March 20, 2006
Lunar Refractions: A Wife is Better than a Dog Anyhow
Yes, you’ve read correctly. This won’t be appearing on the front page of the Times, or even amid the increasingly unfortunate and obviously marketing-driven Newsweek covers, though it would likely turn more heads than that recent headline about sex and the single baby-boomer. You’d probably only expect to see it in the “Shouts and Murmurs” column of the New Yorker, where you might safely dismiss it as mere jest. Then again, I’m sure many of my dear readers have had similar, or indeed contrary, thoughts of their own. Yet this reflection was noted by one of the world’s most esteemed scientists, back in July of 1838. While I don’t think that Charles Darwin intended this statement as an evolutionary judgment, it is certainly the point that most stuck with me after looking at a rich collection of his musings.
Upon visiting the American Museum of Natural History’s current exhibition on Darwin last week, I found one piece—nay, hypothesis—by far the most interesting. The show is filled with skeletons; pinned-down, and long-dead, beetles; some unenviable live specimens of species he worked with, displayed at deathlike rest in glass menageries; the requisite, and dare I say relatively passive, interactive computer screen displays; resplendent orchids; manuscripts; and facsimilies of his doodled diagrams. I came across his idea that a wife is “better than a dog anyhow” while reading through his methodical listing of pros and cons regarding the esteemed institution of marriage. This curious sentiment was set quite literally between the lines, with a carat indicating he’d added it afterwards between two other items. The list, neatly folded down the middle and not-so-neatly scrawled in pencil on paper, read as follows, with the heading centered on the page, “Marry” on the left, and “Not Marry” on the right [click on manuscript photo to enlarge]:
Children (if it Please God)
Constant companion (and friend in old age) who will feel interested in one
Object to be beloved and played with. Better than a dog anyhow
Home, & someone to take care of house
Charms of music and female chit-chat
These things good for one’s health—but terrible loss of time
My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, and nothing after all—No, no, won’t do
Imagine living all one’s day solitary in smoky dirty London House
Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire and books and music perhaps
Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Great Marlboro Street, London
Freedom to go where one liked
Choice of Society and little of it
Conversation of clever men at clubs
Not forced to visit relatives and bend in every trifle
Expense and anxiety of children
Loss of Time
Cannot read in the evenings
Fatness and idleness
Anxiety and responsibility
Less money for books etc.
If many children forced to gain one’s bread (But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation into indolent, idle fool
Marry, Marry, Marry Q.E.D.
Darwin was twenty-nine when he wrote this, and had been living, presumably in grand bachelor style, in London for almost two years. His five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle was done, and both his age and status brought marriage to mind. Clearly he was torn with the same problem many of my friends (though I must say only the females actually talk about it) are now facing—namely, settle down with one partner and start a family, or pursue career without such compromise. Of course others are facing the dilemma of perhaps passing up on those pros in favor of the cons, after a few (or not so few) years of putting up with such “terrible loss of time.” I’ll not focus on salient, perhaps salacious, details like the fact that Darwin married his first cousin (what would reproductive rules governing gene diversification have to say about that?), and will instead discuss the reverberations his list has in our current society.
Darwin was set with a “generous living allowance” and flourishing scientific career when he married Emma Wedgwood after a three-month engagement. She was more religiously devout than he, not having put her faith to the rigorous tests inspired by scientific skepticism that he had. Many differences separated the two, yet those were overcome by the presence of the two children and that now most rare of traits, utter devotion and commitment. Clearly he got over most of the cons listed above soon after tying the knot with her. What most interests me, though, is the sentiment that inspired this list and some of Darwin’s letters, and how I see it recurring among my friends and acquaintances 168 years later.
In a letter to his fiancée written during their engagement in 1839, Darwin explicitly states his hopes and expectations: “I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude.” A dear friend of mine, who is an accomplished writer and journalist, has finally decided, after a marriage and two children, followed by an affair or two or three, that, were he to have a choice, working with facts in silence and solitude would rank higher than any sort of companionship. All of his experiences with women up until now had perhaps at one point humanized him, but they have either canceled each other out or just proven to be a bit too much for someone who just wants a “choice of Society and little of it.”
Perhaps this character is similar in its nature to the sort that would prompt another prominent journalist to publish a book entitled Are Men Necessary? While I’ve not yet gotten round to reading Maureen Dowd’s latest book, the many reviews and arguments against or in favor of men’s necessity or superfluity have been impossible to miss. A forty-six-year-old friend of mine has chosen to raise her now six-year-old daughter on her own. After becoming pregnant in the course of a brief affair, she decided that both she and her daughter could get along just fine without a man. I will be curious to see how this develops, especially when the girl hits her teens. Thus far I’ve noted some very interesting forces at work. While I took her on a walk to give my friend a little rest, before letting go of my hand and running up to the swing set as we came to the local playground, she turned to me and asked, “Alta, why don’t you have a little girl?” While offering up my rather vacuous reasons, it occurred to me that, in her eyes, it’s normal that every woman would have a little girl, and therefore strange that I wouldn’t. Just like she has a doll, and her mother has her, I should have a little girl. Her father is present, lives in a neighboring town, and sees her several times a week, but he’s by no means a key figure in her life. This is just one of several emerging models of family that is visible all over the animal world, but seen as new, and by many as a threat, to the contemporary human societal structure.
Darwin shared a lot of his work with his wife; his father had advised him not to recount his religious doubts, noting that some women “suffered miserably” at the idea that their husbands weren’t destined for heaven after death. While they don’t directly relate to the situation between Darwin and his wife, the increasingly “religious” politics of faith, devotion, commitment, and exclusion of unions that aren’t strictly male-female—and hence focused on the propagation of the species (though proponents of such politics seem to forget that this will occur with or without such lofty pretence, especially if abortion is no longer an option)—has become a major issue in the past few years. I don’t really feel like writing about all that, as it makes me rather ill. While evident in this list and in discussions I overhear on a daily basis, the idea that one must choose between companionship or career, and the view that they are mutually exclusive, or at least call for serious compromise, although recorded on Darwin’s list, proved insignificant in the end.
The generation of women who began their careers in the sixties and seventies, and whose stay-at-home mothers almost universally spoke of career only when speaking of their husband’s work, forged new titles for themselves. It was common to hear one woman say of another that she was in college just to get her so-called MRS degree—something that did, and for many people still does, carry more weight than an MFA, MBA, MD, or PhD. That generation quickly came to learn that the academic and professional titles previously inaccessible to them would prove both more difficult and more worthwhile in the long run. The generation of women beginning their careers now, while it might have an inkling of what was and what is to come, cannot relate to this at all, at least not yet.
Partnership of whatever sort seems to bring balance, desired battle, and a reason for being to people that might otherwise be without. The idea of a “better half,” however, has always perturbed me. Perhaps this is only because of its judgmental nature. I recently read an article in which the author related a dialogue, and one of the voices was recorded as her “better half,” which I misinterpreted as the better part of her character. Only when I remembered the definition of “better half” as “spouse” did the article begin making sense (in a non-schizophrenic way). My grandmother would never have had such a misunderstanding.
While I think each item on Darwin’s scientifically rigorous list deserves greater attention—especially the priceless idea of a “nice soft wife on a sofa”—I will close with a nod to recent articles on one of my preferred poets. I recently reread Auden’s “In Sickness and in Health,” many years older and a few experiences richer than when I first read it, when I understood very little. This poem, written for a couple Auden knew, also came to mind as I contemplated Darwin’s list. Many lines acerbically reference marriage as an institution (cf. “Nature by nature in unnature ends”). I especially like the penultimate stanza: “That this round O of faithfulness we swear / May never wither to an empty naught / Nor petrify into a square, / Mere habits of affection freeze our thought / In their inert society, lest we / Mock virtue with its pious parody / And take our love for granted, Love, permit / Temptations always to endanger it.”
Posted by Alta L. Price at 02:16 AM | Permalink
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