Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The inevitability of polyamory/polygamy

Polyamory is a relatively recent term. Yet the condition it describes, the ability to love two or more persons at the same time, seems to be as old as humanity itself. Sometimes these arrangements are formalized in the institution of polygamy. In other instances the polyamory arrangements show a stability and seriousness that approximates to polygamy.
Polygamy has recently become topical. Opponents say that gay marriage will lead us down a slippery slope leading to polygamy. (And, it is claimed to bestiality, as well. As an unlikely destination, I omit bestiality from the discussion.) Supporters of gay marriage are anxious to exclude the possibility that it may lead to polygamy.

In fact anthropologists have documented polygamy in many societies. In our own tradition it is integral to the Hebrew Bible. It seems that it was the ancient Romans who first placed a taboo on polygamy. We have inherited this disapproval.

For that reason this essay will address the issue empirically in broader terms, those of polyamory. I will deal with four concrete examples.

Shortly before his death in 1967, the English writer J. R. Ackerley published a memoir entitled My Father and Myself, in which he reported his finding that his father maintained two households. One was his official family (in which young Ackerley grew up), the second a kind of common law arrangement that constituted a second family. His father was a self-made man who had risen from poverty to manage a prosperous importing business.

At its root, then, this Victorian example is the product of a lower-class negotiation of a particular dilemma. Probably endlessly repeated in Victorian and Edwardian times, the dual-family solution did not come equipped with any sophisticated rationale. These things "just happened." Or did they? In all likelihood we are dealing with a propensity that is hardwired into the human male, and that is not to be satisfied with a single partner.

Of a different order are claims made by creative types, who combined a bohemian sense of casualness in sexual matters with a Nietzschean demand that the artist, obeying his need to create at all costs, is entitled to an exemption from ordinary bourgeois norms of fidelity.
The pioneer abstractionist Vassily Kandinsky came to Munich in 1896, with his Russian wife Anya. Some years later he entered into a liaison with a pupil Gabriele Münter, an intense involvement in which the two excitedly exchanged ideas and painted together. Despite the absorbing nature of this relationship, Kandinsky did not divorce his wife, who continued to reside in the couple’s Munich apartment. However, Kandinsky and Gabriele built a house at Murnau in the Bavarian countryside. The artist went back and forth between the city and the country, an arrangement that lasted until the Kandinskys were expelled from Germany at the beginning of World War I (September 1914)

The American poet Ezra Pound married an Englishwoman, Dorothy Shakespeare, in 1914. A decade later he took up with the violinist Olga Rudge. This liaison produced a child Mary, who was raised by foster parents in the South Tyrol. For most of the rest of his life Pound oscillated between his two mates. During World War II the three uneasily shared a house together in the hills overlooking Rapallo in Italy. It was Dorothy who solicitously tended Pound during the thirteen years in which he was incarcerated in the insane asylum of St. Elizabeth in Washington, DC. After being freed and returning to Italy, the poet finally opted for a life with Olga in Venice.

Louis Kahn, one of America’s greatest architects, surpassed both Kandinsky and Pound by having three families. In the brilliant 2003 film "My Architect" his son Daniel tells the story of how he gradually recovered the truth about his father. As he formed first one, then another liaison, Kahn’s wife stood loyally by him. Within the limitations of his situation, the architect tried faithfully to attend to all three families. Despite these infractions of conventional morality, the architect emerges in the film as a dedicated, caring person. Did he need these complications to create great buildings? Who can say? But what happened happened.

The above examples stem from famous people. However, the tendency they show, that of men to maintain two (or more) significant relationships at the same time is widespread. Though legal recognition is lacking, all these arrangements amount to polygamy.

It is not the case that polygamy may be coming. It is already here.


Blogger Jaafar said...

Showing that four celebrities have been unfaithful to their lovers proves nothing -- except that you might like to emulate them.

For obvious counter-examples (!), you might consult the lives of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. Reagan had to divorce his first wife, but once he re-married he was in the same territory as Churchill: a totally devoted marriage.

There is nothing whatsoever "inevitable" about polyamory -- although sluts would have us think so.

9:42 AM  

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