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 shows like Downton Abbey or the Hornblower series, a sex life as promiscuous as hers seems almost anathema to the stiffness of Engish 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 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 we hate nothing more than a cheater. The middle classes of their day were with us on this; except that they were equally disgusted by sex before marriage.

We thought the 60's were the beginning of the Sexual Revolution and we were wrong.  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 parties, the hallmarks of which were their decency and 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, upending the current belief that men are the worst cheaters, that women were almost incapable of monogamy**.  His essay On Cuckoldry said 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 weren't just physically weaker, but morally deficient.

Our views on promiscuity and the trustworthiness of the sexes seem to change with the ages. Whether we trust men more than women or love lovers after marriage, we can agree on two things: that nobody likes to be cheated on, and tomorrrow we'll want  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 some kind of mistake; and wherever we find sympathy in sex we find coldness toward others.

But we still need a judgment, because life is a journey and most journeys need roads.   My own personal road was a mixed experience; but the idea of "sowing one's wild oats" is especially bad.  We believe, somehow, that you can sow things without reaping.  Aside from broken hearts and ruined souls we run the timeless risk of abandoned children, unappreciated wives, incurable diseases, and joyless aging.  We think our sexual drives will peter out, and that after chasing everyone we can find, we can just tiredly resign ourselves to the last one and start a happy family.  For many of us this seems to work well.  Age has a way of picking stability over excitement.  For others, marriage represents a kind of death before death.  You have no idea which one you'll be until you get there. 

Schopenhauer, accustomed to looking on the darker side of things, once said that whether you chose to get married or to die single, you'd think you had ruined your life.  The truth is that there are things to gain and lose in many paths; but the universal and 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 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 lesser experiences until romance had lost all its meaning****.  Those of us who believe in marriage believe -- however much against the odds -- 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 wanted.  First loves may never work out, but nobody really feels comfortable substituting a lover for a friend or a sister; and while infatuation always melts away and leaves you disappointed, disappointment is more desirable than 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.  A safe romance may require wisdom.  It may also require patience.  It may even require some hardness -- three qualities which young people, by the definition of youth, absolutely lack.  But who wants to tell his kid 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 classes ran a lifelong orgy, 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 have to deal directly with the downsides of free sex, 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 gives us something worse to fear than death itself.  It makes us wonder whether there is anything good about life.

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