One of my favorite pastimes is reading those alternate-lifestyle essays that the left-wing media loves to publish unironically. You know the sort: Why I quit my job at a high-powered social media firm to become a minimum-wage pansexual. Or: How my open relationship with three maple trees and a rhinoceros helped me find inner peace.
The august New York Times rarely indulges such deviancy, if only because the cardinal rule of that paper’s op-ed page is to never let down one’s guard lest one accidentally say something interesting. Yet recently the Times did make a modest exception. Last week it ran an essay by Lara Bazelon titled ‘Divorce Can Be an Act of Radical Self-Love’. And while the piece didn’t feature any gender-neutral throuples, it did mount a defense of the far more traditional institution of broken marriage.
Bazelon portrays a family that sounds pretty happy: she and her husband love each other, there’s no trace of acrimony, they have two children. Yet lurking beneath the surface is an ambitious girlboss longing to break free. Bazelon works as an attorney for the wrongfully convicted, and eventually she can no longer balance her job with her family. She calls the consequent divorce ‘an act of radical self-love’. Her young daughter apparently agrees, telling her, ‘Our criminal justice system is horrible and messed up, and you are trying to help it get fixed’.
My young son told me the other day that he was mad at his stuffed turtle.
There’s a lot to address here, so let’s start with this idea of ‘self-love’. I’ve always liked the German psychologist and political thinker Erich Fromm on this question. Fromm argues that to love oneself is as natural as for a man to love a woman, since our happiness is incumbent upon our loving, an act that affirms to us that which is external. Even if you think that definition is a bit elastic, you can understand Fromm’s point. Anyone who’s ever had a friend who hates himself, truly hates himself, understands how deceptively third-person that emotion can be, and how nothing else can be solved until self-love is learned.
So while self-love, in its modern context, might call to mind guitar circles and clapping Episcopalians, it’s not necessarily the limp-wristed thing we make it out to be. Yet Fromm then goes on to make a crucial distinction: self-love versus selfishness. To be selfish, he thinks, is a greedier and more insatiable quality. In fact, selfish people rarely do love themselves, since their attitude towards others is one of contempt, an outlook that gets reflected back inward.
We shouldn’t speculate too much about Bazelon herself on this score. Some of the worst online commentary, after all, can be found in the ironclad certainties of armchair psychoanalysts (one day future anthropologists will comb through Twitter trying to figure out what a ‘garbage human being’ is). Maybe Bazelon’s marriage was as ‘crushing’ as she claims. Maybe it really did need to come apart.
Yet what we can say is that the general principle declared by her piece — divorce in the name of career advancement as radical self-love — is a conflation of terms. What Bazelon identifies as self-love is more often selfishness. The reason is simply that marriage isn’t supposed to satisfy every longing and allow for every commitment. It can’t answer every question; it can’t even preclude the occasional ‘what if?’ It provides fulfillment, joy, love, yes, but even the most content of spouses wouldn’t deny that it also involves another quality, one noticeably absent from Bazelon’s essay: sacrifice.
One of the first things you learn about marriage, right about when you’re touching down after the honeymoon, is that it’s a matter of subtraction as well as addition. You can no longer spend your days scrambling up the corporate ladder and your nights carousing and terrorizing your way through the local bar scene. You have other concerns now, ones that don’t always place you first. This is even more the case when you have children. The institutions of marriage and parenthood are larger and older than you. They have rules and customs and necessities that you have to abide by. It isn’t always easy, but it is utterly worth it, and without such sacrifices, civilization itself would become impossible.
What Bazelon has done is to subordinate those essential abnegations to the selfish whim. She’s turned self-love into a solvent for those societal bonds we cannot do without. She also provides no limiting principle. Thus:
‘Say, Matt,’ says my wife, ‘why are you setting fire to the bedsheets?’
‘It’s an act of radical self-love,’ I reply, as a throw pillow erupts in flames.
You can burn down the marital house metaphorically or literally; either way it can be justified under Bazelon’s standard of the unencumbered journey of the self. To succumb to this is to cast oneself onto a gloomy sea of relativism and nihilism.
Or as my son told me the other day, ‘Daddy, what secular society so often passes off as individual empowerment seems to me like nothing more than license for every man to be his own Diogenes which in our own time is part and parcel of postmodernism’s assault on objective morality and institutional solidity.’
He’s starting on stage two baby food next week.