In her collection of short stories, Binocular Vision: New and Collected Stories, Edith Pearlman’s “Unravished bride” concerns a married man and married woman who, neither being married to each other, both nearly conclude that becoming intimate entails having sex. Their muddle is philosophical, having to do with the concepts they have inherited. Allow me some room to explain.
Marlene and Hugh, both middle-aged and happily married to their respective partners, first meet at a wedding and, months later, run into each other in Boston by accident. He asks her to have lunch, they have a nice time, and soon they begin having lunch once a week on Thursdays. On one Thursday, Marlene has the flu. She calls Hugh’s office, saying that she can’t make it. The narrator states, “Anyone hearing the conversation would have assumed that they were merely two friends canceling a luncheon appointment.”
The key word is “merely,” as the two get caught in a no man’s land between two clumsy categories, friend and lover. As they get to know each other better, the narrator starts likening their Thursday outings to dates. “They were like college boy and college girl on that outmoded, rule-bound thing: a date.” The reasoning goes that dating leads either to marriage or to a broken heart.
It is not surprising, then, that Marlene and Hugh should get pressed into a conceptual bind. If they become more intimate, this intimacy must lead to sex. But this is an act of betrayal, one especially devastating in light of the fact that both very much love their spouses. However, if they deny their intimacy, then their sexual desire will go unfulfilled, doubtless with the result that they will become frustrated with each other and end up going their separate ways.
Initially, it looks as though Hugh and Marlene will opt for the first horn of the dilemma, only at the last minute they change their minds and opt for the second. Restraining themselves, they eat a dull lunch together at the hotel where they had planned the rendezvous. The story concludes,
No, they were not everybody else, she thought while pretending to eat her salad…. Everybody else [having affairs, excusing their peccadilloes, getting divorces] was up-to-date. But she and Hugh were throwbacks. They were bound to the code of their youth–self-denial and honor and fidelity–an inconvenient code that would keep them, she realized with a pang, forever chaste, and forever in love.
What is awry in this story is the vast savanna in human experience lying, namelessly, between “merely remaining” friends and “hungrily becoming” lovers. Marlene and Hugh do not see this vast savanna, not clearly anyway, and we neither see it nor honor it.
There’s a line in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics about the mean. If, Aristotle wonders, virtue is a mean between defect and excess, then how can it be that we don’t have any names for some particular virtues nor for some defects and excesses? Are we to conclude that the doctrine of the mean is inadequate, or might we surmise that our vocabulary is deficient in respect of our lived experiences?
In our experiences of intimacy, I incline toward the latter. We make an error in reasoning when we see the face to face as entailing sex, when we see friendship as less than or as leading necessarily onto erotic love. In fact, when our lives (our many loves) are going well, we are open to having all kinds, shades, varieties, and intensities of intimacies with things, with birds and trees, and with humans: all also too fine-grained to be captured by “gazer” or “friend” or “lover.” Far from being nonconceptual, however, these manifold experiences demand to be poeticized: demand to be described, shaped by metaphors, touched by images, made complete through words, brought closer by common understandings.
Pace the Freudian legacy, a legacy at once nasty, long, and brutish, our many intimacies needn’t be cast in terms of amuse-bouche for sex; there needn’t be anything wanting or lacking or deficient in careful words or in finely written letters; we needn’t regard a kiss on the cheek as an ellipsis for slunk-down underwear. All these intimacies may very contentedly be the beginnings and the ends of themselves. Any conversation–and I’ve had very intimate ones with persons I’ll never meet again–could be the all, the first, and the last.
What we seek in this all too human life is getting to know each other better. We seek self-acquaintance through acquaintance with intimate others. We want to become closer, to draw each other nearer. There is no harm in this, no fear of infidelity, no hotel key waiting swayingly on the peg. There is also no throwback to self-denial (that ugly Freudian term of art), no pangs of dissatisfaction. We eat our salads, share the bottle, and smile. Then the check arrives.
One thought on “On intimacy and infidelity”
“One thing I like about Edith Pearlman is that her characters often form attachments with unexpected others.” Me too. And as I’m sure you’ve inferred, there’s something deeply personal for me about this whole thing. My way of life (and, also and very closely, my way of making a living) is about dwelling peacefully in these spaces. It’s here, as you deftly put it (though take out the question mark, dear: there’s no need), that life becomes transcendent and resonant both. It’s here that we revel if we do it gracefully, or very possibly muck up our lives if we don’t.
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