would be more dignified, and would make these women sound, and probably be, more happy.

I don't require them to go home and knit booties and be old. We get our share of plump, or wizened, graying grandmothers in the store, who look every day of their age and who are not necessarily therefore better people or more pleasant customers than the anxious, bejeweled blondes. But the anxious, bejeweled blondes have an insurmountable problem which the forthright grandmothers don't seek: they cannot hold a candle to young women, as far as looks, sheer scrumptiousness, are concerned. They simply can't. And yet, with the hair and the decolletage and the makeup, they are obviously choosing to compete for men's attention on fields of battle where the young must win. There is a whole opera about this, isn't there? At the end of Der Rosenkavalier, young Octavian is paired with young and lovely Sophie, exactly as his former mistress, the nobly fascinating -- and aging -- Marschallin knew he would be.

All this has led me to think about marriage, and especially about what our society is now compelled to call "gay marriage." Of course it's an absurdity, but unfortunately the very bored and childish people who control large chunks of our public discourse have plunged the absurdity into everyone's lives, and so require rebuttals where, properly, they should not even deserve the dignity of a hearing. (My grandmother would spin ....) No, homosexual men and homosexual women cannot "marry" each other, and the reason why parades before me in the wine shop, in the faces and bodies of these rejected, mature women.

I've come to the conclusion that marriage, at its crudest and most fundamental, is a promise from a man to a woman and to society that he will stay with this woman even as she grows older and un-nubile. Infertile. "While girls are growing up in neighboring fields" (I quote the nineteenth-century teen diarist Marie Bashkirtseff, who I think used to be rather popular in college Women's Lit courses). Oh, he'll grow old too, but not necessarily inevitably at the same pace and that's a fact.

Therefore a man cannot promise another man and society anything like a marriage vow, because men age at the same rate and because, by their choices, homosexual men show that there is no logic in their looking out into society at their opposite, the fleshly ideal of nubility who has vanished slowly and naturally from the home. A woman cannot promise another woman and society anything like it for much the same reasons. Women also age at the same rate, and -- by their choices -- they too show there is no logic in their being tempted away from respect for a sacred union, maybe decades on, by any personal concerns to effect anything on a stranger's nubility.

So homosexual partners are in no danger of creating, and then fraying, any bond that society has a stake in protecting. Society, the public sphere where endless fresh new cohorts of young fertile women are off-limits to aging but everlastingly fertile married men, because the men have given their word about it, can take no interest in love affairs or inheritance problems among homosexual partners. These partners can't "marry," any more than two nations can have a "peace treaty" who have never been at war, nor two companies "merge" where there is only one company. The conditions for a meaningful contract do not obtain.

If you look at pictures of gay Hollywood "weddings," you'll notice that there is something inchoate missing (not to put too fine a point on it) in the whole look and feel of the affair. What's missing, amid all the flashbulb laughter and white clothes, is risk -- the sense of risk that makes peace treaties and mergers good but scary things, and that makes a bride and groom on their wedding day feel not only excitement and joy but also, maybe even more so, fear and palpitations. This is It, people say. This is it. A gay "marriage" is not It. There's not that thing that the husband, especially, denies himself, sight unseen and decades into the future, that all husbands have always vowed to deny themselves as condition number one of marriage. The "married" gay, of either sex, is a promiseless fraud.

Of course there are many more noble attributes to marriage, and many more sophisticated reasons, not to say religious reasons, against "gay marriage" than what I've just put forth. Of course, most men love their wives (would collapse in a heap without her) and are not seriously chomping at the bit to get out. Most women love their husbands (ditto) and aren't chomping at any bits either, and of course a woman's vows to her husband are as important as his to her. There are reasons for each divorce apart from a man's rejecting a wife -- and when marriages fail, that is irrelevant anyway to what the institution is, just as the existence of war is irrelevant to what a peace treaty is.

And of course, talking of fertility and when it ends, some couples never have children and never want any. Of course there are always excellent men and women who choose to remain single. Some men and women meet and marry, or not, happily in middle or old age. (They might even meet at wine tastings.) Of course homosexual partners love and respect each other too. Of course some men do not only age, but rush up to and topple off a cliff of frailty that leaves a vibrant woman, to her shock, either a caretaker or alone. All moot points. The sacrament of Western marriage has been always, every day, up and doing something entirely different. The root of its dignity lies in the life of man and woman, who knowingly unite their different identities as individuals and appetites and fates as male and female, say Yes come what may before witnesses, and become miraculously one.

Advocates of "marriage" among homosexuals might argue with disgust that if I think it can't be done, then my contentions are already hollow, and they do no harm to me in merely acting through the impossible. That's a straw man. Their very eagerness to pursue the charade shows the value they put on attacking the truth of what marriage is, for who knows what interior reasons, really. Possibly it is boredom, "shocking the monkey," the fact that the left's political work is done and something like this fills the vacuum. Possibly it is just the enjoyment of titillation, and that goes for all of us. I don't notice the outraged public boycotting People magazine when it puts pictures from a gay "wedding" on its cover. I looked at the pictures, too.

But we come back inevitably to the man, the husband who doesn't age. Not like a woman does -- not like his wife. At some point we women pass a barrier, and we see that what unites the women on the other side is just that they are young. What keeps them young is something that men share, too, for decades. My widower friend of sixty presumes to show an interest in women in their thirties, and is disappointed when they look on him as a father figure. "That's not what I want," he complains. But there's hope for him. When he dates a woman in her fifties, who knows? -- he may adore her. Or he may be settling and they both may know it. Whereas for her, the situation could not possibly be reversed. Marriage knows that, and marriage, ideally, protected her.

Still have doubts? Your best friend met the love of her life at fifty, at sixty -- or, European men have always been more interested in ripe, older women? Or, what about Compassion, and insurance problems?

Since Hollywood especially loves gay marriage, let's finish with a scene that they do so well. You're watching a movie where the hero is trying to rescue his wife. Let's say you're watching Die Hard 2. Silly, to be sure. You missed it back in the '90s because you were busy having babies and avoided gory films regardless. But you're watching. It's almost the end and John McClane is desperately trying to convince the helicopter pilot to fly down in front of the jumbo jet and block its escape. The bad guys are getting away and somehow he thinks that if he can stop them, the other plane circling overhead with his wife on board will be able to land safely elsewhere in the airport. (Okay, the scriptwriters didn't think this one through.)

He's a husband. He's pale and dry mouthed and past tears, and exhausted and bloodied. He can't convince the pilot to do as he asks. A flight number is announced over the radio. "That's my wife's plane," he pleads. "My wife is on that plane."

Now imagine Ellen deGeneres is sitting next to him. She's pale and past tears, too. "So is mine," she says.

He turns to her.

What does he do? Why?

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