Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Notes: "Superstition of Divorce" by GK Chesterton

This will be more than my normal review because this book has hit me as more than a normal book.  It is a solid declaration for reason.  So it seems reasonable to not just review but also to provide an overview.

I initially avoided this book because it sounded old and dated.  In some ways it is because people don't think like this anymore.  It's hard and I'd rather be lazy.  Also reading about divorce just doesn't seem appealing; and how is it a superstition?

Now a note/warning.  This is about divorce, and much more.  If that is an open wound or a point of suffering you may want to skip this; maybe not.  GKC does hit many aspects of divorce and he does not coddle to people, nor does he abandon them.  If compassion seems lacking in my write up it is probably something that I missed rather than he.  He was a vigorous defender of the "common man" putting eloquent words and powerful arguments to the basic principles that every man and woman knows.

So here goes.  This is lengthy and quote heavy, but lighter than reading the 150ish page book.  Mostly I've collected some of the key passages in hopes of passing along a glimpse of the arguments.

The "book" started as 4 articles and then he added a few more chapters for clarifying a few points.  That makes it slightly disjointed in the arguments but it all still holds up.  Chesterton is superb at framing a problem and getting the first things first.  Before asking "why would people want a divorce?" GKC starts at the beginning "what is marriage and who wants it?"

Why start at the beginning?  (and in trying to see the beginning and the end, to see the whole picture)
It is futile to talk of reform without reference to form.
To take a case from my own taste and fancy, there is nothing I feel
to be so beautiful and wonderful as a window.  All casements are
magic casements, whether they open on the foam or the front-garden;
they lie close to the ultimate mystery and paradox of limitation
and liberty.  But if I followed my instinct towards an infinite
number of windows, it would end in having no walls.  It would also
(it may be added incidentally) end in having no windows either;
for a window makes a picture by making a picture-frame. But there
is a simpler way of stating my more simple and fatal error.
It is that I have wanted a window, without considering whether
I wanted a house.
When the reformers propose, for instance,that divorce should be 
obtainable after an absence of three years (the absence actually taken 
for granted in the first military arrangements of the late European War) 
their readers and supporters could seldom give any sort of logical reason 
for the period being three years, and not three months or three minutes.
They are like people who should say "Give me three feet of dog";
and not care where the cut came.  Such persons fail to see a dog as an
organic entity; in other words, they cannot make head or tail of it.
And the chief thing to say about such reformers of marriage is that
they cannot make head or tail of it.  They do not know what it is,
or what it is meant to be, or what its supporters suppose it
to be; they never look at it, even when they are inside it.
They do the work that's nearest; which is poking holes in the bottom
of a boat under the impression that they are digging in a garden.
 What is marriage?
I shall begin by asking what marriage is; and the mere question will
probably reveal that the act itself, good or bad, wise or foolish,
is of a certain kind; that it is not an inquiry or an experiment
or an accident; it may probably dawn on us that it is a promise.
It can be more fully defined by saying it is a vow.

Many will immediately answer that it is a rash vow.
I am content for the moment to reply that all vows are rash vows.
(and further)
The vow is a violent and unique thing;
though there have been many besides the marriage vow; vows of chivalry,
vows of poverty, vows of celibacy, pagan as well as Christian.
But modern fashion has rather fallen out of the habit; and men
miss the type for the lack of the parallels.  The shortest way
of putting the problem is to ask whether being free includes being
free to bind oneself.  For the vow is a tryst with oneself.
Chesterton then draws strong parallels of a loyalty to marriage being similar to a loyalty to a nation.  It is not a shop in moving around seeking what you want, it is something you are a part of.  Marriage holds a special loyalty further in that it is a voluntary bonding -
It is not true of Mr. Brown that he might have been a Russian;
but it may be true of Mrs. Brown that she might have been a Robinson.

I also avoided this book because I didn't understand how divorce was a "superstition".  It just sounded odd.  Chesterton was intentional with the title.
To the two or three articles appearing here on this subject
I have given the title of the Superstition of Divorce;
and the title is not taken at random.  While free love seems
to me a heresy, divorce does really seem to me a superstition.
It is not only more of a superstition than free love, but much
more of a superstition than strict sacramental marriage; and this
point can hardly be made too plain.  It is the partisans of divorce,
not the defenders of marriage, who attach a stiff and senseless
sanctity to a mere ceremony, apart from the meaning of the ceremony.
It is our opponents, and not we, who hope to be saved
by the letter of ritual, instead of the spirit of reality.
It is they who hold that vow or violation, loyalty or disloyalty,
can all be disposed of by a mysterious and magic rite, performed first
in a law-court and then in a church or a registry office.
There is little difference between the two parts of the ritual;
except that the law court is much more ritualistic.
But the plainest parallels will show anybody that all this is sheer
barbarous credulity.  It may or may not be superstition for a man
to believe he must kiss the Bible to show he is telling the truth.
It is certainly the most grovelling superstition for him to believe that,
if he kisses the Bible, anything he says will come true.  It would
surely be the blackest and most benighted Bible-worship to suggest
that the mere kiss on the mere book alters the moral quality of perjury.
Yet this is precisely what is implied in saying that formal
re-marriage alters the moral quality of conjugal infidelity.
The superstition is that the divorce will undo the vow to allow it to be solemnly made again.

Marriage (family) in society -
Without the family we are helpless before the State, which in our modern
case is the Servile State.  To use a military metaphor, the family
is the only formation in which the charge of the rich can be repulsed.
It is a force that forms twos as soldiers form fours; and, in every
peasant country, has stood in the square house or the square
plot of land as infantry have stood in squares against cavalry.
How this force operates this, and why, I will try to explain in
the last of these articles.  But it is when it is most nearly ridden
down by the horsemen of pride and privilege, as in Poland or Ireland,
when the battle grows most desperate and the hope most dark,
that men begin to understand why that wild oath in its beginnings
was flung beyond the bonds of the world; and what would seem
as passing as a vision is made permanent as a vow.
It is simply that in such a society the government, in dealing with the 
family, deals with something almost as permanent and self-renewing as itself.
There can be a continuous family policy, like a continuous
foreign policy.  In peasant countries the family fights, it may almost
be said that the farm fights.  I do not mean merely that it riots
in evil and exceptional times; though this is not unimportant.
It was a savage but a sane feature when, in the Irish evictions,
the women poured hot water from the windows; it was part of a final
falling back on private tools as public weapons.
Anyhow, it is found in practice that the domestic citizen can stand
a siege, even by the State; because he has those who will stand
by him through thick and thin--especially thin.  Now those who hold
that the State can be made fit to own all and administer all,
can consistently disregard this argument; but it may be said with
all respect that the world is more and more disregarding them.
If we could find a perfect machine, and a perfect man to work it,
it might be a good argument for State Socialism, though an equally
good argument for personal despotism.  But most of us, I fancy,
are now agreed that something of that social pressure from below
which we call freedom is vital to the health of the State;
and this it is which cannot be fully exercised by individuals,
but only by groups and traditions.  Such groups have been many;
there have been monasteries; there may be guilds; but there is
only one type among them which all human beings have a spontaneous
and omnipresent inspiration to build for themselves; and this type
is the family.

A society of vows.  GKC expounds on the importance of vows - of being free to bind oneself.

I might express it by saying that pagan antiquity
was the age of status; that Christian mediaevalism was the age of vows;
and that sceptical modernity has been the age of contracts;
or rather has tried to be, and has failed.

The outstanding example of status was slavery.  Needless to say
slavery does not mean tyranny; indeed it need only be regarded
relatively to other things to be regarded as charity.
The idea of slavery is that large numbers of men are meant and made
to do the heavy work of the world, and that others, while taking
the margin of profits, must nevertheless support them while they do it.
The point is not whether the work is excessive or moderate,
or whether the condition is comfortable or uncomfortable.
The point is that his work is chosen for the man, his status
fixed for the man; and this status is forced on him by law.
As Mr. Balfour said about Socialism, that is slavery and nothing
else is slavery.  The slave might well be, and often was,
far more comfortable than the average free labourer, and certainly
far more lazy than the average peasant.  He was a slave because
he had not reached his position by choice, or promise, or bargain,
but merely by status.

Chesterton took a very interesting turn.  He goes to the root of the proponents for breaking the family.  Vows led society out of slavery.  Losing vows will lead us back in.

They work for a centralised discipline in every department.
They erect a vast apparatus of supervision and inspection;
they support all the modern restrictions touching drink and hygiene.
They may be called the friends of temperance or even of happiness;
but even their friends would not call them the friends of freedom.
There is only one form of freedom which they tolerate; and that is the
sort of sexual freedom which is covered by the legal fiction of divorce.
If we ask why this liberty is alone left, when so many liberties
are lost, we shall find the answer in the summary of this chapter.
They are trying to break the vow of the knight as they broke the vow
of the monk.  They recognise the vow as the vital antithesis
to servile status, the alternative and therefore the antagonist.
Marriage makes a small state within the state, which resists
all such regimentation.  That bond breaks all other bonds;
that law is found stronger than all later and lesser laws.
They desire the democracy to be sexually fluid, because the
making of small nuclei is like the making of small nations.
Like small nations, they are a nuisance to the mind of imperial scope.
In short, what they fear, in the most literal sense, is home rule.

Men can always be blind to a thing so long as it is big enough.
It is so difficult to see the world in which we live, that I
know that many will see all I have said here of slavery as a
nonsensical nightmare.  But if my association of divorce with slavery
seems only a far-fetched and theoretical paradox, I should have no
difficulty in replacing it by a concrete and familiar picture.
Let them merely remember the time when they read "Uncle Tom's Cabin,"
and ask themselves whether the oldest and simplest of the charges
against slavery has not always been the breaking up of families.
And then the "modern" disregard of the vow -

He who is detached, disgruntled, non descript, intermediate is
everywhere made the excuse for altering what is common, corporate,
traditional and popular.  And the alteration is always for the worse.
The mermaid never becomes more womanly, but only more fishy.
The centaur never becomes more manly, but only more horsy.
The Jew cannot really internationalise Christendom; he can only
denationalise Christendom.  The proletarian does not find it easy
to become a small proprietor; he is finding it far easier to become
a slave.  So the unfortunate man, who cannot tolerate the woman
he has chosen from all the women in the world, is not encouraged
to return to her and tolerate her, but encouraged to choose
another woman whom he may in due course refuse to tolerate.
And in all these cases the argument is the same; that the man
in the intermediate state is unhappy.  Probably he is unhappy,
since he is abnormal; but the point is that he is permitted to loosen
the universal bond which has kept millions of others normal.
Because he has himself got into a hole, he is allowed to burrow
in it like a rabbit and undermine a whole countryside.

Here is a snippet of why I personally enjoy Chesterton.  He puts good reasoning to things.  It would be easy to say "the Bible is against divorce".  That only works as an argument to those who hold the Bible, even then my conviction to the principle will only be as strong as my holding of the Bible.  Solid points and reasoning will only double the holding, and makes the walls join in a manner that is unbreakable.
One word should be added to this hasty sketch of the elements of
the case.  I have deliberately left out the loftiest aspect and argument,
that which sees marriage as a divine institution; and that for
the logical reason that those who believe in this would not believe
in divorce; and I am arguing with those who do believe in divorce.
I do not ask them to assume the worth of my creed or any creed;
and I could wish they did not so often ask me to assume the worth
of their worthless, poisonous plutocratic modern society.
But if it could be shown, as I think it can, that a long historical
view and a patient political experience can at last accumulate
solid scientific evidence of the vital need of such a vow, then I
can conceive no more tremendous tribute than this, to any faith,
which made a flaming affirmation from the darkest beginnings,
of what the latest enlightenment can only slowly discover in the end.

About 3/4 through the book he finally gets to "what is divorce?"
It is not merely the negation or neglect of marriage; for any one can
always neglect marriage.  It is not the dissolution of the legal
obligation of marriage, or even the legal obligation of monogamy;
for the simple reason that no such obligation exists.
Any man in modern London may have a hundred wives if he does
not call them wives; or rather, if he does not go through certain
more or less mystical ceremonies in order to assert that they
are wives.  He might create a certain social coolness round
his household, a certain fading of his general popularity.
But that is not created by law, and could not be prevented by law.....
The definition of divorce, which concerns us here, is that it
is the attempt to give respectability, and not liberty.  It is
the attempt to give a certain social status, and not a legal status.
It is indeed supposed that this can be done by the alteration
of certain legal forms; and this will be more or less true according
to the extent to which law as such overawed public opinion,
or was valued as a true expression of public opinion.
If a man divorced in the large-minded fashion of Henry the Eighth
pleaded his legal title among the peasantry of Ireland, for instance,
I think he would find a difference still existing between respectability
and religion.  But the peculiar point here is that many are
claiming the sanction of religion as well as of respectability.

Before this all gets tossed as rosy optimism and not understanding humanity, GKC does get into the tragic extremes which were certainly trotted out at that time and would be trotted out today if there was a movement to limit divorces.  He lists a few examples and, while valid, is wary of how easily they expand.
To put it roughly, we are prepared in some cases to listen to the man
who complains of having a wife.  But we are not prepared to listen,
at such length, to the same man when he comes back and complains
that he has not got a wife.  Now in practice at this moment
the great mass of the complaints are precisely of this kind.
The reformers insist particularly on the pathos of a man's
position when he has obtained a separation without a divorce.
Their most tragic figure is that of the man who is already free of all
those ills he had, and is only asking to be allowed to fly to others
that he knows not of.  I should be the last to deny that, in certain
emotional circumstances, his tragedy may be very tragic indeed.
But his tragedy is of the emotional kind which can never be
entirely eliminated; and which he has himself, in all probability,
inflicted on the partner he has left.  We may call it the price
of maintaining an ideal or the price of making a mistake;
but anyhow it is the point of our whole distinction in the matter;
it is here that we draw the line, and I have nowhere denied that it
is a line of battle.  The battle joins on the debatable ground,
not of the man's doubtful past but of his still more doubtful future.
In a word, the divorce controversy is not really a controversy
about divorce.  It is a controversy about re-marriage; or rather
about whether it is marriage at all.
So where does that leave people -
And with that we can only return to the point of honour
which I have compared here to a point of patriotism; since it
is both the smallest and the greatest kind of patriotism.
Men have died in torments during the last five years for points
of patriotism far more dubious and fugitive.  Men like the Poles
or the Serbians, through long periods of their history, may be said
rather to have lived in torments.  I will never admit that the vital
need of the freedom of the family, as I have tried to sketch it here,
is not a cause as valuable as the freedom of any frontier.
But I do willingly admit that the cause would be a dark and terrible one,
if it really asked these men to suffer torments.  As I have stated it,
on its most extreme terms, it only asks them to suffer abnegations.
And those negative sufferings I do think they may honourably be called
upon to bear, for the glory of their own oath and the great things
by which the nations live.  In relation to their own nation most normal
men will feel that this distinction between release and "re-lease"
is neither fanciful nor harsh, but very rational and human.
A patriot may be an exile in another country; but he will not be
a patriot of another country.  He will be as cheerful as he can
in an abnormal position; he may or may not sing his country's songs
in a strange land; but he will not sing the strange songs as his own.
And such may fairly be also the attitude of the citizen who has
gone into exile from the oldest of earthly cities.

If you made it this far you are either a family member or something resonated in all of this.  My hopes is that I was able to highlight a few of the passages and pass along the drive of the book.  I do recommend it as I've left out much of what was said and many solid points (anarchy, sanctity of marriage, family position in society, direction of society, etc).

I'll end with one more brief passage from Chesterton's conclusion -
I asked in the last chapter what those most wildly engaged in the mere
dance of divorce, as fantastic as the dance of death, really expected
for themselves or for their children.  And in the deepest sense I
think this is the answer; that they expect the impossible, that is
the universal.  They are not crying for the moon, which is a definite
and therefore a defensible desire.  They are crying for the world;
and when they had it, they would want another one.  In the last resort
they would like to try every situation, not in fancy but in fact,
but they cannot refuse any and therefore cannot resolve on any.
In so far as this is the modern mood, it is a thing so deadly
as to be already dead.  What is vitally needed everywhere,
in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics,
is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind.
Without that self-limitation of somebody, nothing living will ever
see the light.

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