There have been so many posts on the Internet lately, and many more over time, about relations and dynamics between the sexes, the state of Western Civilization, the role of men and women in it, and how soon the handcart we’re all bouncing around in will reach the gates of Hell (not long, FYI), that I hesitate to contribute my own widow’s mite to the pyre, but (you know what they say about everything that comes before but) “Mother never bred a jibber,” so here we go.
To set the stage, let me start by being clear: I’m not going to try to solve all those problems in this little story. I’m simply going to give you a glimpse of what two people did in their own lives to try to manage the order of household relations, and why, and how it worked out for us.
As many of you know, I’m fond of history, of historical novels, of the English “locked room murder mystery story (encyclopedic knowledge of several authors) and also of the occasional tasteful bodice-ripper. But my first love, when it comes to actual literature and real history is the medieval period, especially that of late 14th-century England, and especially as it is reflected in the poetry of its preeminent poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. I love the richness of his verse, the ways he finds ways to weave history, Christian faith, and elements of mythology into his stories, and I love the earthy and homespun wisdom of the lessons that he teaches in the best of his poetry, and his characterizations of the people who teach them. He exemplifies the reason I like real literature and think it’s worth studying — because the best of it is true and universal. (The worst of it, a great deal of which has been written in the last century, is pretentious, long-winded, self-serving, and self-important claptrap. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Thompson, et al, I’m looking at you.)
So, on to Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules,” c. 1385, a dream-vision poem of 700 lines more or less, in which the narrator, a man who seems bereft of, and perhaps disconnected from, the emotion of love himself, is transported to the gates of a pagan paradise. On entering, he sees dozens of mythological figures relaxing, playing games, disporting themselves in an idyllic and perpetually green and flowering setting all ruled over by “Dame Nature,” and he settles down to watch the annual congress of all the birds choosing their mates. (The action takes place on St. Valentine’s Day, and the poem is usually credited with the subsequent setting-aside of that day as one for lovers.) Things get off to a rocky start, however, when the beautiful young female eagle perched on Dame Nature’s arm is sought after by three competing males all putting their best foot forward and making their pitch for her affections. One of them is the noblest and highest-born; he thinks this makes him worthy of the lady. Another of them has loved her the longest; surely this secures his place? And the third, lower-born but no less loving, believes he is the most faithful; done deal, right, he’s the one?
So, we wonder. On which of these three suitors will Dame Nature bestow the lady’s hand? Not so fast, though. First, the great debate.
As is the custom with this literary device, sometimes called, a demande d’amour, or a “courtly love puzzle,” the spectators weigh in with their opinions. Usually, such a device was reserved for high-minded and philosophical matters of the heart, and was debated by nobles and courtiers. Chaucer is turning it on its head here by giving it to flocks of birds, and by having different birds represent different social strata in English society. So things turn into a bit of a brawl at times, as “lower-class” birds squawk their opinions and others interrupt, or as “higher-class” birds start to pontificate and are shouted down. Eventually, Dame Nature realizes that things are going nowhere, and she cuts debate off. She turns the attention of the rest of the birds back to the selection of their own mates, and issues her verdict to the eagles.
Which is: The lady must decide. (Oh, I love the Medievals, so much.) And all will be bound by her decision. And so the lady speaks:
My rightful lady, goddesse of Nature,
Soth is that I am ever under your yerde,
Lyk as is everich other creature,
And moot be youres whyl that my lyf may dure;
And therfor graunteth me my firste bone,
And myn entente I wol yow sey right sone.’
(My rightful lady, Queen of Nature,
It is true that I am under your command,
As is every other creature,
And I must be yours as long as my life shall last;
And so, grant me but one request,
And I will tell you my desire very soon.’)
Nature agrees that she will honor the little eagle’s wish, and the eagle then says she would like a year to make up her mind, after which she will choose one of her enthusiastic suitors and the matter will be ended. Dame Nature acquiesces, telling the eagle that she takes her at her word and telling the impatient suitors that a year is not too long to wait for such a lady’s hand. Then all the other birds fly off with their mutually-satisfactory mates, and the poem ends with a hymn to love.
What on earth does that have to do with household relations at Chateau Right almost 40 years ago? Just our very own demande d’amour (minus the cackling birds, it’s true, but a variation of the device nonetheless):
But first, another (very brief) digression. Mr. Right and I were both extraordinarily strong-willed individuals. God gave both of us quite useful brains, and we always thought it the height of ingratitude not to use them to the fullest extent. Neither of us saw one sex as superior to the other, and both of us believed that reducing every explanation of the social and personal dynamics between two individuals to a matter of the power one has over the other to be less than interesting, and not at all illuminating. We rarely spoke of the “patriarchy.” We did talk about a sensible order of things, and the fact that “someone has to be in charge.” And we recognized that different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and that it is better for some to be in charge of some areas, and others to be in charge of others. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed this debate between Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson so much. Paglia essentially rejects the term “patriarchy,” and the reduction of everything to the power dynamic, in favor of a common-sense explanation for the way society and Western Civilization has evolved, one which makes impeccable sense to me.
So, back on point. For now. One day, Mr. Right (a Medievalist by profession. Go figure) said to me:
“Look, if we’re going to do this (make a serious commitment to each other), there will be times that we argue and fight. And times we can’t agree on things. If the things we can’t agree on are significant and important, that’s going to be a problem. I don’t want to live a life where we’re in constant conflict. Do you?”
Me: “No, I don’t want that either.”
Mr. Right: “So I have a proposition for you: When we come to one of those times, we’ll argue it out. I’ll make my best case. You make your best case. I may convince you. You may convince me. If that happens, great. We agree, and we’ll move forward. So far, so good, right?”
Me: “Yes . . .”
Mr. Right: “But, if we ever get to a point where we can’t agree, I’ll listen to, and think carefully about, everything you’ve said. And then I’ll make a decision, and we’ll go forward. Can you agree to, and if it comes down to it, will you give in, to that?”
Me: (Long pause.) Yes.
Mr. Right: Then I agree with, and give in to, your decision!
The lady gets to decide. And so I did. Actually, we decided together. Because we thought that was the natural order of things. Free will. Two people. A decision. Commitment. Cooperation. Communication. Mutual trust. Mutual giving-in. It served us well for 39 years, until Mr. Right’s death in July of 2020. (That, and the separate checking accounts. Mustn’t forget the separate checking accounts. Very important, separate checking accounts. Likely mandatory, actually.)
Seriously, though, it worked pretty well. I “won” some in that many of those important decisions have gone my way. I “lost” some, in that many of them didn’t. In both cases, I tried not to second-guess, or hold a grudge if things didn’t go well, knowing that the decision at the time, whatsoever it was, was made by a smart person with the best information, doing the best he or she could with it at the time it was made. And so we moved on.
I think that’s the best “natural order of things.” For me. Free will. A decision. Two people. Commitment. Cooperation. Communication. Mutual trust. Mutual giving-in. (And yes, for sure–bumps in the road along the way. Some from the inside, and some from the outside. But it lasted, and I don’t think we contravened any tenets of our shared culture, faith and history in our perspective and attitudes on this as we muddled through life.)
How have you resolved the unresolvable in your own life? If there is more than just yourself involved or affected by major decisions, how, and who, makes the difficult ones? All serious and/or humorous suggestions welcome. It’s probably too late for me to change, but you might influence some others with your excellent ideas if you share them with those in your life who are important to you. Please do.