Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book Review on a History of Marriage

I think this is the first time I have posted about a New York Times book review but 'I Don’t - A Contrarian History of Marriage,' by Susan Squire justifies the divergence from the norm:

"It’s a testament to our national confusion about the purpose of marriage that the courts can toggle this way between four or five rationales for such a union in a single judicial opinion, with little regard for any one coherent principle. In “I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage,” Susan Squire explains that this is because there is no single coherent principle behind modern marriage. As currently practiced, the institution is a hodgepodge of biblical, classical, courtly and Christian rules and mores. What we know as “marriage” is rooted in warring historical efforts at regulating procreation; tamping down sexual lust (especially female lust); and — only relatively recently — celebrating companionship and romantic love. Those of us who speak reverently about the sanctity of marriage must also acknowledge that modern matrimony is less a sacred vessel than a crazy quilt."


It’s not always easy to follow the hops and skips of Squire’s logical structure, and at times her penchant for one-linery gets in the way of her argument as opposed to helping it along. But “I Don’t” is a charming book and a wonderful resource for those who think they have a bead on why the church and everyone purporting to speak for the church got themselves so firmly entrenched in the marriage business in the first place. As we head into the presidential election, you may find yourself channeling Squire as you puzzle out your feelings about the Obama marriage (two parts Martin Luther, one part ancient Rome?) as well as that of the McCains (one part Eleanor of Aquitaine, two parts ancient Greece?).

Marriage is one of the last manifestations of human optimism. And whether we aspire to perfect holiness or romance, the reality is almost certain to disappoint. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The only charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception necessary for both parties.” “I Don’t” reminds us we’ve been aspiring to such deceptions for thousands of years. That alone is reason to hope.

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