I grew to immaturity in the sixties, at the moment famously, and ironically, described by Philip Larkin:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Young people of my generation had no time for Larkin's irony and simply dismissed traditional sexual morality as a clutter of meaningless taboos. The old culture endured among adults, especially those who had fought in the war and learned firsthand that societies depend on sacrifice. But the fidelity of our elders to the old mores merely caused our experiments to appear romantic and sophisticated in our own eyes, marks of a singular freedom of mind.
In truth, I didn't enjoy the spectacle of permissiveness and half suspected that the old morality was right. Nevertheless, I was not going to miss out on the available freedoms and felt entitled to my share of thrills. Like many of my generation, therefore, I was reluctant to marry and did so only when I discovered that my experiment in cohabitation had ceased to be an experiment and had become a commitment instead.
My wife-to-be had been brought up as a Roman Catholic in provincial France. We had lived together through the antics of May 1968, which impressed both of us with the destructiveness and stupidity of people when guided by nothing more than a desire for liberation. Marriage was to bring an end to such childish things and to imbue our life with discipline.
In that spirit, I attended the obligatory lessons with Father Napier of the Brompton Oratory in London, by way of preparing for the sacramental—and sacrificial—act. The Oratory retains the permitted vestiges of the Latin mass and as a result has amplified its congregation of true believers with a reserve army of believers in belief, of which I was one. Next to the Italianate church, where its priests sing in their gorgeous robes, and a four-part choir responds, stands an altogether humbler building, the residence of the Oratorians, whose order requires them not to fast and pray in seclusion but to go out and spread the word, obedient to the vision of Saint Filippo Neri, their activist founder and high priest of the Counter Reformation. Neri made the term "propaganda" part of the language, and the thing denoted by it part of life. But the home of his London followers, established in the last century by the great Cardinal Newman, has a dull, quotidian atmosphere; it is a place of quiet footsteps and mumbled greetings. Copperplate engravings of forgotten saints gather dust in corners, and the smell of institutional cooking wafts down corridors where nothing moves save a shuffling old priest, a fluttering curtain, or an aproned housemaid too old and stiff to brush the high cobwebs away.
In the room set aside for instruction, Father Napier rehearsed the tenets of the Catholic faith. I assented to them all: not one of them created the slightest intellectual difficulty, save the major premise of God's existence. But this too could be held in place, I surmised, by the structure that had been built upon it, and whose angles and junctures I knew from Saint Thomas Aquinas. A religion without orthodoxy is destined to be swept away by the first breath of doubt. When the doctrines are all in place, however, neatly interlocking, expressed and endorsed by ritual, then, I reasoned, none can be pried free from the edifice and exposed to questioning. The structure stands unshakably, even though built upon nothing. Seen in this way, religion is a work of art, and its values are aesthetic values: beauty, wholeness, symmetry, harmony.
Clearly, my attitude to the Church whose rituals I was prepared to borrow was not ultimately the attitude of a believer. Hence, when the marriage came under strain—which it very soon did, since our years of cohabitation had disenchanted our first love, while offering no second love in place of it—the religious chains proved to be made of paper.
Divorce appeared at the time in all the attractive colors of an easy option: a bid for freedom, a way to become what I truly and authentically was. Young people of my generation were told to seize their chances and to free themselves from guilt. Only too late do you discover that guilt is not a sickness to be overcome but a punishment to be lived through. The years following the end of my first marriage were filled with grief, and rightly so. Nobody should be allowed to get away scot-free from a life's commitment, and no one should treat lightly what is the most solemn vow. You can hope for forgiveness; but you have no right to expect it.
Nevertheless I learned from the experience. My guilt was a clear proof of the Church's view of matrimony as an indissoluble tie. This doctrine, which at the time of my marriage had been for me merely an inert corollary to an abstract system of theology, now hit me in the face as a living truth about the human condition and a deep explanation of the ruined lives that I saw on every side, my own and my ex-wife's included.
For 20 years, my efforts at romance would fizzle out, quenched in the inward flow of lamentation. This process, if painful, was also purifying. It rid me of illusions and in particular of the illusion that sexual love is just an ordinary expression of our freedom. Often I recalled those quiet corridors of the Oratory and the foretaste they had offered of the penitential path beyond my marriage. A doctrine that permitted no other course save abstinence elevated marriage to a higher sphere, idealized it as a kind of redemption. What Father Napier had offered us through marriage was the very thing the Oratorians enjoyed in their place of dusty rituals: the transfiguration of everyday life.
When I met Sophie, six years ago, I knew how ridiculous it was for a man of 50 to propose marriage to a girl of 22. But it was as though I had carried her portrait within me during 20 years of penitence and had suddenly happened upon her incarnation. We were introduced in the hunting field, constrained by the meticulous courtesies of which fox hunting is, in England, one of the few remaining preserves—the real reason our new rulers hate it. If romantic feelings arise in such a context, they come imbued with courtly hesitation. So it was with us, and it is part of what made us serious. Although impatient every Saturday for the moment when Sophie would appear, I was nonplused in her presence, searching in vain for words. Then one day my horse fell, and she stopped to rescue me, so sacrificing the day's pleasure and giving proof that she cared. We began an old-fashioned courtship that lasted through many months of restraint.
Formality does not freeze emotion but heightens it. And emotions that take ritual shape lead of their own accord to that supreme ritual, which is marriage. By amplifying the distance between you, courtship intensifies the magnetic force when finally you join. Indeed, in our tradition—not necessarily the only or the best one, but the only one we have—marriage ought to be seen as the culmination of a process that begins in bashfulness and proceeds by stages to an intimacy both resisted and desired.
I was lucky: not everyone is given a second chance, certainly not a second chance like this one, in which sympathy sparked across the years, made us welcome the barrier of age and then work to overcome it. When we awoke to what had happened, we knew that it was too late to think of any course but marriage, which had grown between us like a plant that had suddenly burst into flower.
Of course it matters what others think, and we, especially, needed their acceptance. The small-scale, furtive event in the registry office, hastily conducted like an illicit affair, would not have served our need. On the contrary, it would have seemed an admission that our spheres and years divided us and that we were making a dreadful mistake. We needed to make others complicit in our venture, to be bound together not just in private but also in the public eye. Ceremonies are redemptive. They raise private undertakings into public avowals, and at the same time make the union of individuals into an emblem of the community's will to endure.
Modern society tends to construe marriage as a kind of contract. This tendency is familiar to us from the sordid divorces of tycoons and pop stars, and is made explicit in the "prenuptial agreement," under the terms of which an attractive woman sells her body at an inflated price, and a man secures his remaining assets from her future predations. Under such an agreement, marriage becomes a preparation for divorce, a contract between two people for the short-term exploitation of each other.
Surprisingly, it was the great Immanuel Kant who prepared the world for this view of things, describing marriage, in language of exemplary bleakness, as a "contract for the reciprocal use of the sexual organs." But then Kant didn't marry, and his heresy was soon corrected by Hegel, who did. According to Hegel, marriage is a "substantial tie." It begins in a contract—but it is a contract to transcend contract, by abolishing the separation between the parties.
Hegel's point can be put more simply. Marriage is surrounded by moral, legal, and religious prohibitions precisely because it is not a contract but a vow. Contracts have terms and come to an end when the terms are fulfilled or when the parties agree to renounce them. They bind us to the temporal world and have the transience of human appetite. Vows do not have terms, nor can they be legitimately broken. They are "forever"; and in making a vow you are placing yourself outside time and change, in a state of spiritual union, which can be translated into actions in the here and now but also lies above and beyond the world of decaying things. That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom; and when we cease to make them, we impoverish our lives by stripping them of lasting commitment.
Hence divorce does not end a real marriage, which will continue to bind those who have drifted away from it or who have tried to set its vows aside. For 20 years I was constantly aware of that other person, whom I no longer saw, but whose thoughts, feelings, and reproaches were addressed to me in my own inner voice. Sophie understood this and accepted it, because she is the child of divorced parents, who took trouble never to quarrel in her presence and always to speak of each other with the respect due to a fellow parent. Sophie was the living reminder of their vows and of the need to give due weight to them, and the marriage remained in a strange way untouchable, just because it was sacred in the eyes of a child.
Thanks to that great reservoir of fudge and compromise that is the Anglican Church, divorcés can now wed in church—not through a marriage ceremony but through a "service of dedication," designed to put a holy seal on the state's scrap of paper. Without presuming on, but nevertheless hoping for, forgiveness, you can petition the Almighty through this lesser ceremony and thereby summon the support and endorsement of your community. We married in a registry office and arranged the service of dedication for the next day, in Sophie's local church. We had rehearsed our vows, and discovered as we spoke them that they were exactly what we felt. This promise to love, honor, and cherish till death us do part was precisely a recognition of our new state of unity.
Our feelings gained an added solemnity, now that all those on whose approval we depended were silently observing us. The words seemed to echo back from the unseen wall of sympathy in the church behind, and—far from announcing our bondage—they were a cry of liberation, the real liberation that comes through accepting a moral law. In my first marriage, I had lost my freedom by wanting to hold on to it. In my second, I regained it at the moment when I freely gave it away.
When we first met, I had just acquired the old farm where we now live. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a house and 30 acres must be in want of a wife. But Sophie was as surprised by what happened as I was and entered my life almost on tiptoe, disturbing nothing and seeming to admire my bachelor ways at the same time as she gently and discreetly abolished them. Under her influence I became more outgoing and more relaxed, while never for a moment fearing that I might lose my carefully acquired routines and my armory of homegrown protections. There resulted from this an unusual division of roles: I do the cooking and the housework; she looks after the animals. We work at our desks in the day and ride out when we can. And whenever one of us crosses the house to peer at the other, it is always with a thrill of anticipation, like a child creeping up on its parent.
Sometimes we embark on a quarrel, but there is neither winner nor loser, because we are one thing, not two, and any attack on the other becomes an attack on oneself. All the matters over which people like us are supposed to argue—money, freedom, visits, friends, hobbies, tastes, habits—become occasions for a deeper cooperation. What we have discovered through marriage is not the first love that induced it but the second love that follows, as the vow weaves life and life together. Western romanticism has fostered the illusion that first love is the truest love, and what need has first love of marriage? But an older and wiser tradition recognizes that the best of love comes after marriage, not before.
The birth of Sam did not change things. But it presented us with a problem that is particularly acute in Britain. The state now forces us to send our children to school, while ensuring that nothing much in the way of education occurs there. What passes for education in many British schools is really a process of demoralization, in which children are taken from their parents and surrendered to their peers. Today, significant numbers of young Britons leave school unable to read or do mental arithmetic. Useless old subjects like Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics have disappeared, and English grammar, with its oppressive rules and useless complexities, has been pushed aside as "elitist." As for manners, these have declined to such an extent that shops near London schools regularly close their doors to children, while older people seek refuge in another car when children board a train.
Instead of preparing children for adult life, our system of education ensures that they remain children, with all of childhood's self-centered incompetence but none of its redeeming innocence and shame. The state's attempt to sexualize children—encouraging members of the younger generation to master all the relevant positions by the age of 14, and making homosexuality a central part of their curriculum—doesn't help matters. Sex, pupils learn, is just an extension of childhood—another realm of play, in which all is permitted that could lead to enjoyment, and in which only the serious, the lasting, and the loving are dangerous.
The sixties' ideology, which caused such havoc in my own personal life, and the evil effects of which it took me 20 years to overcome, is now an obligatory basis of schooling, enforced from the tenderest age, and with complete disregard for the personal happiness and long-term hopes of the pupils. What I escaped only with the greatest difficulty and by the skin of my teeth is now being imposed as a general destiny. Surely, the first of my duties toward Sam is to ensure that he does not fall into the clutches of the people who want to do this to him.
The new curriculum, which has both the aim and the effect of cutting off children from their parents, making them unlovable to adults and the exclusive property of the state, springs from the minds of people who are themselves, for the most part, childless. It would be better, it seemed to us, for Sam to be sent down a coal mine, there to encounter the real world of adults, than to go through the complete course in demoralization that our rulers require. Even the private schools must follow the National Curriculum, which has been carefully devised to remove all the knowledge that Sophie and I value and to substitute the "life skills" needed in an urban slum.
The only solution that has occurred to us so far is to educate Sam ourselves for as long as time, energy, and knowledge permit and then to send him to the Lycée Francaise in London, on the understanding that the French have been slightly less contemptuous toward their national culture than we have been. As to what Sam's curriculum should be, common sense directs us down the old and beaten path. And we shall start him off with Grimm, Andersen, and Lewis Carroll, since their brand of children's literature does not merely enlarge the imagination: it also educates the moral sense.
While pondering this matter, however, I was invited by a national newspaper to describe what we intended for Sam—a sign that many people share our concerns. Naturally, I assured the readers, if John Stuart Mill could read Greek at six, why not Sam? And maybe Sam's first public utterance could match that of the four-year-old Macaulay, deflecting the meddlesome attentions of a toddler-coddler, after he had hurt himself, with the words: "I thank you, Madam, the agony is abated." Sam would be kept away from pop music and television but would study the viola as a salutary form of self-abasement. He would be introduced to horses and fox hunting, so as to learn both to care for animals and to do so unsentimentally. He would be taught the virtues—courage, justice, prudence, and temperance—in their Christian version, as forms of faith, hope, and charity. And although Sam would probably not enjoy his childhood, I wrote, he would emerge from it as someone agreeable to others, whether or not happy in himself.
The article precipitated a storm of abuse from experts in child-rearing, educational gurus, feminists, and assorted believers in progress—all manifestly products of an education system that identifies irony as an elitist crime and has therefore extinguished the ability to understand it. For several weeks, we lived in dread of the social workers. If we could not answer their inquiries, we feared, Sam would be put into foster care, denied all access to his parents, and given a normal diet of pop, television, and takeout.
The experts who greeted our educational plans with such outrage were, after all, the voice of our modern culture—the very same culture that has shaped the educational system and set up the state in opposition to the family. It is only since becoming part of a family that I have fully gauged the depth and seriousness of this opposition. The family has become a subversive institution—almost an underground conspiracy—at war with the state and the state-sponsored culture.
Hence the official curriculum has rigorously excluded the family. Mothers appear from time to time in schoolbooks, but they are conspicuously single. Fathers are never mentioned—indeed, they have become unmentionable, as trousers were to our Victorian ancestors. The state-imposed sex education is designed to sever the link between sex and the family, by showing the family to be merely an "option." Sex education will ensure that the next generation will not form families, since it will have destroyed in its pupils everything that leads one sex to idealize the other and so to channel erotic feelings into marriage.
But Sophie and I have no doubt that it is the family, not the state, that fulfills us. Hence we have decided to follow our own instincts and observations, and to bring up our children as we believe to be right. We are members of a growing class of criminals, who have declared war on the state-sponsored culture and are prepared to challenge it.
This official culture is founded on the premise that the human material is infinitely plastic and can be molded by the state into any shape required. This is one of the first of the official doctrines that you learn, as a parent, to doubt. We compared Sam with other boys and could not help remarking how similar they are in one fundamental respect: which is, that they all want to be men. Moreover, they all associate manliness with action, with the use of tools, with the making of something out of nothing, and with power and the machines that produce it. Sam has shown little concern for language, has entirely neglected not only the viola but also the guitar and the piano, and has confined his musical experiments to turning on the rhythm machine of my electronic keyboard whenever he sees me working.
His principal interest is building. He spends his days with the men who are working on our extension—handing out trowels, heaving buckets, mixing his own version of cement and occasionally using it to make plaster casts of living chickens. Although he is unlikely to emulate either Mill or Macaulay, his eager, cooperative nature, his determination to be useful, and his narrow but real curiosity about the world of masculine labor has endeared him to many hearts.
The official doctrine attributes such tendencies to culture: change the toys, the role models, and the contexts, the experts say, and boys will dress up, play with dolls, coddle animals, and make little interiors where they can be snug as a bug in a rug. But there seems to be a paucity of supporting evidence for such a view. Science, common sense, and recorded history all point to the conclusion that sex is a constant, which influences what can be achieved and what can be desired. Rather than work against it, we should work with it, to use its vast and unconscious power to drive our civilizing purpose.
The birth of our baby girl Lucy again awoke our curiosity in this respect, and while we of course intend to bring her up in the same improving regime that we proposed for Sam, we are fairly sure that she will not be seen, 12 months hence, with a trowel in her hand. Lucy's first smile was enough to convince us of this. Whereas Sam grinned broadly and mischievously, and then reached out to tear down the toy horse that hung above his crib, Lucy offered a serene, observing twinkle. Friends and neighbors all confirm the view that little girls are interested in people, in words, in the intimate togetherness of home, and that tools and machines fail to awaken their sympathies.
Why should people resist the obvious, when it comes to sexual roles? The answer, I believe, goes to the heart of our modern anxieties. In the world described by Jane Austen, men and women enjoyed separate spheres of action, the first public, the second private, the first involving influence without intimacy, the second an intimacy that was also a form of far-reaching, though publicly hidden, influence. Dress, manners, education, recreation, and language all reinforced this division, with marriage as the great life-choice in which it culminated and whose purpose it was. Because there is no going back to Jane Austen's world, we take refuge in the belief that every aspect of it reflects some arbitrary cultural imperative, with nothing due to permanent human nature. By extending cultural relativism even into those spheres where it is not culture but nature that determines what we do, we deceive ourselves into accepting—but with anxiety—a situation so novel that our ancestors never even thought to guard against it: the situation in which men and women are exchangeable in all their social roles and all their spheres of action.
It seems to me, however, that we do our children a disservice if we fail to acknowledge that their sexual nature sets them from the beginning on different paths. We should learn not to deny sex but to idealize it—to set before our children an image of the good man and the good woman, and to teach them to imitate what can be loved and admired. Even without the old division of roles, we can envisage alternative forms of role-playing that serve a comparable function—that rescue sex from animal appetite and make it the foundation of a lasting commitment.
Children, in their innocence, have an inkling of this. Sam with his trowel is idealizing himself; just as Lucy will idealize herself as she reads stories to her dolls and tends their fictitious ailments. Idealization is natural to human beings; for it is the process whereby they try to make themselves lovable and to live in the only security that our life provides. In our marriage vows, Sophie and I were making the same attempt. We knew the fickle lot of the human animal; we knew that married life would be fraught with temptations and frustrations. But we knew also that those things are not the only reality. We become fully human when we aim to be more than human; it is by living in the light of an ideal that we live with our imperfections. That is the deep reason why a vow can never be reduced to a contract: the vow is a pledge to the ideal light in you; a contract is signed by your self-interested shadow.
You do no service to a child by preparing him for the lower life—the life of the state-produced animal. Happiness comes through ideals, and it is only by idealizing each other that people can really fall in love. Such is the lesson that Sophie and I draw from our own experience, and we are surely not unique in this but normal human beings. The strange superstition has arisen in the Western world that we can start all over again, remaking human nature, human society, and the possibilities of happiness, as though the knowledge and experience of our ancestors were now entirely irrelevant. But on what fund of knowledge are we to draw when framing our alternative? The utopias have proved to be illusions, and the most evident result of our "liberation" from traditional constraints has been widespread discontent with the human condition.
It seems to me, therefore, that you should prepare your children to be happy in the way that you are happy. Treat them exactly as you would if your own ideals were generally shared. One day they will find, as we have found, the partner who makes it all worthwhile. Knowing this, we can re-apply ourselves to the education of Sam and Lucy, systematically depriving them, day after day, of the things our rulers recommend.