Sunday, March 28, 2010
This is an honest and personal look at modern matrimony.
A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Viking Adult, 304 pages
AT the end of her Eat, Pray, Love memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert met and fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who had been living in Bali. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but as post-traumatic-divorce syndrome sufferers, they also swore to never, under any circumstances, get legally married.
In Committed, Gilbert the Commitment Phobic shares, “We had ... learned that marriage is an estate that is very much easier to enter than it is to exit. Unfenced by law, the unmarried lover can quit a bad relationship at any time. But you – the legally married person who wants to escape doomed love – may soon discover that a significant portion of your marriage contract belongs to the State and that it sometimes takes a very long while for the State to grant you leave.”
However, providence intervened. The United States Government – after unexpectedly detaining Felipe at a border crossing – gave the couple a choice: get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again.
“Sentenced” to marry, Gilbert faced her fears of marriage analytically. So she takes us through a conversational stroll as she tries to talk herself into matrimony the second time round. She concocts a weird but wonderfully bittersweet marmalade of personal memories, literary walkabouts, political arguments, economic reasoning, historical and theological query; all mixed together with wry wit and careful, though seemingly casual, research. The result is a mostly smart and sobering analysis of the role marriage plays in our different cultures, consciousness and ecologies.
The discourse starts with Gilbert’s interaction with the Hmong tribe in Vietnam, for whom romantic love has very little to do with reasons for marriage. Here, she notes that “there is one critical gift that a traditional Hmong bride almost always receives ... which all too often eludes the modern Western bride ... the gift of certainty. When you have only one path set before you, you can generally feel confident that it was the correct path to taken.”
She says that Western-style “love-based marriage does not guarantee the lifelong binding contract of a clan-based or an asset-based marriage” as “by unnerving definition, anything that the heart has chosen for its own mysterious reasons, it can always unchoose later.”
The book takes us to modern revolutionary Iran where young couples can ask a mullah for a special marriage permit called a sigheh that permits them to be married for just one day, and to China where “ghost” marriages were sometimes effected between a young girl of rank and a dead man from a good family to seal clan bonds.
Gilbert also introduces us to psychologist Shirley P. Glass, who specialises in marriage infidelity and has a theory that every healthy marriage is composed of walls (barriers of trust behind which you guard the most intimate secrets) and windows (necessary gaps through which you interact with family and friends). She also provides a refreshing perspective on prenuptials: “It’s better to set your own terms than to risk the possibility that someday, unsentimental strangers in a harsh courtroom might set the terms for you.”
While I did not always agree with her arguments, I enjoyed Gilbert’s writing style and trademark wit, compassion and intelligence as well as her clever analogies; classics such as “Marriage has a bonsai energy: It’s a tree in a pot with trimmed roots and clipped limbs. Mind you, bonsai can live for centuries, and their unearthly beauty is a direct result of such constriction, but nobody would ever mistake a bonsai for a free climbing vine.”
In the end, Gilbert achieves her personal peace, for “sometimes life is too hard to be alone, and sometimes too good to be alone”. She consoles herself in that with the second marriage “at least you know you are gambling”.
The book is part marriage manifesto, part feminist mantra, part marriage manual and wholly personal.
If you can forgive the fact that she does not always present a balanced viewpoint on marriage – only those facts that serve her own purposes and intentions – you will enjoy this honest look at modern matrimony and should learn something new about marriage.