“A DEFENCE OF RASH VOWS”: I was originally going to post this over at Questions for Objectivists, as G.K. Chesterton’s take on our contemporary custom of replacing “as long as you both shall live” with “as long as you both shall love” in the marriage service. But it seems tangentially relevant to some of the points Sullivan raised today (in which he’s defending not just same-sex marriage, but nonmarital sex), so I’ll throw it in here as well.

“The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one’s self, of the weakness and mutability of one’s self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. A modern man refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had got to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he would be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea. In other words, we fear that by that time he will be, in the common but hideously significant modern phrase, another man. Now, it is this horrible fairy tale of a man constantly changing into other men that is the soul of the decadence. [...irrelevant dissing of Oscar Wilde--Chesterton never understood either Wilde or Nietzsche...]

“The one hell which imagination must conceive as most hellish is to be eternally acting a play without even the narrowest and dirtiest greenroom in which to be human. And this is the condition of the decadent, of the aesthete, of the free-lover. To be everlastingly passing through dangers which we know cannot scathe us, to be taking oaths which we know cannot bind us, to be defying enemies who we know cannot conquer us–this is the grinning tyranny of decadence which is called freedom.

“Let us turn, on the other hand, to the maker of vows. The man who made a vow, however wild, gave a healthy and natural expression to the greatness of a great moment. He vowed, for example, to chain two mountains together, perhaps as a symbol of some great relief, or love, or aspiration. Short as the moment of his resolve might be, it was, like all great moments, a moment of immortality, and the desire to say of it exegi monumentum aere perennius was the only sentiment that would satisfy his mind. The modern aesthetic man would, of course, easily see the emotional opportunity; he would vow to chain two mountains together. But, then, he would quite as cheerfully vow to chain the earth to the moon. And the withering consciousness that he did not mean what he said, that he was, in truth, saying nothing of any great import, would take from him exactly that sense of daring actuality which is the excitement of a vow.

…”In Mr. Bernard Shaw’s brilliant play The Philanderer we have a vivid picture of this state of things. Charteris is a man perpetually endeavouring to be a free-lover, which is like endeavouring to be a married bachelor or a white negro. He is wandering in a hungry search for a certain exhilaration which he can only have when he has the courage to cease from wandering. Men knew better than this in old times–in the time, for example, of Shakespeare’s heroes. When Shakespeare’s men are really celibate they praise the undoubted advantages of celibacy, liberty, irresponsibility, a chance of continual change. But they were not such fools as to continue to talk of liberty when they were in such a condition that they could be made happy or miserable by the moving of someone else’s eyebrow. Suckling classes love with debt in his praise of freedom.

And he that’s fairly out of both

Of all the world is blest.

He lives as in the golden age,

When all things made were common;

He takes his pipe, he takes his glass,

He fears no man or woman.

“This is a perfectly possible, rational, and manly position. But what have lovers to do with ridiculous affectations of fearing no man or woman? They know that in the turning of a hand the whole cosmic engine to the remotest star may become an instrument of music or an instrument of torture. They hear a song older than Suckling’s, that has survived a hundred philosophies. ‘Who is this that looketh out of the window, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners?’”

[Eve again: Of course, if you uncouple love and sex, you get out of this problem--and raise a whole host of others. But those are for another time.]

About Eve Tushnet

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X