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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Vixens, Shrews, And Harridans–What Happened To My Wife? The Inevitable, Sorry Turnabout Of Romance

Harlan Wolcott should have known better.  He had been warned by his father, survivor of two marriages and on to a third; by his mother, long-suffering wife to a Lothario; and by no other than St. Paul who in his Epistles to the Corinthians counselled men not to get married, and if they should, to be careful, circumspect, and on  guard. “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife…those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that (Corinthians 7:27-28)”.  The light, the truth, and the way would most definitely never be through the marriage bed.

St Paul the Apostle • About Us • St Paul s College

Father Brophy, the old queen of St. Maurice Church of The Risen Christ, had been quite explicit.  Women were trouble from beginning to end, so better to stay clear of them for no matter how alluring the poesy of Petrarch and his limning of the unassailable grace and charm of sweet lovers, they would end up on your wrong side at best, and take their pound of flesh at worst.  

Admittedly Father Brophy was not exactly an honest broker here, attached as he had been to one altar boy after another until the whole unsavory affair of seminarian love came to the fore; but he was a student of Paul and a devoted follower.  The apostle was definitely on to something.

Given that the parish was a traditional one - suburban families with children and quite discreet cinq-a-sept liaisons in the city – he was careful not to go to far into the sexual weeds.  While he might have found satisfaction in the vestry with the altar boys who served at Mass, clearly it was not for everyone.  From the pulpit he had to avoid the distasteful aspects of marriage and tread lightly regarding the alternate paths to sexual fulfillment which he personally had long squared with the Gospels. In any case, his first duty to Christ was to explicate the lessons of Paul.

Mary Anning's Revenge: 14 Days of Genitals, Day 1: The Moose Mark of Shame

St. Maurice’s parish was no different from any other Catholic church in suburban, well-to-do America. It was part of the constellation of bright social points necessary for belonging. What one did after hours was of little concern to either local clergy or Rome as long as one did one’s Easter Duty, went to confession, and wore the lapel pin of Jesus Christ.  

At the same time – and again no different from any other parish in America – St. Maurice’s was a Biblical viper pit, a congregation of sexual adventurers with little or no concern for the integrity of family and society or their own immortal souls.  It was an example of the most scurrilous side of sex, rutting without discipline, care, or responsibility.

Looked at in even another way, it was The Great Escape. Women after marriage become transformed from the romantic darling of men’s dreams into a hector whose principal interest is to keep order, her order. What was Petrarch, the father of romantic love, thinking when he wrote this sonnet?

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!
’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!
O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,
And all spring’s pale and tender violets!
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!
O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,
And of their living light canst catch the beam!
I envy thee her presence pure and dear.
There is no rock so senseless but I deem
It burns with passion that to mine is near.

Petrarch | Lapham's Quarterly

More to the point is Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a character who is out to reduce her husband to infancy.  Only if George becomes a cipher, an insignificant nothing, will the brawl of the evening have been worth it.  Only if Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ play inherits Big Daddy’s fortune will her duplicity, deceit, and brutal, selfish ambitions be justified.  She emasculates Skipper, neuters Brick, and confidently lies to reconfigure their marriage to suit her demands.  

The heroines of Shakespeare’s Comedies – Rosalind, Viola, and Portia care little for the men who court them.  They run rings around them intellectually, socially, and emotionally.  The men are pawns in a rigged game.  They are no match for the savvy women who rule them.  Isabella de Valois ruled the weak, introspective, poetic Richard II.  Margaret fought the battles of a cowardly and ignorant Henry VI.  Dionyza destroyed her husband, removed him from the scene, and plotted murder and mayhem to promote the interests of her daughter.  Tamora, Queen of the Goths, mutilated the daughter of Kind Titus to gain purchase and influence.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | play by Williams | Britannica

Ibsen and Strindberg were no less critical.   Hilde Wangel engineers the Master Builder’s suicidal plunge from the tower.  Rebekka West torments and destroys Rosmer.  Hedda Gabler nearly succeeds in her attempt to provoke Lovborg to a glorious death, Laura (Strindberg’s The Father) take control of the family fortune after rendering her husband mad and committing him to an insane asylum.

Survival of the species was Darwin’s lesson from his observation of the Galapagos finches – mating, albeit for impossible, irrational reasons is the sine qua non of human destiny.  Out of the most ridiculous, impatient, selfish intercourse come children who in turn make the same irrational choices, suffer the trials and tribulations of marriage.  

God, said one Vatican theologian, was indifferent to sexual choice.  He was only interested in populating the world that he created.  He intended it to be a just, good, moral, and loving one, but it did not turn out the way he had planned so he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but since no one learned the lesson he had to engineer The Great Flood to destroy everything he created and start over.   

As a last resort he sent his son to earth to suffer for all mankind and forgive their sins.  That too failed, and human society is as flawed, imperfect, and indomitably Darwinian as ever.

So, Harlan Wolcott married for love and ended up a St. Sebastian– punctured by arrows, flagellated, flayed, and left on the curb by his Gorgon wife who never had any illusions of love or romance but wanted a good catch and found one in Harlan.

Saint Sebastian - Wikipedia

Poor Harlan, many say, commiserating with yet another young man who didn’t get it, never saw what was coming, blindsided by silly affection and horniness, consigned to a long, passionless marriage.  Getting out of it was far tougher than getting into it, for his wife was a canny manipulator with great divorce lawyers, so double indemnity – a bad marriage and a worse divorce.

In the end, St. Paul was right, but no one believed him.  What did he know, a celibate spiritual man on an evangelical mission? He was in essence a peeping Tom who had a look into the marital chambers without having a clue how one got there or what to do when there. 

I told you so”, said Father Brophy, the now nonagenarian old queen of St. Maurice’s to whom Harlan turned in his despondency; but no sooner was the ink dry on the divorce papers than Harlan began looking for another wife.

“Some people never learn”, said Brophy to his young rectory attendant who had brought him afternoon tea.  “Never”, he repeated, putting his hand gently on the seminarian’s knee. “Not in a hundred lifetimes”

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