On Marriage, Perfectionism, and Reconciliation

“Not every fateful moral choice, every judgment of good and bad or right and wrong, is a matter for public debate…[T]he issues in moral perfectionism are not crises of conscience of this kind…they are deciding on what kinds of lives they wish to live and whether they wish to live them together, to consent to each other, to say yes to their lives and their life together; nothing has happened between that that requires more than their mutual forgiveness.”—Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words*

In one of the greatest remarriage comedies ever made, the dazzling and insufferable Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) cries out in anguish halfway through the film, “Oh, to be useful in the world!” It is a strange line given to such a sharp and capable woman, one who is almost too useful, we might say, a woman who always has the higher moral ground and never hesitates to make this known to others when they fall short, and they inevitably do. She is so perfect as to make her frequently unpleasant and simply no fun to be around (though not always, it should be noted), haranguing her own mother at times, for not breaking with her scoundrel of a husband, Tracy’s father. Tracy’s desperate words are said in response to watching the man she loves, but whom she has divorced some years earlier (Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant) and for whom she continues to display a deep disdain, storm out after having called her down, not for the kind of immoral behavior in others Lord is herself so fond of pointing out, but rather for her inability to see herself as she really is and to make herself intelligible in just that way to others. He gets her, and the audience gets that he gets her from the very start. Why, we wonder, is this woman, always ten steps ahead of everyone else, so incapable of getting herself?

My husband is fond of saying that I am the Hardrock 100 of wives. This is a 100-mile footrace through the San Juans of Colorado that he has run a few times. For a while, I beamed at this comparison, because I assumed by this he simply meant that I was the prettiest. The beauty of the Hardrock Endurance Run, as anyone who has run it or spent a significant amount of time on the race course will tell you, is, without question, one of the most stunning in all of ultra-running. It is perhaps the most storied and legendary of all the 100-mile races in the world. It also turns out to be one of the hardest to conquer. The terrain, altitude, and elevation gain all combine to make it one of the hardest races to complete and one which many will reasonably decide, after having toed the line at the start, is simply not worth finishing. Over the years, I have come to understand that it is this latter aspect of the race—its difficulty and tendency to make even the best runners drop out—that my husband is referring to when he draws the analogy (perhaps our good friends knew this all along).

There are probably many things that Joe finds difficult to take in his marriage to me, as is the case for all married people, to be sure. But, knowing him as I do, I suspect that what he really means by this is not merely that my relentless “nagging moralism” is exhausting and that he and others could never live up to my many expectations of them, but rather that this particular feature of mine is an even harder pill to swallow in light of the fact that the source of my unhappiness and restlessness (and certainly of his) is frequently not the moral failings of others, but rather my own inability to see myself rightly and to understand and come to terms with my own complicated desires.

Tracy wants to be useful, by which is meant important, in big and small ways, and, ultimately, right. Right about her family members’ lives and how they ought to live them, to be sure, but also right about public matters of great importance—gender relations, class allegiances, spousal abuse, rights to privacy, and so on. Front-page sorts of moral questions, which are really not questions or crises of conscience for decent folks at all. Most of the people in Tracy’s life find her endless quest to settles these scores tiresome, not because they disagree with her regarding right and wrong, but because they are simply trying to go about the business of living the best life they can, which very often entails making daily compromises, accepting their own failings (for Dexter, it is drinking, a habit that Tracy finds utterly repulsive and cannot countenance, as do I, much to my husband’s chagrin), and turning away, perhaps only momentarily, from Big Moral Questions, in a way that Tracy simply will not abide. They all take for granted that she is Right, and so does the audience. Yet, there is something about her that is not quite right, not quite whole.

I recognize some part of myself in this story, and something about our recent move out West has amplified this fact. In my own endless quest to be right, and to be recognized as right by my husband and by nearly everyone, I have neglected what the late philosopher Stanley Cavell called Emersonian perfectionism, that is, a kind of moral perfectionism that is concerned less with Big Picture rights and wrongs, and more with how we stand in relationship to those with whom we have said we wish to live, to give our consent to and to have our own consent asked for in turn, and to allow ourselves to be made fully intelligible by them.

Despite the many attractive aspects of this transition, it has often times felt like a struggle in which I am the loser and my husband the winner. And I have even, in my lowest moments, said exactly this to him and, indeed, to anyone who would listen. Look at all that I am giving up! My career, my friends, my family, a huge support system, a house that I loved, a life that I have made for myself. All of that and more, so that he can take a “big fancy job” (yes, I even say it just like that!), fly to glamorous places in first-class and drive convertible sports cars around, while I stay home with the kids full-time, and assume the role of housewife and helpmeet. I say these things because they are, of course, in some sense true and unsettling. And it does make the eyes roll. But I say them, too, because I know they are the things that I am supposed to say. I am a feminist, after all, committed to gender equality and all that such a notion entails in a modern marriage, and if you are a nagging (liberal) moralist of the sort that is Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, you are likely to find choices I have made perplexing at best, untenable at worst. For how will Hollie be useful in the world?

Although he is generally sympathetic, Joe finds much of this production from me to be a waste of time and energy, not because I am wrong about how exhausting this transition has been and how hard it is to stay home with small children (to deny either would be to put his own life in harm’s way), but rather because he knows very well that there is much about this new life that I have been wanting and craving for years now, if I would just be honest with myself about those desires, conflict though they may with certain deeply held principles and ideals.

And I suppose that is the point I want to make—to myself and to you. Sometimes in life, very often, in fact, we find that commitments to some particular moral or political ideal clash with deeply held desires, desires that it may well not serve us to turn away from, even if we knew how to do that. In and through my conversations with my partner, which are sometimes less verbal than I would like, and so perhaps I should say “conversations,” I return over and over again to the fact I am most at home in the world when I am in communion with the nature and, in particular, the expansiveness of the American West, when I am with my children on our own terms (an extreme privilege, I realize), when I have the freedom to write and to think without the expectation that I will produce anything at all worth something in an academic market that I don’t really believe in to begin with, when I can decide what I shall do and with whom I shall do it on any given day, etc.

But, far more relevant, is the education that I receive daily in my marriage regarding what it means to be true company, an actual helpmeet, if you will, to one another. I could have chosen any number of others, and I very nearly did. And those others might well have been in complete agreement with me right on down the line, sharing my “values,” in a way that my current husband may well not. But their imaginations were impoverished in a way that I could never have lived with and, because of that, would likely never have received the education that I needed to, an education about what it means to be human—frail, imperfect, complicated, a walking contradiction. When he calls me down for my relentless insistence that things be this way and not that, in my cooler moments, I know that he was the only one to whom I could have given my consent to respond to my own lack of education and my demand to know something that will alter my deep unhappiness with the way things are in the world, and the way I am in it.

When my feminist theory students used to ask me what was one thing—the most important thing—they could do to maintain equality in a marriage to a man, my answer was automatic: work. Don’t give up your exit option, maintain some identity independent of your role as wife and mother if you have kids, do something out in the world, be useful in the world, and, above all else, make your own money. My mother was the best role model in the regard, and she and my father maintain separate checking accounts to this day. I said this because I really do believe it to be very important to maintaining equality in a relationship (not to mention sanity and economic independence). But it will not secure the deep sort of freedom a person like me is also after. That sort of freedom has everything to do with the kind of moral perfectionism that concerns itself not with the right behavior of others, but rather with the placement of serious demands upon oneself, demands that have to do with the care of one’s own soul and the hard work of becoming intelligible to oneself.

Stanley Cavell wrote that what makes remarriage comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood like The Philadelphia Story so compelling, and what makes us interested in these relatively privileged couples at all, is “their pure enactment of the fact that in each moral decision our lives, our senses of ourselves, and of what, and whom, we are prepared to consent to, are at stake.” They are a reminder of Aristotle’s great teaching on friendship: we choose to live with those who make us better, who can provide us with the education we need, and not the education we want, so that we may live a flourishing and first-class human life. I think what The Philadelphia Story teaches us is that so often one can never be sure we have chosen correctly, but we nevertheless consent to the one that has the courage to call us down, who has put the picture of our self together rightly, and can help us to do the same.

*Stanley Cavell passed away on June 19, 2018. I learned much from him about Emerson, moral philosophy and classic Hollywood film, as well as animals and Wittgenstein. His work was quirky and impossibly hard to follow. I keep trying.