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Men and Marriage by George Gilder (Pelican: $15.95; 200 pp.)

October 05, 1986| Barbara Ehrenreich | Ehrenreich is the author of "Hearts of Men" (Doubleday). and

Oh George, you brute! Some men would have been satisfied to batter feminism just once, collect their royalties, and move on to grander things, like "Wealth and Poverty." But George Gilder has once again taken up his cudgel, marshaled his instructive tales of baboon society and human ghetto life and come up with a retread of his 1973 screed against women's liberation, "Sexual Suicide." Not to worry, though, "Men and Marriage" is no less floridly idiosyncratic than the original.

Gilder is a clever man, a Harvard graduate and, in fact, a former liberal. It has been his signal achievement to synthesize sex, gender, race and capitalism into one seamless, if slightly cracked, right-wing theory, and to do so without ever once having to invoke that all-purpose filler of logical gaps, the deity. The whole thing rests on Gilder's view of human nature: namely, that there isn't any. There is male nature and there is female nature, and the two are as unlike as yin and yang. Left to themselves, men are "barbarians," disposed to "criminality, drugs and violence." Women, at least those who have not been embittered by the cruel myth of feminism, are gentle, "softly curved" and inclined to a life of "pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, suckling, and long-term nurture."

Human society arose because the superior (female) sex has been able, by withholding its sexual favors, to trap the males into marriage and breadwinning. For the males, this is an enormous sacrifice--of "the hunt and the chase, the motorbike and the open road"--which females wisely compensate for by letting the men run everything, from the family to the economy. The same pact between the sexes has prevailed, more or less, from Cro-Magnon times to corporate capitalism; and the odd society that doesn't fit the pattern (such as the Trobrianders) is dismissed by Gilder as "perverse" and even "retarded."

Industrial capitalism represents the ultimate subjugation of males to the "rhythms and perspectives of female sexuality," for within it, men have no choice but to go forth daily and forage in the corporate work world. This may sound harsh, but the repression of men is the price we pay for that most feminine of all social arrangements, capitalism. Never mind recessions, unemployment and emasculating low-wage jobs, capitalism "begins at the mother's breast" is "giving," nurturant, and productive of widespread altruism.

In this scheme, anything that potentially lightens the male burden of breadwinning--such as welfare or decent pay for working women--threatens to unleash the primordial male propensity for rape and pillage. As if to give us a sample of the nastiness men are capable of, Gilder snaps that comparable worth (that is, equal pay for work of comparable worth) is "like . . . apartheid." And abortion is bad, he fumes, not because of the loss of fetal life, but because "a man quite simply cannot now father a baby unless his wife is fully and deliberately agreeable."

So, you may wonder, if biology has so neatly conspired to produce the world as Gilder would like it, how have we come to this awful pass? In "Sexual Suicide," he blamed feminism (though how any women overcame their hormonal impulses long enough to become feminists was never explained.) Thirteen years later, however, Gilder is no longer a lone male howling in the unisex wasteland. Throngs of like-minded fellows have come together to organize the New Right, and their favorite quarry is not feminism or even socialism but the "intelligentsia" or "educated elite." In "Men and Marriage," Gilder joins the chase, targeting genderless "sexual liberals," social scientists and unnamed members of the "intelligentsia" as the source of sexual revolution and incipient anarchy. Thirteen years ago, he worried that the "intelligentsia" was not breeding fast enough; now he warns that it will drive us all to extinction with its crackpot efforts to separate sex from procreation.

Yet, for all of Gilder's fashionable New Right puritanism, there is something oddly prurient about "Men and Marriage." It is as if he can sustain his ordinarily prim, expository style for only so long without breaking into a pulsing erotic narrative, such as his opening "fable" of a princess pursued through the forest by a half-clad barbarian ("He pursued her, caught her, and pulled her to the ground, ripping her gown." Further along, we are treated to other snippets of torrid fiction: a short story-length account of an adulterous affair, a steamy glimpse of gay sex, a nostalgic reprise of the single life ("The glimpse of breasts shifting softly in a silken blouse. . . . The scent of surrender. . . . The ecstatic slipping between new sheets. . . .) One cannot help but feel that Gilder's sex-soaked theories of capitalism are yet another product of the sexual revolution, just as he is, for better or for worse, a credentialed member of the "intelligentsia" that he claims has so grievously misled us before.

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