"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Semiotics–Signs And Survival In Marriage

SEMIOTICS : the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language,gestures, or clothing.

Semiotics is a simple concept.  Signs are behavioral markers that exist within a cultural context; and the ability to interpret them is a sign of social maturity. A traffic light, for example, is understood by everyone world over.  Green, yellow, and red mean exactly the same thing in India and Mississippi. Other signs are more culture-specific.  ‘Thumbs up’ signifies that all is well in the United States, but something quite different in Russia, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East.  Other, more personal signs – like a furrowed brow– are standard in many cultures, but interpretation  can only depend on knowing something about the sign-giver.  For one person it is a sign of worry, for another distaste, and for a third perplexity.  Missing the sign will result in misinterpretation, miscommunication, and worse.

Umberto Eco


Husbands and wives communicate largely through signs.  Especially as marriages age and verbal communication becomes less frequent, couples rely on practiced symbols for meaning.  A wife’s slow tread down the stairs in the morning may mean a bad night’s sleep, a good night’s sleep, or some resentment that had festered all night.

When Paulie Bosco heard his wife slowly descending the stairs, he knew that something was up.  Ordinarily her step was quick, light, and cadenced; but when that predictable rhythm was off a beat, so was her emotional pendulum.  He was so practiced in this art of reading signs that he was as sure as daybreak that she would ignore him and head into the kitchen.

The rattle of dishes was confirmation, for his ordinarily careful and patient wife always cleared the drainer with a light touch.  A rattle of plates or the banging of a cabinet door meant that whatever was eating her had kept her up; and that she was on the verge of saying something; but like most wives choose to eat it, swallow it, and no matter how poor the metabolism, digest and eliminate it.

Women complain that men don’t listen.  They are too wrapped up in their own worlds to pay attention, too disrespectful and dismissive, and too limited by their hormonal imbalance to even notice the flashing lights, blinking arrows, and neon signs placed in front of them.

The truth is far different.  Most men do indeed listen, hear and consider what their wives say.  They pick up all the signs – the unusual silences, impatience in the kitchen, and unmistakable hardness and resolve that mean trouble – and do not ignore them; but instead of trying to elicit a more vocal, forthright, and complete accounting; they start calculating how to deflect, justify, or dismiss the coming accusation. 

Men in fact are often better readers of signs than women, despite women’s stereotypical sensitivity, empathy, and concern.  Women make signs for understanding, consolation, and comfort; but men want nothing to do with such feminine needs.  They know that if they wait long enough, the storm will never materialize, and if it does, the shutters will hold.  In other words, men know exactly what is going on in women’s heads.  They just don’t want to be bothered.

Men of course display their own signs and know that that women will immediately pick up on them; but rather than ignore them or quickly build a defense, women will want to know more.   Paulie’s wife was always after him to ‘open up’ and to ‘talk about it’.  She must have known that she was the cause of his brooding, although she would never dare to admit that in these vile moods he was thinking of wringing her neck.  Otherwise she never would have asked.

Men and women both understand that signs are useful for punishment and retribution.  My aunt used to make her husband suffer through a whole week of stony, cold, indifferent silence before she showed even a glimmer of recognition let alone affection.   The drawn curtains in the den in the afternoon were not to cut the glare, but a sign of moody desperation.  The cold, bland, barely edible pot roast was a symbol of her own wretchedly routine, dull, and uninteresting life.  Serving it to her unappreciative family was a way of making them suffer along with her.

In an ideal world, direct, open, responsive communication would be the only reasonable medium of interpersonal relationships.  Why show signs when an honest explanation would air grievances quickly, bring them to resolution, and avoid days of unnecessary bile and repressed hostility?

Paulie felt that his problems were his own and certainly not his wife’s.  There were too many sunken costs in their marriage – two children, a sizeable portfolio, a million-dollar house, and a cottage on the Vineyard – for him to shiver the timbers.   He had done his best to keep his infidelities under wraps; and if he was feeling a bit uncertain about his paramour’s intentions and her increasing carelessness about their liaison, it was his affair.  If he was feeing a bit dodgy about his libido and interest in women and saw the light beginning to flicker at the end of life’s tunnel, no one need know; let alone his wife who would pour out Hallmark card treacle and actuarial tables to make him feel better.

“We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella.  In one’s final moments, the vanity of friends, wives, and lovers disappears.  The only relationship left is with one’s Maker who alone will judge the nature and value of one’s life.  Social communication – signs, language, gestures, actions – are only convenient constructs to keep things in order.  Unknowability is the elephant in the room and acknowledged only when it is too late.

Ivan Ilyich

Paulie’s wife had invited her mother over for a dinner en famille.  The old bat was an opinionated, sour, and thoroughly unlikeable woman who carried a sea-bag full of warning flags and pennants; and she was quick to run them up the mast as soon as the breeze shifted.  “Oh really?”, she would say, the unmistakable sign of arrogant dismissal.  By now Paulie was used to her nasty brand of semiotics, and unlike with his wife, he was flummoxed by the irremediable stubbornness of his mother-in-law.   She either banged on about nothing, vying for valuation or sat in the corner waiting for her daughter’s undivided attention.  Her signs were obvious and unmistakable; and rather than attract, they repelled.   Mother and daughter passed signs to each other, and Paulie painfully didn’t miss a one.

Except for personal relationships, semiotics is nonsense.  In a highly-mediated commercial world, signs are everywhere.  Advertising is based on image, signs, signifiers, and social clues.  Politics is all about image.  The signs candidates send to prospective voters are idiotically simple – pants suits vs skirt and a blouse; carefully-coiffed hair or a mane of unruly, senatorial white; smiles or smirks.   Police cars in increasingly violent, crime-ridden cities are painted in happy colors and designs.  ‘We care about you’, the prowlers say.  SWAT teams on the other hand are all business.


Hollywood, Wall Street; and the Unitarian Church are all about signs, images, advertisements, and PR promotions.  Nothing new in the public domain; but semiotic signing in marriages is important, for there is more at stake and in play. Intimate relationships are based not only on mutual trust and love; but on suspicion, doubt, infidelity, deceit, and vindictive torment.  Miss a sign, and you are in trouble.  Fail to act on it, and you lose.

The devil in Ivan’s Nightmare (The Brothers Karamazov) says that without him, the world would be a very dull place indeed.  Imagine a world where everyone went to church all the time.  Signs in marriage are the devil’s work – once they are misunderstood, every nasty bit of psychological misery is in play. 

The Devil - Ivan's Nightmare

Edward Albee understood that marriage is the crucible for maturity.  Men and women locked in an inescapable room will do terrible things to each other, but as he wrote in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they are better off for it in the end.  In other words, if there were no signs to be misinterpreted, only honest, forthright, and unmistakable speech, nothing would every be ventured, and certainly nothing gained.


Paulie Bosco, more savvy than most men, enjoyed the theatrics and melodrama of marriage, and would have it no other way.  In other words, without the fireworks, why bother. “If it weren’t for that nagging old crone”, he said referring to his mother-in-law, we would be on Broadway.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Pound Of Flesh–Wayward Husbands, Retribution, And Reconciliation

There is no such thing as Truth and Reconciliation in marriage.  Men try to hide their sexual delinquencies, and women may forget but never forgive.  They have, after all, been deceived no differently than had they been victims of Bernie Madoff.

Bernie Madoff


Madoff built trust and friendship among his Jewish friends.  Theirs was not only a financial compact but a social one.  Jews help each other, and he, as a money wizard, would work wonders for them.  When his friends found out that he had fleeced them as badly as any gentile, they felt that he had broken a sacred covenant.  Money was one thing; but taking advantage of those who trusted him was unconscionable and unpardonable.

Matty Pierce felt she had been so deceived.  It wasn’t  so much her husband’s tomcatting per se.  Every  woman knows that the moment she steps off the altar she runs that particular risk.  Nor was she so upset by the breach of the legal marriage contract,  although all divorces are messy.  It wasn’t even that Bryce had been sleeping with Marge from Accounting, the girl with the curls who draped herself all over him at Christmas parties.  It was the craven duplicity of it all that angered her to tears.

When she thought back on all his excuses – barely plausible and hackneyed – and realized the smarmy triteness of his affairs, she wanted to wring his neck.  Yet as soon as she began to throttle him in her imagination, she grabbed her own throat and shouted, “How could I have been so stupid?”

In her most choleric moments, Matty hated everyone – herself, Bryce, even his unbearable mother who had always been absurdly proud of her son who she thought brilliant, irreproachable, and sexually alluring – the kind of man she would have liked to marry instead of her own dull, grey husband. 

Deceit is a two-way street, and although Matty was  the injured party, she couldn’t help but blame herself for her blind faith and trust.  How could she have bought her husband’s lame excuses, ignored the peculiar scents and smells on his clothes, and never wondered once why he came in freshly-showered and combed after working late at the office?  Had she not yet gotten over Daddy and the reverential love little girls have for their fathers? 


A casual glance around the room, let alone a quick run through fiction or history should have been enough to demonstrate clearly and once and for all that men cannot be trusted.  So why had she fallen for the oldest excuses in the book and turned a blind eye to his deception?

The problem was that Matty – like many aggrieved women - loved her husband.  As much as she hated him for his infidelity, she wasn’t ready to dissolve the marriage.  After all, he was a wonderful father, a companionable mate, socially adept, intelligent, and attractive.  She had been able to check nine out of ten boxes in the ‘plus’ column when she selected Bryce.  Should fidelity, the unchecked box, now be enough reason to kick him out?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is known for her categorization of the five steps of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance; and most deceived wives go through something of the same process.   When the first telltale signs of Bryce’s infidelity became too obvious to ignore, she still denied them and chose to believe that her husband would never be capable of such a thing.  Once she had caught him in flagrante delicto, she was as angry as she had ever been and later wondered where such fury had come from in an otherwise placid woman. 

She began to bargain.  If he made amends and demonstrated his goodwill and recommitment to their marriage, then she might take him back.  Next she became depressed at her cowardly retreat and inability to stand up for what she knew was right.  She had gotten the worst of the deal and felt shamed and weak because of it.   Finally she accepted her lot.  Despite herself, she loved her husband, and would take him for all his faults.


As applicable as the Kubler-Ross model may be to infidelity, it misses one important step – retribution.  Taking a pound of flesh out of one’s wayward husband is absolutely required for final acceptance to be achieved.   The man must pay.

It would be nice to report that Matty Pierce was more creative than most women, and that she devised a truly insidious and painful retribution; but unfortunately she did not.  She picked, caviled, and carped just like millions of women before her because the results were immediate and observable.  Every morning Matty found the toilet seat down and the bathroom floor clean.  Bryce no longer rattled the tea service on his way up to his office.  He kept his voice down, listened patiently to her issues and complaints, and was as thoughtful and considerate as a new lover.

From her perspective she had cowed her disobedient little boy husband, strapped him in her traces and pulled him where she wanted. Only when she saw that his behavior was indeed changing did she slacken the tether and pull more gently on the bit.

From Bryce’s perspective, this abject submission was only paying a fine.   If you continually went well over the speed limit, you were bound to get a ticket. The fine, however, was nothing compared to the many hours saved by speeding.  It wouldn’t take long, he knew, before he and his wife settled back into their normal gender-defined routines, and life went back to normal.

True contrition never once crossed his mind.  He knew that once the storm had passed, he would be free and clear to resume his sexual dilly-dallying.  His wife had invested far too much in this marriage – over thirty years, two children, a sizeable financial joint contribution, and a million-dollar home– to let it go easily.  More to the point, no woman pushing sixty can feel optimistic about her chances for love; and eating alone is unthinkable.

Bryce knew that the more punctilious he was, the sooner the punitive phase would end.  He gave her few reasons to complain – no hairs in the sink, no floss on the floor, no late dinners, inattentiveness, or distraction – and soon enough she wavered, warmed, and gave in.

Both sides in the marriage won.  Matty exacted a greater degree of fidelity and respect than she had had before.  Bryce, after paying his fine, went back to speeding but not so far over the limit.  Both spouses realized that they wanted to stay married; and although love might not have been the reason, an institutional shelter for old age was.

After a while, the issue of infidelity never came up.  Bryce had long ago given up any thought of December-May affairs or any sexual liaisons for that matter.  Women simply did not look at him in that way as they had always done. A beautiful girl still stirred the cocktail, but he could only admire the glass.  Matty knew that if stable marriages were all about sunken costs, there were now too many to ignore.  There was no way that she and Bryce would part company.

She had to admit, however, that her Miss Julie act felt good.

JEAN. They were one evening down there in the stable, and the young lady was "training" him, as she called it. What do you think she was doing? 
She made him jump over the riding whip like a dog which one is teaching to hop. He jumped over twice, and each time he got a cut, but the third time he snatched her riding whip out of her hand, smashed it into smithereens and cleared out. 
Julie reverts to a more traditional womanhood, and falls for the virile, strong Jean.  The relationship goes nowhere, however, because neither one is able to escape their sexual and social limitations. 
Matty on the other hand was acting in a far less dramatic scene.  Her marriage to Bryce was simple and conventional, and although the ropes holding up the tent often went slack, it stayed upright.   The sideshow – infidelity, smarmy lies, a pound of flesh, and reconciliation – was the only interest.   For a few months every few years, Matty was the ringleader and poor Bryce the clown. 


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Silas Marner–A Moral Tale

Silas Marner, written by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in 1861 is a tale of money, greed, and the divisions of class in early 19th century England; but it is also a profoundly moral and Christian story where people do the right thing.

Silas Marner

Silas Marner was forced to leave his village because he was wrongfully accused of theft.  A Calvinist and man of strict rectitude and moral principle, he left Lantern Yard a bitter and resentful man.  He  settled in Raveloe, another small town to the south where he became a weaver.   He lived alone and never forgot the injustices done to him.  He mistrusted everyone, refused all but commercial engagements, and as a result began to be thought of as a conjurer.  His seemingly miraculous cure of a villager thanks to his knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs gave him immediate respect and social status; but because he refused all requests for assistance, only wanting to return to is solitary life, he became even more suspect and then once again shunned.

He was a talented weaver and his embroidered linens were in great demand; and over the years he became moderately wealthy; but choosing to live frugally he spent little of it.  Instead he kept his gold hidden in the floor of his cottage; and every night he spread the guineas on the table to look at and feel them.  Although Marner is often portrayed as a miser, he is a much more nuanced and complex character.  The monetary value of the gold meant nothing to him.  It was marker like stripes on a prison wall which delineated his limited and painful life.



Gradually the guineas, the crowns, and the half-crowns grew to a
heap, and Marner drew less and less for his own wants, trying to
solve the problem of keeping himself strong enough to work sixteen
hours a-day on as small an outlay as possible. Have not men, shut
up in solitary imprisonment, found an interest in marking the
moments by straight strokes of a certain length on the wall, until
the growth of the sum of straight strokes, arranged in triangles,
has become a mastering purpose? Do we not wile away moments of
inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or
sound, until the repetition has bred a want, which is incipient

The gold was also a companion,  the only bright thing in his life.  After a long day of weaving, he removed the bags of gold which he had secreted in the cottage floor, spread them out on the table, ran his fingers through them.  He loved their weight, their color, and their shape.  They were to him what a wife and children were to others.

He began to think it was conscious of him, as his loom was, and he would on no account have exchanged those coins, which had become his familiars, for other coins with unknown faces. He handled them, he counted them, till their form and color were like the satisfaction of a thirst to him; but it was only in the night, when his work was done, that he drew them out to enjoy their companionship.

His money is stolen, and once again the injustice of theft returns.  Only his work keeps him sane although there is now no purpose to it.  At least in his lonely, solitary life, there was the gold; but now there was nothing.


By chance an opium addict falls asleep in the snow with her young child and dies of exposure.  The child, however, finds her way to Marner’s cottage.   She is the gold he has lost and he becomes a loving, devoted father to her.

The real father of the child, Godfrey Cass, a wealthy landowner of the region, has never acknowledged either his daughter or her mother – a low-class wife whom he disavows and keeps secret from everyone including his new wife whom he does not want to drive away because of the scandal the revelation would cause.  Only near the end of the story does he feel it time for honest and amends.  He and his wife have been childless for fifteen years, and they both hope that by reclaiming his daughter and giving her a well-to-do life will be right and just and will finally fill the empty space in their home.

Family matters become more complicated when the thief of Marner’s gold is discovered to be Godfrey’s wastrel brother; and when the gold is found and returned to Marner, Godfrey decides to make his appeal to take his daughter to live in his estate.

As a younger man Godfrey was as irresponsible, weak, and immoral as his brother, both cheating and lying to their father about their management of estate funds.   His offer to adopt Eppie, his biological daughter, give his wife the child she has always wanted, and to make  amends for his brother’s crime are his chance for moral redemption.  Marner and Eppie of course refuse.  Godfrey acquiesces but continues to provide financial support to Marner and his daughter.


The novel, like those of Thomas Hardy and other 19th century realist writers, relies on chance and circumstance to further both plot and character development. If Eppie had not wandered into Silas’s cottage, his life would have been irretrievably unhappy.  She, however, resuscitates the goodness that was always in Marner before his unjust accusation in Lantern Yard ; gives him purpose; elicits love and compassion; and returns him to path from which he was deprived.   Marner is a good person whom circumstances have condemned and redeemed.

Godfrey was a moral reprobate in his younger years, and the circumstances of his first wife’s death and the survival of his daughter reveal the goodness in him.  He finally is able to reveal his secret, live more openly and intimately with his second wife, and do the right thing.  At first he justifies his selfish ambitions by saying that taking Eppie will be good for her when in fact it is only to satisfy his wife who has for years pleaded for adoption and his long-hidden desire for reconciliation. Finally, however, Godfrey does the real right thing, renounces his claim to his daughter, and generously but quietly supports her and her adoptive father, Silas.

Godfrey’s wife, Nancy, has always been a moral person, although more because her limited intelligence has prevented her from observing anything but the few social and religious principles she has been taught as a child.  Nevertheless, despite her near implacable desire for an adopted child, she sees how wrong taking Eppie would be, and her understanding, compassion, and strength, helps Godfrey to find his moral ground.

Eppie is less a girl than a gift from God.  She is all love, obedience, loyalty, and respect for her father.  Silas Marner is a profoundly Christian book.  Eppie is a gift of grace.  Marner did nothing to earn it or merit her.  She was bestowed. 

In many ways she is similar to Pearl, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter who represents more than she exists. Pearl is precociously alert, intelligent, and for Puritanical Salem, dangerously elfin and otherworldly.  She is exuberant where Hester and Dimmesdale are unhappy, regretful, and guilty.  She is what God intended, not the spiteful, angry, witch-hunting Puritans.   In both books little girls, both innocent in their own ways, are the agents of change and denouement in the world of adults.

At the end of the novel when Godfrey and Nancy are adjusting to the new realities of their lives, she reiterates this sentiment, although couching it within a very different context - God’s will:

Nancy was silent: her spirit of rectitude would not let her try to
soften the edge of what she felt to be a just compunction. He spoke
again after a little while, but the tone was rather changed: there
was tenderness mingled with the previous self-reproach.

"And I got _you_, Nancy, in spite of all; and yet I've been
grumbling and uneasy because I hadn't something else--as if I
deserved it."

"You've never been wanting to me, Godfrey," said Nancy, with quiet
sincerity. "My only trouble would be gone if you resigned yourself
to the lot that's been given us."

Silas Marner is a moral book about good people, how they fall away, and how they are redeemed.  It is an optimistic book about goodness in the world; and it is a book that reconciles ideas of grace, morality, and the inevitable unforeseen circumstances of character and environment.