It’s tough to figure out where to start this discussion about Dan Savage’s The Commitment. I really liked the book in 2005, when it came out. But re-reading it as a married person, I loved it. I started crying during Dan’s mothers “scene-stealing, show stopping speech about love and commitment that should be entered into the Congressional Record” (Thanks Ira Glass, for that pull-quote.) And even David, eternal critic of books that I like, stopped reading the book last night to tell me how touching a scene between Dan and his six-year-old son was. And trust me, that never happens.
I figure we’ll discuss the book this week and next, because there is so much content in it (and next week will probably just be a free for all). As the cuttingly smart AGirl said in her cheaters-early-review of the book, “From a relatively circumscribed starting point, it sweeps out to touch on all manner of entirely universal issues in the most wonderfully disarming way.”
So when I stopped to think about what topic in this book fascinated me the most, it’s not actually gay marriage. What endlessly fascinates me about this book is be summed up in this question:
In the book, Savage grapples with how modern US society’s definition of marriage (gender prescriptive, restrictive, done by straight people) influences his desire, or rather his lack of desire, to be married. How does your personal view of marriage relate to what you see as society’s view of marriage? How does this affect the choices you make about your partnership?As blog-within-a-blog title of Reclaiming Wife implies, I’m really fascinated in the ways that we are able to shape age-old social institutions into be what we need them to be. Or, as someone wisely said in the comments at one point, I’m interested in stripping all of the cultural noise off social insitutions like marrage, and just let them be what they are at their core, which is, two people who love and are committed to each other.
Which is to say, I’m with Dan’s mom. I think the, “I don’t believe in marriage because I don’t like the definitions of marriage that my society is force feeding me” line is a totally cop-out. If you’re going to not belive in marraige, at least step up and tell me why YOU don’t believe in it, don’t just tell me that you believe all the cultural bull-sh*t you’ve been sold, and that you think you can’t break or change the rules. (Especially if you’re Dan Savage, rule breaker extraordinaire.*) Or as Dan’s mom far more eloquently says:
Jerkos have told you both that you’re not worthy of marriage. You could flip off the jerkos by doing the right thing and getting married anyway, but you’re way too clever for that. So you’ve decided to flip them off by refusing to get married. You say it’s ‘acting like straight people,’ and you say it’s a jinx. Well, I’ve got news for you Daniel. Life is a big jinx, and we’re all going to die. And you should stop worrying about acting like straight people Terry, and start acting like the person I know that you are – a serious, grown-up, responsible person who should be mature enough to make a serious commitment to the person he chose to start a family with, just like his parents did.
But I’m fascinated in the way what is culturally prescribed weaves together with what we think and what we want. How does it influence us? How does it not? How can we break away from it’s thrall? What parts of the cultural narrative are actually helpful? What parts are total cr*p?
At one point in the book, after writing a letter to some other advice columnists, the always excellent Carolyn Hax asks Dan, “Do you believe in marriage, or don’t you? Do your values demand it or not?” And he writes:
If I were to answer those questions honestly I would have to say that, yes, I do believe in marriage. I do. The trouble is that I live someplace where most people don’t believe in the kind of marriage I would have to enter into. So what difference does it make what I believe?
So that is, in essence, my question to you. What kind of marriage do you believe in? What difference does it make what you believe?
I’d argue that it makes a big difference.
Photo: My hands at the meetup, by Emily Takes Photos
*though he obviously comes around in the end, and this book is a rather eloquent love song to the complicated nature of making marriage what you need it to be, I think. Though it’s a lot of other things as well. Have I mentioned you should read it??