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

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

What’s Love Got To Do With It? A Short History Of The Failure OF Romance

Elizabeth and Louis Frisbee, like thousands of other young Americans in the late Sixties married for love, but over the decades whatever love there might have been was eroded by simple things, practical affairs that never should have interfered with romance but did, and undid decades of trust.

Image result for images young lovers 50s comic book covers

Louis was a student at Harvard when he met Elizabeth, a sophomore at Wellesley.  They were the perfect couple matched in intelligence, wit, resourcefulness, and physical beauty.  Both could have been, if not on the cover of CG or Cosmo, then on the first pages. Both had come from modest beginnings – Louis from a first generation family which had done well in the professions, never amassing wealth but a solid reputation and good standing; Betty from a Midwestern family, early comers to America who had made enough from farming and husbandry to provide well, although not riches, for many generations to come. 

The union of Louis and Elizabeth was, from a Lacanian perspective, the bourgeois marriage, one of opportunity and foundation.  He was poor compared to his North Shore classmates, boys of real privilege and social benefit; and she, despite her modest American credentials, was acceptable to the young men of Yale because of her intelligence, wit, and charm.

Image result for images yale logo

They met casually in New York at a singles bar on the Upper East Side – neither one was there out of desperation or loneliness, but thanks to the headiness of the times.  New York was the place to be for the young elite manqué, those young men and women without a pedigree but from a solid American background.  They were not the children of wealth and privilege, from the Main Line, Beacon Hill, or Park Avenue; but offspring of families who believed in enterprise, parsimony, and hard work.

It was surprising that the marriage lasted as long as it did.  Money – not the lack of it, certainly, since both Elizabeth and Louis were successful professionals and had family wealth behind them - but because they both so disagreed on its value.

For Elizabeth the Depression, despite a long generation removed, was still nearby.  Postwar prosperity, American exceptionalism, and middle-class entrepreneurship meant little when the hard times of her parents were still in the rear view mirror.  Although Elizabeth and her family were well off, they could never rid themselves of the fear of penury and the poor house.  In O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night James Tyrone can never free himself from the Depression and its  years of poverty and uncertainty.  He became niggardly and immorally slavish to money.  He chose doctors for his wife and son on the basis of their low fees, not their competence.  He bought and sold land as a hedge against hard times.  Never could hard times take away the ground under his feet.  His humanity and his morality had been deformed, perhaps understandably so, but unacceptable nonetheless.

Louis’ Southern European roots allowed for no such anxiety – la dolce vita, was, after all, a matter of esprit and joie de vivre – money was a facilitator but only a fungible one.  Lacking it never meant misery, and having it did not assure freedom from existential want.

Image result for images fellini la dolce vita

The best marriages are among the elite and among the poor.  The truly wealthy can come and go as they please, have few constraints other than human nature and bad human choices, and make do under the best and worst of circumstances because of their privilege.  While even the anointed, the inheritors of St Jean Hubert, First Crusades; Paul of Sussex, lieutenant in the army of Henry V at Agincourt; or Giacomo di Lombardi, second in command to Garibaldi in Italy, have their marital issues, at least their marriages of convenience have assured synchrony – both husband and wife share the same sense of destiny, noblesse oblige, and most importantly wealth and privilege.

The poor marry for the most elemental of reasons – health, a strong back, fertility, and a rich dowry.  There is no love when one lives on the margins, no romance, no adventure, and little hope of anything but survival.  Marriages end in death, not disappointment; barrenness, not questions of sexual fidelity, are reasons for divorce.

Everything in the middle – the common bourgeois ground on which relationships such as those of Tyrone, Elizabeth, and Louis are seeded and grow – is a place where money is a signifier, a qualifier, and the make-or-break variable of union.

Elizabeth and Louis were very well off and comfortable.  Both had significant savings, inheritance, and interest and had no financial concerns whatsoever.  While they were not in the devil-may-care category of wealth, no bill was cause for concern and no expenditure worrisome.  Yet a matter of principle was the undoing.

For Louis money was to be husbanded and marshaled up to a point, but not beyond.  Once the demands of one’s later years and thoughts of the children’s legacy had been considered, money was to be spent without condition.  It was a matter of philosophy first, practicality second.  For Elizabeth economic worth had no sliding scale, no philosophical give, no opportunity cost.  A thing was always a thing.

Image result for images romantic lovers

The irony of it all was that both Elizabeth and Louis were intellectually and philosophically progressive.  Both looked down on the careless and tasteless excesses of the shoppers at Walmart, Target, and the name brand outlets, big box stores outside Washington and New York; and both had a warm spot in their hearts for Chippendale and old English silver.  Elizabeth admired early American furniture, Baccarat crystal, and Cardeilhac silver from afar – museum pieces to be given their artistic due, but never bought or used when ordinary flatware would do. Louis also admired craftsmanship and artistry, and like her, had no interest in buying.  For both a Louis XVI settee, a Townsend chair, or a a Tiffany lamp were beautiful, but irrelevant. 

The disagreements arose from differences of opinion on less tangible assets.  Whereas Louis liked to spend money for pleasure, his wife’s principal concern was economic husbandry – the curation of investments to increase their value, not the use of them.

It was one thing for both Elizabeth and Louis to admire beautiful things but to furnish their house with only the simplest, although tasteful appointments; another thing altogether for one partner to draw down on the grandchildren’s inheritance on expenditures which had no real value, while the other created untouchable warrens of wealth. 

A college friend of Louis’ had broken off their long friendship because of differences in political philosophy which in his opinion was fundamental and far more telling about the way one looked at the world in general than about partisan political preferences. Louis, a conservative, saw human nature as the inescapable engine of human activity responsible for the both the aggression, territorialism, expansionism, and wars of empire as for family jealousies, suspicions, and conflict. 

His friend, a progressive believed that social change and progress towards a better world was possible.  Economic philosophy is no different. Differences over money are never about cash but the purpose.  Valuation – the way one assesses, values, and makes economic and financial choices in the real world – was as singularly elemental as philosophical conservatism. If one did not agree on valuation – what things were worth and how or if money should be spent on them – relationships could never last.  Accommodation was only good up to a point, after which there would be a Brexit or no-Brexit moment.

Image result for Images Downton Abbey

Elizabeth’s and Louis’ marriage survived less because of accommodation than longevity and inertia.  No matter what their disagreements, they both agreed that old age should not be faced alone.   Disagreements over money and valuation would decrease as expenditures for teeth, bones, and cancer increased.

‘Money can’t buy you love’, as true a statement as ever was; but ‘Money rules” is the more forthcoming and accurate one.  It is rare that two partners of any couple can possibly agree on money and valuation.  If there is such a thing as ‘diversity’ in America it is among those who differ on what things are worth.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.