My commute-read lately has been Emile Zola's Nana, a novel about an actress and courtesan after whom the novel is titled. It's not for nothing that Zola's school of fiction is called naturalism, and as with The Belly of Paris, which I read a while back, this translates into a writing style which both provides huge amounts of sensory description and also takes a very frank and realistic approach to people's emotions and motivations.
Nana is too much a force of nature to be a likable character, but she's fascinating to watch, though at times also painful because of her bouts of self destructive impulsivity. It's probably no great shock, in a novel dealing with the high end courtesans of 1860s Paris and the men in their orbit, that one sees a lot of bad relationship models. The marriages we observe are universally unhappy ones, and many of the characters or yearning for a permanence and security which their actions are not likely to achieve.
This reminded me of some thoughts that I had not got around to forming into a post during a discussion of marriage a while back. The theme which many people felt called upon to write on at that time was that having a Catholic understanding of marriage is not a talisman against marital problems. This is most certainly true. A proper understanding of what marriage is for and how spouses should treat each other does not protect you against mistakenly marrying someone with great either great personal failings or who simply turns out to be hard to get along with. It does not protect you from marrying someone with hidden faults, or un-hidden ones that prove more difficult than you expected. It does not protect you from the shadow of your own or another's past. In short: ideas are not magic.
Nonetheless, ideas do matter -- in marriage as in the rest of life.
A couple who believe that marriage is simply a relationship of convenience which should last no longer than they find it adding to their happiness may, by chance, end up having a fairly successful marriage. And a couple who believe that marriage is meant to be a permanent and loving relationship for the purposes of bearing children and providing companionship may have a tragically unhappy marriage. But the latter set of beliefs is more conducive to happiness than the former.
This should be so obvious that it hardly needs arguing. Would we argue in relation to any other part of life that it doesn't impact the quality of your relationships whether you act well or act badly?
Where people get hung up, however, is on turning these things into absolutes: If you have incorrect ideas about marriage, your marriage will be bad. If you have good ideas about marriage, your marriage will be good.
It should be obvious that both of these are far too simplistic. People, both those with good ideas and those with bad ideas, often don't live up to their professed standards. Some people have good fortune, other have bad. A host of things contribute to the relative success or failure of a marriage. However, none of this means that ideas don't matter. They do.
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