Commentary Magazine


Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courtship and Marrying
by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass
University of Notre Dame Press. 636 pp. $25.00

The television special Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire? has undoubtedly left a smaller imprint on the consciousness of Americans than such longer-running spectacles as the O.J. Simpson murder trial or the presidential bid of John McCain. For one brief moment, however, the show did highlight a perduring social truth—women are drawn to men with juice, especially rich ones.

This must have been irksome to feminists who for the past 30 years have tried to convince us that, in the age of raised consciousness, women have transcended such “conditioned” responses to the power of the patriarchy and its values. Yet one should not gloat too much. Observing the fallout from the show—the exposure of the groom’s problems with a previous girlfriend, the bride’s less than honest representation of her record in the Gulf war—I kept thinking that, despite their silliness, these were two fundamentally attractive people. A generation ago, instead of making fools of themselves on national TV, they would have already been married, living not as Prince Charming and Cinderella but perhaps happily enough nevertheless. Instead, here was a handsome man in his forties, still single, and a smashing blonde who had reached the age of thirty-something without having been snagged.

How they found themselves in such a predicament is indirectly suggested by the present volume. Whether or not most young men today have become spoiled by the availability of sex without strings attached, they have at least become uncertain as to why they should bother marrying; and, increasingly, the same goes for women. Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar—the images are from a sonnet by Robert Frost, written on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage—seeks to remind us of why people used to court and marry, making a case for the proposition that the channeling of eros in marriage is “the true foundation for a superior way of life and happiness.”

Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass teach at the University of Chicago, and Leon Kass in particular is familiar to readers of COMMENTARY for his many distinguished essays on medical ethics and biblical subjects. The volume they have edited is itself part of a series by diverse hands that is devoted to “the ethics of everyday life”—the other books in the series, all to be published by Notre Dame, concern work, teaching, leadership, and dying. Here, the Kasses offer an anthology of readings, ranging from Homer and the Bible to contemporary fiction, meant to shed light on the effect on our moral life of courtship and marriage, human rituals of which many young people today are ignorant. Fully and lucidly introduced, the sections of Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar address such questions as: Why marry? How do I find and win the right one? What is married life like? And so forth.

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The majority of the readings in Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar derive from a once-vital tradition of writing on what makes for the good life. They take for granted a human nature that is capable of being educated and transformed, if not to achieve transcendence then for the practical betterment of each of us as individuals and as members of society. Among the readings are a fair number that should be familiar—Socrates’ speech on eros in the Symposium, Francis Bacon on married men and their relationship to the future, Rousseau’s émile. But there is also less familiar material: Immanuel Kant making the point that, in contrast to animals, human reason and imagination prolong the power of sexual attraction and help avoid surfeit; the German poet Rilke’s subtle situating of eros in a world that offers many contending possibilities of fulfillment; the contemporary writer William Tucker drawing on human and animal biology to show how monogamy creates a social contract.

And so it goes, through literary accounts of courtship and marriage (Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Kipling) and the meditations of ethicists (from the author of the book of Genesis to Miss Manners) on the gap between knowing what is the right thing to do and actually doing it. In the latter category, one selection in particular, “Bed and Board: Liturgies of Home” by the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon, affectingly conveys the crucial importance of the daily exercise of the act—rather than the mere sentiment—of love and of the will to be faithful. Invoking and domesticating the figure of Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, Capon ruminates on the two “geographies” of matrimony, the dining table and the marriage bed:

Romance in marriage is not the artificial prolongation of the initial wonders of courtship. I cannot be her swain ever again. But I can enter with her into the fellowship of the mystery, and that is romance indeed. Beatrice, then, lies in my bed, and grows old and worn along with me. She is the minister of more than herself; that is exactly why I need not fear for her inevitable growing less. We must decrease, but the Glory will increase.

This is a profound meditation, the fruit of a lifetime of thinking and experiencing. But the historical moment we now inhabit is impatient with such hard-earned wisdom (perhaps precisely because it is hard-earned). Of the small number of selections in this volume that offer some insight into our impatience, one of my favorites is “This is the Question,” a balance sheet drawn up by Charles Darwin in the late 1830′s when he was considering marriage to Emma Wedgwood. Among the items weighing against such a move were these, in Darwin’s enumeration: “Not forced to visit relatives, and to bend in every trifle—to have the expense and anxiety of children—perhaps quarreling. Loss of time: cannot read in the evenings.” By contrast, arguing against bachelorhood and for the “Marry” side were the following: “Imagine living all one’s day solitarily 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 Grt Marlboro’ St.”

Darwin’s sensible assessment is unimaginable to many young men and women these days—which may be why two of them ended up getting hitched on a TV extravaganza. But the women present the harder case, it being a truism by now to say that men can be counted on to be on the lookout only for the erotic thrill while women seek “commitment.” Anyone who has looked into contemporary women’s writing (there are examples in this volume) must acknowledge the female analogue to this truism: that women, too, are to a great extent ruled by a mindset that celebrates “momentary genuineness” (the phrase appears in a selection in this book by Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who contrasts it with a lifetime of trying to be true) and, just like men, have become averse to the effort that love requires if it is to thrive and grow.

And how can it be otherwise when so many young women earn their own money, have no responsibility to anyone but themselves and perhaps the boss, can eat when they want, go to bed when they like? However inchoately, these young women are also under the power of their own special charm—the ability to bestow sexual favors freely and seemingly without penalty. Nothing short of Prince Charming—or a millionaire—can induce them to give up what they view as freedom in order to enter into the compromises demanded by marriage, nor can they imagine the day when they will look up to discover that connubial comforts have passed them by.

Whether we will yet recover what once was known about the happiness of men and women remains to be seen. The speech of Aristophanes in the Symposium, a very fine portrayal of the wholeness that love produces, shows how long Western culture has grappled with the problem of our innate sexual divisiveness. But for many rich insights into that problem, and into the rewards of the common life, there is no better place to start than with this book.

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