Solitude à deux

Books by Iris Murdoch

Dame Iris

In a fascinating chapter of her book To the River, Olivia Laing reflects on two literary marriages:

Iris & John"John Bayley and Iris Murdoch were married for 43 years, until her death in 1999, and for most of that time they lived in a sprawling and quite spectacularly filthy house near Oxford, where with a grand disregard for health and safety John dug a swimming pool in the greenhouse and heated it by dangling an electric radiator by its flex."

In the latter years of Murdoch's life, when her mind was ravaged by Alzheimer's, she took to "collecting pebbles and scraps of silver foil and asking again and again When are we going? The house -- a different house by now -- is filled in addition to its usual chaos with odd objects she's gathered on her excursions: dried worms, twigs, bits of dirt; the indiscriminate final mutation of a lifetime fondness for inanimate objects....

John & Iris at home in Oxfordshire

"This marriage, in which a clever and kindly man takes care of his more brilliant wife, bears a distinct resemblance to that of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who also lived rather sluttily. Virginia, Leonard once wrote, was a ferocious creator of what he called filth-packets: 'those pockets of old nibs, bits of string, used  matches, rusty paper-clips, crumpled envelopes, broken cigarette-holders, etc., which accumulate malignantly Virginia and Leonard Woolfon some people's tables and mantlepieces,' while Leonard himself had a marmoset call Mitz that regularly relieved herself down his back.

"Grubbiness aside, the resemblance goes deeper than the superficial similarity of trajectory, for all marriages must end in bereavement of some kind. Instead, it's something about the mechanics of the two relationships, for they each resemble delicate instruments that rely on careful weighing and judicious use of space. Both women were pulled in opposing directions throughout their lives: inward, toward the intense, almost febrile life of the mind; and outward, towards a melange of external love affairs and passions. Despite this both felt their husbands to be the steady centre of their lives, something I think [Martin] Amis had in mind when he wrote that Iris settled, in all senses of the word, for Bayley.

"These two couples nurtured a kind of fertile separateness, a solitude à deux that seems totally at odds with our modern concept of marriage. It is striking how frequently Virginia Woolf and John Bayley in particular write of the pleasure of writing alone in a room, knowing that somewhere else in the house, in their own private sphere, their spouse is also happily at work."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed

Roses at the window of Monk's House

Two Stories

Virginia & Leonard's home in London

I love the term solitude à deux. I find it deeply pleasurable, too, to be working in the blessed solitude of my studio while music drifts from Howard's cabin, which is just over the hedge from mine. As Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet (1929):

"The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky."

If you're interested in literary/artistic marriages and partnerships in all their permutations, I recommend Significant Others, an anthology of essays on the subject edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron.

The Little Cabin by the Wppds

The studio

The photographs just above: Howard's "Little Cabin by the Woods" (his office and theatre/music/puppetry rehearsal space), and my studio next door, reached through an opening in the hedge between them. Solitude à deux.

The other images in this post, starting from the top: Books by Iris, the Dame hrself, and two photos of Iris & John at home in Oxfordshire (the first one by Eamonn McCabe). Virginia & Leonard with their dog Pinka in their Tavistock Square house in London (which was destroyed during the Blitz); Virginia's writing shed in the garden of  Monk's House (their country place in Sussex); roses in the garden at Monk's House; the first book published by Leonard & Virginia's Hogarth Press; and Leonard & Virginia's earlier London home (where the Hogarth Press began).


What love means

The door into the woods

Love means to learn to look at yourself
Illustration by Honore AppletonThe way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn't matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn't always understand.

- Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 - 2004
("Love," The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by Robert Haas)

Among the roots

Illustration by Richard Doyle

Walter CraneA certain day became a presence to me;
and there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic -- or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what I knew: I can.

- Denise Levertov, 1923 - 1997
(''Variations on a Theme by Rilke," Breathing the Water)

Standing in the glow of ripenessThe illustrations above are by Honore Appleton (1879-1951), Richard Doyle (1824-1883), and Walter Crane (1845-1915). This one's for Howard, with love.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today: The Proclaimers (those two irresistible Scottish lads) on the road to Vegas for their song "Let's Get Married." This one's for Howard, because it's our wedding anniversary today and this is a song we listened to at least a million times back when we did the scary deed of tying the knot and officially becoming a family.

Does every couple have songs that makes each think of the other? The one that never fails to make me think of my husband is Dougie MacLean's "This Love Will Carry," particularly after the things we've weathered as a family in the last few years. It's not a sweet song, but one about going through the dark of the woods together...for don't we all make that fairy tale journey at some point (or several points) in our lives? When we can do it hand in hand, that's a blessing indeed. In his performance below, MacLean (also from Scotland) is joined by the wonderful Appalachian American singer and musician Kathy Mattea. It is one of the most beautiful songs I know.

And now let me raise a glass to all of you and your loved ones too.

From our anniversary dinner, celebrated over the weekend


Longing for home

Howard & Tilly in Devon, 2012

Sitting here in New York City, missing my home and loved ones back in Devon, I re-visited the poignant "Homesickness" episode of Ellen Kusher's Sound & Spirit radio progam (WGBH/Public Radio International). You can hear it too by clicking on the arrow in the box below:



The following poem by Jane Yolen was inspired by the photograph at the top of this post...although it is, she says, as much about her husband David (who died six years ago), as it is about my photo of Howard and Tilly. Art is like that.

Longing for Home

Longing for Home

I see you from behind,
walking the familiar path,
the twisting, winding road
that goes through the hills,
and long to be going home
to twine you in my arms,
to make a nest in our bed,
to call in the dog from the hearth,
and be there in our home.
The wind is at my back
when I want it in my face.
If I call, will you answer
or just keep walking on?

- Jane Yolen

 

"Longing for Home" copyright 2012 by Jane Yolen. The poem appears here with the author's permission, and may not be reproduced in any form without her consent.


The narrative of marriage

Arthur-rackham-meeting-oberon-titania-img"The Meeting of Oberon and Titania" by Arthur Rackham

I've been re-reading one of my favorite books: Writing a Woman's Life by the late feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003). Ostensibly a survey of the way the lives of famous women have been portrayed by biographers, this slim volume also casts a sharp eye on the way women's stories are told today...and the manner in which such narratives influence the ways that we tell our own stories.

I first encountered the book twenty years ago, and have re-read it several times since, finding new things to ponder within it at each different stage of my own life's journey. This time, I've been struck anew by the chapter on marriage -- for I'm reading it now as a married woman myself (after spending much of my adult life in a more independent state), and thus have fresh interest in Heilbrun's reflections on marriage and its portrayal in women's stories. She writes:

1st edition "It is noteworthy that few works of fiction make marriage their central concern. As Northrup Frye puts it, with his accustomed clarity: 'The heroine who becomes a bride, and eventually, one assumes, a mother, on the last page of a romance, has accommodated herself to the cyclical movement: by her marriage...she completes the cycle and passes out of the story. We are usually given to understand that a happy and well-adjusted sexual life does not concern us as readers.' Fiction has largely rejected marriage as a subject, except in those instances where it is presented as a history of betrayal -- at worst an Updike hell, at best when Auden speaks of it as a game calling for 'patience, foresight, maneuver, like war, like marriage.'  Marriage is very different than fiction presents it as being. We rarely examine its unromantic aspects."

One of the problems of the "romantic plot" (as it's constantly portrayed in our popular culture: in countless contemporary novels, films, t.v. shows, pop songs, etc., etc.) is that it's a narrative that focuses exclusively and relentlessly on the beginning of a relationship -- and then ends at the point of declaration, or conquest, or the exchange of marriage vows. Thus we're encouraged to think of the heady excitement inherent in a brand new attraction as the whole point of love  -- with no interest left over for the intricate dance of a marriage or long-term partnership: the quieter romance of entwined lives spun out over years, over decades, over a lifetime. We are constantly bombarded with stories (films, songs, etc.) that lay down all-too-familiar scripts for how to behave as lovers in the throes of new passion -- but where are the stories (or films, or love songs)  that tell us anything useful about the mysteries of marriage, the challenging work of true partnership?

And does this matter? Well, I think it does. Not everyone is blessed with the model of a functional marriage in their family background, and thus it's to stories we often turn for a glimpse of how else to construct our lives . . . and what we get from most books and films on the subject of marriage is a resounding silence. We're shown over, and over, and over again that it's courtship that counts, and the social pageant of the Wedding Day -- while marriage is a vague, misty, unexplored state, unworthy of drama or art.  Marriage is the end of the tale.

Another quote from Heilbrun's excellent book: 

Carolyn G Heilbrun"Most of us begin, aided by almost every aspect of our culture, hoping for a perfect marriage. What this means is that we accept sexual attractiveness as a clue to finding our way in the labyrinth of marriage. It almost never is. Oddly enough, the media, which promise marriage as the happy ending, almost simultaneously show it, after several years, to be more ending than happy. But the dream lives on that this time will be different.

"Perhaps the reason the truth is so little told is that it sounds quotidian, bourgeois, even like advocating proportion, that most unappealing of all virtues. But E. M. Forester understood this: when someone suggested that truth is halfway between extremes, his answer (in Howards End) was, "No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility." Proportion is the final secret, and that is why all good marriages are what Stanley Cavell calls 'remarriages,' and not lust masquerading as passion."

A little later on, Heilbrun explains what she means by the term "remarriage":

"I have spoken of reinventing marriage, of marriages achieving their rebirth in the middle age of the partners. This phenomenon has been called the 'comedy of remarriage' by Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuits of Happiness, a film book, is perhaps the best marriage manual ever published. One must, however, translate his formulation from the language of Hollywood, in which he developed it, into the language of middle age: less glamour, less supple youth, less fantasyland.  Cavellwrites specifically of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s in which couples -- one partner is often the dazzling Cary Grant -- learn to value each other, to educate themselves in equality, to remarry. Cavell recognizes that the actresses in these movie -- often the dazzling Katherine Hepburn -- are what made them possible. If read not as an account of beautiful people in hilarious situations, but as a deeply philosophical discussion of marriage, his book contains what are almost aphorisms of marital achievement. For example: ....'[The romance of remarriage] poses a structure in which we are permanently in doubt who the hero is, that is, whether it is the male or female who is the active partner, which of them is in quest, who is following whom.'

Cary grant & Katherine Hepburn "Above all, despite the sexual attractiveness of the actors in the movies he discusses, Cavell knows that sexuality is not the ultimate secret in these marriage: 'in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage. Here is the reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us.'

"He is wise enough, moreover, to emphasize 'the mystery of marriage by finding that neither law nor sexuality (nor, by implication, progeny) is sufficient to ensure true marriage and suggesting that what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage, for a sort of continuous affirmation. Remarriage, hence marriage, is, whatever else it is, an intellectual undertaking.' "

Oh, how I love the idea that "a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage"!

Some years ago, I read an article about two people in the arts (alas, I can't remember who they were) who'd been married for many, many years. Asked for the secret of their long partnership, they said: "We fell straight into conversation when we met, and we haven't come to the end of that conversation yet."

I can't think of a better model for marriage than that. Or of a narrative more romantic . . . .

Our wedding rings


The New York Marriage Bureau...

NYC Marriage Chapel signHow serendipitious! The New York Times has an article on City Hall weddings today: "Drab Setting, but Joyous Work" -- with a nice gallery of pictures here. Had our own recent wedding at City Hall been a mere two days later, we might have been pictured too.

The Times article is right, the Manhattan chapel is indeed quite drab and shabby, but it's also a facinating and fun way to tie the knot, surrounded by other couples and families from every imaginable kind of background. We enjoyed it thoroughly: no stress, lots of laughter, and it was even rather romantic, in an historic Old New York kind of way. I hope the slick "wedding destination" chapel they are planning doesn't lose the unique spirit of those funky, old rooms, so full of life and many decades worth of stories. We loved them.

Here's a picture from the old City Hall marriage chapel that you won't find in the Times today:

At New York City Hall


Newly wed in NYC

Last week, my partner Howard and I got hitched at New York City Hall. A few of you asked for pictures from the day....

We opted for black-and-white clothes because getting married at the old "Marriage Bureau" in City Hall felt like stepping into an old black-and-white movie. The dress comes from Howard's mum, a theatrical costume designer, who collects odds and ends of vintage clothing. It's sheer black lace (with a silk underslip) from the 1920s, via the costume department of the Royal Shakespeare Company, worn with a black silk Victorian-style jacket, black Victorian-style lace-up boots (which were also cast-offs from the RSC), and jewelry by the amazing Jen Parrish (Parrish Relics, Boston). Our wedding rings were made by our friend Miriam Boy-Hackney (Silverandmoor, Chagford), and the organdy silk scarf by our friend Mimi Panitch. The scarf bears a white-on-white quote from William Shakespeare: "Now join hands, and with your hands your hearts." Two points if you know what play that's from.