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The Physiology of Marriage

May 20, 2014 | by

HBalzac

This man could save your marriage—or ruin it. A portrait of Balzac, based on an 1842 daguerreotype

It’s Honoré de Balzac’s birthday, making this as good an occasion as any to investigate one of his stranger works, 1829’s The Physiology of Marriage—an extraordinary kind of precursor to the self-help manual. Balzac was thirty when it was published, and already he felt he knew enough about the institution of marriage to advise others on the matter. And maybe he was: though he hadn’t married yet, he’d already perfected the art of the aphorism. This book is full of them: “To saunter is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live.” “A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.” And “Marriage is a fight to the death, before which the wedded couple ask a blessing from heaven, because it is the rashest of all undertakings to swear eternal love; the fight at once commences and victory, that is to say liberty, remains in the hands of the cleverer of the two.”

The Physiology of Marriage is a series of meditations on the more quotidian aspects of loving and living with another—many of which arrive at the rather contemporary conclusion that marriage is an exceedingly difficult arrangement, liable to end in adultery. The book has moments of surprising candor about men and women, and Balzac clearly knows a thing or two about, you know, the Human Comedy. But he’s also full of lousy counsel, and he loves playing power games. Here, for instance, are some excerpts from Meditation XII, “On the Hygiene of Marriage”:

The aim of this Meditation is to call to your attention a new method of defence, by which you may reduce the will of your new wife to a condition of utter and abject submission. This is brought about by the reaction upon her moral nature of physical changes, and the wise lowering of her physical condition by a diet skillfully controlled.

You should let your wife recline all day long on soft armchairs, in which she sinks into a veritable bath of eiderdown or feathers; you should encourage in every way that does no violence to your conscience, the inclination which women have to breathe no other air but the scented atmosphere of a chamber seldom opened, where daylight can scarcely enter through the soft, transparent curtains … Praise the skill with which some women, renowned for their beauty, have been able to preserve it by bathing themselves in milk, several times a day, or in water compounded of substances likely to render the skin softer and to lower the nervous tension.

Advise her above all things to refrain from washing herself in cold water; because water warm or tepid is the proper thing for all kinds of ablutions.

Let Broussais be your idol. At the least indisposition of your wife, and on the slightest pretext, order the application of leeches; do not even shrink from applying from time to time a few dozen on yourself, in order to establish the system of that celebrated doctor in your household. You will constantly be called upon from your position as husband to discover that your wife is too ruddy; try even sometimes to bring the blood to her head, in order to have the right to introduce into the house at certain intervals a squad of leeches.

Your wife ought to drink water, lightly tinged with a Burgundy wine agreeable to her taste, but destitute of any tonic properties; every other kind of wine would be bad for her. Never allow her to drink water alone; if you do, you are lost…

Find some means by which her sum of force which inconveniences you may be carried off, by some occupation which shall entirely absorb her strength. Without setting your wife to work the crank of a machine, there are a thousand ways of tiring her out under the load of constant work.

It’s not all so heinous, though. In a chapter called “The Theory of the Bed,” Balzac lets loose with a clever piece of invective for any buffoon who installs two twin beds in the master bedroom:

If the most brilliant, the best-looking, the cleverest of husbands wishes to find himself minotaurized just as the first year of his married life ends, he will infallibly attain that end if he is unwise enough to place two beds side by side, under the voluptuous dome of the same alcove.

The argument in support of this may be briefly stated. The following are its main lines:

The first husband who invented the twin beds was doubtless an obstetrician, who feared that in the involuntary struggles of some dream he might kick the child borne by his wife.

But no, he was rather some predestined one who distrusted his power of checking a snore.

Perhaps it was some young man who, fearing the excess of his own tenderness, found himself always lying at the edge of the bed and in danger of tumbling off, or so near to a charming wife that he disturbed her slumber …

Unknown author of this Jesuitical method, whoever thou art, in the devil's name, we hail thee as a brother! Thou hast been the cause of many disasters. What good is it to have instituted law, morals and religion, if the invention of an upholsterer [for probably it was an upholsterer who invented the twin beds] robs our love of all its illusions, strips it bare of the majestic company of its delights and gives it in their stead nothing but what is ugliest and most odious? For this is the whole history of the two bed system.

If it be shared, our love is sublime; but should you sleep in twin beds, your love will always be grotesque. The absurdities which this half separation occasions may be comprised in either one of two situations, which will give us occasion to reveal the causes of very many marital misfortunes.

You can read all of The Physiology of Marriage here. Do so at your own peril—and at the peril of your loved one.

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