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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Love And Infidelity In A Parallel Universe

A world without maps is the ideal for Count Lazlo de Almasy, the main character in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, an ironic ideal for a cartographer and man of science determined to trace man’s history through the routes he has taken over time.  However, Almasy’s discovery of the paths of camel caravans through the desert have given him a sense of the even more ancient and timeless movements of people based on grazing land, oases, and water.  These travelers did not need maps, nor was the world made up of fixed geographical references.  It was only modern man who was compelled to map the desert – to fix coordinates for the purposes of territory, resources, and conquest.

Ownership is always destructive, thought Almasy, and maps are used to delineate property, to establish perimeters, boundaries, and private limits, and to demarcate front lines.

In one of the early scenes between Almasy and his lover, Katherine, he tells her to leave before they are tempted to own each other.  She is upset at his dismissal of love and angered at his abstractions. There is no comparison between the historical imperative to delineate, delimit, and claim ownership, and human love. Love may have its own roadmaps and guideposts, triggers, and points de repère, but any boundaries are porous and shifting, no different than the changing landscape of the desert.

Eventually Almasy gives in to his passionate obsession for Katherine, jettisons all pretense of indifference to ownership, and pursues her.  He must have her and own her.

Katherine, however, is married, and cannot go on with the affair.  She feels duty and obligation, and while she is by no means owned by her husband, they have a contract of mutual ownership, rights of privacy, and shared emotional property.  It is Almasy who insists that she leave her husband and her loveless marriage – dissolve all contracts and agreement and go away with him.

They are united tragically in the end.  Almasy traitorously sells British maps of the desert to the Germans in exchange for a plane to rescue the injured Katherine, only to arrive too late.

Graham Greene’s best works were derived out of the dynamics of his conversion to Catholicism, and his attempts at reconciling his own powerful sexual instincts and passions with what he felt was an overwhelming need to love God.  In The End of the Affair, Bendix falls in love with Sarah Miles, the wife of an important government official, and during a London blitz during which he is with Miles, he is almost killed. Shortly thereafter, Miles breaks off the relationship and disappears from his life.  Insanely jealous and certain that she has taken another lover, Bendix has her followed and finds out after her tragic, early death, that she made a promise to God that if He resurrected Bendix whom she thought dead from the bombing, she would leave Bendix forever. 

Greene could never reconcile the love of God with the love of woman, and was torn between the pure, selfless submission to God and the demanding, unsatisfying, but powerful urges of sexual love.

Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is an even more powerful story of the conflict between responsibility, religion, and passion.  Scobie is a minor British official in West Africa and, despite his marriage to Louise, begins a passionate and obsessive affair with a young woman he has saved from an accident at sea.  Scobie’s wife leaves for England, and he is free to live with the girl, Helen.  He is never completely at ease with the arrangement, however, because he is a Catholic convert, and adultery is a mortal sin.  Yet he cannot live alone and he defers his decision about Helen and Louise indefinitely.  Eventually Louise comes back and Scobie’s moral and emotional dilemma comes to the fore.  He loves Helen, no longer loves his wife, but feels obliged to remain with Louise.  As the emotional tangle gets worse, and his attempts to hide the affair fail, he decides to take his own life to free everyone including himself from the moral morass which he has created.  As a Catholic, suicide is the worst and final sin against God.

Infidelity is common today, and few people take such indiscretion as seriously as Ondaatje or Greene. For most men affairs are a normal part of married live, an escape from the routine, a biological imperative never fully squelched either by feminism or social norms.  Infidelity is no longer a breach of trust, but a risk to be run.  Men assess sunken costs, financial exposure, family cohesiveness, and the sexual balance of power, and decide either to have an affair or to remain faithful.  They do not consider infidelity as a moral failing, an insult, or a sin.  It is merely an expression of individual desire, will, and right.

Shakespeare wrote about love, but was never very fond of it.  The happy marriages celebrated at the end of his Comedies were merely punctuations to social contracts.  His heroines were always more intelligent, canny, and complex than the men they were forced to marry.  The relationships between men and women in the Histories were passionless and purely political.  The real love expressed was that of mothers for their sons, and even then, it was less simple human emotion than a calculated effort to assure ascendancy to the throne.  Characters in the Tragedies were no different.  Cleopatra never loved Antony, but used him just like she used Julius Caesar before him.  He was her besotted protector, and together they would be co-emperors of Rome after their defeat of Octavius. Othello never loved Desdemona.  She was the missing piece in the puzzle of social acceptability.  He was inept at love, never understood women let alone the precocious Desdemona, and was brought down by jealousy.

Most of Shakespeare’s couples are riven by jealousy – Othello, Leontes, Posthumus, Cymbeline, Troilus all were jealous of women they mistrusted, and were not driven by the thought of the loss of love, but the loss of power and authority.

Infidelity was a matter of state, for kings and courtiers for the paternity of their children was the key to succession, inheritance, and the extension of the family line.  Accession to the nobility if not the throne depended upon it.  Peasants too relied on the legitimacy of their children as a justification for their toil.  Why work endless hours for a child who wasn’t yours?

Human nature has not changed since the days of Henry VIII, and infidelity is at least as common today as it was in the days of Shakespeare. What is missing is the moral, religious, and ethical context for sexual behavior which tended to civilize it.  Men and women may have been just as unfaithful in 16th Century Vienna as they are today, but there were serious consequences to their actions.

Measure for Measure is a play about this moral context.  In it Claudio is in love with a woman and she is pregnant by him.  Under the new draconian ruler of Vienna, Angelo, such immoral infidelity must be punished by death.  Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a chaste novitiate and inflexible moralist pleads for the life of her brother.  Angelo offers her a deal – sleep with him and her brother will be spared.

She refuses to comply, saying that her chastity is a sign of her fealty and devotion to God.  It is a sacred contract which cannot be broken.  Her brother is amazed that she values her chastity over his life and pleads with her to be reasonable.  As in all of Shakespeare’s Comedies, all ends well; but Shakespeare has explored the question of fidelity and morality within a religious and secular context. Angelo, despite his personal corruption, has established laws against infidelity and promiscuity because he has seen such profligacy as detrimental to the health of the state.  Isabella sees the infidelity of her brother as a moral failing, even though he plans to marry his lover; and the advances of Angelo represent the worst – and most predictable – features of human nature.

What makes Shakespeare’s works so compelling is his depiction of the moral and ethical human dilemmas and occur within an amoral universe.  History repeats itself perpetually, but the expressions of that human nature which underlies it and is the engine for it, are infinite.  The conflicts and dilemmas that arise out of sexual tension are no different from those between nations over power and territory.  They both involve risk, gain, and retribution.

Our age has seemingly lost all the moorings which restrained human behavior. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were not remorseless killers. Othello kills Desdemona out of misguided jealous passion, but then kills himself.  Cassius and Brutus kill Julius Caesar on the speculation that he will become a dictator, not on any fact; and guilt of their crime comes back to haunt them.   There may be no absolute morality in Shakespeare’s universe, but there are consequences.

Today there are few consequences.  The sexual delinquencies of politicians are laughable. Some of the best known have betrayed their sick wives, jumped into bed with younger mistresses, apologized to their constituents, and gone on with their public lives.  Many women felt that Bill Clinton was unworthy to be President, for if he cheated on his wife, he would certainly cheat the American public.  Most men and women, however, got over the affair, such as it was, and wish that they had Bubba back in office.

Feminism has helped to neuter infidelity.  Men and women are more and more economic equals, and both can tell their partners to take a hike at the first sign of indiscretion.  Lying is assumed in a society where spin, image, and rehabilitation are the rules.  “Honey, I’ll be working late at the office” today gets only a smirk.  “Yeah, right”, says the no-longer aggrieved wife.  “Sure you are”, and makes a mental note on her marital balance sheet.  Sexual dynamics continue, of course, and although modern 30-somethings have fewer drag-out, knock-down fights like those of George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) or the murderous and incestuous plots of the Mannon family (Mourning Becomes Elektra), they dispute, accuse, and suspect with the best of them.

It’s just that real consequences have disappeared. As much as cynics snickered at women’s prissy comments about Bill Clinton, they had a point.  Infidelity does indeed reflect something about character, trust, and respect – or at least it did in the good old days.

The lack of moral signposts – such as those that Count Almasy considered, rejected, and sought to reclaim – and the growing complaisance of American couples, have led to parallel moral universes.  It is too difficult, we say, to maintain one strict, universal code of behavior; so why not have two or three?  If I respect and care for my wife, treat her lovingly and with affection; then why not have a lover with whom I have another code and set of rules? The fact that we ignore the duplicity and dishonesty inherent in this system of parallel lives is irrelevant.  As long as we maintain a certain civility in both relationships, guilt will be assuaged. Until the lid comes off, of course, and we are outed and discovered, and all the smarmy trickery and thinly-veiled lies see the light of day.

Most of us will never be big-time liars and cheats.  We will never face multi-million dollar fines or long prison sentences.  We will not be like Bernie Madoff who lied, cheated, and robbed his friends; or union bosses who rob the till of member contributions; or the engineers of the Enron scandal who were responsible for emptying the savings accounts of innocent Americans.  Yet our marital infidelities are no different, and they reflect an erosion of basic values.  The prissy anti-Clinton women say that such infidelities are like marijuana – a gateway behavior to something far worse – and they may be right.

The concept of infidelity may someday soon cease to exist.  The more couples are equal, and the more relationships are based on a more practical and sensible basis, the less marital straying may matter. In a society which increasingly places monetary values on everything, men and women may become as interchangeable and upgradeable as commercial products.

I belong to the cusp generation – the one that still feels guilty about marital infidelity but is also conditioned by the Sixties.  We adhere to the old moralism of the past but are believers in social and cultural relativity.  We compartmentalize our ethics, lead parallel moral lives, justify and explain, and lead a life of edgy compromise.  This is our legacy.  Others will have theirs.

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