Friday, October 03, 2008

C.S. Lewis--odd on love

I've been recently re-reading some portions of The Four Loves. I don't remember having very strong views about this book when I read it years ago. There certainly are some excellent parts, especially when he talks about the love of God.

But on the subject of love and marriage, it simply will not do. I think the biggest underlying problem here is that Lewis had at that time too rigid a view of what it meant to love one's spouse. He may (we can hope) have gotten more information later when he fell in love and got married himself. But at the time of writing The Four Loves, he seems to have thought of love between man and wife as either a mere tempest of emotion--hence, transient and unimportant--or as the settled unity of many years--hence, and by definition, impossible at the beginning of marriage. This view of Lewis's is quite evident in the following passage from a letter (April 18, 1940):

No one is going to deny that the biological end of the sexual functions is offspring. And this is, on any sane view, of more importance than the feelings of the parents....Surely to put the mere emotional aspects first would be sheer sentimentalism....The third reason [for marriage in the Prayer Book] gives the thing that matters far more than "being in love" and will last and increase, between good people, long after "love" in the popular sense is only as a memory of childhood--the partnership, the loyalty to "the firm", the composite creature. (Remember that it is not a cynic but a devoted husband and inconsolable widower, Dr. Johnson, who said that a man who has been happy with one woman cd. have been equally happy with any one of "tens of thousands" of other women. i.e. the original attraction will turn out in the end to have been almost accidental: it is what is built up on that, or any other, basis wh. may have brought the people together that matters.)

One finds the same near-contempt for love between newlyweds as mere emotion and the same implication that love between married people ought to grow over time as opposed to being sought before marriage in this passage, put into the mouth of Screwtape:

From the true statement that this...relation was intended to produce...affection and the family, humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call "being in love" is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy....In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves "in love," and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.

This false dichotomy between love as unimportant emotion and love as a settled feeling built up over years even makes him write the following, to my mind highly distasteful, passage from The Four Loves which goes so far as to praise sexual intercourse without love.

Most of our ancestors were married off in early youth to partners chosen by their parents on grounds that had nothing to do with Eros. They went to the act with no other "fuel," so to speak, than plain animal desire. And they did right; honest Christian husbands and wives, obeying their fathers and mothers, discharging to one another their "marriage debt," and bringing up families in the fear of the Lord.

This is quintessentially and self-evidently a passage written by a male, and I would say, written by a male who knows little about women. It entirely ignores the strong connection for many women between emotions like affection and a feeling of being cherished, loved, and protected, on the one hand, and sexual desire, on the other.

Moreover, Lewis assumes that there is nothing even remotely morally questionable about a husband's having intercourse with his wife when he does not love her and when she does not love him. The Catholic Church itself, which I consider fairly representative of (at a minimum) a paradigmatically conservative view on sexual subjects, holds that the sexual act between man and wife is supposed to serve, inter alia, a "unitive purpose," which would seem to raise questions about having intercourse with a spouse for whom you have no feeling, whom, perhaps, you scarcely know at all (which is at least one plausible scenario invoked by Lewis's picture of arranged marriage), and who has no feeling for you.

Then there is the question of the validity of marriages undertaken without the true freedom of the two principal people involved. Lewis's casual implication that untold numbers of young people perfectly validly married other people for whom they had no affection solely out of obedience to their parents is open to some question. Indeed, the abuses during the ages of marriages made in just that fashion are the entire basis of the present concern with due maturity and full freedom in enacting the marriage sacrament. Lewis simply o'erleaps all such worries and, in effect, says, "You're not going to say that all those people who married only semi-willingly and got on with the marital act willy-nilly, out of a sheer sense of duty, were wrong, are you?"

There is something rather brutal and even foolish and crude about Lewis's whole approach to this subject. The nuances of feeling between members of the opposite sex--including various degrees of kindness, affection, protectiveness, trust, and spontaneous commitment--seem lost on him. He seems not even to realize that all of these can be and to no small extent ought to be present prior to marriage, though they do, of course, grow over the years. To him, love between husband and wife is relatively unimportant because it is just an emotion. What's love got to do with it? It's all about duty, obedience to parents, and the desire to have children, and that's it.

Some time ago, I read an interesting article by Gilbert Meilaender in First Things about in vitro fertilization. (At least, I believe it was Meilaender. I am going by memory.) He made the excellent point that one problem out of many with in vitro fertilization is that it denies the primacy of the relationship between husband and wife. The existence of the child grows out of the parents' love for one another and is a result of the sexual expression of that love. The existence of a child is not an end for which one's wife (or husband) is to be used simply as a means. Exactly and precisely. Much better than "on any sane view, offspring are more important than the feelings of the parents." Meilaender, I suspect, could have taught Lewis a thing or two on this entire subject.

A somewhat longer version of this post, including an imaginary Lewisian marriage proposal, has been cross-posted at What's Wrong with the World.

9 comments:

The Social Pathologist said...

It's a shame that Lewis is so negative on "infatuative" love, since I believe that it is probably the only type of love that actually mirrors the feelings we will have should we glimpse the beatific vision. I suppose the central feature of this type of love is the total "other centeredness" of its nature and our sudden inadequacy with with our solitary being. Perhaps we experience it as God's way of showing us that alone, we are incomplete.

I'm with the Troubadours and think that they had more insight into the matter than many a moral theologian.It is a natural sentiment put there by God that is there to prepare us for marriage, therefore it is not to be dismissed so lightly. Marrying for "romantic' reasons is probably the best and most "natural" reason for marrying and therefore the best. It's God's way of doing things.

Is it necessary for marriage? No, since the sacrament is a spiritual welding process predicated on the mutual free consent of the parties. I imagine a lot of those "arranged" marriages in the past were pretty brutal affairs for both husband and wife and suboptimal with regard to Christian ideals.

Oh, as far as I understand it, the "unitive" dimension of marriage was only preached relatively recently by upper level management. The natural law view, of marriage as a contract through which babies were made and sin avoided, was the official position.

Still there is much to be said for this view as the sacrament of marriage does come with obligations, something people who have lost infatuation with each other seem to forget.

Returning to matters beatific, some sense of heaven, purgatory and hell can be reasonably understood by meditating on this sentiment.

When Percy Sledge--When a man loves a woman--sings about the privations a man wants to go through in order gain the affections of his love, he is in a roundabout way preaching the Catholic theology of purgatory. Separated from our love, we feel pain, but through our efforts we eventually will be united.

Likewise a glimpse of Hell can foretold by spurned romantic love. Nothing satisfies the spurned lover who is filled with bitterness and despair. Life aches because the beloved has been permanently separated from his beloved.

Lydia McGrew said...

Hey, SP! Glad to see you around. It's been a while. Thanks for coming by.

Ultimately, what I would insist on is something less exciting than infatuative love but far more humane than "brutal" marriage to someone one cares nothing about. I'm trying here to apply the idea (which I know a number of Catholic documents have used) that persons are to be treated as ends and not as means. Brutal marriages do exactly the wrong thing, here. The husband who marries a woman for her lands and takes her to beget an heir upon her, caring nothing for her as a person, does wrong. I do not hesitate to say that, and I don't care how many times it was done through the ages, by how many Christian people, or with how much societal approval in supposedly "better" ages than our own.

On the other hand, I don't want to be understood as saying that stars have to light in your eyes and your heart race whenever you think of the person or else you must not get married. And I hope I haven't been unclear about that. I think my position has been made clearer in the comments thread on the companion post to this over at W4.

What I'm saying is a sine qua non is knowledge of one another (that is, the two people are not simply strangers until they are thrown in bed together), affection, kindliness, tenderness, what I call on the other thread a _connection_ between the two people. Those kinds of things. This need not mean wonderful sexual chemistry or even infatuation. But they need to be to at least some threshhold degree connected to one another *as people*, not simply as breeding animals. That can be a sort of "seed" connection that will deepen over the years, but there should be something there where the two people are looking at one another as persons, not things, where they are not merely avoiding thinking of one another as individuals and trying to turn on the sexual arousal so as to beget children and consummate the marriage so it's a "done deal," where the marriage was entered into for entirely pragmatic and impersonal reasons.

And it would, if it comes to that, have been possible for the two people to take some time to get to know one another and develop some affection for one another after vows were said and before the marriage was consummated. In fact, if the two were married literally as children, the marriage couldn't have been consummated immediately anyway, and there might have been time for this to take place. In the meanwhile, an unconsummated marriage could have been annulled.

One thing that I'm trying to avoid is the idea that traditional conservatives can't make any sweeping criticisms of what was widely done long ago, because those ages are just supposed to be so Christian. There, I think, SP, you will be likely to agree with me.

Dr. Bess Kayal ED said...
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The Social Pathologist said...

One thing that I'm trying to avoid is the idea that traditional conservatives can't make any sweeping criticisms of what was widely done long ago, because those ages are just supposed to be so Christian

Yes, I agree.

By "infatuative", I meant the type state where we have a desire to unite with the other party(on may different planes). The marriage is hence a result of the attraction process; a desired for state in itself.

I still think that you are right in objecting to Lewis's view. Not necessarily because in your opinion you feel that some degree of "romantic" attachment-be it ever so mild--is necessary to validate a legitimate union, but because I feel the traditional conception of marriage may itself be incomplete. Just as the "unitive" purpose of the sexual act seemed to be acknowledged in the late nineteenth century, the romantic component of marriage still waits to be asserted. My own view, for what its worth, is that marriage is a sacrament which perfects the couple, and of secondary importance, a state through which children are legitimately born. A childless couple can still have a "good" marriage. Its biological purpose is secondary to its spiritual dimension. Lewis was singing the praises of an inferior version of legitimate marriage.

Theologians make the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition, perhaps we should look at marriages in the same way: perfect and imperfect. While imperfect marriage--like an imperfect contrition--still opens the door to God's grace and is hence valid, we should approach the sacrament as God intended, with perfect love for our partner. Anything less is second best.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think you have an interesting idea, there, SP. I think a childless couple _certainly_ can have a "good" marriage but that there is something sad about it, at least there is unless they married after they were both past the age of childbearing in any event.

But I agree with you too that ideally there should be a lot more than what I was talking about as a "bare minimum." In fact, one thing I sometimes feel frustrated about with myself is that the blog context makes me feel pressed to draw lines that are sometimes more minimal than what I would actually like to say. So I start out defending love as a prerequisite for marriage and end up saying, "Look, people, don't you think that _at least_ the people should care about each other _to some extent_? Aren't you _revolted_ by the idea of intercourse between people who care _nothing_ about each other? Doesn't this seem extreme?"

And yet that's where one ends up. Over at W4 right now, I fully expect to go back to the thread and find a couple of commentators in full medieval-era-defense mode telling me how much better the world was back when young girls could scarcely conceptualize the notion of refusing whatever oaf their father happened to choose for them. (Well, no, they won't put it that way. In fact, they aren't much into talking about the fact that fathers and guardians sometimes chose oafs because they didn't care about the girl either.) Yet they also want to make a heavy distinction between "consent" and "choice." How charming--so the girl was still giving consent even though she felt she had no choice but to consent. Something a bit odd there.

Dealing with what I might call hyper-traditionalists sometimes has, I fear, a falsifying effect on my own rhetoric. Yet at the same time I don't feel justified in just letting rip.

The Social Pathologist said...

I think a childless couple _certainly_ can have a "good" marriage but that there is something sad about it

It's sad in the same way that a fecund marriage can be loveless. I imagine the ideal is a happy, fecund marriage, deviation from this ideal is a privation, and hence the sadness. Love is meant to be intrinsic to marriage, its deficiency a venial privation.

The assumption of all the "traditionalists", who sing the perfection of the medieval period, was that this truly was the period of spiritual enlightenment and everything since then has been its darkening. I don't hold that view, the medieval period had both its virtues and its vices and hence should not be considered the end state of Christian society. The renaissance and enlightenment bought some needed to reforms to medieval Christian society.

Particularly with regard to the treatment of women. I suppose the only correct "choice" that these women had according to the hyper-traditionalists, was the choice to be treated as chattel. In other words they were given the right to chose to be a means to an ends. Unfortunately, the recognition of women, as rational, thinking and feeling human beings was more aggressively pushed by the enemies of Christianity. In fact, Christianity seemed to respond to these developments rather reluctantly after the fact. That's why, I, like you, feel that the truth takes priority over tradition. The old ways are not necessarily good.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think your parallel is legitimate, SP. In fact, a joyful but childless marriage is in many ways less sad than a miserable but fruitful marriage.

As for women's being treated as chattel in the "good old days," I think there is some truth in that (at the risk of sounding like a feminist). To be fair, a) Zippy has unearthed condemnations from the church of literally unwilling marriages as long ago as the 800's, which was definitely a step in the right direction, and b) my impression is that boys, too, could be compelled into marriage and sometimes were. Noble wards of either gender could be, and I strongly suspect sometimes were, treated as chattel.

The Social Pathologist said...

The Middle ages weren't really a great time for personal rights.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment . . . You write of Lewis, "He may (we can hope) have gotten more information later when he fell in love and got married himself." _The Four Loves_ was published in 1960, not only after Lewis's marriage to Joy but nearly coincident with her death.