In Praise of Lust, Love and Adultery
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Marriage as a problem, and as a solution, has always been the central subject for drama, the novel and the cinema, just as it has been at the centre of our lives. Most of us have come from a marriage, and, probably, a divorce, of some sort. And the kind of questions that surround lengthy relationships – what is it to live with another person for a long time? What do we expect? What do we need? What do we want? What is the relation between safety and excitement, for each of us? – are the most important of our lives. Marriage brings together the most serious things: sex, love, children, betrayal, boredom, frustration, and property.
Le Week-End is a film set in contemporary Paris that I developed alongside the director Roger Michell, with whom I've worked on a TV series, The Buddha of Suburbia, and two films,The Mother and Venus. The films were mostly concerned with a subject we believed was neglected in the cinema, the lives and passions of older people, whose anxieties and desires, we found, were as intense, if not more significant, than those of the young.
Le Week-End concerns a late middle-aged couple, Nick and Meg, both teachers, who go to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. While there, they discuss the meaning and direction of their marriage now that their children have left home. Time and health are running out for them as they consider their impending old age and wonder what sort of future they might want, either together or apart. They think about how they might die; but this couple also need to talk about how they have lived: the way in which they have brought up their children, and how the family has worked, where it failed, and where there is regret, bitterness and even fury.
The film shows the depredations of time, but also the lability of the past, its different meaning and value for both parties, and how, now that the couple are talking, the past can seem as unstable as the future. They are looking in the same direction, but cannot see the same thing. There is no narrative they can agree on.
Their short sojourn, whatever else it is, will be a time of difficult conversations. What if it occurs to one or other of them that their relationship was a mistake, that it didn't resemble their original hopes at all, and that they could have had a far better life elsewhere? Meanwhile, what have they done to one another? Was there harm? What did they use one another for?
The couple are from a suburb of Birmingham where they have taught for decades. But "Paris was where the twentieth century was," saysGertrude Stein in Paris France. And Paris, in their provincial English imaginations, represents several desirable things: the fresh ideas and radicalism of the 60s and the barricades of 1968, along with the intellectual revolutions of their youth as exemplified by Derrida,Althusser, Lacan, Foucault. There are also personal revolutions: the idea of the equal, committed, but "open" relationship, as practised byJean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, for whom "the game of love" – the rondo of seduction, rejection and change – never had to end.
As Stendhal writes in Love, "The pleasures of private life ought to be augmented to an infinite degree by recurrent exposure to danger." But was it true that love could easily be turned into a form of sport or frivolous distraction? Surely love was no closer to sport than sex was to exercise?
As well as provoking these essential questions, Paris, for our couple, represents continuity, and an ideal of civilisation. It means a certain quality of living when it comes to clothes, sex, transgression, tolerance, conversation, bohemianism. This pair likes to eat well; it is in French restaurants that they find sensuous enjoyment together, perhaps the one place now where there is real collaboration and exchange between them.
In the London suburbs of the 50s and 60s, where, after the turbulence of war, I grew up in relative safety, all, apparently, was set for ever. Conventional marriage was the paradigm. My father, an exile from colonial India's religious strife and partition, was a commuter, and my mother was happy to call herself a housewife. The relation between work, marriage and play was perfectly arranged. Nothing was missing. All you had to do was fit in. That, at least, was the idea.
As Nick and Meg are aware, marriage frees a certain sort of companionable love, if you're lucky. But it domesticates sex. The couple are over-intimate. They know too much about one another. Without obstacles, there can be no fascination. How can you desire what you already have? That's not all: the arrangements that marriage requires to survive – security, duration, reliability, repetition – can seem liberating in their continuity, or stifling, according to your nature. The suburbs suited my father, since he'd come from a more dangerous place, and wanted contentment.
But there was something about living there that could make you want to scream. For some, it would never be sufficient. You might learn, as Nick does in Paris with his wife – whom he still wants and needs – that the problem with desire is not that you cannot get rid of it, but that there is too much of it. It is ever-present, and ever-pressing, however much you want to discount it. You cannot wish it away, and it cannot be replaced by a substitute.
Either cannily or madly, the novelist John Cheever took up residence at the heart of the American Dream in a New York suburb, a place more affluent than the one I came from. He was a homosexual alcoholic artist attempting to be a straight, married man. The mask and myth required to enact the gestures of servitude and constraint needed to live this kind of life, were disabling and humiliating. Cheever gave it a long try, and it enabled him to become an artist. But it never worked out; it was never going to. Chaos returned, as any fool could have predicted that it would, even Cheever himself in certain moods. Perhaps there is only so much about yourself you can bear to understand.
Many such preoccupations turn up in postwar American writing. And the question is always the same: was the repression worth it? Had too much that was essential been sacrificed for the ideal? How much of yourself could you give up and remain "authentic"? Couldn't there be less painful or difficult, more satisfying ways to live, more in line with "human nature", as the Romantics might have put it?
An interesting version of someone wondering about this was Wilhelm Reich, recently the subject of the study Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex by Christopher Turner. A psychoanalyst trained by Freud in Vienna, and living in the US in the fifties, Reich, like other "liberationists" of the times, such as Norman O Brown, Herbert Marcuse and RD Laing, was thinking about the ways in which desire could free people from oppressive and frustrating ways of living. According to Reich, the wrong life could make your body rigid, inflexible and awkward. He says, in The Function of the Orgasm, "that the average human being of today has lost contact with his real nature", and he writes of "the incrustations and rigidities in human emotional life".
Reich considered Freud conventional and pessimistic, and thought he didn't go far enough when it came to acknowledging the central place of sexuality in human life. For Freud, renunciation made some happiness possible, whereas Reich wanted to know why there had to be renunciation at all. Weren't human beings attacking that which in themselves was most alive, their capacity for love? Weren't fascist, authoritarian structures also inside the individual? Of course they were, argued Freud. But people loved their illness; they wanted to be unhappy; pleasure was the last thing they desired. A "complete Eros", or ultimate cure was impossible.
It wasn't long before Reich gave up on the idea of the "talking cure". Speaking took too long; it was indirect and inconclusive. He began to touch his patients, believing that more and stronger orgasms were the solution. A full blast of pleasure, of orgiastic potency, would enable you to see you'd been living badly, or not, according to your nature. This salvationist view, from our less credulous and more cynical time, might seem like the least of it. But Reich was on to something here. If pleasure isn't your guide, what will be? Reich had some grasp of the creativity of sexual desire, and the cost of constraining it. And numerous people have been awoken from relative slumber by the unexpectedness of love or sex, and by the sense of opening out to more life and possibility.
I can recall a student of mine, a woman in her mid-40s, telling me a long, moving story about being "awakened" emotionally, sexually and intellectually, when she fell in love with a friend of her husband. Their love caused a huge trauma for both families, but it was worth it, she said. There would have been more suffering all round – wasted energy, unused love, unemployed passion – had she remained in the status quo.
The revolutionaries of the 60s called for new ways of being and alternative forms of social interaction. What the adulterer usually wants, however, is better relationships, conversation, support, attention, pleasure. Her question is: how can we get what we want while behaving well, which means, at least, not being ashamed of ourselves?
The unhappy are no good to anyone. The unhappy are dangerous. The discontented and jaded become perverse or sadistic. Adulterers are not necessarily utopians: adultery merely shows the possibility of meaning, hope and love. My student didn't wish for anything like "total liberation" – a revolution, a new social set-up – just for a satisfying marriage. And it is worth noting about the classic heroines of literature, Anna Karenina orMadame Bovary, or even the characters in David Lean's Brief Encounter, that they are not compulsive transgressors. They are asking for very little, and for everything, which, for them, is a fuller, more satisfying love. Complete happiness is a fiction, but some happiness is possible; indeed, it is essential. There are some people you can "realise" yourself in relation to, and they are worth searching out. But there is a price. Something radical does have to change to make this possible – certainly, for women, in terms of the whole society – and there will be inescapable guilt.
Compared with Freud, Reich and his coevals prove to be the more limited, if not conservative, concentrating on too small a notion of human need and fulfilment. Freud had a novelist's capaciousness; Reich was a headline writer. If constraint of some sort is impossible to avoid, the question is: which constraint, when, where?
Nick and Meg go to Paris because love is the most considerable business of all, and they need to know what sort of relationships make life worth living, and, if they have a future together, what it might be like. Do they suffer less together than they would apart? The decision they make at the end of the film can only be provisional, and the questions they ask have to be confronted repeatedly, since there isn't one answer that can satisfy them.