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

Friday, March 31, 2023

Death By A Thousand Cuts – A Pound Of Flesh And Women’s Perennial Answer To Bad Husbands

Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice made a binding contract with a client, lending him money but in case of default, a pound of flesh on account. The shipowner readily agreed.  How could he not fulfill the agreement?  His ships were seaworthy and the gods favorable.


The perfect storm sunk all three ships of the borrower’s fleet, and he was obliged to settle with the Jew.  A pound of flesh and nothing less, said Shylock; but thanks to the quick thinking of the marvelous Portia, the creditor is saved and the Jew sentenced to a penurious life.

"He who is not afraid of death by a thousand cuts dares to unhorse the emperor", said Chairman Mao referring to the indomitable spirit needed in the struggle to build a better, more just, new world; and decades of penitential rule followed the Great Leap Forward.  Millions of Chinese died slow deaths at the hands of Mao, but not of a  kind, honorable kind, one of cold imprisonment, starvation, and disease.

The sentence of death for Antigone, pronounced by Cleon, King of Thebes, was entombment, a pitiful end to his niece who had the audacity to challenge secular law in favor of the divine.  Lycurgus and many other ancient Greeks suffered the same vengeful imprisonment.  A quick death was too good for traitors.

Antigone - Wikipedia

Women since the earliest recorded history have had to resort to such punishments for wayward husbands.  They, given the tenor and mores of patriarchal times, relied on duplicity to achieve their ends; and despite the cries of injustice and obsessive patriarchy of social reformers, women have done quite well taking their pound of flesh and ridding households of inattentive husbands by deaths of a thousand cuts.

Ibsen’s and Strindberg’s heroines were canny in undoing their men. Hedda Gabler, Laura, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel got rid of their husbands through will and desire.  Cleopatra worked her wiles, Tamora was forthright, Dionyza duplicitous, and Volumnia brilliant in their disassembly of the men in their lives.

Of course this is all ancient history and passé fiction.  Today’s women, armed with contractual and legal equality, can easily shepherd men, tempt and bed them, and finally corral them in their stockade.  Chicanery is out, the court of law is in.

Yet the war between the sexes is not so summarily ended.  It hasn’t been that long since men put bread on the table.  Patriarchy is made of the stuff of fondness, of spoiling, of love of fathers and daughters.  One does not have to read further than Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness to get the picture of deeply incestuous love.

Lie Down in Darkness | novel by Styron | Britannica

No, say feminist reformers.  Today’s younger generation of women are different, no longer slaves either to men or their fathers.  Independent, defiant, determined women in a gender-neutral age.

A fanciful dream of course, for a few decades of gender consciousness and civil rights have only torn the rigging of the patriarchal ship.  Men may no longer rule the economic or financial roost, but Daddy is still in his lounge chair by the fire.

Marlene Overton was a  liberated women of the 70s who rejoiced at the united front of women challenging patriarchy and male authority.  She finally knew that she had no place except the one she chose.  Her sexual responses would be conditioned by no one, her preferences would be her own, her sexual destiny one of equality and free choice.  

Her hero was D.H Lawrence who gave women their sexual due.  Lady Chatterley, Birkin, and Ursula were her models, women who refused the chattels, harnesses, and reins of men.  Flaubert’s Mme. Bovary was cut from the same cloth.  Traditional morals and ethics must be put aside when dealing with the oppression of women.

D.H. Lawrence | English writer | Britannica

Yet, she was still intimidated by her husband, a man whose raised eyebrows were enough for her to retract a thoughtless remarks, to admit a certain subjective omission in her conclusions, and to make her retreat into an emotional sewing basket she had hoped to closet away forever.

Determined and willful by nature, there was no way that Marlene would give in to her husband.  He might be – and only just might be – more intellectually gifted, more eloquent and persuasive, more logical and rational than she, but that did not mean giving in.  She had other ways and means to thwart the enemy’s advances.

Which brings us to the pound of flesh.  The constant harping about grouting, drafts, sanitary ‘incompleteness’, and disregard would not end in divorce, but would encourage a capitulation.  All he would want after months of hectoring, asides, and ‘suggestions’ would be quiet.  Tired of her constant reminders and innuendoes he would give in and retire.

William Overton was not a bad husband  There were far more disregarding, absent partners than he; but he admitted to friends that he was an indifferent husband. He wanted stability, predictability, practicality, and fidelity and thought he had found it in Marlene, a woman who dallied with liberation but chose never to raise her voice.

He was right in that, but never realized how picayune she could be when cornered.  Marlene never called him out on his absences and indifference – she hammered on about minor figures of American history, accounts of minor Western journeymen, and genealogical references to great-great uncles and demanded attention to her concerns.  

He owed her at least some recognition; but acknowledgment was the last thing on his mind.  As he grew older, well past the date for affairs or even the casual dalliance, he became more inured to his wife’s pestering demands for recognition.  Yet the more she hectored, the more vivid his recollections of love and adventure became.  What had he done? How had he come to this – images on Plato’s wall and nothing more?

Marriage is the crucible of maturity said Edward Albee, the only place where little boys grow up.  Learn feminine ways, he urged. St. Paul, Christ’s disciple and the man responsible for the spread of Christianity beyond the Holy Land was less optimistic.  Marry if you  must, he said, but a life of celibacy is worth far more than a hundred beautiful women.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Problem With the Movie | Time

So Bill Overton put up with his wife’s quibbling demands.  Longevity had locked him in, pure and simple, and there was no out worth contemplating.  A pound of flesh was worth the caregiving expected from a dutiful spouse.  Keep your own counsel, he advised himself.  She can’t help it.  She can’t give in.  At least you can brush her off with a little silence and preserve the natural order.                                              

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