What has Beatrice to do with Bed?

What has Beatrice to do with Bed?

"Dante and beatrice" by Henry Holiday - Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dante and beatrice” by Henry Holiday – Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been reading Bed and Board: Plain Talk about Marriage by Robert Farrar Capon. The book was published in 1965 but wears quite well in essentials. The author is an Episcopalian priest and father of six, he unites a theological insight with whimsy and solid experience of family life. It’s a delightful read and I’ve been bouncing about in it, not reading it in order because when I tried to do that I got bogged down in the first chapter. This time I jumped right in to the chapter on Board. Then skipped back to Bed, then forward again and back again.

But this is my notes from the section on Bed, just a collection of quotes without commentary. I really wanted to write my notes for Board up first because they tied in nicely with Thanksgiving and all. But then I got sidetracked by a conversation about marriage and oh so caught up with this lovely image of Beatrice.

So I’ll come back to the liturgy of the family dinner at some other point. Tonight, some scattered notes on the geography of the Marriage Bed. Really, just notes. A bunch of quotes I’ve transcribed. The next to last one, the really long one on Beatrice, is the best of the lot, but I wanted to capture some of the flavor of his first thoughts on geography as well.

I usually say that you need only two things, two pieces of matter, to make a home: a bed and a table. It’s an oversimplification, but it’s a good one— it comes close to being a diagram. For Bed and Board are the fundamental geographical divisions of the family; they are the chief places, and it is in them, at them and around them, that we dance the parts we are given. More, they are the boundaries that mark the areas of our freedom in marriage. It is precisely the confines of the stage that render the dancers’ freedom effective: the ballet is saved from enslavement to limitless idea by the lights in front and the drops in back.

. . . And so marriage is delivered by the bed. The untenability of romance, the endlessness of the vision of the beloved, threaten constantly to send us off in successive limitless expeditions after something that grows successively harder to define. The movie star on her fifth marriage seems to be less clear about what she wants and less free to make her wanting serve her well…. That is our dilemma: Desire is limitless; we are not.

The vow of lifelong fidelity to one bed, one woman, becomes the wall at the edge of the cliff that leaves the children to play, rather than be lost at large. Marriage gives us somewhere to be.

The bed is the heart of the home, the arena of love, the seedbed of life, and the one constant point of meeting.

The marriage bed is a trench; adversity has made us bedfellows…. There are two of us, crouched down here under a barrage of years, bills and petty grievances, waiting for a signal which shows no sign of coming. Most likely we shall die in this trench. There is really no place else to go, so in the meantime we talk to each other. The sum and substance of what we manage to say, however, is “Well, here we are.”

I am not being obscure; let me say at once, in plain English, what that framework is. It is the Cross of Christ, where God Incarnate works to reconcile the broken and dishonored fragments of the City by being himself broken and dishonored. If I were not invited into that mystery I do not think I could afford to be honest about what a calamity we are all in. Only Christian marriage has a real chance to save nature. . . . The disciple is not above his master; the Cross is foolishness, and the marriage bed is absurd. That much rings true. So far, so good.

We don’t talk very much anymore about lust as a disease. We don’t see ourselves as imperiled by fornication; instead we name it Sex and praise it to the skies; but a disease it is nonetheless, and marrying remains its cure. Sex teaches me to desire all women above a very low passing grade. Marriage gives me only one. If it’s Sex I’m after, the conjugal bed is not much of an improvement over celibacy. The result of it all is that we enjoy our beds for a while, and after that, we grumble. The one thing we don’t do is take the treatment full force.

We like to think that Beatrice is saying something about herself, and we begin, after the first wonder, to aim at her rather than the glory behind her. After the chivalry wears off, people in love usually act as if the whole process meant that they were supposed to find their fulfillment in each other— as if they were, respectively, each other’s final goal. “You’re the only girl in the world for me.” “We were meant for each other.” That, of course, is nonsense if you believe Dante. They were not meant for each other; they were meant to communicate the glory to each other. They are not gods, but ministers. Beatrice is precisely a priestly figure. She is not my destiny, but the agent, the delightful sacrament, of it. If I treat her as an end, delight is about all I can bargain for, and not even that for long. If I take her as a sacrament, I receive, along with the delight, the joy that lies behind her.

But Dante never went to bed with Beatrice. In our book, we would have said he hardly even knew her. What, then, has Beatrice to do with Bed?

Just this. For better or worse, we have made romance the basis for marriage. Falling in love is supposed to be the reason why people end up in matrimony. (The Church, you will recall, doesn’t commit herself on the subject. Romance or family arrangement, it’s all the same to her, provided they know what they’re doing and are willing to stick with it till they die.) Romance as the justification for marriage is pretty much a folk invention of less than eight hundred years’ standing. On the whole, it’s not a bad one at all. It’s mostly better than worse. For if marriage itself is the mystery written small— if it is indeed the earthly image of the union of Christ and his Church— then it would be hard to find a better starting point that the glimpsing of that same mystery in the Beloved. Dante never married Beatrice, but we feel obliged to; all in all, it is rather a good idea. As a matter of fact, the only thing wrong with it is the lies about it.

One of them I’ve already mentioned. It’s the “You are my destiny” bit. Only God can be that, and any attempt to put so large a demand on a mere creature always comes a cropper. Besides, in marriage it’s hard to keep up the appearance of being somebody’s destiny; it’s even hard to look like a halfway decent agent of destiny. Beatrice burning the toast, or leaving the socks untended, is practically unrecognizable.

The other lie is just as palpable but a little trickier. “You’re the only girl in the world for me” is not very often the truth. Precisely because Beatrice is only an agent of the glory, it usually turns out that the glory can be glimpsed through other agents as well. Dante spends quite a bit of time looking at other girls…. Marriage is monogamous; the romantic intimation of the glory is not.

Romantic love is about as close to the real point of marriage as anything can be: It is a mystery leading to a mystery, an absurdity inviting a further absurdity. We were meant for greatness, for glory, for the vast coinherence of the City. Our romantic notions fit that. If our marriages do not, it is not because marriage is contrary to romance, but because we have violated romance itself, have made the fatal mistake of stopping at Beatrice instead of the glory.My wife is not my destiny, and she cannot stand being treated as if she were. Romance in marriage is not the artificial prolongation of the initial wonders of courtship. I cannot be her swain ever again. But I can enter with her into the fellowship of the mystery, and that is romance indeed. Beatrice, then, lies in my bed, and grows old and worn along with me. She is the minister of more than herself; that is exactly why I need not fear for her inevitable growing less. We must decrease but the Glory will increase. The bed is one more of the exchanges of the City.

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