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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”:Read More »

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