Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Winston Churchill's easy mother

Dear Hannah,

Whether or not Winston Churchill's mother had more than 200 lovers as George Moore told us, she had enough lovers to find him favor wherever he went and whatever he wanted to do.  It appears almost as if he owed his career to it.  To those of us familiar with the English from shows like Downton Abbey or the Hornblower series, a sex life as promiscuous as hers seems almost anathema to the stiffness of their manners and the rigidity of their morals. And yet that's the sex life she had.  If it was only her we could leave the matter and go on to other issues; but as any act of sex takes at least two, it's only safe to say she wasn't alone.  She was with the king -- and many other prominent men in England, Germany, France, America, and apparently the English colonies.

William Manchester notes in The Last Lion that the English nobility of the Victorian and Edwardian eras took sex almost backwardly from the way we take it today.  Looking down on pre-marital promiscuity, they preferred it post -- as if the moment you got married you were entitled to be single.  This is almost unthinkable today, as the first thing we think when we get married is that we hate nothing more than a cheater. The middle classes of the Edwardian Era were with us on this issue; except that they were equally disgusted by sex before marriage as well.

To those of us accustomed to thinking of the 60's as the beginning of the Sexual Revolution, this all comes as a bit of a shock.  It turns out that because of the upper classes, the 1960's were almost outdone by the 1890's.  Those who knew about contraception were getting it in the form of Dutch cups and sheep skins and all kinds of douching; and the difference between the two decades seems to reside primarily in the former's idea of discretion.  Manchester notes that after the English upper classes threw their massive parties, the hallmarks of which were their characteristic decency and aristocratic pomp, their guests would retire into massive halls of guest rooms, where a good hostess would arrange their stays as to carefully match illicit lovers.  If she was bad at matching, and anyone had to travel too far to find the bedroom of a paramour, her reputation as a hostess would suffer; and in the morning, before the sun would be bright enough to recognize any faces, a bell would be rung by the servants, and "secretive" lovers would scurry back to their rooms in the twilight*.

In another shock to the modern reader, Montaigne noted almost four-hundred years before, in contrast to the current belief that men are the worst cheaters, that women were almost incapable of monogamy**.  His essay On Cuckoldry explained that the French women of the era were constantly embarrassing their husbands by taking up younger lovers and birthing other men's children, which led Montaigne to believe (and can we blame him?) that women were as morally deficient as they were physically weak.

Our views on promiscuity and the trustworthiness of the sexes seem to change with the ages. Whether we trust men more than women and whether we love lovers after marriage, we can agree on two things, and these are that nobody likes to be cheated on, and it's impossible to expect anything tomorrow except the desire to find more lovers***.  If we judge another time, we judge harshly according to our customs; if we judge another man, we judge him without experiencing his feelings; and when we refuse to judge, we pretend to walk a mile in a cheater's shoes without ever walking a mile in the cheated's.  Whichever road we take we make a mistake; and wherever we find sympathy in sex we find coldness toward others.

And yet we find ourselves in need of judgment, because life is a journey and most journeys need roads.   The road I've personally taken has been good in some respects and horrible in others; but the idea of "sowing one's wild oats" is especially bad.  We believe, somehow, that where something's to be sown nothing's to be reaped.  Aside from broken hearts and jaded souls, we run the timeless risk of abandoned children, unappreciated wives, incurable diseases, and joyless aging.  We trust insensibly that human libido will peter out, and that, having experienced the emptiness of multiple lovers, we can tiredly resign ourselves to a later one and start a happy family.  For many of us, this seems to work well.  Age has a way of changing preferences and forcing us to abandon the excitement of novelty for the stability of a routine.  For others, marriage represents a kind of death before death.

Schopenhauer, accustomed to looking on the darker side of things, once hilariously said that whether you chose to get married or to die single, you would think you had ruined your life.  The truth is that there are things to gain and lose in many paths; but the universal and apparently timeless institution of marriage implies, with the almost unified voice of humanity, that the benefits to one is greater than the benefits to the others.  And beyond this, above this, and more importantly than this, we have the unified voice of young lovers: that nobody healthy ever wanted to fall in love only to have it ruined, and to sort his way through a series of rapidly deteriorating experiences until romance lost all its meaning****.  Those of us who believe in marriage believe -- however much against the odds of the day -- that it's possible to fall in love and make a life out of it; and if we weren't able to do it ourselves, we love to see others do it, and we love to have our children dream about it.  Even the most promiscuous comedies end with a romantic statement -- and if the statement isn't possessive, the statement isn't really romantic.

The current slew of Disney films, comprising the likes of Maleficent and Frozen, seem to take a more jaded approach to romance and marriage; and while Disney's writers may be wiser out of their own shattered expectations, and never really even hint at polyamory, they fail to give us the conclusion we always wanted.  First loves may never work out, but nobody really feels comfortable substituting the lusty love of a lover for the familial love of a friend or a sister; and while romance is oftentimes disappointing after the haze of infatuation melts away, disappointment is more desirable than living a life without infatuation.  The surest way to ruin romance for everyone, and the way Disney has taken it, is to mock all the fun of it and take it unseriously -- which they believe is taking it seriously.  The surest way to have romance is to live like it's possible, even if the possibility is dangerous.  Romance may require wisdom.  It may also require patience.  It may even require some hardness -- three qualities which are especially foreign to youth.  But who wants to tell his child to give up the greatest things, because there's a chance he might not get them?  No -- we train them for monogamy, and if all else falls apart, at least we gave them a fighting chance.

Your father,

*Votaire, writing in his Philosophical Dictionary almost 200 years after Montaigne wrote the Essays, confirmed Montaigne's observations about the easiness of finding a French mistress, and the difficulty of finding a faithful French wife.

**Karl Marx seems to confirm this tendency for the ages when he wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that, since the upper class was apparently uninterested in monogamy, the working classes ought to share their women in common.  King Charles II, sharing England with the most rigid of the Puritans, was known for suffocating the royal court with hordes of the most beautiful prostitutes.  It appears, from the time of Moses (in which kings were forbidden by Law to multiply wives) to the rich Victorians we so wrongly believed were prudish, that men in power have always had access to as many women as they wanted; and that the middle and lower classes, who are more seriously responsible for the negative effects of polyamory, are forced by nature into serious marriages. If wealth is power, power is liberty -- to do what we want, and live with far fewer of the consequences.  The sign of a truly noble generation is a chaste and honorable upper class.

***It's often thought that marriage is saying yes to one person; but an experienced spouse knows that marriage is saying no to a thousand others, most of whom we haven't met at the time of the ceremony. The difficulty in marriage is not in the original promise, but in the ensuing surprises.

****Is it any wonder that the ancient Jew, whether speaking for himself or as an oracle of Jehovah, says that God hates divorce?  To think that all our best and noblest sentiments and promises can end in nothing more than hatred and perfidy gives us something worse to fear than death itself.  It makes us wonder whether there is anything good about life.

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