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173. Preponderance of the great (II)

A colleague, an Indian computer scientist, told me that when the time came for her arranged marriage to be fulfilled she was in Switzerland; she flew back to India, married, and returned to her job. Her husband, whom she had known, vaguely, for many years was a trained engineer, but he had no job; it fell to him to do the cookery and clean the flat. The problem was that he, despite his excellent education, had been catered to by his mother and aunts his entire life; his cookery only extended to a boiled egg—and so that was what they lived on for many months.

Now, from time to time, Western pundits will raise the issue of arranged marriage; they note that people in these circumstances are often much more satisfied than their Western counterparts. Would it be better, they suggest, if we adopted arranged marriages, as the Indians do? The question is, as usual, a false dichotomy; it excludes the real answer, for Westerners are far too individual to find arranged marriages attractive, the institution seems stultifying and tyrannical—even for non-feminists. The matchmaker is, for example, a Jewish tradition, as seen in Fiddler on the Roof; as Otto Weininger observed, the Jews are a matchmaking race—indeed, they have even had a hand in arranging recent marriages in the British Royal Family, for those with eyes to see.

So, given the choice, Westerners prefer sexual anarchy to arranged marriages; but this is an illusion. The real answer to the marriage problem can be found in Pride and Prejudice (1813). How does romance work in that novel? It is a hybrid: the parents in a district throw dances for their children to attend, the attendees being of the same or higher social class. The children then mix and have some latitude to find a partner organically; however, the parents, particularly the father, retain a veto over the match. This is the Western system, now degraded in the age of the mass club scene and partially reenacted in the matches made between university students, but only imperfectly.

The false marriage debate replicates the pseudo-debate about Western sexuality in general. The representation of sex in the West is usually posed as a clash between fun-loving sexual beings—sex positivist feminists, as they say today—and Puritans, referring not to Puritanism as a kind of moralism but Puritanism in its strict historical sense of a hatred of anything sensual. This has led to the rise of the pornographic society and the destruction of eroticism. Pornography is characterised by flagrancy, a pornographic image is little different to a gynaecological exam—it is the full spread; and it is only different from images in medical textbooks in its use of suggestive clothing and setting, the shreds of eroticism. The erotic derives from a power relation, a glance can be erotic: it is the lacuna that draws a person onwards, it is suggestive not flagrant. Eroticism retains the pathos of distance, the power of taboo—the star-crossed lovers; power is a mysterious emptiness that draws a person towards it, a black hole—not dissimilar to death itself.

Hence Greek statues are erotic, they do not appear with legs splayed for the insertion of a stainless steel instrument—they merely exude marbled sight; lingerie is erotic, since it conceals and suggests; flirtation is erotic—it concerns a hidden meaning, a meaning that is delightful because it is implied. Western societies have become sexual in a crude mechanical sense; people enamoured with pornography are always keen to discuss it as a “natural” biological process, just like excretion. What has been lost is the erotic; it is, paradoxically, the only taboo, because it suggests that sex is grounded in a power relation—an inegalitarian assertion that contradicts the prevalent ideology. The feminists are right—sex is politics, just not how they think. The more sex is discussed in a matter-of-fact-way, the less erotic it becomes; hence Western societies are sexualised but unerotic.


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