Untying the Knot

I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage
By Susan Squire
Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $25.99

In the beginning, men and women were equal, because our cave-dwelling ancestors hadn’t figured out that sex—a communal pastime unencumbered by futuristic notions like coupledom—makes babies. It would take, according to Susan Squire’s riveting new book, I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage, “hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years”—until the advent of agriculture and the insights that accompany animal husbandry—before men experienced an “electrifying epiphany.”

Unfortunately, “once the mystery of conception is solved and the idea of ownership is born … organized communal sex will never work again—and not for lack of trying,” writes Ms. Squire. She goes on to retell the entire history of the West in terms of man’s struggle to diminish his suddenly glaring reproductive vulnerability by domesticating womankind. A confounding historical dilemma ensues: “Women must be controlled, but women can’t be controlled.”

But oh, how men try. Ms. Squire’s book is a withering, sardonic history lesson that spans from Israel to Athens, from Aristotle to Milton, from Jesus to Martin Luther, demonstrating how human events have been shaped by man’s “permanent insecurity” over the fate of his seed. History is recast not just as a power struggle between the sexes (in marriage, Ms. Squire notes, “authority” has never been the same as “power”) but as a struggle within the minds of men themselves, who are—even as they install women in the home and reduce them to breeding stock (more “husbandry”)—perplexed by their need for them, attraction to them, susceptibility to their trickery, etc. Which perhaps explains why the self-, oops, divinely appointed masters of the planet sometimes can’t get it up.

 

MS. SQUIRE COMES OFF not as a militant feminist but as a shrewd observer, deftly uncovering, for our delight and instruction, what was really behind major shifts and patterns in sexual norms through the ages. She maintains a healthy sense of humor about things that are often deeply unfunny, such as the book of Genesis, which in her close reading is not about the dangers of listening to the serpent or devil but of listening to your wife. By eating the forbidden fruit given to him by Eve, “Adam becomes the elemental symbol of manhood undone by womanhood … the worst-case scenario of what can happen to men who let down their guard around women.” All human hardship, from “excruciating” labor in the fields to the pain of childbirth, stems from God’s displeasure with Adam’s gullibility. (Adam, of course, is a dodgy type who doesn’t hesitate to blame the whole thing on his wife when God questions him. Chivalry is many years off.)

Tough times for women continue in ancient Athens, where the attitude towards conniving, treacherous wives is summed up by Aeschylus in Seven Against Thebes: “Let her stay inside and do no mischief.”

One writer of the day explained that men keep “hetaera [courtesans] for our delight, concubines for the daily needs of our bodies, wives so that we may breed legitimate children and have faithful housekeepers.” Here Ms. Squire identifies the roots of a familiar conceit—”there is one kind of woman you marry, another kind of woman you fuck”—and also suggests an explanation for Athenian men’s outsize productivity: “With their sexual needs identified, compartmentalized, and fulfilled by a dedicated service team assigned to each one, they can be laser-focused on the work that turns the classical age into a golden one.” Of course, the insecure streak never faded: The prevailing aesthetic favored “immoderately inflated penises as objets d’art,” leading one to wonder yet again why men require so many reminders of their manhood.

This devastating, sure-footed history eventually reaches the Protestant Reformation, when, having been policed for years by a repressed and hypocritical clergy, marital relations received a watershed makeover by none other than Martin Luther, who insisted that marriage be not merely a tolerated evil (i.e., “the dumping ground for sex,” a necessary but vile procreative institution, as it had heretofore been viewed by Christianity) but a mutually beneficial partnership, character-building in its own right. (This lays the theoretical groundwork for women’s equality.) Luther’s ideas were given a boost by a widespread loss of religious faith in the aftermath of the Black Death and by concurrent shifts in the lifestyle of idle European royals, who began to fetishize passion and romance, at least in their adulterous relationships. As Ms. Squire writes, “Love enters marriage through the extramarital back door.”

And there she leaves us, rather abruptly, saying we “already know what happens after that.” Perhaps, but we also know we could have continued reading about all this for at least another several hundred pages. Ms.Squire reveals our ancestors to be a fascinating, base, bumbling, mercurial, misguided, occasionally inspired troupe of ego-trippers not unlike ourselves, familiar creatures with familiar patterns of thought. She also exposes our current view of marriage as the seat of happiness and “the promised land of unreasonable expectations” as just that—unreasonable—and not much more than the inevitable product of a downswing in religious faith.

In other words, we are but links in a chain: Our divorce rates, our public betrayals, our continuing repression of women (in some parts of the world) are just the latest chapters in a tumultuous story that continues, for humankind, to be the main event.

Meredith Bryan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at mbryan@observer.com.

Untying the Knot