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BOOK REVIEW : Expounding on Nuclear Families : THE SUBVERSIVE FAMILY By Ferdinand Mount Macmillan $22.95, 282 pages

December 28, 1992|CAROLYN SEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ferdinand Mount endeavors in this volume to suggest that of all the social systems known to man--public and private--the nuclear family has always been paramount. The big question is, why would he pick this particular thesis for a (moderately) scholarly book?

No clues are given on the book jacket. We do know this: Ferdinand Mount is the editor of the London Times Literary Supplement. He writes from a particular position: By The World he means Western Europe. He is definitely a man. Although he presumes to write about family, marriage, divorce and so on, he can write a whole chapter about divorce, for instance, and dismiss its effects on children in a couple of throwaway lines.

Finally, since he's editor of the TLS, it can be assumed that he's not used to being contradicted, interrupted or ignored--in print or at parties. He is, therefore, a Blabber Extraordinaire. Somebody should have had the charity to tell him there's no reason to write this book. The hegemony of church and state over the individual is already a moot point.

It's Ferdinand Mount's contention that the nuclear family reigns supreme in society; that it always has and always will. There was no "extended family," there is no extended family, OK? (That's probably true, as long as you throw out all of Asia, all of Africa, India and North America before 1492.)

What is the world anyway to Mount? England, Germany, Scandinavia, a little of France and Italy thrown in. Why the author is so concerned about proving there was always a nuclear family in Europe remains mysterious to this reader.

Mount contends that both the Roman Catholic Church and modern Marxists are against the nuclear family; that they would rather you preferred Jesus or the Proletariat to your wife and children. Well, duh , Ferdinand! Doesn't everyone know that? (Put differently, is there anyone who doesn't know that?) Mount thinks he just discovered it.

Mount also spends a long chapter debunking "the myth of the indifferent mother"--whatever that is. The history of the nuclear family guarantees that mothers really do love their children, he assures us repeatedly. They always have and always will. He spends 20 pages giving us quotes about mothers who love their children.

This is bewildering if you've never heard the myth of the indifferent mother. He also attacks the tendency of men to band together in "fraternities," suggesting that brotherly love is not as strong as the nuclear family and is in fact another "myth." Whenever men go off to become monks or invent a political system, they are not living a good, full life.

(I keep thinking of all this in terms of a long, tiresome literary party with a glittery-eyed guest advancing on you once again, having just found another quote about mothers loving their children. And no one has the nerve to say, "Of course, mothers love their children, Ferdinand! Don't you think you've had enough of that heavily spiked punch?")

As part of this uneven grab bag, Mount contends that the medieval troubadours in the south of France didn't invent love, that it was there all along. But again, no one at this party has the nerve to point out to this well-meaning family man the difference between life and art, because he's the editor of the TLS, and if he doesn't know the difference by now nobody's going to be the one to go over there and tell him. Meanwhile, there he is, raving by the hors d'oeuvre table, and nobody can get to the shrimp.

It seems as if common sense has entirely forsaken this man. Of course St. Paul can't stand sex and women. Of course Marx was more interested in the Marxist state than anything else. Of course lots of intellectuals don't like their families. They're smarter than their families. That doesn't mean that families are going anyplace any time soon.

The author is at his particular dopiest when he gets onto modern marriages, divorce and feminism. He finds a couple of quotes from Shulamith Firestone and Germaine Greer in which they speculate about growing babies in test tubes and living in feminist communes. Ferdinand brilliantly strikes this down. People would rather get married than grow babies in test tubes. He's sure of it.

Mount defends the nuclear family as the great bastion of power for the private, common man. He says that even though wives were sometimes oppressed through the ages, they often got to participate (i.e., work ) in the house, so that it was a "partnership."

He barely mentions those pesky kids and dances around divorce and remarriage very lightly. This book might have mentioned what happens when a man (or a woman) engages in so many serial nuclear marriages that inevitably (and usually during the holiday season) these marriages, with spouses and children to burn, turn into a nuclear explosion.

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