If you want to feel that these are sexually dangerous times, read the Heptaméron and feel again. Ahead of its time, and of her time, Marguerite de Navarre’s 16th-century house of 72 stories is messy and haunting. Most tales involve betrayal, usually adultery, followed by outlandish punishment: In one, a husband makes his cheating wife drink fresh blood from her lover’s skull. God, that’s savage. What would a cuckold do on the Real Housewives, take away her Bentley?
In seriousness, nobody I know seeks some return to the Old Testament torture of two-timing wives. There are still those times, but not in our places: Western Europe has made affairs so socially unrisky it’s like, why even have them, and in North America, whole dating services are built for cheating hearts. Studies – the kind you see on Yahoo.ca – claim more of us cheat than ever, and more of us are women; it’s all as common as common-law. Worse, it’s just so banal.
You don’t realize how banal, maybe, until you see these once thrilling, all-destroying, love-and-death decisions reflected back to us in perfectly dull art. Until you read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, in which a wife’s escape has the world’s most predictable return, or go see the new Sarah Polley film, Take This Waltz, which made me feel like I was cheating on feminism by not liking it.
Take This Waltz, out now, stars a married, whimsically adulterous Michelle Williams in a safer reprisal of her Blue Valentine (2011) character. If you watch 10 minutes you can guess what happens, so here: Margot (Williams) has sex with Daniel, the hot neighbour dude, who is interesting because he drives a rickshaw; leaves her even less interesting husband for him; commences becoming uninterested again. Yeah, spoiler alert: lovers are more exciting than husbands. Polley is deft and empathetic and Williams is a great actor, but her every move was so gutless and good-girl that it made me crave good old sin. I do want to live in the present, but must everything be permitted?
In the literary annals of infidelity – beginning, let’s say, with the Heptaméron – affairs by desirous women were almost certain to end with their doom. Between the miserabilism of Madame Bovary and the agonized reckoning of Notes on a Scandal, little has changed in the luck of loose wives. Evolutionary bio-logic says men do it for the sex, and sex with consent but without love doesn’t hurt; thus, the fates of fictional male cheaters are usually unchanged. Women are understood to cheat either in love or, more intriguingly, in lust for another life, and often end up with no life at all.
From my feminist perspective, that’s hugely problematic. From my feminine, or just human, perspective, it’s almost too sexy. Imagine the thrill of each “little death” resonating with a possibility of the big one. I stress imagine because I want nobody, not even myself, to actually live with such possibilities. It’s worth remembering that, as lush and dramatic and impossible as Anna Karenina seems now, it was at the time a realist novel. Today’s “reality fiction” reflects bettered mores, but when it comes to the heart wanting what the heart wants, I can’t help wanting more and more and more still. It’s not that I thought Anna Karenina deserved to die; it’s that I thought Vronsky should have killed himself, too. I loved Wilson for heading grave-ward after his awful wife, Myrtle, sped to death in The Great Gatsby. Lowering the stakes for everyone instead of raising them for men, too, is a more progressive egalitarianism, but it doesn’t make for romance. Besides, it says nothing of our reasons to cheat. The worst and most fascinating of them is really to cheat boredom, the only fate worse than death.
This year, both Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby are coming anew to screens near you. Trailers for both are out, so you can see that Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby looks like it was made on bath salts, and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina features Keira Knightley, anachronistically bony and anhedonic-looking as ever. Instinct, or bias, says neither of these adaptations will deal compellingly with the heady lust of either novel, but especially Karenina. It’ll all just be chandeliers and luxury vehicles and swellings of the orchestral kind. I want lust, not this lush life. I want liberty and death and lovers who know that’s never been an either/or choice.
And here I’d quote the last, great, liberation-as-death line of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novella The Awakening – if I thought enough people had read it. Read it! You will never pick up a Lionel Shriver divorce novel again, promise. Instead: here is the infidelitous dead poet Anne Sexton, who conjured a little George Bataille theory in the first line of her Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator. She said, for one thing: “The end of the affair is always death.”
Well, and the affair as meaningful plot device dies when authors redeem fictive sins, converting them into “realistic” relationships. Why must Hannah couple with Adam on Girls just to care about him? Why does Mad Men make gorgeous, cheating Beth go crazy when it’s clear – as she has sex with Pete, then fixes herself a snack and goes alone to bed – she’s the sanest feminist on the show? Why does Margot ruin such a great Leonard Cohen song by re-domesticating with Daniel, and would not Leonard Cohen reel in dread? There’s a man who knew the ends of love.
Put simplest: Justin Bieber is a boyfriend; Cohen is a lover. Choose adulthood. Choose adultery only if you’re willing to pay in blood. Better, let’s choose – let’s be – lovers. At least let’s reclaim that word and its meaning, because you can’t have the second without the first, from bad soft porn and pop lore. Friends laugh when I say “lover,” which is how I secretly prefer to refer even to the boy who’s my only boy. They should laugh. But they should also re-read Anais Nin, who once said she “couldn’t be faithful to any man for more than six days,” or the wholly unlaughable Roland Barthes, who felt/wrote sharply on the fatality and futility of loverhood.
Those other f-words, fidelity and forever, connote too much religion. So many new realist portrayals of relationships take on faith our young-bourgeois custom of cohabitation, as if it’s any less boring than marriage. More like, it’s moreso. When Polley’s Margot divorces her husband to live-in with her lover, she’s lazily reaching for the same old rewards with even less risk. At least a wedding, like Jessa’s “dumb whore” wedding on Girls, is a dare. In romantic fiction, or life, the only religious thing to want is marriage – so that someday there’ll be lovers again.