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Elizabeth Gilbert’s Somewhat Successful Consideration of the Meaning of Marriage

I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (which I first reference in a post that occasioned much controversy).

I don’t know if I’ll offer it a full-blown review, but will admit to have pretty much liked the book though, to be sure, she often balanced out her often enlightening anecdotes and observations with an infuriating condescension toward social conservatives, indeed, pretty much anyone of a faith not of the New Age.  And she just couldn’t hide her political or social prejudices — prejudices which contributed little if anything to her overall narrative, disjointed as it often was.

That said, in her brief consideration of gay marriage (pp.  71-76), she offers a better defense of the expanded definition of the institution than do most gay activists (but a defense which corresponds with the lives of many gay couples).

While she herself is not wise, she offers nuggets of wisdom throughout the book.  I say she is not wise because she spends the whole book fighting against her own prejudices, without really confronting them on an intellectual level (at least at times, she does seem to acknowledge them).  She can’t really stand outside herself or her own experiences — though, to be sure, at times she does try.  And sometimes her anecdotes work beautifully, other times they fall flat.

In one, however, she even echoes (perhaps unconsciously) the oldest story about matrimony, The Odyssey:  ”This,” she writes on page 239, “is intimacy  the trading of stories in the dark.”  When the long-suffering Odysseus was finally united with his beloved wife Penelope who had remained faithful as she waited a full twenty years for her betrothed’s return, his patroness Athene delayed the dawn so that the married couple might both share their stories and, um, well, share the pleasures of, um, well, love-making.

Her anecdotes nonetheless become both the greatest strength of the book and its greatest weakness.  She is at her best (both stylistically and narratively), engaging and sometimes informative, when she tells her own stories.  But, while the book purports to offer a “historical study” of the institution, she offers only a cursory treatment of the topic, never footnoting her sources and breezily summarizing the two (or was it three or four?) books she read on the institution.  She doesn’t seem to have consulted anything that defends the social conservative understanding of the institution.

This is more a collection of how her experiences shaped her understanding of marriage than an attempt to understand how the institution evolved (though toward the end, she does make a valiant, but abbreviated attempt to consider that subject).

The greatest weaknesses of this book are not so much what she includes but what she fails to include.  Heaven forbid she would ask a social conservative like Phyllis Schlafly or Maggie Gallagher why they defend marriage or to identify some of the books which influenced their thinking.

It wasn’t just social conservatives she failed to consider.  She forget to consider men as well, except as they exist in the minds of women, individuals who are at once desired and resisted.  Her chapter on “Marriage and Women” is the book’s longest, clocking it at 68 pages, roughly one-quarter of the book.  There is no chapter “Marriage and Men.”  (Perhaps she should have consulted George Gilder’s book, Men and Marriage, if she could have demeaned herself to read something written by a scholar whom social conservatives admire.)

And that said, there are enough nuggets of wisdom in this book to make it a valuable one.  Save Jonathan Rauch’s book, it is the first book to make a serious attempt at making a serious case for gay marriage.  It’s just too bad she didn’t devote enough time to the institution’s “domesticating” effect on men.  But, her anecdotes at least do show how the very power of this ancient and honorable institution can draw in a one-time skeptic.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ll not buy the book but appreciate your review. It seems like many others, she approaches the subject from her own experiences. Just as do our parents, friends, etc.
    Even we who are gay and want SS marriage see the subject from our own perspectives and perhaps through the eyes of our parents or close friends and relatives. Your parents enjoyed a loving and committed marriage? A stormy and abusive marriage? Early divorce?
    But currently only the heteros have the liberty to define marriage as they see fit. And the liberty to abuse it; and to define marriage according to their own perspectives and prejudices.

    How can marriage be “defended” unless it can be defined; and how can it be defined except through the eyes and experiences of those involved or observed? And are they fit to be the only ones to define?

    They have the liberty to do so, however they wish to define it. We as yet do not have that liberty.

    It’s really about justice I think. Liberty always is. Without justice there is really no true liberty.

    The only defense of marriage is true justice. With justice we will have the liberty to enter into our own marriages, or not. With the liberty guaranteed by justice we can build loving and caring marriages or we can fail just as our parents, friends, etc. do.

    So when I hear politicians, churchmen, etc. talk about the defense of marriage, I wonder what they are talking about. Since the legalization of marriage in Canada, our 5 states, Belgium, etc., has there been an outbreak of hetero failed marriages? Will young hetero couples decide not to tie the knot? All because some gay couples decide to enter into the state of marriage?

    It’s justice we need. Sure it would be nice for all our countrymen to applaud when a SS couple march down the aisle. But even without their approval, we need justice. With or without the approval of others, we deserve and are entitled to justice. And to equal consideration before the law. That’s our right guaranteed under our remarkable Constitution.

    Comment by Man — July 27, 2010 @ 2:50 pm - July 27, 2010

  2. What about my aunt’s family and her children, in their drug-ridden, poverty-cycle lives? What about her childrens’ children, who have vanishingly small potential from being born in a poverty trap culture?

    I say this because tweaking marriage is *dangerous* and has *consequences*. I happen to believe that gay marriage would be a beneficial thing, but after what people lived through from the 70s onward I simply do not blame any of them for being irrational or touchy about the subject.

    People will defend their children to the bitter end, and nothing is as frightening to a parent as watching a niece repeat the poverty cycle, and fear it could happen to their own child.

    This isn’t about justice; this is about changing a fundamental part of human society that transcends laws, governments, even the very concept of justice. It’s also one that is progressing quite nicely, imho, and I think it’s better to let it happen naturally rather then forcing it on people (if the government is viewed as threatening children, it’s not going to last all that long).

    Comment by joeedh — July 29, 2010 @ 7:10 pm - July 29, 2010

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