A Good Marriage is Hard to Find

An Anniversary, and a Reflection on the Grotesque

Sunday was our sixth anniversary. It felt both like a big deal and a non-event. We haven’t been married long enough to establish traditions for anniversaries—one, Number Four, was a luxurious dinner at a famous jazz club (with the finest cocktails I’ve ever tasted), while two others (Numbers Three and Five) were me curled up on the couch surviving morning sickness with my soul mate (it’s not just in the morning, people).

The whole idea of “soul mates” comes from Plato, who includes it in his Symposium. There he has Aristophanes, a writer of comic plays, retell a Greek myth about how people were created with four arms, four legs, and two faces. Then they got split in half and now we’re all roaming the earth looking for our “other half”: the other person who is going to make us complete. Once we find that person, Aristophanes implies, we’ll be happy and whole.

Lots of people believe this sincerely today. But Plato didn’t mean for it to be taken seriously. Aristophanes was a comedian, a jokester, and one who loved to use bodily and situational comedy to illustrate political truths (and frankly, there aren’t a lot of things funnier than naked four-armed two-faced people bumping into each other). It’s telling that Plato puts this theory into his mouth.

Despite that, the “soul mates” theory has hung around through the millennia and given us a lot of foolish ideas, specifically the idea that the right person will “complete” us. Anyone who’s ever been married knows that if you aren’t a complete person when you get married, you certainly won’t become one by being married. Marriage makes you a better version of yourself, certainly. But if you don’t respect yourself, don’t care about yourself, before marriage, you can’t expect your spouse to suddenly change that for you.

The soul mates theory is silly. But it gets one thing right—the comedy element. Marriage is a comedy, a physical and situational comedy for the ages, and if that’s what Aristophanes was trying to tell us through his parable, he was completely right. Marriage is as picaresque as Bottom with an ass’s head, as the narrator of Pantagruel traveling down Pantagruel’s throat, as the apothecary of The Princess Bride pronouncing Westley “mostly dead.” Marriage involves mashing two whole things together to get a new whole thing. It’s a primordial goo of sorts, in which less complex life forms splash around and eventually, something else emerges. Something higher, something more complex: a single unit made up of two separate beings. Each separate being in a married couple has desires and plans and preferences that clash with the other’s—an identity, if you will. And in the goo and grime of marriage, those identities have to morph, to change, to evolve, until the two function like a single organism. It is, quite simply, a grotesque situation.

Say the word “grotesque” in certain circles and you won’t even have time to take a breath before someone pipes in, “Oh, Flannery O’Connor! I love her!” O’Connor staked her claim on the word through her disorienting stories of seemingly ordinary people and settings that suddenly, under pressure, bulge out in gruesome displays of good or evil. O’Connor is captivated by the grotesque in the individual human soul, the picaresque leaping devils and angels that shadow the walls of our interior castles.

But there’s another leading lady of the grotesque, one who devotes herself primarily to etching the outlines of the disturbing patterns flung out when two misshapen souls try to become one. I’m thinking of Iris Murdoch. Nobody leans harder into the grotesquerie—the wild oddness, the dangerous disproportion—of marriage than Murdoch (there’s a lengthy critical essay brewing on this—stay tuned). In her novels, marriages don’t usually begin well, and they certainly don’t end well, but most of all, they don’t end. The tragedian Murdoch understands the same truth the comic Aristophanes alludes to in his myth: marriage is permanent. Whether we stick with it or not, it sticks with us.

Chesterton famously said, “Marriage is a duel to the death that no man of honor can decline.” (Of course he uses “man” in the poetic sense, encompassing “all humankind”. For many reasons, including rhythmic, I greatly prefer “man” to the more contemporary “humanity” etc., but more on that another day).

We had this quote up in big letters at our reception, and how we laughed at it, thinking we knew what he meant, and gave each other knowing looks. We, naturally, had no idea that when he said “duel to the death,” he didn’t mean one of those highly choreographic situations in which Tybalt slays Mercutio in a graceful, hygienic fashion. He meant, of course, an actual duel, in which everybody gets slashed and bruised and sweaty and you know at the end of it, someone is going to die, and the survivor will be left alone on the field of battle that is suddenly silent, and would give anything for one more treacherous thrust and parry to ring out.

So on this anniversary, the best I can wish for us, caught up in our grotesque situation of marriage, is this: to fight on, my soul and my soul’s beloved, a darkly comic two-headed beast all red in tooth and claw, for many years to come.