Has Marriage for Love Failed?

For Patrice Champion, in companionship

Has Marriage for Love Failed?

Pascal Bruckner

Translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal

First published in French as Le mariage d’amour a-t-il échoué © Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2010
This English edition © Polity Press, 2013
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ISBN: 978-0-7456-8382-9
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1  The Catastrophe of the Wedding Night
2  Divorce, a ‘Judaic Poison’
3  The Nuptial Utopia
4  From Forbidden Love to Obligatory Love
5  The Pathologies of the Ideal
6  Honey and Hemlock
7  The Round of Disappointed Lovers
8  Towards Separation in a State of Euphoria?
9  A Ministry of Broken Hearts?
10  An Agony Amidst Glory
11  The Liberating Tradition
12  Restoring Reason to Sentiment
13  Together, Separated
14  The Defeat of Prometheus
The Sweetness of Life

I have always heard from my youth that in America it is possible to get a divorce for incompatibility of temper. In my childhood I always thought it was a joke; but I thought it even more of a joke when I discovered that it was true. If married people are to be divorced for incompatibility of temper, I cannot imagine why all married people are not divorced. Any man and any woman must have incompatible tempers; it is the definition of sex.

G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News,
19 September 1908


In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a group of French volunteers made a documentary film in 2009 about an old man who lives not far from a public dump and earns his living by collecting plastic jugs and jerrycans. In the film, he tells his life story, which is punctuated, like that of his people, by all kinds of misfortunes. While he is going down the list of bad things that have happened to him, he suddenly straightens up and declares: ‘My greatest success in life? I married for love and have two children born in love.’ His wife confirms this. Immediately the audience bursts into applause and adores the film. Iraqi Kurdistan, although it is prosperous and peaceful compared to the rest of the country, adheres by custom to a clan system that compels young people to enter into marriages arranged by their families. Honour killings and induced suicides are the lot of girls suspected of frequenting boys of their own choice. If so many young Kurds take refuge in Europe or the United States, it is as much for reasons of individual autonomy as for economic reasons; they want to experience consensual unions, to marry the person they love and not be forced to marry someone else.1

A strange situation: at the very time when freedom to love is exercising its seductive power on some traditional societies – Muslim countries, India, China (even if in the latter two nations the lack of women, resulting from selective abortions, throws the matrimonial market out of kilter) –, and when gays and lesbians in our societies are demanding the right to marry, marriage is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy in the West. In its traditional form, it was accused of many sins: it was inegalitarian and despotic, objectified women, and led to adultery and prostitution. Few institutions have aroused so much sarcasm and so much anger. In the contemporary form of marriage by consent that won out after the Second World War, it created new scourges without putting an end to the old ones: neither prostitution nor infidelity disappeared, whereas the number of divorces increased exponentially, and more and more people remained single. The history of traditional marriage was characterized by resignation to the conjugal prison or the repulsion it inspired; today its history, in Europe at least, is characterized by disaffection with it. Over time, it has had many adversaries before finally becoming its own best enemy. Out of concern for harmony, the twentieth century emancipated hearts and bodies; the result was an increase in discord. What happened? Was the enchanted palace of reciprocal affection no more than a dilapidated hovel? How could love, which has never known any law (Carmen) be subjected to law, since it is fuelled by transgression?

1  I thank Hugues Dewavrin for this information. The documentary, entitled ‘Daba, ville des bidons,’ comes from Alterdoc, an audio-visual non-governmental organization, and was directed by Baudouin Koenig.


The Catastrophe of the Wedding Night

In his novel Une Vie (A Life, 1883), Guy de Maupassant tells the story of a young woman of the minor Norman nobility, Jeanne, who falls in love with a local viscount, Julien. On their wedding night, her father, urged on by his wife, takes her aside and delivers an awkward speech about what awaits her:

My darling, […] I don’t know what you know about life. There are mysteries that are carefully concealed from children, and especially a girl, who must remain pure in mind, irreproachably pure, until the time when we put her in the hands of the man who will see to their happiness. It is for him to lift the veil cast over the sweet secret of life. But girls […] are often revolted by the somewhat brutal reality hidden behind the dreams. Wounded in their souls, wounded even in their bodies, they refuse their husbands what the law, human law and natural law, accords him as an absolute right. I can’t tell you any more about it, my dear; but don’t forget this: you belong entirely to your husband.

This sermon, full of allusions and evasions at a time when the very idea of sex education was inconceivable, plunges the bride into a state of dread. Having emerged from the convent, she is about to move directly from the state of innocence to that of a wife. She allows herself to be undressed by her chambermaid and awaits her new husband with the feeling that she has fallen into marriage the way one falls into a bottomless well. The husband knocks softly three times on the door, himself paralysed by an attack of nerves and inexperience. He has come to claim his due, and asks her permission to lie down beside her. She cannot hide her reluctance, he is offended, and goes off to get undressed in the bathroom. He returns in his underwear and slippers and slips into bed. When she feels ‘a cold, hairy leg’ touching her she stifles a cry. To understand all the piquancy of the situation, one has to realize that at a time when bathing at the seaside was still a privilege reserved for a minority, girls and boys, at least among the well-off classes, had few occasions to examine each other’s anatomy; the situation was different in the countryside, where heavy labour performed in common, and seeing animals copulating, caused the young to lose their innocence earlier.

The rest of the night is a disaster. Julien, eager to exercise his right, forces his hand towards Jeanne’s breast, and she resists. He becomes impatient, grips her roughly in his arms, and covers her with kisses, finally taking her in what is for her a moment of pain and horror. When he attempts to assault her again, she pushes him away. Thinking with repulsion of the thick hair that covers her husband’s chest, she moans: ‘So that’s what he calls being his wife; it’s that, it’s that!’ Despite an episode of happier sensuality that occurs during a later trip to Corsica, this dreadful night determines the rest of Jeanne’s life and ultimately causes her death from ‘carnal needs’.

On Chesil Beach