WE cannot live by the book. However coherent and adequate our standards may be, it remains to apply them to particular cases. This is something that each individual must do for himself. He must take facts which are infinitely diverse and fashion them toward ideals which are utterly unattainable. And just because this is the consummatory problem of marriage – as indeed of all life – it is a problem which the principles of marriage cannot solve, but only set up for solution. It is the problem of workmanship, of creation, of art without the capital A. In this broadest sense the artistry of marriage is here brought under review.
In the artistry of marriage there is a necessary fusion of two kinds of principles. On the one hand there is the specific ideal of permanence and loyalty which is intrinsic to marriage; on the other hand there is the more general ideal of beauty, proportion, harmony of part and whole, which is characteristic of art, and the ideal of adequate adaptation of means to end, which is the distinguishing mark of technology.
So long as we were exploring the principles of marriage it was necessary to segregate the values peculiar to the family from the values which are common to all fields of human interest. Therefore actions were classified according to the conscious motive in which they originated, [p.220] ignoring for the purposes of inquiry the actual effects which the actions may have had. A benevolently motivated act was classed as a domestic act, whether or not it actually benefited the person to whom it was directed.
For instance, there is the case of the woman who seeks to benefit her husband by chiding him for some fault. If her motive is sincere, her conduct conforms to the standards intrinsic to marriage. But the principles of technology and art remain to be satisfied. It may be that her method is ill-devised for securing the end she has in view. Her manner of chiding may intensify the fault instead of removing it. Or the end itself may be ill-chosen. She may be acting in the sincere conviction that tobacco is the Devil’s weed, which brings damnation to the soul and disease to the body. But the man may be actually better off with his tobacco, so that the habit she is campaigning against is not really a fault at all.
A man may get on better with a wife who is wise and selfish than with a woman who is a devoted fool. Though his life be not so rich in domestic values, it may be happier. For happiness and ease are more directly the products of art and technology than of domestic interaction.
What then is the province of art in marriage? Does it complement or supplant the basic marriage values of permanence and loyalty? Are there certain special canons of art applicable to marriage as there are rules which apply to painting and sculpture? These questions are raised in a practical spirit. There is no need to pose the general philosophical question of the nature of art. [p.221] Neither is there any great value in merely taking over terms from certain of the fine arts and applying them to marriage. To be sure, there has been of late much superficial translating into the language of aesthetics. The advertisements announce the discovery of “subtle harmonies” in everything from automobiles to cold creams, and it is not uncommon to read of “delicate rhythms” in products as diverse as mustard and silk. An analysis of art in marriage must go deeper than the linguistic transmutations of this recent fad. There must be a comprehensive survey of marriage as an aesthetic situation.
At the root of this aesthetic situation lies the question: Who is the artist in marriage, and what the medium of his art?
All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?
Of some art products a single individual is the creator; others arise from an organized mutual activity. Thus, according to Meier-Graeffe, the highest art of the Middle Ages was coöperative – mosaic, stained glass windows, architecture – whereas the highest art of the Renaissance was individual – the picture in a frame. To which of these classes does marriage belong?
The temptation is to answer at once that marriage is a duet rather than a solo, and there is some truth in the answer. There is a sense in which marriage can be regarded as a Pot made by two Potters. But actually the artistic relationship of husband and wife is far more complex. Some of their activity is a coöperative effort to secure an effect extraneous to both. They pose [p.222] together for the benefit of the neighbors; they conspire together to create some impression of themselves in their community. They labor together for economic success; they plan together for their children. With respect to this kind of activity they can be compared to the ballet dancers on the stage, whose art is cooperative. But with respect to most of their actions they are not working together to impress some third party. They are working rather upon each other. They are treating each other at once as the medium of their artistic expression and the spectators of their artistic success.
This extraordinary relationship is comparable in some ways to the situation of pedagogy, wherein the student is the medium in which the teacher works – the teacher the Potter and the student the Pot. One marriage partner works upon the personality of the other, modifying it either by accident or according to plan. We may speak of this as the pedagogics of marriage. An illustration is of course the campaign against the other person’s bad habit, or the effort to remove some prejudice from the other’s mind.
Beyond this the situation is comparable to that of the theater. Each person maintains himself as a spectacle for the others to admire or appreciate. The wife endeavors to “keep up” after marriage, in order that she may retain her husband’s affection. All this posing with a view to increase the respect one receives in his family belongs to a special class of endeavor. It may be called the histrionics of marriage.
Both the pedagogies and histrionics of marriage can be the vehicle of benevolent activity. Moreover they are the means by which the individual operates upon [p.223] the organization of the family and directs the flow of domestic life.
It is of the first importance that the technique of married living is so much a matter of individual initiative. For if a perfect accord of husband and wife in harmonious purpose to coöperate were a precondition of the use of art and technique in the family, it would appear that the possibility of artistry is present only when the need for it has passed. It is important to understand that even though one spouse refuses to do his part or fails to grasp the character of the problem confronting him, the other can none the less carry on alone the practice of the art of marriage. In every family that functions on the unilateral level, and in many pseudo-patriarchal families, the significant artistry all comes from one person, the other responding automatically to the situations that unfold.
The ancient legend comes to mind of Shun of Yu, who became Emperor of China because he had proved himself able, single-handed, to bring harmony to a discordant family. When the first of the Emperors grew old, he looked about for some one to succeed him. The courtiers recommended
. . . an unmarried man among the lower people called Shun. . . . His father was obstinately unprincipled. His stepmother was insincere, his half-brother Hsiang was arrogant. He has been able, however, by filial piety, to live in harmony with them and to lend them gradually to self-government, so that they no longer proceed to great wickedness.
Upon hearing this report the Emperor determined to test Shun in marriage by giving him his daughters as wives. [p.224] And when Shun successfully passed this test he was made Emperor. It is no accident that the Chinese, whose institutions emphasize so much the value of the kinship group, should retain this anecdote at the beginning of the oldest of their classics. The story was already a thousand years old when Confucius read it and retained it in the Book of Shu. The point and purpose of it is clear: that each member of the family can take it upon himself to bring excellence to domestic life.
While recognizing the individual person as the “artist” of marriage, it is still necessary to take into account the fact that the consequences of his art appear in an interplay of himself with one other person only. The marriage artisan resembles more nearly the writer of a letter than the composer of an essay. The full range of creation and effect is reached without going beyond that “field of force” which the tension of two wills maintains.
Regardless of the level of domestic interaction which prevails in the family, there are always, then, two independent wills to be reckoned with. When these two wills direct themselves toward each other, so that each person desires the advantage of the other, there is inevitable tension between them. For it is impossible that there should be automatic agreement upon all the things which are presumed to be of advantage to one or the other. Of this universal fact of will tension in the family, the standard expression is the domestic dispute or episode of conflict.
The sociologists who are studying the pathology of family life have made elaborate classifications of tensions. Some are due to an absence of sex response, others to an absence of respect, others to poverty. Sometimes [p.225] one member of the family is ashamed of the other; he feels that his own social standing is compromised by the incompetence or the reputation of his marriage partner. From the standpoint of domestic theory these tensions belong to two classes. To the first class belong normal tensions, consistent with paramount loyalty; to the second belong the pathological tensions which presage the disruption or degradation of the family. And the test for determining the character of a domestic tension is this: does it arise from a misunderstanding of symbols, a lack of agreement upon some matter of opinion? Or does it spring from insufficient loyalty, from an unwillingness of one person to make sacrifices for the other?
The greater the difference in the social background of husband and wife, the more intense will be the normal tensions. There is the story for instance of the American girl who married an Hungarian army officer. It never occurred to this girl that her husband placed a high symbolic value upon being met at the door when he came home. She took no particular pains to be at home when he came in, and in this he was bitterly disappointed. The cure for tensions of this kind is a mutual explanation, a quarrel, or an educational campaign. It is a matter of pedagogics.
The lower the level of domestic interaction, the greater is the likelihood of pathological tensions. An illustration is the case of a girl who married a wealthy man but would not face poverty with him when his fortune melted away, or the man who complains with rancor that he has lost valuable opportunities because of his marriage. In these cases of insufficient loyalty neither quarrels nor explanations are of much avail. The only thing that [p.226] counts is some increase in the value which one person has for the other – in other words, it is a matter of histrionics.
Within the field of tension which marriage maintains, the critical event is the personal conflict. The conflict episode is second only to coitus as the test of artistry in marriage. Just as coitus brings the two persons nearest to each other, so the quarrel marks the point where they are farthest apart. Just as coitus dissolves the sense of separateness and individuality so the quarrel hardens and crystallizes it. Coitus is the perigee of the orbit of two individuals, and the quarrel the apogee. In coitus the fact that there are two distinct persons and wills is least significant; in the quarrel it is most significant.
This view of the personal conflict as an essential and normal characteristic of marriage runs counter to some of the homiletics of matrimony, and the reason for this is clear. For the quarrel is likely to be more conspicuous, viewed from outside, than any other moment of married life. The failure of artistry in coitus gets no publicity; even in the divorce court proceedings it is covered by circumlocutions such as “incompatibility.” But an artistic failure in managing disputes gives the whole neighborhood a copious subject for discussion. Therefore when family life is seen from the outside it will appear that the least quarrelsome pair is the pair which is most nearly perfect in its domestic life. But when the marriage is viewed as an independent system, disregarding its contacts with the public, the fallacy of this judgment is clear. Just as some heavenly bodies have narrow orbits, approaching very near their focus at perigee, and being immeasurably far from it at apogee, [p.227] so in some unions there is oscillation between extremes of distance and proximity, whereas in others there is an evenness which permits neither great hostility nor great intimacy. Clearly we cannot calculate the orbit of a marriage as if its only measure were the apogee; we must reckon in the perigee as well.
The belief that the object of married life is to avoid conflicts, and the failure to accept them as normal elements of marriage. have served in the past to blind us to the artistic principles involved. Just as respect for the privacy of coitus has caused its artistic importance to be ignored, so derision over publicity attending quarrels has led to a neglect of the artistry of quarreling. The first principle of this artistry is indeed that there should be no publicity. The quarrel should be as sacred a secret of the family as coitus is wont to be.
Another canon of the art is that the quarrel should be adequate – no mere pin-pricking. It should accomplish a catharsis of the emotions. And withal it should he kept under control. There should be no complete loss of judgment and sense of proportion. These are two contradictory requirements, for the more emotion enters the quarrel, the less room is left for judgment and discipline.
And finally, the conflict must be brought to a conclusion. It does not suffice merely to abandon an attitude of hostility and resume an attitude of tenderness. The whole episode must be given an artistic consummation. The dispute which ends when one person slams the door and walks out, to return when the storm is blown over, is probably not ended at all. Even if they kiss and go to bed they may be leaving their quarrel half-done, like [p.228] a play which does not go beyond the second act. When it is said that the quarrel must he brought to a conclusion, this does not mean that the substance of the dispute must be settled one way or the other, once and for all, but only that the episode of the dispute must be so stage-managed that it will become, in retrospect, a pleasant memory.
The art of the dispute requires for its success an adequate reserve of loyalty. The supreme and accepted loyalty of each partner to the other is the only background against which really successful contention can go on. Ultimately in the course of the dispute there must come a moment when values are transmuted, and when that which was the subject of the contention moves to a different level of importance, or takes on a different color. This moment in the quarrel corresponds to the orgasm of coitus. So long as there is adequate loyalty to he played upon, this moment can always be achieved.
To resolve a conflict episode in this way does not necessarily require the submission of one will to another. Sometimes there is a real enlightenment upon the subject of the dispute. The argument gets somewhere. The perception of the new facts or relationships alters the importance of the old ones. The husband demonstrates with figures that the proposed purchase is really beyond their means, and this new fact changes the wife’s opinion. Or again, one person comes to see that he has touched upon too tender a spot in the other’s personality, and having made this discovery he takes it thenceforth into account with the same indulgence that he accords to any other quality or infirmity. If the other mind is closed to the liberal point of view upon sex monopoly, [p.229] or immutably prejudiced against having a dog in the house, this is then to be accepted as a part of himself, like his fondness for onions or his inability to remember names. A subtle campaign of education can go on, but the fact revealed by the quarrel is not again to be disregarded.
More generally useful than anything else in bringing conflicts through their crises is the quality we describe as a sense of humor. This quality is not so much a matter of quick-wittedness as an ability to change the importance of things by regarding them from a new point of view. One steps lightly from the attitude of a participant to the attitude of a spectator, and presto, the thing that was vitally important a moment before, engaging all one’s concentrated powers, becomes a joke. The quarrel that is played through till it ends in a laugh is all ready to be stored away as a delicious memory.1
The art of personal contention can be regarded as a subtle exercise in combining histrionics and pedagogics. One attempts to cause the other to alter his attitude or character without cheapening the self in order to obtain this effect. Mere scolding or nagging is bad quarreling because it sacrifices histrionic values; it cheapens the scolder and may not even then effect the desired change in the person who is scolded. So also more sweetness and yielding, if there is no adequate subtlety or firmness of character back of it, sacrifices the pedagogic effects for the histrionic. Both of these extremes are bad marriage art.
[p.230] In the art of contention, in pedagogics and histrionics, as indeed in all the phenomena of marriage-as-tension, the decisive fact is the juxtaposition of two wills, two independent personalities. There is another element of marriage art, whereof the decisive fact is rather a flow of shared experiences. As we shift our attention from the activity of the independent will to the content of shared experiences, we turn from the study of the artist to the contemplation of the artifact. Again, and with a new emphasis, we are called upon to distinguish between the Potter and the Pot.
Some products of human effort, such as pictures, statues, or poems, we are prone to judge as completed things, giving little attention to the sequence of acts out of which they were created. Such things as banquets or symphonies and such arts as dancing or navigation are valued differently. With them we tend to note a continuous process rather than a single completed thing. The painter unlocks his studio, admits the critic, and declares that he has just finished the painting; what sense would there be in the pianist admitting his audience to declare to them that he had just finished playing the Moonlight Sonata? The art of marriage in this respect resembles music rather than painting.
There is something in marriage of sequence and change that can be compared to the melody of music, and there is also a depth, an intrinsic value in each moment that can be compared to the harmony.
And here again the art of marriage must compromise.
Some peopie live for the future, always discounting the present moment for the sake of an ambition to be realized. And others dwell continuously in the past. [p.231] These are right in understanding life as a sequence, but the melody of their existence lacks depth.
At the other extreme are those who, like the schoolgirl, make no offer to compromise with the impermanence of things. They require of marriage an unchanging bliss, a projection into time of the rapture with which the prince and dream girl exchange vows. Their great moments are the richer because of the borrowed robe of eternality with which they are clothed. But such lives are not ordered to accord with the ways of nature. The penalty is called disillusionment.
The need for compromise with impermanence is not a peculiar problem present in the marriage art alone; it is a problem that arises whenever the attempt is made to apply the principles of art to the immediate business of living. Marriage has that kind of variability and continuousness which all living things share. It is a continuousness which includes part of the past in the present, an impermanence of growth. It is simply because the marriage relationship is so immediate, so close to life, that the flux and transition of life so relentlessly attends it. As it is with love and marriage, so is it also with work and fame, with beauty and pleasure, and with all the immediate objects of human endeavor. As the wife looks back with regret upon her bridal ruptures, so also the elderly business man returns to his class reunion in a vain attempt to recapture, if only for a moment, the glow of his college days. From the time of Heraclitus to the present there has been a meditative exploring of compromises and ways of escape from this fated way of life. And we are still left to make what terms we can with this common human destiny.
[p.232] The only adequate compromise with transience is one which makes use of transience itself as a medium in which to work. Marriage must therefore accept the very change and sequence of things as its artistic medium. It will follow from this postulate that marriages are never completed, never achieved. They are only in process of achievement Actions and events are to be valued not alone by the qualities they impermanently display in the present but also by referring them to the whole series of actions and events in which they stand. An embrace which closes a pleasant evening of recreation, setting its seal of delight upon a delightful episode, has a distinctive artistic significance, and is set apart from the embrace which delightfully commemorates the wedding anniversary. The pleasant sensations may be identical, but the values are different because the two acts enter into different sequences. The insouciant bliss of the honeymoon is to be rated not in its own terms as a kind of absolute happiness to be enjoyed while it lasts and regretted when it is gone, but rather as the starting point of a sequence of shared experiences, to be built upon and elaborated with infinite variety as the years pass.
This is the standpoint from which Walter Pater proposed to regard all problems of conduct and opinion. It is a way of life which he has excellently presented in ascribing it to Marius the Epicurean.
Amid his eager grasping at the sensation, the consciousness, of the present, he had come to see that, after all, the main point of economy in the conduct of the present, was the question: How will it look to me, at what shall I value it, this day next year? – that in any given day or month one’s main con[p.233]cern was its impression for the memory. A strange trick memory sometimes played him; for, with no natural gradation, what was of last month, or of yesterday, of to-day even, would seem as far all, as entirely detached from him, as things of ten years ago. Detached from him, yet very real, there lay certain spaces of his life, in delicate perspective, under a favorable light; and, somehow, all the less fortunate detail had parted from them.
This contemplative Epicureanism requires to be elaborated before it is adequate as a canon of the marriage art. For actions and events leave their legacy to the future not alone in the form of memory images, but also in the form of habits and knowledge. Therefore the events of marriage, regarded as parts of a sequence, have a triple value in that they contribute throuqh recurrence to habit, through experience to enlightenment, and through their intrinsic beauty to a beautiful fabric of memories.
Our current ways of thinking have made us familiar with the technique of habit formation and the value of experience. Every wife speaks more or less jestingly of training her husband to do this or that, and most marriages recognize sooner or later that they give rise to a learning process. That the artful treasuring of memories is also a part of the technique of marriage is a fact in which we have been less thoroughly schooled. It is a matter of curious import that the college girl keeps a “memory book,” pastes into it her dance programs and photographs of her friends, and maintains as a cult the worship of sacred memories. But with marriage this kind of preoccupation usually fades away, except for the elementary practice of keeping anniversaries.
The melody and harmony of marriage, the length and [p.234] the depth of its experiences, are thus woven together in habit, knowledge, and memory. The marriage artifact is the flow and cumulation of shared experience. If husband or wife or both stand forth as the Potter, this sequence, indeed, is the Pot.
Nor is there anything mysterious or intangible in marriage thus conceived. The artifact of marriage is as real as a nationality, which also exists in a flow and cumulation of memories, habits, and experiences. The process of nation-making is not unlike the art of fashioning forth a family. Just as nationalities feed their spiritual life upon dreams of the future and memories of the past – the dream of power perhaps, or the legends of ancient kings – so the family nourishes itself in youth upon its hopes and ambitions, or treasures in middle age the shared reminiscences of happy adventures long past. Just as nationalities develop their own languages, so families contrive certain special and secret meanings which they give to things. In every family there are some words which have a peculiar flavor because of some memorable happening with which they are associated. Moreover, just as a nationality dignifies its ways of doing things by setting them up proudly as national customs, so the family can infuse into its very chores a sense of ritual.
These developments are within limits subject to control, not only as regards gross matters of habit but also in the finer things of memory and meaning. There is room for delicate discriminations between that which is to be remembered and that which is to be forgotten, and between that which is to be shared outside the family and that which is to be held as a family secret. One can always exercise a subtle control over the record. Anec[p.235]dotes live only by the telling, and the version that is told becomes eventually the truth.
If the artistic medium of family life is a flow of shared experiences, there are certain external limitations with which the marriage artisan must reckon. These are the limitations set by the instruments, the tools. Where with one fashions a sequence of experiences.
These instruments for the creating of experiences are of three kinds. First of all the body, with its capacities and its hazards. Then the whole contribution which the social environment affords: cultural heritage; social status; the whole fabric of conventions, rules, and symbols which is the language of conduct no less than the language of words. Finally there are the hard material things, with food and warmth at one end of the scale and diamond bracelets at the other. In the actual distribution of energy that imposes itself upon us, varying proportions of effort can be invested in these three instruments of marriage. And all extremes are likely to be bad art.
Of these three hard facts, the body has of course the greatest ultimate importance. The risk of death hangs over every family, threatening to penalize the survivor for the very success of his marriage by making the loss more painful to endure. There is also the risk of loss of health, which may revolutionize a whole system of family relationships. Aside from these possibilities of disaster, many people are tempted to spend much thought in calculating their own capacities and meditating upon their own level of ability as compared with the abilities of others. A man should take reasonable care of his health without going to the extreme of hypochondria. [p.236] He should have a just enough appreciation of his capacities so that his endeavors may be proportioned to his powers, without going to the psychopathic extreme of a chronic feeling of inferiority or grandeur. The ideal of art requires moderation and proportion in these things.
The same artistic canons apply to the use of the social environment envisaged as an instrument for creating experience.
Of course our ways of thinking are so largely determined by our social surroundings and the content of our thought so deeply imbedded in the psychic matrix of culture that no experience comes into existence without bearing a whole array of socially given meanings. The meanings that apply to a shared experience are partly subject to voluntary control, and partly beyond control, To some extent we can choose the meaning we will give to an act. For instance, people who are camping on a lonely lake shore have gone bathing without bathing suits. Is this beautiful, or indecent? If they automatically apply to their act the interpretation it would be given by a circle of acquaintances in their home town, they will accept the indecent meaning as the true significance of their act. If they appeal to the traditions of poetry or Greek mythology, they will appreciate its beauty and lift its meaning above the taint of indecency.
People who feel the pressure of their community as a fetter can escape from it by appealing to a wider circle. Thus they grasp at culture, at liberal education, because it trees them from the narrow perspectives of their immediate environment. They reject the standards of Gopher Prairie and seek admission to a world-wide intellectual community. In this way they come to control [p.237] their social environment by increasing the range of socially given meanings they can apply to particular acts.
Another kind of preoccupation with the social environment concerns itself with the relation of the self to the community. One strives diligently to conform to the standards of some community in order that he may win its approval. This is the quest for fame, for higher social status. The community in which one strives for higher status may be anything from the neighborhood group to the republic of letters. Achievement may be registered by rewards as various as the light-heavyweight boxing: championship or an invitation to Mrs. Ransom’s tea. One who wins the approval of an outside circle is often rewarded by receiving additional esteem in his home; conversely one who has made a conspicuous failure in the quest for social status may find that his standing in his family has suffered thereby. Preoccupation with status in the social environment is thus an element of the histrionics of marriage.
Both in seeking to escape from the limitations of social environment and in striving to conform to its demands, there is need for compromise. The student type, overmuch preoccupied with self-education, loses touch with humanity. His life is in danger of becoming thin while he is trying to broaden it. And the slave of inordinate ambition sacrifices the present to the future, giving himself over to be the prey of external circumstances which may lie beyond his power.
The use of the social environment as an instrument at experience-making is likely to be unconscious; social judgments are so much taken for granted that we are unaware of their character as social judgments, and social [p.238] approval as an object of endeavor receives a similar uncritical acceptance. As to material things, we are more fully conscious of the character of our relationship to them. We perceive at once their necessity, and the margin of choice that is left us in deciding how much attention we are to give to them. In our civilization the issue is very plain, because material things are all commuted to a common denominator of money, and thus we have only to ask ourselves how far the pursuit of wealth is to absorb our energies.
In making terms with material conditions the artistry of marriage faces some of its most fateful decisions. If too much attention is given to money-getting, the essential personal side of the family may be starved. In the old rural household personal contacts and interests in the family would take care of themselves; there was plenty of living and working together. But in contemporary city life a special investment of time, energy, and thought must be devoted to the family – and business affairs may suffer by the diversion of this effort. But unless the diversion is made, the family is de-personalized; its domestic interaction sinks to the lowest possible level. The tragedy of this is seen in those homes in which the father is a tolerated intruder, the legitimate victim of the “gold-digging” activities of his wife and children, but wholly lacking in personal influence simply because he has made no investment of personality in the home.
On the other hand there is always the danger that lack of money may cramp all efforts at beautiful living. Although there are standards of living to fit every income, it happens too often that people do not know how to use [p.239] and enjoy the standard which their income permits. The most annoying dilemmas present themselves: to give up the higher standard or to pay for it in continuous financial worries; to maintain the pleasant specialization of function which gives the wife her work in the home or to have the wife take a job, thus bringing in more money to the family but withdrawing from it some of her time and attention. Even children have to be bought and paid for, and to parents who have high standards in rearing them they are a luxury indeed.
Somewhere a balance must be struck. And for one who would plan a married life with sanity and art the naive success-philosophy of contemporary America is the poorest possible guide. The articles of this current creed must be seasoned with some of the salt of Aristotle’s venerable distinction between oikonomia and chrematistics, between the art of acquiring what is needful and the art of acquiring without limit. No money plan is adequate which does not point to an equilibrium of means and desires. The striving for wealth without limit, for automobiles each year more expensive and living quarters each year more luxurious, is an endeavor consistent with good marriage only on condition that it does not absorb all the energies of life. The true art of the family concerns itself only with acquiring what is needful. This penetrating observation is as good to-day as it was twenty-four centuries ago.
Here at last we have before us the complete aesthetic situation of marriage. For if the married persons are the artists, and a flow of shared experiences is the product of their art, then these three things – their physical bodies, their social environment, their material belongings – are [p.240] their tools and instruments. The quality of the instrument always sets a limit to the artistic accomplishment which can result from its use, and therefore these instruments operate also to limit the range of art in marriage, to set bounds to the flow of its shared experiences. The fact that these limits are set need not mislead the artisan. He must look to his tools, but must also look beyond them. He must distinguish between means and ends. The marriage artist who devotes all his attention to self-cultivation, or who concentrates his powers upon social success and economic achievement, is like a musician who should spend a lifetime tuning his instrument and never play upon it, or a carver who should devote his energies to sharpening his knife and never touch it to the wood.
In this aesthetic situation, coitus is the supreme challenge to marriage art. AEsthetically the sex act can be an end in itself; it can fulfill itself in a beautiful moment in the present; it can be significant as a single episode, valuable in its own right. Beyond this, it is potentially the most intimately shared of all marriage experiences, and hence it is always significant as part of a total stream of shared experience, just as those crises which touch deeply all classes of a nation are most significant as episodes in national history. If we think of the movement of life in marriage as having a harmonic and a melodic quality, sex is potentially both a rich chord in its harmony and a pervasive motive in its melody.
The play of sex is subject to the widest extremes of artistic success and failure. Good artistry requires knowledge, skill, sensitiveness, in the command of the instruments of marriage.
Of the external instruments of marriage, money is the [p.241] least important as a means to successful sex life. It is notorious that sex love can flourish in poverty and starve in the midst of wealth. True enough, wealth may permit more elaborate wooing, and poverty may inhibit pleasure by causing the mind to dwell upon the fear of pregnancy. But in general the art of sex is little influenced by material things.
The consequences of social environment enter more significantly into the artistry of sex life. On the one hand society may have instilled into the minds of husband and wife prejudices on sex which have an inhibitory effect. (These are likely to arise, of course, from the attitudes which are taught as a means of enforcing sex monopoly.) On the other hand, the husband and wife are likely to have absorbed from their social environment certain systems of romantic symbols which will serve to ornament the art of sex, and to fill each wooing with delicate meanings. In the use of their social heritage as an instrument of sex art, those conventional attitudes which despise sex as unclean must be discarded, and the cultural embellishments of sex values retained. Thus sex as a symbol will gain dignity and beauty.
The most important instrument of sex is of course the body. Hence a knowledge of anatomy and physiology is an indispensable prerequisite to the practice of the art of sex. It is not implied that this must be book knowledge, or that things must be known by names derived from Greek or Latin roots. But knowledge there must be of some such minimum as this: That, physiologically speaking the sex act is accomplished in three stages – first, tumescence, or the preparatory intensifying of sex feeling; then the orgasm, the crisis of the act; finally detumes[p.242]cence, the rapid ebbing away of sex feeling and the general relaxation or torpor which follows sex satisfaction. The artistic value of the sex act as shared experience requires that, first the man and woman should each carry the process through all three of its phases, and second that the progress should be as nearly simultaneous as possible. If the man reaches the orgasm too quickly the woman will fail to experience it at all. The man who understands the physiology of sex can often correct such disharmonies by taking pains to stimulate more amply the tumescent process in the woman, while restraining the process in himself, thus compensating for physiological differences.
The artistry of sex requires further that an adequate wooing should precede each consummation. In this wooing culturally derived ideas of beauty and romantic symbolism are fused with more purely physiological values. This is the stage of the sex act in which culture contributes most richly to its content.
Finally, in the orgasm, the participants reach into an extracultural or pre-cultural world. Theirs is a “coalescing of illusion and reality, as in a dream.” The whole psychic experience comes to a crisis, like a quarrel, in a transmutation of values.
Good sex artistry is perhaps no less rare than good artistry in other things. There are men who expect of their sex life no more dignity and scarcely more pleasure than they associate with their excrementary functions. There are wives who never experience the orgasm, either because their husbands lack skill, or because they themselves are so hampered by warped ideas that they cannot be participants in coitus, but only victims of rape. Such [p.243] conditions starve a marriage, by leaving unfulfilled the potentiality of its most intimate shared experience.
The exceptional potentiality of coitus as the expression of intimacy in marriage passes away in time. As age advances, ecstasy yields something to habit; ultimately sex interests recede from the foreground, leaving the whole chain of sex-episodes established in the stream of shared experience. The change is both physiological and psychological. And it is often accompanied by a general movement from intense participation in things to more passive contemplation of them. In the best ordered lives the necessity and significance of the conflict as the expression of self-feeling slips away also. Both coitus and conflict lose their primacy, but meanwhile they have accomplished their respective ends.
For these type-crises of the early period of a family’s life history make a definite contribution which is retained through later periods. The contribution attaches not only to the family as a unit, but to the separate individuals as well. Successful coitus opens up a new level of psychic energy, developing what Havelock Ellis calls the erotic personality. And successful conflict episodes smooth off the corners of personal difference.
Thus the economy of marriage proceeds toward a contemplative equilibrium. The crises which mark the greatest tension of independent personalities prepare the way for their better harmony, and the crises which mark the nearest fusion of two beings give to them greater depth and integrity. These are permanent achievements. They are manifested directly in the life of the family, and they are so far possessed by the individual that he will carry the greater depth of character and greater adapta[p.244]bility into other relations of life, and will continue to retain them even if the family passes out of existence.
From this standpoint coitus has an importance beyond that of the contribution it makes to the flow of shared experience in marriage. For it is also a fact of highest significance in the life history of the individual. “The longer I live,” writes Havelock Ellis. “the more I realize the immense importance for the individual of the development through the play function of sex of erotic personality, and for human society of the acquirement of the art of love . . . until it is generally possible to acquire erotic personality and to master the art of loving, the development of the individual man or woman is marred, the acquirement of human happiness and harmony remains impossible.”
. . . A woman may have been married once, she may have been married twice, she may have had children by both husbands; and yet it may not be until she is past the age of thirty and is united to a third man that she attains the development of erotic personality and all that it involves in the full flowering of her whole nature. Up to then she has to all appearance had all the essential experiences of life. Yet she has remained spiritually virginal with conventionally prim ideas of life, narrow in her sympathies, with the finest and noblest functions of her soul helpless and bound, at heart unhappy even if not clearly realizing that she is unhappy. Now she has become another person. The new-liberated forces from within have not only enabled her to become sensitive to the rich complexities of intimate personal relationship; they have enlarged and harmonized all realization of all relationships Her new erotic experience has not only stimulated all her energies, but her new knowledge has quickened all her sympathies. She feels, at the same time, more alert mentally, and she finds that she is more alive than before to the influences of Nature [p.245] and of art. Moreover, as others observe, however they may explain it, a new beauty has come into her face, a new radiance into her expression, a new force into all her activities. Such is the exquisite flowering of love which some of us who may penetrate beneath the surface of life are now and then privileged to see. The sad part of it is that we see it so seldom, and then often so late.2
Just as the erotic experience accomplishes an integration of the personality, so episodes of conflict render the person more adaptable to his surroundings. These effects come about only on condition that the episodes of coitus or conflict are completed. An incompleted quarrel which hangs fire for years, never resulting in a transmutation of values, never consummated but only interrupted, is far from effecting an adaptation of the person to his surroundings. Such conflicts fix the attention upon their subject-matter, whatever it may be. They cause a person to be hypersensitive to this particular point of contact with his surroundings, while to certain other points of contact he has no sensitivity at all. The incompleted quarrel magnifies one thing out of all proportion, and leads as a psychopathic extreme to the fixed idea, just as the sex act if incomplete may bring about hysteria.
Some people never learn to the end of their days the art of resolving a conflict. There are querulous old men who carry grudges dating back to their youth, and aged shrews who in scolding will introduce historical data culled from the whole period of the marriage. These personalities are maladjusted. They are encrusted within a shell of their own making; they are hardened to their [p.246] surroundings. Whoever is around them feels the hardness. There are other people who all their days shrink from conflict, leaving all their thwarted desires to turn in upon themselves. A quiet mousy little woman who had murdered her husband declared that life with him had become unendurable, according to the account. “Why didn’t you separate from him?” “Oh, I couldn’t hurt his feelings like that,” was the reply.
Hers was certainly an unbalanced character, unadjusted, because of softness rather than through hardness. She had not dared to set her personality up against her husband’s, to stage a conflict and come to a conclusion. There are many cases which resemble this save that they fall short of the extreme of murder. No open quarrels, nothing unseemly; but hidden resentments display themselves in little dagger-like remarks which are none the less deadly for the fact that their wound is almost imperceptible from without. The oppressed personality poisons the relationship it is not adaptable enough to meet, nor strong enough to conquer.
The marriage test is only a special instance in which there is tried and proved a man’s ability to make accommodation of self to another – to keep himself intact while taking the other into account. All human relationships require something of this accommodation. If marriage requires more of it than others, it is simply because marriage is the most intensely personal of relationships. And for this same reason marriage and family life are capable of fostering the quality which they so rigorously put to the proof. While the child is learning the elements of the science of personal adjustment, his parents are making more advanced studies. To one who masters [p.247] the supreme art of entering sympathetically into another person’s point of view, advancing age promises an accumulation of wisdom and composure; to one who has not mastered this art age threatens to bring only an accumulation of prejudices and of irritability.
Thus the exploration of marriage as an art leads to the revelation of marriage as education. The diverse threads of the discourse meet in this conclusion. Here is one fact: the active engagement of two independent wills which operate upon each other. And here is another fact: the cumulation of shared episodes, created by means of certain instruments, taking their place in the stream of experience. The first fact is typified in the conflict, and the second in coitus. The two facts manifest themselves infinitely in other ways. They are present even when there is no conflict and no coitus. They are significant not alone in the artistry of marriage but also in the development of personality. Successful will-adjustments, necessary because each personality is distinct and intact, lead to a harmony of self and other; successful shared experience, arising from a harmony of self and other, gives inner strength, unity, harmony, to the separate personality. This is the delicately balanced economy of marriage as a technique and an art.
For an insight into the importance of the difference between the participant attitude and the spectator attitude, the writers are indebted to an essay by Edwin Clapp, to be published in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 1929.↩
Havelock Ellis, “Love as an Art,” in Keyserling: The Book of Marriage (Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1926), p. 387.↩