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  1. #1

    Marriage and Divorce, by Havelock Ellis

    Havelock Ellis (1859 - 1939) was an English physician and man of letters, known for his writings on the psychology of sex and admired for his dignity and optimism by men such as H.L. Mencken (who preferred him over Freud) and George Orwell. He married a lesbian women's right advocate (!) while apparently still a virgin, which may well have contributed to his frank and honest look at at marriage and divorce in this essay, published in a collection of war time essays. It discusses many question also raised in Little Essays of Love and Virtue, written specifically with younger people in mind. I have included the brief preface to that book, in which he explains his honorable intentions of fairly educating the young about the possible paths they may take in life, including questions of marriage and settling down: "It is in youth that the questions of mature age can alone be settled, if they ever are to be settled, and unless we begin to think about adult problems when we are young all our thinking is likely to be in vain."

    XV. MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE

    We contemplate our marriage system with satisfaction. We remember the many unquestionable evidences in favour of it, and we marvel that it so often proves a failure. For while we remember the evidence in favour of it, we forget the evidence against it, and we overlook the important fact that our favourable evidence is largely based on the vision of an abstract or idealised monogamy which fails to correspond to the detailed and ever varying system which in practice we cherish. We point to the fact that monogamic marriage has probably flourished throughout the history of the world, that it exists among savages, even among animals, but we fail to observe how far that monogamy differs from ours, even assuming that our monogamy is a real monogamy and not a disguised polygamy, especially in the fact that it is a free union and only subject to the inherent penalties that follow its infraction, not to external penalties. Ours is not free; our faith in its natural virtues is not quite so firm as we assert; we are always meddling with it and worrying over its health and anxiously trying to bolster it up. We are not by any means willing to let it rest on the sanction of its own natural or divine laws. Our feeling is, as James Hinton used ironically to express it: "Poor God with no one to help Him!"

    The fact is that when we compare our civilised marriage system with marriage as it exists in Nature, we fail to realise a fundamental distinction. Our marriage system is made up of two absolutely different elements which cannot blend. On the one hand, it is the manifestation of our deepest and most volcanic impulses. On the other hand, it is an elaborate web of regulations—legal, ecclesiastical, economic—which is to-day quite out of relation to our impulses. On the one hand, it is a force which springs from within; on the other hand, it is a force which presses on us from without.[1] One says broadly that these two elements of marriage, as we understand it, are out of relation to each other. But there is an important saving qualification to be made. The inner impulse is not without law, and the external pressure is not without an ultimate basis of nature. That is to say, that under free and natural conditions the inner impulse tends to develop itself, not licentiously but with its own order and restraints, while, on the other hand, our inherited regulations are largely the tradition of ancient attempts to fix and register that natural order and restraint. The disharmony comes in with the fact that our regulations are traditional and ancient, not our own attempts to fix and register the natural order but inextricably mixed up with elements that are entirely alien to our civilised habits of life. Whatever our attitude towards mediaeval Canon Law may be—whether reverence or indifference or disgust—it yet holds us and is ingrained into our marriage system to-day. Canon Law was a good and vital thing under the conditions which produced it. The survival of Canon Law to-day, with the antiquated and ascetic conception of the subordination of women associated with it, is the chief reason why we in the twentieth century have not yet progressed so far towards a reasonable system of marriage as the Romans had reached on the basis of their law, nearly two thousand years ago.[2] Marriage is conditioned both by inner impulse and outward pressure. But a healthy impulse bears within it an order and restraint of its own, while a truly moral outward pressure is based, not on the demands of mediaeval days, but on the demands of our own day.

    How far this is from being the case yet we find well illustrated by our divorce methods. All our modern culture favour a sense of the sacredness of the sexual relations; we cherish a delicate reserve concerning all the intimacies of personal relationship. But when the magic word "Divorce" is uttered we fling all our civilisation to the winds, and in the desecrated name of Law we proceed to an inquisition which scarcely differs at all from those public tests of mediaeval law-courts which now we dare not venture even to put into words.

    It is true that we are not bound to be consistent when it is an advantage to be inconsistent. And if there were a method in our madness it would be justified. But there is no method. From first to last the history of divorce (read it, for instance, in Howard's Matrimonial Institutions) is an ever shifting record of cruel blunders and ridiculous absurdities. Divorce began in modern times in flagrant injustice to one of the two partners, the wife, and it has ended—if we may hope that the end is approaching—in imbecilities that to future ages will be incredible. For no legal jargon has ever been invented that will express the sympathies and the antipathies of human relationship; they even escape the subtlest expression. Law-makers have tortured their brains to devise formulas which will cover the legitimate grounds for divorce. How vain their efforts are is sufficiently shown by the fact that by no chance can they ever agree on their formulas, and that they are changing them constantly with feverish haste, dimly realising that they are but the antiquated representatives of mediaevalism, and that soon their occupation will be gone for ever.

    The reasons for the making or the breaking of human relationships can never be formulated. The only result of such legal formulas is that they bring law into contempt because they have to be ingeniously and methodically cheated in order to adapt them in any degree to civilised human needs. Thus such laws not only degrade the name of Law, but they degrade the whole community which tolerates them. There is only one ultimate reason for either marriage or divorce, and that is that the two persons concerned consent to the marriage or consent to the divorce. Why they consent is no concern of any third party, and, maybe, they cannot even put it into words.

    At the same time, let us not forget, marriage and divorce are a very real concern of the State, and law cannot ignore either. It is the business of the State to see to it that no interests are injured. The contract of marriage and the contract of divorce are private matters, but it is necessary to guard that no injury is thereby done to either of the contracting persons, or to third parties, or to the community as a whole. The State may have a right to say what persons are unfit for marriage, or at all events for procreation; the State must take care that the weaker party is not injured; the State is especially bound to watch over the interests of children, and this involves, in the best issue, that each child shall have two effective parents, whether or not those parents are living together. A large scope—we are beginning to recognise—must be left alike to freedom of marriage and freedom of divorce, but the State must mark out the limits within which that freedom is exercised.

    The loosening hold of the State on marriage is by no means connected with any growing sense of the value of divorce. At the best, it is probable that divorce is merely a necessary evil. One of the chief reasons why we should seek to promote education in relation to sexual relationships and to inculcate the responsibilities of such relationships, so making the approach to marriage more circumspect, is in order to obviate the need for divorce. For divorce is always a confession of failure. Very often, indeed, it involves not only a confession of failure in one particular marriage but of failure for marriage generally. One notes how often the people who fail in a first marriage fail even more hopelessly in the second. They have chosen the wrong partners; but one suspects that for them all partners will prove the wrong partners. One sometimes hears nowadays that a succession of marriage relationships is desirable in order to develop character. But that depends on many things. It very much depends on what character there is to develop. A man may have relationships with a hundred women and develop much less character out of his experience, and even acquire a much less intimate knowledge of women, than the man who has spent his life in an endless series of adventures with one woman. It depends a good deal on the man and not a little on the woman.

    Thus the work of marriage in the world must depend entirely on the nature of that world. A fine marriage system can only be produced by a fine civilisation of which it is the exquisite flower. Laws cannot better marriage; even education, by itself, is powerless, necessary as it is in conjunction with other influences. The love-relationships of men and women must develop freely, and with due allowance for the variations which the complexities of civilisation demand. But these relationships touch the whole of life at so infinite a number of points that they cannot even develop at all save in a society that is itself developing graciously and harmoniously. Do not expect to pluck figs from thistles. As a society is, so will its marriages be.

    [1] It is this artificial and external pressure which often produces a revolt against marriage. The author of a remarkable paper entitled, "Our Incestuous Marriage," in the Forum (Dec., 1915), advocates a reform of social marriage customs "in conformance with the freedom-loving modern nature," and the introduction of "a fresh atmosphere for married life in which personality can be made to appear so sacred and free that marriage will be undertaken and borne as lightly and gracefully as a secret sin."

    [2] See Sir James Donaldson, Woman: Her Position and Influence in Ancient Greece and Rome, 1907; also S.B. Kitchin's excellent History of Divorce, 1912; this author believes that the tendency in modern civilisation is to return to the simple principles of Roman law involving divorce by consent. See also Havelock Ellis, Sex in Relation to Society, Ch. X.

    PREFACE to Little Essays of Love and Virtue

    In these Essays—little, indeed, as I know them to be, compared to the magnitude of their subjects—I have tried to set forth, as clearly as I can, certain fundamental principles, together with their practical application to the life of our time. Some of these principles were stated, more briefly and technically, in my larger Studies of sex; others were therein implied but only to be read between the lines. Here I have expressed them in simple language and with some detail. It is my hope that in this way they may more surely come into the hands of young people, youths and girls at the period of adolescence, who have been present to my thoughts in all the studies I have written of sex because I was myself of that age when I first vaguely planned them. I would prefer to leave to their judgment the question as to whether this book is suitable to be placed in the hands of older people. It might only give them pain. It is in youth that the questions of mature age can alone be settled, if they ever are to be settled, and unless we begin to think about adult problems when we are young all our thinking is likely to be in vain. There are but few people who are able when youth is over either on the one hand to re-mould themselves nearer to those facts of Nature and of Society they failed to perceive, or had not the courage to accept, when they were young, or, on the other hand, to mould the facts of the exterior world nearer to those of their own true interior world. One hesitates to bring home to them too keenly what they have missed in life. Yet, let us remember, even for those who have missed most, there always remains the fortifying and consoling thought that they may at least help to make the world better for those who come after them, and the possibilities of human adjustment easier for others than it has been for themselves. They must still remain true to their own traditions. We could not wish it to be otherwise.

    The art of making love and the art of being virtuous;—two aspects of the great art of living that are, rightly regarded, harmonious and not at variance—remain, indeed, when we cease to misunderstand them, essentially the same in all ages and among all peoples. Yet, always and everywhere, little modifications become necessary, little, yet, like so many little things, immense in their significance and results. In this way, if we are really alive, we flexibly adjust ourselves to the world in which we find ourselves, and in so doing simultaneously adjust to ourselves that ever-changing world, ever-changing, though its changes are within such narrow limits that it yet remains substantially the same. It is with such modification that we are concerned in these Little Essays.

    H.E.

    London, 1921

    Taken from the Project Gutenberg eBooks of Essays in War-Time and Little Essays of Love and Virtue.
    And when her lips so sweetly move
    The soul such height attain,
    You're free, yet would no longer rove
    But lay you down in chains.

  2. #2

    Re: Marriage and Divorce, by Havelock Ellis

    Quote Originally Posted by Ancient Sunlight View Post
    Thus the work of marriage in the world must depend entirely on the nature of that world. A fine marriage system can only be produced by a fine civilisation of which it is the exquisite flower. Laws cannot better marriage; even education, by itself, is powerless, necessary as it is in conjunction with other influences. The love-relationships of men and women must develop freely, and with due allowance for the variations which the complexities of civilisation demand. But these relationships touch the whole of life at so infinite a number of points that they cannot even develop at all save in a society that is itself developing graciously and harmoniously. Do not expect to pluck figs from thistles. As a society is, so will its marriages be.
    This is a good formulation, especially the last line. But even here there is too much optimism with a view to human nature IMO, much of the excerpt seems marred in an inability to clearly see the chaos that would come to pass once legal and other controls were lifted, as in the current age. Unless I read it wrong the championing of the late era roman marriage system seems a strange one. In an era of decadence and decline, late Rome can almost be held up as a parallel to our own times, as an example of what NOT to do to ensure a stable marriage system.

    I agree straight legal mandates are ineffective at controlling behavioural patterns, that it requires a larger view, I just wonder to what extent non-legal social controls are factored into this view of Ellis', and how much it is coloured by traditional notions of love (i.e. imputing to women the ability to love in the same manner as men do). Certainly human behaviour is exceedingly complex and reductionist theories present many problems, but the tone of the article seems skewed too far in the other direction IMO.

    Overall it brings an interesting perspective to the matter, in that several points are very relevant (e.g. people marrying who shouldn't do so, not learning from previous mistakes, the system is a mirror of its parts, etc.), so even if some of the other theses I would either disagree with or remain sceptical about, it shows that the self evidence of the extent of the decline we are today experiencing (given hindsight) wasn't necessarily evident even to a man with an insightful understanding of some of the meta dynamics of marriage and divorce.

  3. #3

    Re: Marriage and Divorce, by Havelock Ellis

    I agree; Ellis is one of those rare optimistic men of letters, in part to his detriment. It is an attitude from a very different time. Yet it is worth sharing a bit of his works here; he changed our views of sex for the better, and for years was prosecuted for it. He dared to look with honest eyes, to see the phenomenon, scientifically, as it really was. That his reasoning with the data that he received is flawed, is almost secondary. It's important to keep reading all these pieces in context.

    His optimism is, as you pointed out, historically interesting. Take this passage from his diary:

    I find myself unable to share that Pessimism in the face of the world which seems not uncommon to-day. I suspect that the Pessimist is often merely an impecunious bankrupt Optimist. He had imagined, in other words, that the eminently respectable March of Progress was bearing him onwards to the social goal of a glorified Sunday School. Horrible doubts have seized him. Henceforth, to his eyes, the Universe is shrouded in Black. ... There is no Gain in the world: so be it: but neither is there any Loss. There is never any failure to this infinite freshness of life, and the ancient novelty is for ever renewed.

    Most people would guess immediately in what time that was written. Nobody from the mid-twentieth century could have penned such a paragraph. Orwell's haunting comment at the start of his review of Ellis' autobiography says enough: "As the surviving writers of the nineteenth century drop away, one has the feeling that they are dying just in time. Ten years more, even five years, and they might recoil in horror from the world they have helped to create." It was 1940. Ellis was a man from a different time; he did not belong. "[Y]ou can see what he was after: a sane, clean, friendly world, without fear and without injustice. What fun it must have been, in those hopeful days back in the 'eighties, working away for the best of all possible causes -- and there were so many causes to choose from. Who could have foreseen where it would all end?"

    Orwell wrote in a different time from ours too; whether he is closer to the truth, I can not say. But whatever the case may be, Ellis and I are rarely concordant. He was too perfect a gentleman, and too glittery an optimist. Take this passage:

    As I sit basking in the sunshine on this familiar little rocky peninsula in the centre of the bay, still almost surrounded by the falling tide, I note a youth and a girl crossing the sands below me, where the gulls calmly rest, to the edge of dry beach. Then she sits down and he stands or bends tenderly over her. ... I see them clearly now, a serious bespectacled youth of some twenty—one years and a golden—haired girl, some two or three years younger, in a clinging white dress. The young St. Christopher at last deposits his sacred burden at the foot of the peninsula, which they climb, to sit down on the rocks, and in the same deliberate, happy, self-absorbed spirit complete their toilet and depart.

    I know not what relation of tender intimacy unites them, but when they have gone their faces remain in my memory. I seem to see them thirty years hence, that honest, faithful, straightforward face of the youth, transformed into the rigid image of an eminently-worthy and wholly-undistinguished citizen, and the radiant, meaningless girl a stout and careful Mrs. Grundy with a band of children around her. Yet the memory of to-day will still perhaps be enshrined in their hearts.

    The difference between us two becomes evident quickly. I reflect with horror and genuine sadness on the faded vitality of the youths, once, perhaps, promising; but in their middle-aged utterly conventional and mediocre citizens, indistinguishable from their peers and lifeless till the grave. Ellis saw two happy, if average, adults, with the memories of their youthful days still fondly remembered. Take your pick.
    And when her lips so sweetly move
    The soul such height attain,
    You're free, yet would no longer rove
    But lay you down in chains.


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