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The Logic Of Marriage And Murder by By Henry James


IT IS ALTOGETHER probable that before this reaches the reader, Daniel McFarland, who killed A. D. Richardson, will have been acquitted of murder, on the ground of insanity. But, let the trial issue as it may, the interests of justice do not appear to be very largely involved in it. If McFarland is acquitted, it will not be because he deserves to live, but because his attorneys have the requisite amount of audacity, and his jurymen the requisite amount of credulity, to secure that boon to him. Neither if he be condemned, will it be because he actually deserves to die, but because the conscience of every civilized community exacts, ever and anon, the immolation of a victim to purge its own accumulated but unacknowledged guilt. It is clear to me, indeed, as it must be, I conceive, to every unsophisticated judgment, that McFarland committed a foul and cowardly murder; and it is equally clear that the law which visits murder with death will be outraged by his acquittal. But what I wish to urge upon the attention of the reader is, that the blame, which in that event would seem obviously to reflect itself upon the administration of justice among us, has in reality a deeper ground; that it attaches, in fact and primarily, to the social constitution under which we live, inasmuch as that constitution makes the true sanction of marriage to be force, not freedom.

I do not pretend, of course, to any knowledge of McFarland's character, apart from the testimony adduced upon the trial, but it is fair to infer from this that he is a man of maudlin egotism or self-pity, prone to assassination, but afraid to encounter its risks; in short, a man of savage tendencies when provoked, without the courage which on occasion redeems the savage and renders him picturesque. And yet this man, thus characterized, is endowed by the law with a strictly personal property in his wife; that is a property quite irrespective of his essential nature and habits, provided he can in any way contrive to keep up a plausible appearance before the world. Under these circumstances, accordingly, given such a man as McFarland, and such a woman as his wife, what is the inevitable result? “Inevitable,” I say, considering the motives usually operative in human conduct. In the first place, the “marriage” of the ill-fated pair confesses itself a loathsome concubinage. In the next place, the wife—-all whose instincts, in true marriage, are towards submission—-is driven by those very instincts themselves to disown every obligation imposed upon her by this false marriage. In the third place, the husband—-all whose instincts, even in true marriage, are towards dominion is driven,—-now that his purely legal property in his wife is menaced, to insist upon it with unmanly zeal; so that, if he cannot succeed in reducing his revolted vassal to her former servitude, he is almost sure to grasp his remedy in some vile and dastardly revenge inflicted either directly upon herself or else indirectly upon somebody dear to her. And then, finally, what the outraged law of the land is much too often successfully invoked to do, is to dissemble its just indignation at crime, and absolve the criminal of his guilt, by authorizing instead an unscrupulous defamation of the character of his victim.

Such is the state of things which, in my opinion, makes it absurd to pretend that the interests of justice are involved, save in a merely derivative or secondary manner, either in the acquittal or the condemnation of McFarland. These interests are directly violated, not by the exceptional but by the habitual judgment we cherish in regard to marriage; and it is only an indirect violation they encounter, when some self-indulgent ruffian presumes upon the current sentimental morality of the community to right his own conceded wrongs in his own tempestuous way. In other words, the interests of justice are flagrantly, though of course unconsciously, violated, whenever the existing marriage is publicly enforced, or not left to its own free determination; and this sneaking McFarland iniquity is only a premature flowering of that insane root. I know very well that the family institution or the interests of inheritance, alone, control marriage, and keep it the grovelling, unhandsome thing it is. And I have no objection, doubtless, but, on the contrary, all manner of good-will, toward society guaranteeing every man's domestic peace and honour against defilement. But you can only fortify the family bond against outward aggression by purifying it from within. Guarantee the family against inward harm,—-the harm which flows from the degradation of the marriage sentiment,—-and then you will see clearly how to shield it from all outward harm, or such as arises from the interference of third parties. Marriage is only recognized at present as the basis of the family unity. It is held to be properly servile to that interest. That is to say, you claim a free or spiritual basis for a fixed or material superstructure. Take extreme good care, then, that there be some harmony or proportion kept between the two. You may, indeed, spiritualise your superstructure, or enlarge your family unity, as much as you please; but you cannot materialize your base, or reduce marriage from a living spirit to a dead letter, without erelong bringing your house in ruins about your ears. Marriage is notoriously, and first of all, a free or spiritual relation of the parties to it, and only, or altogether, in subordination to that, an obligatory or material covenant. What right have I, if I am habitually false, tyrannical, or simply self-seeking to the affection of wife or child, unless, indeed, they be as degraded as myself? No doubt I have a right to their forbearance, so long as I do not impose my will upon them; but not even to that, a moment longer. The moment I claim authority over them, or, being what I am, seek to coerce their well-grounded disgust and aversion by an appeal to the existing constitution of society, I lose all claim—-unless, indeed, they be very exceptional persons—-even to their forbearance, and deserve to be treated only as a madman. Undoubtedly I should be so treated in a perfectly righteous state of society; that is, such a state as implied just and equal relations between each and all, and not, as now, an organized inequality or injustice. Let me repeat, then, with all unreserve, that the obligation which we owe even to the family, considered as the germ or nucleus of our existing civilization, binds us to relieve marriage of its conventional degradation, by affirming its absolute or unconditional sanctity as the supreme law of human life.

“All this is easily said,” the reader will object; “but how is it to be actually done?” Let me reply: By administering the institution no longer primarily in the interest of the family, but in that of abstract or impersonal justice. And if this reply still appear enigmatical to the reader, let me solve his doubts by seeking an illustration of my meaning in his own familiar practice.

My reader no doubt is sometimes liable, like everybody else, to find his domestic rule called in question by child or servant. And when this is the case, what does he usually proceed to do? Madly insist upon the literal allegiance which is his due? Or wisely endeavour to placate his revolted subjects by teaching them that the outward homage he claims from them is only the mask of a higher obligation they owe to themselves, and is not intended to be enforced save in so far as this higher obligation is unrecognised by them? Unquestionably the latter. He uses all diligence, in fact, to heal the existing breach, and obviate future casualties of the sort, by making his rebellious subjects understand that it is never he, but always they, who are the true end or spirit of the law embodied in his person; so that whenever they are ready to discern the spiritual scope of the law, and accept all the obligations it imposes, he will at once confess himself functus officio, and acquit them of all further allegiance. He, to be sure, is the provisional head of the family, but they are the family itself; and he can only vindicate his headship, therefore, by persistently ruling the family primarily in the interest of justice and only derivatively thence in his own.

Such is the illustration which the readers own habitual practice affords to my words, when I say that society should no longer administer the marriage institution selfishly but justly. The reader, whenever his domestic rule is compromised by the insubjection of his children or servants, manages still to maintain his authority, and recover the ground he has lost, how? By brutally compelling submission? No, but simply by spiritualising his sway, or claiming for it a social instead of a selfish sanction. And this is what society has got to do in order to uphold the essential sanctity of marriage, namely, to spiritualise the family evermore, by converting it from the contemptible fetish it is in itself, having interests at variance with all other families, into the great divine society it was intended to represent, whose unity is coextensive with all mankind.

Society, as constituted by the family bond, has no regard for marriage on its spiritual or religious, nor indeed on its moral, but only on its economic, side. It does not care a jot for it in its subjective aspect, or as it bears upon the parties to it, but only in its objective aspect, or as it bears upon the family, and thence upon itself. So far, consequently, as our existing civilization is concerned, the married pair are free to live like cat and dog; it is only when their discord threatens society, by loosening the family bond, that the latter is moved to interfere. If the married pair would agree to subjective divorce, while still maintaining their objective relation to society, they might carry such divorce to any length they pleased, without society bestowing a thought upon them. “I did not enjoin marriage upon you,” society says to them. “I found you disposed to marriage of your own accord, and what I did was skilfully to provide for my own subsistence and perpetuity, by availing myself of that free and generous impulse on your part, and promising you my countenance and protection in carrying it out. In short, I had no devout, but a purely selfish, end in ratifying your marriage, and have no real solicitude as to whether the marriage itself bring you happiness or misery. Thus you have my consent to be to each other, in all moral and spiritual regards, precisely what you will, so long as you unflinchingly promote my economic purposes, in rearing and educating the family upon which my evolution is contingent. Do this faithfully, and although you should be inwardly or spiritually as disaffected to each other as the poles, I will firmly close my eyes to every outward or moral sign of the inward fact which you yourselves do not actually force upon my attention. Fail to do it, and although I myself all the while have no spiritual, but only a mercenary regard for marriage, I will not fail to stigmatise either party, on the complaint of the other, as an infamous person, for infidelity to it. I know absolutely nothing of marriage in itself, or for its own sake, that is, as a law of human nature. I only know and esteem it for the admirable uses it promotes to me. And you have my cordial permission consequently, so long as you do nothing to estrange it in your own case from these objective ends, to be as untrue to it subjectively, or in spirit, as you please.”

How is it conceivable, then, under this utterly selfish administration of marriage, that marriage itself should not be degraded to the mud of the streets, or that the civilization which it breeds should not be a hotbed of every corruption possible to men's perverted instincts? What frank or honest reverence is ever, in fact, accorded to marriage? How do our novelists and farce-writers deal with it? Do they not habitually treat it in a way to make fools merry and wise men sad? And why is this, but because our civic administration robs the institution of its inherent spiritual lustre, and degrades it into a mere economic necessity? Marriage is, in truth, the crown only of the most perfect culture known to humanity. It is the ineffaceable sign and seal of the purest and highest natures. And yet in its actual administration it has become the privilege of every filthy vagabond to whom culture is unknown, and who finds in it only an unlimited justification of his natural egotism and lust. Practically, the law says to every such man: “Your wife is your personal property. She no longer stands invested with that personal sanctity which every woman wears naturally to the imagination of man, for she has passed into your ownership, has become your chattel, or thing, and of course nothing can be sacred to you which you yourself absolutely own. Subject her, therefore, to your basest personal necessities or caprice as much as you will. Compel all her affections and thoughts into your service by whatever methods you can pursue consistently with your own love to yourself; or your own instincts of self-preservation, and I shall have nothing whatever to say to you in the premises. What I care about in either of you is, not the soul, but the body; not the moral being, but the animal, prolific of offspring.” Suppose, now, that the sot, the scamp, the ruffian, the simple lout even, thus practically addressed by society, finds or conceives his wife to be unfaithful to him, and in a moment of vindictive rage takes her life or that of her lover, imagined or real? Has society any right to condemn him? Is he not reproducing in act the spirit with which society has always inspired him?

How is any remedy conceivable for these things short of an actual change of administration; that is, short of allowing an absolute or independent sanctity to marriage, by ceasing to enforce it any longer in any merely civic interest, or any interest below the outraged dignity of human nature itself? Of course, this great change implies a very advanced intelligence on the part of society, a very advanced social consciousness; implies, indeed, that same spirit of humiliation or self-surrender on the part of society towards its children, which we have just seen illustrated by the head of the family towards his. The true disease of civilization is organic, not functional; and the evils of lying, theft, adultery, and murder, which we see overlying all the surface of our life, are only so many symptoms, not sources, of this constitutional infirmity. Let us thank God, at least, that they come to the surface in such rank luxuriance, since it evidences the undiminished vigour of the organization, internally, to throw off corruption, or aspire to health and purity. Injustice of the foulest type is bred in the bone of our civic consciousness, and is, therefore, inseparable from its functioning, let that functioning be conventionally either good or evil. To be sure, the injustice in question being constitutional, is not of a partial character, and therefore escapes a hasty observation. It does not bear harder upon one person than another, for it is in reality universal or all-pervasive; and although it may more manifestly come to the surface, or more forcibly arrest the senses in one place than in another, it really eludes a rational scrutiny nowhere, but confesses itself the hidden root no less of our highest conventional virtue than of our lowest conventional vice.

But though our civic unrighteousness be thus impartial, it is only on that account all the more terribly real and earnest. What is the fundamental axiom upon which it reposes? It is this, namely: That a normal inequality exists between society and the individual, or between the universal and the particular life of man; hence, that the only way in which harmony can ever be promoted between them, is by the forcible and permanent subjugation of men's private to their public interests. It is not supposed that any rightful or normal inequality exists between man and man, but only between the universal and the individual element in existence; and as between man and man, accordingly, our civic conscience feels itself competent to mediate. But between man and society, between the part and the whole, or the individual and the mass, this inequality is held to be legitimate and inexorable; so that in any collision of interests that chances between a private person and the community of which he forms a part, it is held to be absolutely just that the former defer to the latter. Hence it happens invariably, that the best conventional character recognized upon earth is that of the man who voluntarily surrenders his own dignity to the presumed exigencies of the public good. Hence, also it is that martyrs have enjoyed so great a repute; and that statesmen, soldiers, kings, priests, governors,—-public functionaries of whatever name, in short,—-claim a greatly superior social consideration to that of the private citizen.

Jesus Christ was the first, as indeed he has been as yet the only man in history, livingly to refute that monstrous superstition. The Jewish polity—-the theocratic empire into which he was born—-was originally founded, in fact, upon a precisely opposite conception of the truth. It was founded, apparently, upon the axiomatic principle of the subserviency of the race to the species, of the whole to the part, of the community to the individual. Else why was Abraham, a solitary outcast from his country, selected by the Divine will to become a great nation in whom all the families of the earth should be blest? Surely it is not in his personal, but only in his typical character that Abraham makes the slightest appeal to our reverence; only as he represents the household of faith, that great society or brotherhood of the race which was spiritually to spring from the loins of his greatest descendant, and of which the fundamental maxim is that “the greatest serve the least.” The Jewish people, indeed, so long as it remained faithful to its father's God, was lifted above fear, and enjoyed a more solid renown than has befallen any other nation. But the Jews soon grew tired of the Divine rule, and lusted after “a king to judge them like all the nations.” Their great prophet remonstrated with them, and strove to arouse their fears by showing them the nature of the tyranny they invited. He said: “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign above you. He will take your sons and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties, and will set them to ear his grounds, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectioners, and cooks, and bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive-yards, the best of them, to give to his servants. And he will take your men-servants and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep, and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your kind which ye shall have chosen you, and the Lord will not hear you in that day. Nevertheless, the people refused to hear the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we, also, may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In other words, Abraham's descendants had not the least spiritual apprehension of the great humanitary truth which underlay their remarkable history, and was destined to be finally wrought out by it; so that when Christ came he found them so besotted by worldly lusts, as cheerfully to swamp piety in patriotism, and esteem every one good or evil in heart, not as he related himself to God and man universally, but only as he stood affected to their own pretentious and now lapsed nationality.

In fact, so perfectly incorporate has this letter of nationality become with the Jewish consciousness, that none of the amazing vicissitudes of their history has had any power to weaken it; so that to this very day they carry the stigma of their infatuation in their face, and with no territorial foothold upon the earth to separate them from other nations, are yet the most clearly pronounced and odious type of nationality extant. No wonder, then, that Christ, animated by so utterly antagonistic a temper, found little acceptance at their hands. In truth, he performed his thankless office under such terrific odds at the scurvy hands he came to bless, whether Jew or Gentile, that it is only now, in this nineteenth century of his spiritual sway, that men are beginning faintly to discern the true breadth of his Gospel, and to perceive the endless social consequences with which it is fraught. It is, in fact, rather by our instinct than by our intelligence, rather by our hearts than by our minds, that we even yet are able to perceive that the truth which moved his mighty heart in life, and bowed his majestic head in death, was no such paltry figment as that of the equality of one race, or one nation, or one man, with another race or nation or man; for in the plane of individuality no equality, but only the greatest possible inequality, exists and reigns; but, on the contrary, the truth of a normal and invincible equality between every individual race, nation, or man, and all other races, nations, and men put together; that is to say, between the strictly individual and the strictly universal life of man, or the sphere of his delight and that of his duty. This is the sheer pith and scope of the Christian Gospel, to affirm a normal, but hitherto unsuspected, unity, and not division, between the interests of the race and those of the individual, or between the empire of material force in human affairs and that of spiritual freedom. And every community, civil or religious, which constitutes itself upon the opposite intellectual conception, is flagrantly derelict to the spirit of Christ, and can only hope to escape the judgments incident to such dereliction by frankly recognizing the error of its ways, and insisting betimes upon its public or organic interests becoming—-no longer indifferent as now—-but acutely sensitive and tributary to the individual dignity, or free spiritual worth, of all its members. Let this grand reform be practically inaugurated in however minute a measure, and we should at once feel its pacific and purifying sway in every remotest finger and toe of our associated consciousness. Marriage, especially, would soon become garlanded with immortal freshness. For, being at length divorced from the disfiguring servitude it has always been under to the merely material instincts of society or the race, it would be left free to assert its ineradicably spiritual aims, and so would, erelong, avouch itself for what it really is, the consummate flowering of God's infinite love in the earth of our finite human nature.

 
 
 

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