“Maybe we just weren’t meant to have children” [Sondheim]

“Maybe we just weren’t meant to have children” [Sondheim] August 13, 2012

I want to kick off the Sondheim Symposium this week with a guest post by Gilbert of The Last Conformer.  He originally wrote it as a comment on the original post, but I like starting off the conversation by discussing something omitted, plus I want to reply to it tomorrow.  I’m in italics, everything that follows is his.  Oh, and I’m to blame for the stealing the post title from a different musical, I couldn’t let Eve Tushnet have all the fun.  

Take it away, Gilbert!

As an entry point to my rant, children basically don’t feature in Company. And I don’t just mean none appear on stage (I wouldn’t advocate child-labor), they seem to be very distant even in theory. When Robert visits Jenny and David they mention in passing they need to keep quiet so as not to awake the kids. For Peter and Susan the kids are one of several reasons why they can’t live separate lives post-divorce. There are a few mentions of children in the songs but basically as nag-scapegoats, babysitting objects or jokes. And as far as I remember that’s it for a two-hour musical about marriage. Effectively children seem like a peripheral aspect of what boring people do when they settle down, but never as anything to be thought about when considering marriage.

Even aside of my reactionary Catholic views on the relationship of marriage and children I think this is symptomatic. Some other joint project might take the place of children e.g. if a couple turns out infertile. And I understand how one could see that as an equally good option rather than a substitute.

But in Company there is no trace of that either. Marriage is presented as being about what the title says: company. And then the difference to friendship is basically just intensity. In “Marry Me a Little” Robert wants that company to be shallow and cheap. At the end in “Being Alive” he wants it to involve a deeper investment of self, a commitment, an effect on his self-definition, and the vulnerability that goes along with that. If we take the scene before, with his looking for someone to take care of, he may even have realized it’s in part about sacrifice. I suppose that’s progress. But ultimately it’s still just a change in how much of the same he wants. His idea of marriage is still about two people looking at each other with no trace of looking at anything else together. There’s no room for marriage as an institution in this view, because making it so strictly about two people basically excludes any outside interest by definition. And it gets worse: If marriage differs from friendship mainly in intensity, friendship becomes an inferior good. So the reality-branch in which Robert gains a “true” marital intention is the branch in which he jilts his friends at the surprise party. Basically Robert’s progress is from solipsism to duopsism and that’s just not far enough.

Of course this post-modern view of marriage is particularly easy to fall into in a world where marriage no longer involves a phase-change in behavior. April’s butterfly story probably still includes some awareness that casual sex is hurtful, but ultimately in the musical as in the real world it’s assumed an unquestionable given. Which makes sense in a perverse way, because if marriage isn’t really a thing the difference between married and unmarried isn’t either.

Comparative sanity gets a two-minute hearing, but it never rises to Robert’s attention and doesn’t even get a song. As with the butterfly story, it’s subtle enough to not offend the hippies. I’m talking, of course, of Kathy in the park. She’s wasn’t necessarily always aware of being out of place in New York (as she says, there’s a time to come to New York and a time to leave) but she has matured and realized it’s wrong. I think Musical!New York is basically Marta’s vision of it, so returning to Cape Cod is a rejection of a world-view. Going back to Cape Cod in order to marry is basically rejecting the shallow variant that passes for marriage in New York.

There is a bitter note in her evading the question whether she loves the guy she will marry. But I still would have more hope for her marriage than for Robert’s. Of course it’s normally not a particularly good idea to marry without romantic spark. But still, love is primarily a virtue and only secondarily an emotion. With work and character-building the emotion may be producible in the long term, as it was in arranged marriages of old. The emotion is much less effective at inducing the virtue, and without the latter the former will die off in the long term. Also, I’m over-interpreting now, but maybe Kathy wants Robert to make her the kind of offer he made to Amy. And it’s telling he won’t make it to her despite the setup making it look like he would end up with her before she drops the bomb. Kathy just means something different when she talks of marriage than Robert does. And she is getting closer to the truth, while Robert just digs deeper.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Joe

    ” …..subtle enough to not offend the hippies.” Awesome!!

  • “His idea of marriage is still about two people looking at each other with no trace of looking at anything else together.” Oh yes: shared selfishness.

  • Good post. Very insightful.

  • “If marriage differs from friendship mainly in intensity, friendship becomes an inferior good.”
    This reminds me of the chapter of HPMOR where Dumbledore asks Harry whether or not McGonagall is priceless, and then asks him whether he would sacrifice McGonalgall to save Hermione. For some people, friendship IS an inferior good. My relationship with my wife is different from my relationships with my friends, but that’s because my wife is different. At their foundation, good friendships and good romantic relationships both involve the same core issues: honesty, loyalty, respect, self-sacrifice, mutual enjoyment in each other’s company. For me, any friendship I have is inferior to my relationship with my wife, though I imagine there are more than a few friendships out there that would be preferred to romantic relationships.

    • leahlibresco

      Yeah, I always find this weird. I remember having a conversation with someone about polyamory and my friend said the problem is that you can only have absolute loyalty to one person, that you have to decide who to take out of the fire, etc.

      We don’t actually make that choice that often (it’s more common that, when we have conflicting claims, we’re not sure whether to choose a friend’s high-need plea or a partner’s lower-need ask). I think it’s fine to handle this kind of question on a case by case basis, and not configure relationships so there’s a really clear hierarchy of obligation.

      But the bigger thing that squicks me out is the idea of having absolute loyalty to the partner in the first place. Seeing that demand as totalizing seems to shut out the world. Better to fight against the ‘inferior good’ way of talking and help prevent yourself from making a marriage an idol.

      • deiseach

        I think the trouble with the model of a romantic relationship as the ultimate claim and ultimate fulfilment is that one person can’t fill all those roles. One person can’t do it all for you; there will be interests you have that they don’t share, there will be events in your life that happened before he/she came on the scene and only those who were there can understand.

        So that’s why I think it is good for both parties – whether they’re married or not – to have outside friends and outside interests. No, your best friend is not the same as your spouse, but if someone needs to talk to you about the bad habit you have of flying off the handle, it’s less likely to blow up into all-out war with all the past slights and offences being flung in one another’s face if your friend does it than your spouse (or best of all, in addition to your spouse).

        • If you cannot gaze forever at your lover as you will at Christ in the Last Days, says end-times immamentism, your marriage is unhealthy and, most likely, should be abolished. (Would that more people blame their own sin than claim the marriage must be null.)

          • You’re professing a profoundly unhealthy view of love. Your spouse will not be all good, all knowing, or all compassionate. And picturing you spouse as Christ would be fairly unhelpful negotiating who’s going to change around their work schedule to run an errand.

            Not to mention, it feels more than a little blasphemous to say that you should value your spouse like the beatific vision. That’s some serious (not to mention seriously impossible) idolatry there.

          • @Reluctant Liberal
            I think you seriously misread The Ubiquitous here. “says end-times immamentism” is not exactly an endorsement.

          • That’s possible. The bit in parentheses is throwing me. If I am misreading The Ubiquitous (can I call you Ubi?), then they have my apologies.

      • I definitely don’t advise anything like absolute loyalty. My wife has told me repeatedly that if I ever became physically abusive she would leave me immediately, and I think that’s right.

        I’m with you on the not taking the inferior good approach. I think if it comes up, I may as well own up to it, but it’s probably not a helpful framework, especially since I really do think it takes a variety of relationships to form a satisfying (intellectual/emotional/social) life.

      • Niemand

        you can only have absolute loyalty to one person, that you have to decide who to take out of the fire, etc.

        Doesn’t that also imply that you should never have more than one child, because you might have to decide which child to save?

  • Ted Seeber

    It may be my autism- but marrying for Lustful Love never made sense to me. At all. Marry for commitment. Marry for doing sex properly (which can take 18-36 years, because *good sex* isn’t complete until you give it a name, raise it right, and turn it into a functional adult human being). Marry to “Grow old Together”. Marry for Storge, for Agape. But to marry for Eros or Phileos, is to doom your marriage from the start; NOBODY is physically attractive to you forever, NO friend will “complete” you, people do change and grow. Friendship is not enough- FAMILY is what is important- and you choose your friends, but once you’ve connected as family, you’re stuck through thick and thin.

    The dark side of Catholic ethics about sex is that far too many people marry for Eros to “avoid sin”- and that is absolutely the wrong reason to do it. That’s why even among Catholics 50% of marriages end in divorce. And no- I have not seen the show, but your description here just turned me off to it.

  • Leah,
    I perused the comments in your thread about Natural Law where you wrote this:
    “Catholic teaching on homosexuality and natural law flat out doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
    I am wondering to what extent your view of morality is a bit blurred by political correctness. I am not saying that you are politically correct in the least (if you were, you would probably not consider seriously becoming Catholic), only that the PC is so pervasive as to insidiously impose its inversion of meaning on any moral issue.
    Maybe you would be interested in reading Dr. Bruce G. Charlton’s view on the subject. He is an Anglican who converted from atheism a few years ago. He just released an electronic version of his book on PC titled Thought Prison published last year (http://thoughtprison-pc.blogspot.co.uk/). I find particularly interesting what he says about PC inversion. His post of August 1 was on Natural Law: http://charltonteaching.blogspot.ca/2012/08/why-do-modern-people-violate-natural-law.html