Friday, October 10, 2008

Susan Squire's "I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage"

Susan Squire is the author of three books, most recently I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage (Bloomsbury USA, August 2008). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, New York, and The Washington Post, and in the best-selling essay collection, The Bitch in the House.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, and reported the following:
Open this book to page 99, and read…all about a late-fourth-century scandal erupting within the now-official Church over a single sentence about Mary, composed by a Christian writer named Tertullian back in the day when lions ate Christians for breakfast. That would be the Mary described in the New Testament, the only authoritative account available to early theologians like Tertullian, as the virgin who miraculously conceived and bore God's son--after which she and Joseph may or may not have consummated their union. The idea that Mary remained a lifelong virgin isn't grounded in the New Testament, which if anything suggests the opposite. Only in, you guessed it, the late fourth century does the Church leadership become obsessed with implanting that idea into the public mind. That's when a minor-league theologian plucks Tertullian's 200-year-old line (from "On Monogamy", a lengthy rant against remarriage) and sticks it into an essay of his own. Here's the offensive quote: "It was a virgin who gave birth to Christ and she was to marry only once, after she brought him forth." Keeping in mind that "marry" is standard Biblical code for sexual intercourse, Tertullian simply states the truth that he and his contemporaries gleaned from the New Testament, citing numerous references in that text as backup: Mary and Joseph did consummate their relationship once Jesus was born. But what was once understood as a matter of fact now amounted to heresy (a term that the Church won't hesitate to use against anyone daring to question, let alone disagree, with its teachings), so all hell breaks loose…but that's beside the point.

For the moment, the point seems to be this: The subject of Mary's virginity doesn't promise to reveal the "quality of the whole" when the whole in question is a history of marriage, given that the history of marriage can't be separated from the history of sex, specifically the reproductive kind. I Don't chronicles the ongoing attempts to identify, organize, and control reproductive sex--and virgins don't have sex, reproductive or otherwise. They don't have babies either, or for that matter husbands, Mary being the glaring exception. How the leaders of the then-singular Christian Church orchestrate Mary's ascendance to triple-icon status as perfect virgin, perfect mother, and perfect wife at once, a process that begins to coalesce around Augustine in the late fourth century, unfolds in miniature on page 99. Revelation, of sorts, might be possible after all.

Here's a synopsis of the marital playbook designed and used by the ruling class, whose members were supposed to be both celibate and chaste, and who remained in power from late antiquity to the early modern period: The ideal human state combines celibacy (no marriage) with chastity (no sex, lifelong virginity being preferred to doing the deed and renouncing it, but whatever), the better to focus on God. Marriage is grudgingly tolerated to prevent the greater evil of fornication, defined as nonconjugal sex under any circumstances--although to engage in conjugal sex strictly for pleasure is equally vile. (The urge to procreate is accepted but not encouraged, as child-rearing and God-focusing don't mix.) In sum, the best of all possible unions between man and woman is a sexless one, more mellifluously known as "spiritual marriage." But jargon hardly matters when you've got a poster couple as promotable as Mary and Joseph. They were unassailable, presuming of course that no more unwittingly dangerous comments by long-dead theologians were leaked by otherwise forgettable writers, and the Church would see to that. Mary and Joseph would loom large and undisturbed over Christian married life--which is to say Western married life, virtually all of it subject to the increasingly ludicrous and prurient rules of Christian sex--for the next thousand years or so. In short: Punch another hole in Ford Madox Ford's belt.
Read an excerpt from I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, and learn more about the author and her work at Susan Squire's website.

--Marshal Zeringue