Selected Minor Works: The Question of Marriage

Justin E. H. Smith

I shall have to write this Selected Minor Works piece in haste, for it is less than 24 hours ago that I was married, for the first and only time, and my bride will not have me throwing away the blissful infancy of our life together crouched at my laptop.

But in order not to be completely neglectful it seems fitting that I hang out here, as it were, a bloodied sheet for the digital age, by offering both a précis of the event, as well as some reflections on marriage, what it could mean and why it is a genuine good, both in general and in this particular case.

It was a glittering and star-studded event, featuring leading figures of the Quebec literary demimonde, a well-known flyer distributor for the now mythical 1980s Sacramento new-wave all-ages dance-club scene, and, not least, the editor of 3 Quarks Daily himself. We danced late into the night at a rented hall of the Musée des beaux-arts, all dressed up, as if we were rich, and there was much talk of how heavenly the salmon canapés were, and how lovely the bride. I was of course much more interested in the latter sort of talk. She is stunning, whereas I am experiencing, looks-wise, some bizarre, swift, and evidently genetically predetermined descent from comparison with Gustav Mahler to nearly being mistaken for Karl Rove. I can only assume grace is involved in her decision, or in God’s plan, or whatever brought this miracle about.

But on to important matters. It goes without saying that, in this particular case, there is love involved (are you reading this, O Immigration Canada?), but this is not what I wish to dwell on.  What I want to consider is this: given love, why marriage?

Philosophically, I am not in good company. For Nietzsche, Socrates served as the perfect cautionary tale to any philosopher thinking about the path of marriage. After his shameful example, it is certainly true that, statistically, philosophy and marriage do not tend to occur together. Leibniz, for example, seems to have enquired with a young woman’s father about the possibility of taking her hand, never heard back, and only recalled that this business was outstanding 20 years later, just before his death. His contemporaries, by and large, appear content to have ground lenses, and proved things, and in general to have acted as though there were no women in the world. By the 19th century, marriage comes into its own as a distinctly philosophical issue, with figures such as Kierkegaard taking the problem of marriage as the primary stimulus for productivity. Kierkegaard decided firmly against.

In the 20th century, though, the problem would seem to die out altogether, and marriage to become no more or less problematic for philosophers than for any other segment of the population. Arguably though, this is not because the problem is solved, but only because philosophy is professionalized to the extent that no radical commitments or serious lifestyle measures of any sort are thought to be required. Nobody would dare claim that ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ could have been any richer if not for the sinister influence, from the shadows, of Madame Quine.

But didn’t marriage suffer a crisis in all segments of the population, the first anticipation of which was earlier suffered by the likes of Kierkegaard? Society has been transformed, and marriage displaced as the primary glue that holds it all together. Here in Quebec, we could, after all, certainly get away with not getting married.  There is no social pressure to do so at all, and if anything the pressure is in the other direction.  Cohabitation impresses immigration officials, anyway, much more than a sudden plunge into official coupledom.

So why the plunge? The simplest reason is this: when I met this woman, I knew that ‘partner’ just wasn’t going to cut it.  What I wished to do with her bore no resemblance to what accountants do when they open an office together.  I wanted to draw on antiquated social forms, to go back before the discovery that the personal is political, that families are tyrranies, and declare that this woman was mine, my wife, ma femme, as though the Enlightenment had never occurred.

Philosophy thought it was liberating its practitioners from nagging Xanthippes, and eventually it made it possible for some to think about liberating everyone from what, seen under the aspect of eternal reason, is indeed an arbitrary bond, and one that can’t but limit one’s freedom. But the lack of good reasons, reasons of the sort accountants come up with every day, is what makes marriage better than accountancy, and what makes the modern blurring of the arrangements of the business world and those of the intimate life such a tragedy. Keep your sound and level-headed arrangements, your rational and limited partnerships. I, as the saying goes, shall take my wife.