The tragedy of marriage

“It’s absurd to bring children into this world and think they’ll be better off than we are.”
– Ingmar Bergman, Wild Strawberries (1957)

I’m at that point in my life when the transition between boyhood and manhood is finally ending. Three months from now my teenage years would come to an end—at least in name, because my age would no longer have the suffix “-teen”—and I’d be an adult already. And because of my habit to over-think, I’m already thinking about what my adult life would look like. I’m already planning how things would go and I’m already preparing for the bad things that could happen. But what I’m thinking about is not a rigid ten year plan, but rather I’m only setting some directions, clarifying what I really want to do, what things I’d really pursue for, to avoid being “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And unlike Holden Caulfield who still hasn’t left adolescence—who wants “to be a catcher in the rye and all”—I already know what I want. And it’s realistic, it’s not as grand as Stephen Dedalus’s dream to be an Artist because I’m not as proud, and as foolish, as Joyce’s character.

I’m still half-sure about a couple of things and I’m still unsure about a few things but there are some things that I’m already sure of. Like how, in the future, I’d study something in the discipline of psychology, like how I’d go away from Manila for good after I graduate, and like how I would not start a family of my own.

I mean, I’m already sure that I don’t want to be anyone’s husband and anyone’s father. To throw into existence some innocent child is, I think, evil. As Woody Allen said on Husbands and Wives, “It’s cruel to bring life into this terrible world.” What I don’t want to happen is to bring life to someone who, when he/she reaches the age of reason, might not want to live in this miserable world in the first place. I’d feel very guilty about it and to bring forth a child in this world is simply against my Schopenhauerian principles. In the same way, to be romantically involved with someone else is also against my Schopenhauerian principles. Romantic involvement only means exposure of oneself to more pain and suffering and loneliness—it is nothing but a stimulation of the will-to-life. To be married to a woman is to surrender in vain one’s peace and freedom and solitude. To start a family would be to disregard the warnings I gained from my studies, and that’s why as early as now, I’m already sure that I’d avoid that complication called family life.

And again, a novel justified my decision and made me surer of my choice. Before, it was Fitzgerald’s novels, but this time, it is Joseph O’neill’s Netherland, which is a depiction of marriage and fatherhood, aside from being a New York story about boredom and loneliness. It shows the complications of being some woman’s husband and the sophistications of being a child’s father. And I think the novel, apart from critiquing Western society and politics, is also a warning against raising a family. It had a happy ending, but still, the message was there and the tragedy of marriage was shown.

The novel tells the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker, and his life in Lodon and post-9/11 New York City, with recollections from his childhood in the Netherlands. The story was told in a circular way and the flashbacks could sometimes get confusing. Jonathan Franzen also used a circular plot on his masterpiece The Corrections, but Franzen’s flashbacks were long and with enough actions, and it was just like watching an episode of a TV series, because you have this knowledge about how a scene relates to the novel as a whole . But the flashbacks on Netherland are like the flashbacks on the cartoon series The Family Guy, ranging from one short scene to one dialogue exchange, and they are merely for references, to make the joke funny. And as there is no one plot on the novel where I could hang on to, I found myself rereading the pages just to clarify if this scene was caused by that scene, if this is really a flashback or if it is part of the “present” narrative.

But that’s my only complaint on the novel. I liked the rest of it. In fact, it’s my kind of novel—it’s told in the first person, the protagonist has difficulties relating to the people around him, and the protagonist doesn’t care about what’s happening on the world because he is distracted by the things happening immediately near him. What I mean is the novel doesn’t have that grand bullshitting and it just focuses on the everydayness of life. But from those driving lessons and dinner with friends and riding the elevator you’d have a glimpse of eternity. The novel also has a good story which makes up for Hans’s failure to be as deep and as relatable as protagonists from coming-of-age novels. Lastly, I like those The Great Gatsby elements in the story. I like how you have this rather reserved storyteller meeting a mysterious rich man who is so passionate about something and who is connected to illegal activities, and all that new rich horsing around for the American Dream in New York.

Hans is, of course, the Nick Carraway of this novel. The Jay Gatsby is this Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkinsoon. The Daisy Buchanan is cricket. There was no Jordan Baker but there was Rachel, Hans’s wife.

At the beginning, the Londoner couple agreed to migrate and settle at New York, but after the World Trade Center fell, Rachel became paranoid of another terrorist attack on the US. She was also troubled about staying at a country that has a warmonger like Dubya Bush for a president. She wants to go back to London, but she doesn’t want to go back to London with Hans. What Rachel wanted was she and their son Jake would go, but Hans would stay on New York. She thinks their being separated for a while will clear “things” out between them. Hans is your yes-man kind of character so he just agreed with the plan. But the absence of his wife and son made him bored and lonely, particularly on weekends, and because of that, he searched for a hobby that he could use to kill his time and combat his loneliness. He found cricket—his childhood sport and a famous sport among immigrants in the area. And here the bored and lonely Hans meets the larger than life Chuck, and the two began a beautiful friendship.

On surface, their friendship was about cricket. Chuck the visionary wants to make cricket as popular a sport as baseball in America, and he plans to build a “real” cricket stadium to help make popularize the sport. Chuck makes Hans a member—and soon an officer—of their cricket club and he asks for Hans’s support for the realization of the cricket stadium. Hans, meanwhile, enjoyed the company of his cricket buddies who are all, like him, bored and lonely male immigrants, but who are most, unlike him, coloured and underprivileged. But the one who really filled the void of his life was Chuck and Chuck’s various surprises. Yet eventually, Hans found out that Chuck was using him as a cover for his illegal activities, and they were driven apart when Hans saw Chuck and an accomplice roughing out some poor character. Some years later, Hans was back to London—and this is one of the first scenes of the novel—and he finds out that Chuck was murdered, with his body found on a river.

But Hans’s life wasn’t confined to Chuck, cricketing, and New York City. After Rachel and Jake went back to London, Hans still visited them at least twice a month. But despite Hans’s efforts, their relationship only got colder, and Rachel—who, incidentally, was a lawyer—kept making a big deal about Hans’s being privileged, pro-US, and conservative. Hans didn’t defend himself and instead just passively listened through Rachel’s wailings because his wife, he knows, was incapable of proper reasoning. So instead he just focused on cricket and Chuck’s project—he devoted all of his free time to it—until one day, back in London, Hans found out that Rachel has an affair with some chef named Martin. They separated for a while but eventually they went back together and it’s because Rachel was “jilted” by her lover. And from the beginning of the novel you’d know that they’d end up being together anyway because Hans was with Rachel when he found out about Chuck’s death. As I said, the plot was circular.

Nevertheless, the story was well told and it’s rich with social and psychological insights.  Most people would perhaps focus on Chuck’s plot and its postcolonial aspects, but I would focus on Rachel’s plot and her infidelity. I mean, that’s the thing about women like Rachel. They’d make a big deal about how much of a humanist they are, how much progressive their politics is, how much they are against humanity’s evils, and they’d also make a big deal about how they’re rich, how they’re lawyers, how they could fend for themselves, and yet they easily yield to the shallowest of flatteries.

Bathsheba Everdene from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd comes to my mind when I think about Rachel. They are both strong and intelligent, they are both “independent,” yet they both gave away to flatterers. They both gave away their decency and their principles just because some chef named Martin or some sergeant named Frank Troy showered them with flatteries. In Netherland the flatterer found a more beautiful woman, in Far from the Madding Crowd the flatterer already has a more beautiful woman and our woman is merely the flatterer’s pastime, but the point is Rachels and Bathsheba Everdenes would always get jilted, left behind, abandoned by their flatterers. And they would poo-hoo-hoo their way back to that man who they had neglected and cheated on before, like how Rachel went back to Hans, like how Bathsheba went back to Gabriel Oak. It’s a lousy business, this charade called marriage, and that’s why I had already decided that I would not marry.

The funny thing is my observations are against my upbringing. I mean, my parents never had any serious problem with their marriage—no affairs, no trial separations, no clearing things out—and they’re the same old couple twenty years ago as perhaps they will be the same couple twenty years from now.

But alas, when I look outside our immediate family, at our other relatives perhaps, you have those who had left behind, those who had been left behind, and those who are about to leave behind their spouse. And as early as elementary school, I had been acquainted with kids whose daddies and mommies had separated; I have a number of friends who came from broken families. Also, there are those celebrities on TV and their lengthy stories of annulments, or perhaps rumours about a politician’s extra-marital affairs. My point is marriages are universally vulnerable to infidelities, violence, and other forms of complications. It happens on films, novels, and in real life, and whether they’re a couple from New York or Manila or Tarlac, there’s still this possibility that their marriage will not work, that some flatterer would show up, that some big deal lawyer would yield to carnality and put everything behind. And that’ll be distressing not only to the couple involved, but also to their children—particularly to their children.

One thing I learned from Arthur Schopenhauer is that happiness is not something that you’d be chasing for in life. It’s not something you’d look for in persons, in your relationships, or in your possessions. And this is because happiness is not something, it is not a positive thing, and rather it is an absence of something—happiness is the lack of pain. And so if we would want to be happy, we should make ourselves as less exposed to pain as possible, as less involved with persons who would pain us as possible, so we would not be in pain. This means we should avoid the various evils of life, we should not engage in activities that will make us vulnerable to complications, and chief among these activities is marriage. There couldn’t be anything more evil-attracting, complication-bringing, and will-to-life-stimulating than marriage. And as shown in Netherland—and in Woody Allen’s films and Fitzgerald’s novels—marriages only bring suffering and boredom, it is not worth it, and it is best to avoid it.

29 December 2013

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About Mark Flores

Pessimist.
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