On the Meaning of Sex 4(b): More on Dante and Beatrice (And what about Gemma?)

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]

In my last post on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex, I summarized Chapter 4, which is by far the least objectionable chapter in the book. But I did mention two complaints and say that I would get into them in this, my next post.

I beg your pardon, readers, but I’m going to put off one of those complaints until my discussion of Chapter 5, because it shows up more starkly there.

That leaves more time for dealing with my other complaint, which may seem familiar to those of you who are following this series. And that complaint is this: this chapter, like all the others, is full of handwringing about “kids today” with their cynicism and sexuality and their MTV. Maybe these asides stand out more because I have fewer objections to the argument of Chapter 4, but it seems like on every page Budziszewski is saying that we’ve lost our cultural wisdom about blah blah blah…

He really gets my goat on the first page when he writes:

I am going to connect love with marriage, but today the suggestion that the two things are linked is considered quite a bit over the top. A generation ago, that notion had already come to be viewed as quaint. Just a few years later, it was viewed as rigid. Now it is coming to be seen as a little bit indecent. We are supposed to believe that although love and marriage may happen to coincide, they have no essential affinity with each other. Love happens without marriage, marriage without love, love with various sorts of makeshift arrangements that may or may not imitate marriage; love with marriage may be one of the possibilities, we concede, but surely it is the most awkward, confining, and implausible—isn’t it?

This is false, false, false. As Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History (2005) puts it:

For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than mutual attraction. It was a way of forging political alliances, sealing business deals, and expanding the family labor force. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Servants, slaves, and paupers were often forbidden to wed, and even among the rich, families sometimes sent a younger child to a nunnery or monastery rather than allow them to marry and break up the family’s landholding.

The redefinition of traditional marriage began about 250 years ago, when Westerners began to allow young people to choose their partners on the basis of love rather than having their marriages arranged to suit the interests of their parents.

The results of this historic shift have been mixed: on the one hand, divorce rates rose as it took hold, since a marriage based on mutual love is a hard thing to achieve—even Budziszewski acknowledges that marriage rests on a “radical supposition: that promises can be kept.” (69). On the other hand, Coontz writes that “marriage gradually became a gentler relationship than ever before in history. Adultery, once accepted as normal for husbands, became less common. Wife-beating, which men had a legal right to do until the late 19th century, began to be condemned.”

But whatever the results, as Coontz makes clear, the idea that love is central to marriage is relatively new. It’s our contemporary way of thinking, a thoroughly modern notion. In contrast, the idea that “love happens without marriage, marriage without love” is older than the hills.

In fact, Budziszewski himself unwittingly illustrates the difference between the modern idea of marriage and traditional ones by using Dante and Beatrice as icons of romantic love. As I pointed out last week, in real life, Dante and the (probable) model for Beatrice were each married to other people. Dante’s wife, Gemma, bore him several children, but she never appears in his writings. Now, we can’t necessarily equate the historical Dante and Beatrice to their literary counterparts, but that’s irrelevant to the point I’m making, because by addressing Beatrice, Dante was clearly tapping into the ideal of “courtly love.” Courtly love, in medieval and renaissance literature, showed up as elaborate, passionate (if ostensibly chaste) proclamations of love to a woman to whom one was not married. The impossibility of marriage was key, because the intensity of the man’s love for the woman hinged on her unattainability.

Budziszewski acknowledges the tradition of courtly love on page 68. What he ignores is the coldness these authors expressed for actual marriage.

My favorite example of this disregard comes not from Dante but from the English Renaissance poet Philip Sidney (1554-1586), who learned of the Italian conventions of courtly love while traveling on the continent. Like Dante, Sidney was married. And like Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, the object of his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella was reputedly inspired by a real (married) woman, Penelope Rich. Penelope’s husband, Robert Rich, was a wealthy courtier. Watch the fun Sidney has with his name in Sonnet 24 of the series:

Rich fools there be, whose base and filthy heart

Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow,

And, damning their own selves to Tantal’s smart,

Wealth breeding want, more blessed, more wretched grow.

Yet to those fools heaven such wit doth impart,

As what their hands do hold, their heads do know,

And knowing, love, and loving, lay apart

As sacred things, far from all danger’s show.

But that rich fool, who blind Fortune’s lot

The richest gem of love and life enjoys

And can with foul abuse such beauties blot,

Let him, deprived of sweet but unfelt joys

(Exiled for aye from those high treasures which

He knows not), grow only in folly rich.

But my favorite sonnet of the sequence is number 52 [emphasis added]:

A strife is grown between Virtue and Love

While each pretends that Stella must be his;

Her eyes, her lips, her all, saith Love, do this,

Since they do wear his badge, most firmly prove,

But Virtue thus that title doth disprove;

That Stella (O dear name), that Stella is

That virtuous soul, sure heir of heavenly bliss,

Not this fair outside which our hearts doth move;

And therefore, though her beauty and her grace

Be Love’s indeed, in Stella’s self he may

By no pretense claim any manner place.

Well, Love, since this demur our suit doth stay,

Let Virtue have that Stella’s self, yet thus:

That Virtue but that body grant to us.

Do those two sonnets show an abiding respect for the institution of marriage? A holy enshrinement of romantic love within its sanctified confines?

No, because by the conventions of the day, what Budziszewski calls “romantic love” and marriage were incompatible. At that moment in history, you couldn’t write passionate poems to your wife; in fact, you almost didn’t want a wife who stirred those feelings in you. At the very least, the notion would have seemed absurd. Poets were duty-bound to their wives; they elected their courtly mistresses.

Nowadays that sentiment strikes us as horrific, so when we read Dante’s sonnets, or Sidney’s, we don’t think about the authors’ wives. If we did, we’d probably feel sympathy for those women: how would Gemma, Dante’s wife, or Frances Walsingham, Sidney’s wife, have felt reading those poems? Those questions disturb us nowadays because, whatever Budziszewski thinks, we can’t imagine marriage without love.**

The supreme irony comes with the fact that Budziszewski equated his wife to Beatrice at the start of the book. (Remember? It even made me say “Aww!”) But that sweet gesture only makes sense to us because of the shift that Coontz describes.

And what’s really interesting is that, as Coontz outlines, the same historical shift is a big part of the reason gay marriage is quickly becoming reality. More fascinating still is that this shift is really just a function of Judeo-Christian logic slowly, century-by-century, working itself out. Richard Beck points out that the notion of marriage as election and grace (rather than duty) has its seeds in Old Testament verses that compare marriage to God’s covenant with Israel—these same verses were repeatedly referenced by Pope John Paul II in his series of sermons on the Theology of the Body.

Look. I don’t hammer so hard at the myth of moral decline because, as Joe Heschmeyer suggests, I naively think that “history keeps getting better and better.” Mostly, I do it because the myth annoys me; as a literature student, seeing texts and ideas from the past distorted through idealization gets under my skin. But more than that, there’s something sad that happens when you subscribe unquestioningly to the myth: you miss genuine, startling, positive developments in moral understanding. And, even worse, you leave yourself out of the work of refining that understanding further.

*Don’t believe that the fictionality of Dante/Beatrice is irrelevant? Try this thought experiment: imagine you’ve written a book about an all-consuming, forever-faithful love so convincing that professors will use it to teach the stages of romantic love. Now imagine that you gave the book’s protagonist your own name, but instead of naming the love interest after your spouse, you used the name of your high school crush. You think that saying “Honey, it’s fiction!” is going to get you out of the doghouse?

**I know, I know, everybody hates Love, Actually. But the scene (posted above) in which Emma Thompson’s character confronts Alan Rickman’s character for his platonic devotion to another woman is about how I imagine a modern Gemma would respond to a modern Dante’s sonnets to Beatrice.

2 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Sex 4(b): More on Dante and Beatrice (And what about Gemma?)

  1. Well said! It’s worth also pointing out that the courtly romances in literature in the Middle Ages were not necessarily chaste. WE talk about the romances of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the romances of Tristan and Isolde, and those were adulterous romances. Even C.S. Lewis pointed out that if one lives in a society where marriage is arranged, and romantic love glorified, adultery takes on a very romantic glow.

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