Thursday, June 25, 2009

Literary ideology of adultery

Like everyone else in the country, I have followed the revelations of Gov. Mark Sanford’s on-the-job adultery with stomach-turning fascination. The most striking thing about the story so far, though, has been the dignity and good sense of Jenny Sanford’s prepared statement to the press.

“I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal,” Mrs Sanford said, exposing the gulf between her and her husband, who believes instead in the Stendhalian passion that sweeps a man away against his interests. The whole sorry episode reveals not that Sanford is a hypocrite, as some political antagonists will chortle, but on the contrary: he lives by the same literary ideology of adultery that rivets pretty much the entire Western world.

All the literary world loves a lover, especially if passion overwhelms his commitments and will. I dare you to name a single work of literature that focuses upon the sufferer of adultery, detailing her grief, loneliness, shame, self-loathing, and dejection. The injured party in the literature of adultery is more likely to be Othello, driven mad by jealousy. Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier is narrated by a cuckold, but John Dowell’s narrative function is to be a man whose lack of passion sets off by contrast the passions of others. The “saddest story” of the first sentence—Ford’s original title for the novel—is not Dowell’s, but those who are made to suffer for their passionate rejection of commitment and will.

The word passion originated in Latin as a Christian theological term, referring to the sufferings of Jesus. Thus it is related by blood to the word passive, which originally meant “subject to passion or emotion, capable of suffering or feeling.” The literary ideology of the Western world is that the adulterer is subjected to erotic passion, as if he were the unwilling victim of a power outside his control.

The Jews have a word for this. The word is idolatry. Why novelists find such an experience dramatically compelling is beyond me. I am far less interested in Gov. Sanford’s five days of “crying in Argentina”—for that phrase alone he deserves to be banished from public life—than in what Mrs Sanford and her four children were going through. But then I am not a novelist, but only a poor literary critic. Although it would going too far to say that literature celebrates adultery, it is fair to say that only the adulterer’s viewpoint is represented in literature.

When a woman’s experience of adultery finally breaks into literature, the woman simply becomes the adulterer and enjoys the passion earlier reserved for men. Neither Madame Bovary nor Anna Karenin lifted the taboo on the grief of betrayal. When the shattering incomprehension of loss is fully dramatized, as in Graham Greene’s End of the Affair or Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children, the sufferer is the unmarried lover, not the abandoned spouse. And the effect on children is entirely absent, but then, as I have noted before, American literature (and English too) is largely a literature without children.

The only novel I can think of that admits the reader into the experience of what Denis de Rougemont calls “active love, or keeping faith,” is Janet Lewis’s chaste and lovely Wife of Martin Guerre. I have discussed Lewis’s slim novel at length. Bertrande de Rols, who is victimized by a double of her missing husband, loves deeply the man she knows as Martin Guerre, but when she becomes convinced that he is not her husband and has seduced her into adultery, her passion withers in the act of will by which she reasserts her marital commitment. The very fact that Lewis’s novel is not merely another example of propaganda on behalf of erotic passion makes it stand out from nearly every other novel ever written.

But even it is not an account of adultery from the other side. As a literary kind, the novel’s preference for the adulterer over the wife and children he has discarded like soiled rags is perhaps the best measure of its social position. Perhaps the itch to épater la bourgeoisie was of some slight social value when “decency” and “respectability” were the dissembling of political coercion by means of class, but in the postmodern world almost exactly the opposite is the case. The literary ideology of adultery is a means of control by those who dread the responsibility of keeping faith. I will never understand the fuss that my fellow conservatives kick up over gay marriage. A few homosexuals who wish to enter into monogamous relationships is not the biggest social problem facing us. The biggest social problem facing us is marriage. If a few homosexuals can restore commitment and fidelity to the institution, then I am firmly on their side, although I am skeptical that they will be any more successful than the rest of us in resisting the literary ideology of adultery.

15 comments:

jseliger said...

As a literary kind, the novel’s preference for the adulterer over the wife and children he has discarded like soiled rags is perhaps the best measure of its social position.

Maybe: but the best book of criticism I've read on the subject, Tony Tanner's Adultery and the Novel, came to a different conclusion IIRC, although I can't remember it off the top of my head and don't have a copy of the book handy. But I do remember it being quite good.

D. G. Myers said...

Two things about Tanner’s 1979 study of Adultery in the Novel.

First, the book is not a survey of the literature. Tanner discusses just three novels: Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, Goethre’s Elective Affinities, and Madame Bovary.

Second, Tanner distinguishes adultery from infidelity, arguing that the former is arbitrary because—let’s all repeat our Saussure now—the verbal sign is arbitrary, and marriage is merely a social practice founded on verbal signs: a linguistic convention, in short.

Thus the experience of marriage and adultery is wholly governed by arbitrary social conventions. Wrest control of the language and you wrest control of the experience.

Doubtless this view will come as a solace to Mrs Sanford. She need merely become a novelist, or a literary critic, to recover from her pain.

Francis said...

One novel I can think that is written from the point of view of a woman whose husband has left her for a younger woman is "The Misalliance" by Anita Brookner.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks, Francis. If you can believe it, I have never read a novel by Brookner. You have given me a book to start with.

R. T. said...

You note: "I am far less interested in Gov. Sanford’s five days of “crying in Argentina”—for that phrase alone he deserves to be banished from public life—"

It would seem that the governor must be unconsciously channeling his passion for EVITA when he speaks of crying and Argentina in the same phrase.

Your challenge about a female cuckold (if that term works) in literature has me scratching my head. Perhaps Clytaemestra qualifies. She certainly is not pleased about Agamemnon's long-delayed homecoming when he shows up with the seductive Cassandra (with whom he may or may not have had something going, and toward whom Clytaemestra feels plenty of hostility); of course, the murderous wife's rage (if not incited also by suspected adultery) has plenty of justification (i.e., the ritual murder of her daughter in the name of putting wind in the murderous father's sails so that he can dash off to Troy).

Fortunately for modern politicians (governors, senators, congressmen, and presidents included in the recent past), their wives have not resorted to Clytaemestra's extreme measures (though that would enliven the political landscape in a rather spectacular way, and I have no doubt that one or two of the betrayed wives would have a certain flair for Greek tragedy).

Well, I'll keep scratching around about wives who suffer while hoping that the news cycle runs its course quickly on the South Carolina-Argentina connection. Meanwhile, I cannot get the song from EVITA out of my head! "Don't cry for me, Argentina . . . "

Miriam said...

William Dean Howells' A Modern Instance (1882)? The adulterous husband, Bartley, is a self-deluded fraud who clearly deserves what he gets at the end. No romance there.

D. G. Myers said...

No fair citing English-language novelists of the nineteenth century. They actually disapproved of adultery.

Perhaps, then, The Golden Bowl qualifies if Maggie’s subtly engineered revenge qualifies as a response to the Prince’s adultery.

Amateur Reader said...

The 19th century doesn't qualify as "in literature"?

All right, I'll skip Theodor Fontane (L'Adultera, Effi Briest) and Adalbert Stifter (Brigitta, Tourmaline), although they're not English-language.

Instead, I'll suggest Senegalese novelist Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter (1980), a woman's analysis of the damage to her family caused by her husband taking a second wife. The Muslim context provides a significant difference from adultery - taking a second wife is legally and socially acceptable. But the result is no different - a man has abandoned his family for a young woman.

The destructive effect of having more than one wife is a common subject in West African literature.

D. G. Myers said...

The nineteenth century doesn’t qualify because it distorts the crystalline clarity of my original assertion, of course.

shade said...

The best American paean to long happy marriage I can think of is Richard Wilbur's poem "For C," which begins with depictions of passionate sorrowfully parting lovers and then: "We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse." It also refers to marriage as a "wild sostenuto of the heart," a phrase I use as an anchor point in romantic conversations with my wife.

Jonathan said...

I can think of only two novels where the effect of adultery on children is even alluded to.

Malamud's "A New Life" and Robinson's "Housekeeping".

In "A New Life" the effect of adultery and divorce on children is considered by both Malamud and his characters. Granted, it's a cursory treatment, but at least their interests are acknowledged.

In "Housekeeping", the absence of the two sisters' father plays a role in their final destination. I can't recall if Robinson explained the absence, or even if adultery was involved. The children, however, were certainly impacted.

Finally, if I had to pick a favourite novel of infidelity , I'd choose Nabokov's "King, Queen, Knave".

Jonathan said...

Sorry for the double post.

You asked for a "work of literature that focuses upon the sufferer of adultery, detailing her grief, loneliness, shame, self-loathing and dejection."

Well, if you change the pronoun to "his", couldn't Herzog fit the bill?

Chrees said...

Since I haven't read it, I'll have to ask if Irving's World According to Garp would qualify somewhere in there. (I did read his Water Method Man, and it had one of the funniest "almost adultery" scenes I can remember)

Pavel said...

Sadly, it seems Jean Améry's Charles Bovary, Landarzt is not available in English - I think that could be a book to satisfy you, although the perspective is male.

Sheila O'Connor-Ambrose said...

I am sure my comment comes too late, but Gail Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter comes immediately to mind as a contemporary novel that takes marriage, abandonment, and adultery (although it's never clear that the woman who leaves her husband and child to go off with another woman actually ever has a sexual affair) very seriously. And Godwin makes clear the consequences of such an abandonment are life-long.