Monday, 21 December 2009

'The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?'

From Measure for Measure, 2.2.169

This quotation occurs just after Isabella has been pleading for her brother's life with Angelo, the Duke's draconian deputy.  It's a very difficult question to answer, either in the context of marriage (M4M is all about marriage, or if you re-write it like we did, it can be all about the acceptance of homosexual or otherwise queer relationships in a conservative society) or more generally. It depends a lot on what your feelings about marriage are in the first place, I suppose. How seriously do we take the 'til death do us part' stuff these days, really? Is the bond of marriage as much of a big deal as that, really? Should two people stay together even beyond the point when the relationship makes either of them happy purely because they are married?*

There's a chunk of me that doesn't feel allowed to talk about this – I've never been married. I've never, finally, made the decision that yes, this person is forever. All I need or want, always. I might have felt that a time or two, but that's not the same as standing up in front of somebody legal and signing to that effect. That's a big, big deal, that declaration. The very fact that I feel like that, despite the way that marriages are contracted and dissolved in secular Western societies, says that it's still an important institution – to use myself as litmus for Everyone, anyway. If you're going to get up there and have all of those people watching you, you owe it to yourself and everyone else, let alone to your partner, to really mean it, aside from any legalities. It demands that you trust the other person enough, too, to be making the same enormous commitment that you are. You both have to know all the way through yourselves that This Is It. It can't be a time that you hide behind yourself and allow the bullish part of yourself to chivvy the undecided and probably more rational part of you to go through with it. The whole thing is about complete and total trust – for oneself and one's own feelings as well as for the fact that the other person is interrogating themselves just as deeply...which is the scary part.

Is that a fanciful ideal, to believe that people should and do really, truly feel to the bottom of themselves and line up every layer of their minds to check that they aren't fooling themselves, and really can and do trust other people to do the same? Personal integrity and everything. Some people probably know instinctively what they're thinking, I'm probably the odd one out there. But I'm sure there are hundreds of people who drift towards marriage because it's The Next Thing and then live happily ever after - but then there are hundreds of people who never live their lives right to their full extent. The people who just skim their own feelings and understanding, who are content with the surface of life. I'm not sure whether it shows that I'm a cynic to believe that there are many of such people or that I'm an optimist to believe more and more that those people might be the least of the people that I know. Those skimmers might be 'content', but are they ever happy? I've said before that I'll cope with the lows of a life lived as fully as I personally can, without actually imagining extra drama in the name of 'living', to gain the highs at least for a few more years, but that's another story.

But why do relationships where that commitment has been made honestly eventually shatter? Where there hasn't been total honesty with the self and then one another, things are a bit different. I suppose one often feels that one has been honest to in the first place and then finds that one hasn't? But also, how much do people change? If you've been happy with someone for three years is it reasonable to believe that you will always be happy with them? [I'm applying scientific terms to emotions again. I wonder if that's a bad habit or a sane thing to do?] CAN you just outgrow someone, like you might in a short-term relationship of some sort? Why shouldn't you be able to? Is it more that you always outgrow people but then re-learn the loving them part, and that's what keeps a relationship going? Could that be the point in a way of such a tight institution as marriage? I suspect it has to be that.

But it all depends on the sort of the 'outgrowing' I guess. If it's just a question of finding that in your mutual life you have arrived at incompatible points then that is surely where you might re-learn the original loving in the new context. The trouble is that I don't think usually people can see that sort of drifting apart until it's too late. It's perfectly possible for the first realisation that something was wrong before to come from the revelation of somebody's infidelity. The point then is surely not the affair itself but what it means for the original relationship. The person who is 'cheating', to use the most judging synonym out there, might be so horrified by the fact of what they've done that their original relationship will actually be better off...something about realising the value of what you have. But the other side is that one realises what is missing from the prior relationship...which might on some level be a good thing for the individuals involved too. Either way, it ought to lead, admittedly through fire, to the possibility of a better future. Having seen some of that, though, I think that logic glosses far too much of the pain in all of this. Which doesn't invalidate the conclusions, but it does colour them.

[Ok. I still hate the language I'm using in this discussion...but if I don't make it sound clinical, it will sound insincere. As it is, I sound too definite in my wandering attempt to understand some of this, even with the volume of question marks I've used...]

All of which is a long way back around to asking – 'the tempter or the tempted, who sins most?' How much blame can be attached to the 'other (wo)man'? Is it their fault that someone else was tempted? Is it their responsibility to safeguard the relationship of the 'tempted' party? In modern times we only have a generally accepted societal framework for such moral questions, but to take the Shakespearean quotation in context is to require us to address the deeply Christian setting of the period in which it was written. The 'tempter' then is always the Satan and the snake in the Garden, and hence ought inherently to be the evil one; Eve is the 'tempted', and while she is clearly regarded as a sinner throughout the Bible, she is also the mother of the race and the reason for the existence of Christ and so on and thus is an ambiguous figure. With that simplistic rationalisation, we seem invited to make the tempter the greater sinner. However, the snake in the Garden was deliberate in the temptation of Eve; he was all out for her downfall. Shakespeare underlines the ambiguity – clear in his question is the fact that both parties sin and the only query is around which one is more sinful. The question brings us up a little short. Is the 'tempter' really such a Satanic character? Is the 'tempted' really as innocent as Eve was when the snake came to her? How many affairees are really likely to be setting out to break up a home? I'm sure there are people who do go out to sleep with someone married or not, but I find it hard to believe that most people looking for love and happiness (surely 90% of world) would set their sights on something so sure to generate heartbreak and recriminations somewhere along the line. In real life, the ordinary affairee might be guilty of not caring rather than active sin. But a sin by omission is still a sin in most religions. In our society, is it? Well, yes, but I don't think it's such a big thing as it might be to the religious. Perhaps they could be blamed for not stepping back quickly enough, not pro-actively defending the relationship in which they are the intruder. But 'intruder' too suggests action and intention which may well not be there. Is it ever our responsibility to save people from themselves? UK old-style socialist (nanny-state) politics would suggest that sometimes it is The Socially Acceptable Right Thing To Do. But that doesn't reduce the fact that Sometimes Things Happen. Don't They?

It's too circumstantial. Who is the seducer? IS there a seducer? Does ANYTHING Just Happen? How often is there equal blame? Won't it usually be uneven, but be random as to who? Is there a general skew? Is there some sort non-relational standard against which all of these things should be set? The very fact that Shakespeare poses the question in such a way in a deeply religious age again underlines the fact that religion doesn't have an easy and satisfying answer...why should our much more woolly modern consensus-morality be any clearer?

*At no point in this am I thinking about how this applies to couples with children. That's a totally different kettle of fish. It's not just about two independent grown ups then; the obligations have much more to owe to the innocent kids than they do to anyone else.