Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
—William Blake, 1804
Even without a biography to go on, we would know that Leo Tolstoy [Moscow, page 48] had a troubled household and a blinding ego by the ridiculous line with which he begins Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In fact, as anyone can tell you whose experience of the world goes beyond the reading of nineteenth-century Russian novels, the truth is quite the reverse. Take the safer course of confining Tolstoy’s generalizations to marriage, and observation still stands them on their heads. Unhappy marriages are all alike, with their interchangeable spats and infidelities, their tritely plotted scenarios of aggression and neglect. It is the happy ones that vary, some couples inseparable except with deep distress, others madly in love across months and miles of absence; some virtually and contentedly celibate, others laughing uproariously between orgasmic shrieks at pornography’s pitiable innocence; some matches made between couples whose chromosome pairs differ, others of more recent vintage with chromosomes exactly matched, while eclectic, nonmonogamous arrangements show up throughout history and around the world.
What is true of marriages and families is true of most things really: the more viable they are, the more diverse. The moribund tends to the monochrome. Thomas Aquinas said that the angels are so differentiated as to be each one a distinct species, and you don’t have to be a Thomist or believe in angels to grasp what he was getting at. Swap a couple of mustaches and there’s little to distinguish a Hitler or a Stalin from Attila the Hun.
But we must give the count his due on at least two points. Happy families are indeed all alike in calling forth the best of their members’ humanity, in teaching them the arts of peace and kindness. If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, the peace was signed on the tablecloths of the players’ happiest homes. Blessed are the peacemakers, for someone has cared enough to make them lunch. Blessed am I, for it is only by virtue of being a fortunate son, brother, husband, and father that I have managed to be a little better than a pig.
Only a little better, though, because of the second likeness on Tolstoy’s side of the argument: the tendency of happy families to hold their members’ humanity in check. My family comes first, you see. Those seeking a more generous embrace have often forborne to start families (Florence Nightingale), or forsaken their families (Buddha), or drawn others away from their families (Jesus), or been inadequate providers for their families (Karl Marx), or made a miserable mess of their families (Tolstoy). “Sex kills,” Joni Mitchell tells us, pointing to its less hallowed aspects, but the hallowed ones can kill us too. Don’t forget the Sopranos and the Corleones [Long Beach, NY, page 172] before them. Don’t forget Charlie Manson, who knew exactly what he was doing and what he was about to do when he dubbed his outfit “The Family.” [Spahn Ranch, page 166]
Destroyer of cities
One of the scariest print ads I ever saw—scarier than Helter Skelter but subtly in the same vein—showed a chemical engineer (male in some versions, female in others) posing with his or her young child. I forget the exact wording of the text and the name of the sponsor (this was years ago), but I remember the message well. In so many words it said, “I too have a child, so you needn’t worry about me knowingly polluting our environment and compromising the future of life on earth.” I still get chills when I think of it.
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