Felix and Oscar: A Post-Modern Marriage
Felix and Oscar quarrel all the time, but they cannot imagine life without one another. Each has the other’s power of attorney. There is as much chance of their moving to separate apartments, now, after all these years, as there is that the Empire State Building will spontaneously collapse into dust. They wouldn’t know how to get through a single day. So they wish to celebrate this lifelong friendship. They wish to throw a party, and to gain the Social Security benefits that accrue to the survivor in a marriage.
So Felix and Oscar are going to tie the knot.
In a saner day than ours, someone would object, “There’s no knot to tie! They can’t marry! You’re confusing friendship with marriage.” That would be quite right. Nothing prevents Felix or Oscar from naming the other as sole legatee in his will. But nothing that Felix and Oscar do with one another is specifically marital. The thing that a married man and woman do, that no one else can do, is to consummate the marriage, bringing it to its fullest realization. The marital act unites across the chasm of the sexes and across the generations, from the past into the future. In it alone do human beings bring together precious strands of human history, from the beginning of our race. In it alone dwells the possibility of new life. The act is biologically, essentially, summative of the past and oriented toward the future.
This is so, regardless of the feelings of those who engage in it; it is a plain fact. That’s why sins against the marital act are always sins against its time-transcending and life-giving meaning. Unlike the beasts, we human beings do more than suffer time. Time is our inn on the way to eternity. If that sentence sounds too theological, consider—we recall past ages, we memorialize our forefathers, we plant trees whose fruit we ourselves will not gather. For us, then, the meaning of coitus cannot be severed from the permanence of marriage. We cannot say, “You and I will now engage in the act that brings new human life into being, a human life that extends far beyond the present moment, in memory and in hope; but we will treat what we are doing as the act of a moment, and no more, and that will be all right.” That is to engage in a selfish contradiction.
It’s important to keep in mind that the biological meaning of an act remains, even when the instance is ineffectual, because of chance, debility, or human selfishness. John and Sally have been married for ten years and have no children. They never will. Sally caught an infection that destroyed her ovaries. John had an accident that hurt his prostate. Sally has acted to kill John’s seed. John has acted to thwart his seed. Yet whether they understand it or not, they still perform the act of marriage. Children see them, by way of example if not in reality, as a mother and father: causa exemplare, though not causa efficiente. Elderly people who marry fall into the same category. Their marriages are real, and they participate in the act (they do what all the other married men and women are doing) that brings new human beings into the world.
I’ve said nothing about feelings. The nature of the act doesn’t depend upon feelings, which come and go, and are so unreliable that often we do not know ourselves how we really feel. Christians follow the suggestions of Scripture, and believe that married love is the most exalted form of love in this world, save for our love for God. The ancient pagans reserved that honored place for friendship between men. But neither the Christians nor the pagans would say that emotions which usually accompany marriage define it. Friendship presupposes affection; but a marriage can endure in the desert for many years, without that feeling. Married people can lose their affection for one another, and regain it more fully than ever, but they do not cease to be married in the meantime.
Back to Felix and Oscar. They want to “marry.” They want the Social Security benefits. They want a party. They want to make a splash. They want to celebrate their lifelong friendship.
What’s wrong with that? Other than the lie, I mean? Is there something missing here, something that the proponents of same-sex pseudogamy need to ascertain?
Did I mention that Felix and Oscar are brothers?
Look again at my description of their lives. There’s nothing to suggest that Felix and Oscar are not related to one another. If marriage is cultural silly-putty, which we press to our favorite cartoons to take its meaning from them, what prevents Felix and Oscar from saying they are “married”? If the meaning of marriage is wholly subjective, and if it depends upon a current willingness never to leave the other person, to care for him, to enjoy a fulfilling friendship with him, to buy him presents on his birthday and to see him through the trials of dying, then Felix and Oscar are firmly “married.” Is there something wrong with their being brothers? Doesn’t the familial relationship add even more to the permanence of their friendship?
“Yes, but they’re brothers! You can’t marry a brother. That’s against the law.” My dear objector: what you cannot do, if you are a man, is marry another man; that’s an impossibility, like drawing a square circle. You should not marry your brother, if you are a woman; it is incestuous, but it is not impossible. As for laws, they may be changed, as you well know.
What makes us queasy, to hear that Felix and Oscar are brothers? It’s that we assume that Felix and Oscar have been engaging in sexual Verwirrungen, confusion, and that that is why they want to “marry.” But why should that be required? Suppose that Felix and Oscar are not brothers. Suppose that each one of them was once married, but is now divorced. It’s been a very long time. Felix sleeps in one bedroom, and Oscar sleeps in another.
Why does that alter the case? The feelings remain the same, the devotion, the commitment to care for the other. What is the all-important meaning of the sodomitical act? It cannot, we see, be based in feelings and devotion and commitment, simply, because then, if those were present without the act, what need for the act? If we bless same-sex pseudogamy on the basis of those things, there is no logical reason why we should not bless same-sex friendship without the sodomy, and in the same way, with the same perquisites. Why would it be “better” for us, more productive of the common good, if Felix and Oscar were engaging in sodomy?
Suppose that Felix sleeps in one bedroom, and Oscar sleeps in another. Again, they are two divorced men. But after living with one another for so long, they occasionally do engage in sodomy, maybe once a year. They have to be pretty drunk, and bored, to do it, and they feel odd about it for a week afterward. Is that enough to qualify? May they “marry” now?
If the proponents of same-sex pseudogamy are correct, then we all have a moral stake in seeing that Felix and Oscar are engaging in sodomy; we are better off if the Felixes and the Oscars of the world do this, than if they don’t. But why?
We live in a nation awash in squalor. Porn is everywhere, destroying marriages and lives. Shouldn’t we see to that problem? Two fifths of all children are born out of wedlock, a very bad thing for those children. Shouldn’t we see to that? Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Our mass entertainment is lewd and nasty. Many young people despair of finding someone decent to marry. In short, we have a lot of problems that stem from sins against that sixth commandment. How can we begin to address a single one of them, if we say that Felix and Oscar should be engaging in sodomy—if we reward them for it, if we affirm that the common good is served by it?
There’s no way out. If we say, “Whether they do or not is their own business,”—which is patently false, since we are social beings, and there is nothing so determinative of a culture, after religious faith, as are its sexual mores—then we’re back to the original problem, why Brother Felix and Brother Oscar cannot “marry,” or why Felix and Oscar who live according to their Catholic faith and do not engage in sodomy cannot “marry.” And if Murray the Cop wants to join them, what of it? We can’t then say, “But everybody knows that isn’t a marriage,” having just denied the reality of what everybody knows. We cannot have it both ways.
Editor’s note: The image above is of Tony Randall (l) as Felix and Jack Klugman (r) as Oscar from the 1970s T.V. show “Odd Couple.” (Photo credit: Paramount Home Video)
Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.