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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

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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Snub Your Suitors the Brontë Way, and Other News

May 2, 2014 | by

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She knew how to say no. Charlottë Bronte, painted by Evert A. Duyckinck, based on a drawing by George Richmond, 1873.

  • Need to reject a marriage proposal or two? Take a page from Charlotte Brontë’s book. Here’s what she wrote to Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate, in March 1839: “Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative … I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you—but … you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose.”
  • Just when you thought it’d been a while since anyone asserted the death of the novel, here’s Will Self, asserting the death of the novel. “This time it’s for real,” the headline notes.
  • What do conductors do? Divining the art of hand-flapping: “One problem some conductors encountered is what a conducting friend of mine calls the ‘Grecian Urn’ syndrome. This is where the left hand mimics the right hand exactly, tracing the outline of an antique urn. It’s more picturesque than the ‘dead hand’ syndrome, where the left hand hangs limply, but just as useless.”
  • New research suggests that Freud was right all along: our dreams are fueled by sex. “I vividly recall the day in the late 1970s when I realized that dreams and their unconscious sexual meaning were part of a larger whole … I and another orderly were given the task of delousing, showering and cleaning up an old alcoholic who had been picked up off the streets for a drying-out period … All of a sudden this emaciated, brittle old man jumped up, stared straight at us revealing a full erection and then lifted a massive metal table over his head, threw it against the wall and began wailing in ever louder sing-song tones a string of sexual expletives that left me and my colleague terrified that the man was crumbling, psychically, before our eyes.”
  • Inflammatory bowel disease “is fast becoming resistant to every antibiotic thrown at it.” But there is a kind of miracle cure: a fecal transplant. “Some doctors have likened the recoveries of desperately ill patients to those seen with anti-HIV protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s … Yet few other interventions elicit such disgust, revulsion and ridicule … What’s behind this knee-jerk aversion? Perhaps, as one epidemiologist believes, it’s the voice of our evolutionary ancestors, warning us away from a major source of parasites and other pathogens. Perhaps, says another researcher, it’s the fading of an agrarian life that equated manure with opportunity, whose cultural influence is now drowned out by public health warnings of diarrhea-borne epidemics in towns and cities. With the last lines of antibiotic defense beginning to crumble, however, getting past the cognitive dissonance of healthy poo as powerful curative could be a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of patients.”

 

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Chevrolet Caprice

April 21, 2014 | by

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A 1987 Chevrolet Caprice.

On a Tuesday in late August, on my way to the ferry landing at Thirty-Fourth Street, I saw a huge, white, rusted-out Chevy Caprice make an illegal turn off FDR Drive, nearly skidding onto just two wheels. The Caprice barreled up Thirty-Fourth Street. When it blew by me I got a quick look at its occupants: three old ladies, all elaborately coiffed: the driver, another riding shotgun, and the third leaning forward in the backseat to better converse with the other two. I imagined they had just come from a group outing to the beauty parlor. Each of them probably had a rain bonnet tucked away in their purses, in case it rained later. The driver was wearing Gloria Vanderbilt–style sunglasses and a smashing shade of coral lipstick that was probably really popular in the seventies. I was quite taken with her. When I’m an old lady I want to drive around with my girl gang in a huge rusted-out white Caprice Classic and piss off cab drivers everywhere, I thought.

The image of the three ladies stayed with me well into the next day, which was also, randomly, Tori Amos’s fiftieth birthday. In observation, a pop-culture site compiled and ranked her 100 best songs. I dumped the top fifteen or so into a playlist and listened to it for most of the day. I felt sad but not depressed, an odd combination for me. One of the reasons I don’t listen to Tori anymore is that I am old. The other is that listening to Tori Amos reminds me of Tracy, my best friend from high school. Emma Straub wrote a piece for the Daily a few years ago called “My Rayannes,” which, in reference to Rayanne Graff from the nineties TV drama My So-Called Life, posits that all teenage girls are half lesbian. Less outrageously, it outlines an adolescent phenomenon in which one seeks a darker, more daring, more risk-taking counterpart—an accomplice in DIY piercings, home dye jobs, and, in Straub’s words, “tempestuous, obsessive friendship.” Read More »

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Growing Up Together

March 11, 2014 | by

Love through the lens of Fellini.

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Fellini and Masina on the set of La Strada, 1954. Photo: Studio Patellani

Among the central occupations of Fellini’s work is what he wants from the women in his life. Near the end of , his alter ego speaks of a kind of Ideal Woman: “She’s beautiful … young, yet ancient … child, yet already woman. Authentic, complete. It’s obvious she could be his salvation.” Between the breathy declaiming and ’s famous layers of metafiction, you get the idea that even Fellini sees this isn’t exactly a healthy attitude.

Still, throughout his work, the search for an ideal of womanhood is represented in a series of large and buxom temptresses: Anita Ekberg, Sandra Milo, Eddra Gale in an especially memorable dance sequence as La Saraghina. But pulling his films off the shelf one by one, my wife and I agreed the problem was most nearly solved, onscreen and in life, by his wife and best collaborator, the tiny and brilliant Guilietta Masina.

For any of this to make sense I’ll have to say a little about what Lola, the woman in my life, is like. To start, she’s French. She’s small and she likes to refer to herself as my little wife, but she’s solid too, and fit, with strong legs: in the WNFL she’d be a halfback. When she gets excited she bounces on her toes and hugs me around the waist, looking up at me. She’s far from graceless but she sometimes moves with a child’s gracelessness, like Masina—that physicality, impetuosity of expression and utterance, a mischievous delight in small wonders and small triumphs. On the other hand, when she has to enter or pass through a dark room, she stands for a moment at the threshold looking in with narrowed eyes. Anyway, I’m guessing the comparison to Masina will please her; she’s herself an actress, the kind whose outsize physical presence lends to rather than diminishes the subtlety of her performances. She comes from a family of film people, and all manner of moving image can transfix her: Tarkovsky, or Ozu, or Maya Deren. She sleeps deeply, dreams bodily, and uses cuddle as a transitive verb, one of the few early solecisms she’s done me the kindness of preserving. She cuddles me. Read More »

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Darling, Come Back, and Other News

February 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jnlin, via Wikimedia Commons

  • In Taiwan, a commemorative Valentine’s Day train ticket sold out in less than an hour: it takes you from “Dalin (大林, pronounced similarly to ‘darling’ in English) station in Chiayi County to Gueilai (歸來, literally: ‘come back’).” A journey any of us should be willing to make after we’ve behaved badly. It’s love on a real train.
  • Voltaire in love: “She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.”
  • But we can count on literature to remind us that things are not always so sweet. Here are the ten unhappiest marriages in fiction.
  • Can atrocity be the subject matter of poetry? Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on Carolyn Forché’s new anthology.
  • “I also like to catch dangling modifiers, because we all miss those … I have had authors who say that dangling modifiers are part of their style and don’t want to change them.” An interview with a crackerjack copyeditor.

 

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A Chain on the Great Feelings

February 11, 2014 | by

The deceptively breezy poems of Stevie Smith.

NPG x133107; Florence Margaret ('Stevie') Smith by Jane Bown

Photo: Jane Bown

Stevie Smith’s playful, carnivalesque poems, tiny on the page but emotionally trenchant, are getting a new life—her Best Poems were reissued in December. 

It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten? 

A profoundly independent and, by all accounts, slightly peculiar woman, Smith—born Florence Margaret, and only later Stevie—lived in the same house in North London from the time she was three until her death, taking care of an aunt she treasured, without the need to insert a proper man or children into her life. She worked as a secretary in the women’s magazine business for her entire career, which perhaps is why, in her poems and in her letters, she tilts to seeing women as acutely silly. She avoided serious relationships, settling instead into easily reciprocated, caring friendships and a familial bond with her aunt. Read More »

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