Like Elizabeth Gilbert, I am a skeptic when it comes to marriage. Just the history of the institution–rife with misogyny, racism, and heterosexism–is enough to turn me off, but you add to that the subtle and not so subtle ways in which it seems to encourage limiting gender roles, and you’ve really got yourself a tough sell. Don’t even get me started on the abomination that is the wedding industry.
In Gilbert’s latest book, Committed, she spends the year leading up to her marriage to Felipe (yes, the hot guy in Bali from Eat, Pray, Love) investigating the institution’s history, cross-cultural comparisons, philosophical, and sociological angles. I don’t envy Gilbert’s challenge to follow up her gargantuan bestseller. If you haven’t seen her speak on the subject, don’t miss her TED talk:
What I do envy is Gilbert’s guts in writing what must have seemed an inevitably limiting and controversial book. Certainly plenty of Eat, Pray, Love fans were not happy to find out that Gilbert is both feminist and Democract, not to mention a marriage skeptic.
So, point blank, I admire the woman. But beyond that, I admire the writing. While Gilbert doesn’t get into the politics of marriage (something I have spent a lot of time writing and thinking about), she explores various traditions, not to mention eras, through out the world, with ingenuity, playfulness, and smarts. There are times when her journey seems so privileged as to be irritating (oh, whoa is me, I have to spend months traveling through out fascinating Asian countries with my fiance on a personal vision quest about marriage). But Gilbert’s just so damn likable, that it’s hard not to jump on board, even if the ride is a little out-of-touch.
For me, the best writing came at the very end, when she explored the radical potential to be found in the privacy of the family unit.
She writes, “It is not we as individuals, then, who must bend uncomfortably around the institution of marriage; rather, it is the institution of marriage that has to bend uncomfortably around us. Because ‘they’ (the powers-that-be) have never been entirely able to stop ‘us’ (two people) from connecting our lives together and creating a secret world of our own.” She references slaves, who married one another in secret ceremonies in various times and places, and the contemporary struggle for gay marriage legislation in the U.S. She goes on:
To somehow suggest that society invented marriage, and then forced human beings to bond with each other, is perhaps absurd. It’s like suggesting that society invented dentists, and then forced people to grow teeth. We invented marriage. Couples invented marriage. We also invented divorce, mind you. And we invented fidelity, too, as well as romantic misery. In face, we invented the whole damn sloppy mess of love and intimacy and aversion and euphoria and failure. But most important of all, most subversively of all, most stubbornly of all, we invented privacy.
I’ve rarely read anything, especially from a mainstream memoir like this one, so convincing as to the radical potential of marriage. I’m not rushing to pick out a ring anytime soon, but I’ve certainly been given food for thought.