Questions of Divorce

I HAVE just picked up a little book that is not only brightly and suggestively written, but is somewhat unique, in this sense ─ that it enunciates the modern and advanced view of Woman in such language as a sane person can stand. It is written by Miss Florence Farr, is called Modern Woman: her Intentions, and is published by Mr. Frank Palmer. This style of book I confess to commonly finding foolish and vain. The New Woman's monologue wearies, not because it is unwomanly, but because it is inhuman. It exhibits the most exhausting of combinations: the union of fanaticism of speech with frigidity of soul ─ the things that made Robespierre seem a monster. The worst example I remember was once trumpeted in a Review: a lady doctor, who has ever afterwards haunted me as a sort of nightmare of spiritual imbecility. I forget her exact words, but they were to the effect that sex and motherhood should be treated neither with ribaldry nor reverence: "It is too serious a subject for ribaldry, and I myself cannot understand reverence towards anything that is physical." There, in a few words, is the whole twisted and tortured priggishness which poisons the present age. The person who cannot laugh at sex ought to be kicked; and the person who cannot reverence pain ought to be killed. Until that lady doctor gets a little ribaldry and a little reverence into her soul, she has no right to have any opinion at all about the affairs of humanity. I remember there was another lady, trumpeted in the same Review, a French lady who broke off her engagement with the excellent gentleman to whom she was attached on the ground that affection interrupted the flow of her thoughts. It was a thin sort of flow in any case, to judge by the samples; and no doubt it was easily interrupted. 

The author of Modern Woman is bitten a little by the mad dog of modernity, the habit of dwelling disproportionally on the abnormal and the diseased; but she writes rationally and humorously, like a human being; she sees that there are two sides to the case; and she even puts in a fruitful suggestion that, with its subconsciousness and its virtues of the vegetable, the new psychology may turn up on the side of the old womanhood. One may say indeed that in such a book as this our amateur philosophizing of to-day is seen at its fairest; and even at its fairest it exhibits certain qualities of bewilderment and disproportion which are somewhat curious to note. 

I think the oddest thing about the advanced people is that, while they are always talking of things as problems, they have hardly any notion of what a real problem is. A real problem only occurs when there are admittedly disadvantages in all courses that can be pursued. If it is discovered just before a fashionable wedding that the Bishop is locked up in the coal-cellar, that is not a problem. It is obvious to anyone but an extreme anti-clerical or practical joker that the Bishop must be let out of the coal-cellar. But suppose the Bishop has been locked up in the wine-cellar, and from the obscure noises, sounds as of song and dance, etc., it is guessed that he has indiscreetly tested the vintages round him; then, indeed, we may properly say that there has arisen a problem; for, upon the one hand, it is awkward to keep the wedding waiting, while, upon the other, any hasty opening of the door might mean an episcopal rush and scenes of the most unforeseen description. 

An incident like this (which must constantly happen in our gay and varied social life) is a true problem because there are in it incompatible advantages. Now if woman is simply the domestic slave that many of these writers represent, if man has bound her by brute force, if he has simply knocked her down and sat on her ─ then there is no problem about the matter. She has been locked in the kitchen, like the Bishop in the coal-cellar; and they both of them ought to be let out. If there is any problem of sex, it must be because the ease is not so simple as that; because there is something to be said for the man as well as for the woman; and because there are evils in unlocking the kitchen door, in addition to the obvious good of it. Now, I will take two instances from Miss Farr's own book of problems that are really problems, and which she entirely misses because she will not admit that they are problematical. 

The writer asks the substantial question squarely enough: "Is indissoluble marriage good for mankind?" and she answers it squarely enough: "For the great mass of mankind, yes." To those like myself, who move in the old-world dream of Democracy, that admission ends the whole question. There may be exceptional people who would be happier without Civil Government; sensitive souls who really feel unwell when they see a policeman. But we have surely the fight to impose the State on everybody if it suits nearly everybody; and if so, we have the right to impose the Family on everybody if it suits nearly everybody. But the queer and cogent point is this; that Miss Farr does not see the real difficulty about allowing exceptions ─ the real difficulty that has made most legislators reluctant to allow them. I do not say there should be no exceptions, but I do say that the author has not seen the painful problem of permitting any. 

The difficulty is simply this: that if it comes to claiming exceptional treatment, the very people who will claim it will be those who least deserve it. The people who are quite convinced they are superior are the very inferior people; the men who really think themselves extraordinary are the most ordinary rotters on earth. If you say, "Nobody must steal the Crown of England," then probably it will not be stolen. After that, probably the next best thing would be to say, "Anybody may steal the Crown of England," for then the Crown might find its way to some honest and modest fellow. But if you say, "Those who feel themselves to have Wild and Wondrous Souls, and they only, may steal the Crown of England," then you may be sure there will be a rush for it of all the rag, tag, and bobtail of the universe, all the quack doctors, all the sham artists, all the demireps and drunken egotists, all the nationless adventurers and criminal monomaniacs of the world. 

So, if you say that marriage is for common people, but divorce for free and noble spirits, all the weak and selfish people will dash for the divorce; while the few free and noble spirits you wish to help will very probably (because they are free and noble) go on wrestling with the marriage. For it is one of the marks of real dignity of character not to wish to separate oneself from the honour and tragedy of the whole tribe. All men are ordinary men; the extraordinary men are those who know it. 

The weakness of the proposition that marriage is good for the common herd, but can be advantageously violated by special "experimenters" and pioneers, is that it takes no account of the problem of the disease of pride. It is easy enough to say that weaker souls had better be guarded, but that we must give freedom to Georges Sand or make exceptions for George Eliot. The practical puzzle is this: that it is precisely the weakest sort of lady novelist who thinks she is Georges Sand; it is precisely the silliest woman who is sure she is George Eliot. It is the small soul that is sure it is an exception; the large soul is only too proud to be the rule. To advertise for exceptional people is to collect all the sulks and sick fancies and futile ambitions of the earth. The good artist is he who can be understood; it is the bad artist who is always "misunderstood." In short, the great man is a man; it is always the tenth-rate man who is the Superman. 

Miss Farr disposes of the difficult question of vows and bonds in love by leaving out altogether the one extraordinary fact of experience on which the whole matter turns. She again solves the problem by assuming that it is not a problem. Concerning oaths of fidelity, etc., she writes: "We cannot trust ourselves to make a real love-knot unless money or custom forces us to 'bear and forbear.' There is always the lurking fear that we shall not be able to keep faith unless we swear upon the Book. This is, of course, not true of young lovers. Every first love is born free of tradition; indeed, not only is first love innocent and valiant, but it sweeps aside all the wise laws it has been taught, and burns away experience in its own light. The revelation is so extraordinary, so unlike anything told by the poets, so absorbing, that it is impossible to believe that the feeling can die out." 

Now this is exactly as if some old naturalist settled the bat's place in nature by saying boldly, "Bats do not fly." It is as if he solved the problem of whales by bluntly declaring that whales live on land. There is a problem of vows, as of bats and whales. What Miss Farr says about it is quite lucid and explanatory; it simply happens to be flatly untrue. It is not the fact that young lovers have no desire to swear on the Book. They are always at it. It is not the fact that every young love is born free of traditions about binding and promising, about bonds and signatures and seals. On the contrary, lovers wallow in the wildest pedantry and precision about these matters. They do the craziest things to make their love legal and irrevocable. They tattoo each other with promises; they cut into rocks and oaks with their names and vows; they bury ridiculous things in ridiculous places to be a witness against them; they bind each other with rings, and inscribe each other in Bibles; if they are raving lunatics (which is not untenable), they are mad solely on this idea of binding and on nothing else. It is quite true that the tradition of their fathers and mothers is in favour of fidelity; but it is emphatically not true that the lovers merely follow it; they invent it anew. It is quite true that the lovers feel their love eternal, and independent of oaths; but it is emphatically not true that they do not desire to take the oaths. They have a ravening thirst to take as many oaths as possible. Now this is the paradox; this is the whole problem. It is not true, as Miss Farr would have it, that young people feel free of vows, being confident of constancy; while old people invent vows, having lost that confidence. That would be much too simple; if that were so there would be no problem at all. The startling but quite solid fact is that young people are especially fierce in making fetters and final ties at the very moment when they think them unnecessary. The time when they want the vow is exactly the time when they do not need it. That is worth thinking about. 

Nearly all the fundamental facts of mankind are to be found in its fables. And there is a singularly sane truth in all the old stories of the monsters ─ such as centaurs, mermaids, sphinxes, and the rest. It will be noted that in each of these the humanity, though imperfect in its extent, is perfect in its quality. The mermaid is half a lady and half a fish; but there is nothing fishy about the lady. A centaur is half a gentleman and half a horse. But there is nothing horsey about the gentleman. The centaur is a manly sort of man ─ up to a certain point. The mermaid is a womanly woman ─ so far as she goes. The human parts of these monsters are handsome, like heroes, or lovely, like nymphs; their bestial appendages do not affect the full perfection of their humanity ─ what there is of it. There is nothing humanly wrong with the centaur, except that he rides a horse without a head. There is nothing humanly wrong with the mermaid; Hood put a good comic motto to his picture of a mermaid: "All's well that ends well." It is, perhaps, quite true; it all depends which end. Those old wild images included a crucial truth. Man is a monster. And he is all the more a monster because one part of him is perfect. It is not true, as the evolutionists say, that man moves perpetually up a slope from imperfection to perfection, changing ceaselessly, so as to be suitable. The immortal part of a man and the deadly part are jarringly distinct, and have always been. And the best proof of this is in such a case as we have considered ─ the case of the oaths of love. 

A man's soul is as full of voices as a forest; there are ten thousand tongues there like all the tongues of the trees: fancies, follies, memories, madnesses, mysterious fears, and more mysterious hopes. All the settlement and sane government of life consists in coming to the conclusion that some of those voices have authority and others not. You may have an impulse to fight your enemy or an impulse to run away from him; a reason to serve your country or a reason to betray it; a good idea for making sweets or a better idea for poisoning them. The only test I know by which to judge one argument or inspiration from another is ultimately this: that all the noble necessities of man talk the language of eternity. When man is doing the three or four things that he was sent on this earth to do, then he speaks like one who shall live for ever. A man dying for his country does not talk as if local preferences could change. Leonidas does not say, "In my present mood, I prefer Sparta to Persia." William Tell does not remark, "The Swiss civilization, so far as I can yet see, is superior to the Austrian." When men are making commonwealths, they talk in terms of the absolute, and so they do when they are making (however unconsciously) those smaller commonwealths which are called families. There are in life certain immortal moments, moments that have authority. Lovers are right to tattoo each other's skins and cut each other's names about the world; they do belong to each other, in a more awful sense than they know.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays

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