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Marriages: A Modern Embrace for Optimism

September 21, 1986|Naomi Bliven | Naomi Bliven is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

NEW YORK — There has been an epidemic of weddings this year--Tatum, Fergie, Caroline, Maria, and last month Ashley, the daughter of our friend Sheila, who married at our house. Perhaps I shouldn't have put that last one in. You don't know the young woman, so why should you care? Still, the chances are you don't know any of the others, either, but nonetheless millions of us around the globe read about, looked at pictures of and very likely hashed over minutiae of the weddings of these young strangers. Why?

Partly, I suppose, because weddings answer an ineradicable human love of pageantry. Pomp, formality, spectacle and ritual behavior are scarce in modern society. In past epochs, royalty and nobility (and, in most societies, religious figures) knew that it was part of their trade to provide color for the poor. Color in every sense, including the literal, since poor folk could only afford to dress in "natural" earth tones, browns and beiges we admire but that they found drab, particularly by contrast to the grandees' gorgeous purples and crimsons trimmed with fur, highlighted with gilt. In time, as old Europe grew richer, prosperous city folk aped their betters and medieval guilds paraded through towns looking as gaudy as they could afford to. But this year, in New York City, our local union leaders decided not to hold a Labor Day parade in order to let their members enjoy the day off at the beaches. There isn't much left in the way of national displays--the Tournament of Roses, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, every four years an inauguration and every decade a whoop-it-up Fourth of July. No wonder we cherish weddings.

Then, too, in an open society like our own, we all have at least a chance to become upstarts. We are all in the grip of Good Taste, if we could only figure out what it is. We study the details of high-life weddings to learn how flashy we can be without being vulgar. Sometimes we get a shock--wedding invitations with pictures on them, like fancy new bank checks, are a little further than we thought we dared go. Sometimes we feel we hit the bull's-eye; I might as well tell you that the bride at our house wore off-white silk organza to match the ivory panels of old lace that the dressmaker had found and worked into the gown, and that all the flowers were shades of pink. Her mother, who is allergic to wine, nevertheless decided--correctly, as the guests agreed--to splurge on top-notch champagne.

There is another puzzle about our intense response to weddings: The statistics on divorce nowadays suggest that these dressy events may be dress rehearsals rather than definitive performances. It seems to make no difference. We are as moved as if the troth plighted were indeed unique in their lives--"till death us do part." Readers will doubtless recall the facts and the gossip in the backgrounds of the headline weddings. In the case of the wedding at our house, both sets of parents had been divorced--as, for that matter, had many of the guests--but we were all moved to tears of joy or sympathy by the ceremony. (The liturgy was traditional, but the minister did let the couple add a text of their choice, and they picked the verses from Chapter IV of Ecclesiastes, beginning "Two are better than one.")

Were we all merely silly or sentimental? Were we using the occasion to summon up memories of our younger selves? Or were we, loving the young people, allowing ourselves to rejoice in their happiness by deliberately forgetting that a wedding is not infallibly a happy ending? I think not. I think that, whatever our individual experience, weddings symbolize our deepest hopes and intuitions of the good, of union, creativity and continuity. Weddings are emblematic of exchange, sharing and spiritual and mental enrichment. They are tokens of fruitfulness in every sense, models of all our defenses against sterility or uselessness, against time, against, if you like, non-existence. Of all human deeds, a wedding is the most exact metaphor for--to borrow a phrase from another context--affirmative action.

Everybody agrees that since marriages are no longer dynastic arrangements based upon property, but the choices of individuals seeking happiness, they carry a great burden of emotional expectation that not all can fulfill. But we also agree that the marriages that do fulfill them are blessings beyond price. Any modern wedding then, might be compared to a lottery, with the prize being the best life we can imagine. Perhaps, along with our responsiveness to the ideal of union, our prayers, our tears, our toasts, all reflect the irrational hope that accompanies an innocent gamble.

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