Bachelor party

Should great men of genius stay single?


Amy Benfer
July 24, 2008 1:05AM (UTC)

These days, most of the column inches devoted to the demise of the family are concerned with the much-maligned single woman. You know, the one who puts her selfish career and personal ambitions above the supposedly more worthwhile tasks of nurturing the next generation. But in this month's New English Review Christopher Orlet reminds us that, throughout history, bachelors have been saddled with their own share of scorn, prejudice and suspicion -- though, in his view, it's no accident that they also happen to include among their ranks some of the greatest thinkers and artists in Western history.

The first half of the essay opens with a bang: Taking the example of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, whose domestic travails allegedly ended with him strangling his wife, Orlet quotes New Yorker writer George Steiner, who wrote: "Perhaps philosophers should strangle their wives." By what moral logic? As Steiner has it: "The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon." Orlet sees the judge's sentence -- three years in a psych ward as opposed to jail time -- as an endorsement of sorts that the immortality of Althusser's work was of greater value than the mortality of a simple woman who might have served as an impediment to its production.

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Orlet stops short of condoning murder (Steiner, he says, is just engaging in a little good-natured satire), but he spends the next part of the essay arguing that great men of genius might be better off avoiding all that roughage and noise in the first place: "Marriage, the philosophical bachelor holds, will not only deprive him of his liberty, lighten his wallet, and suck the romance from life, but it will prove to be a lifelong hindrance." To bolster his argument, he provides a laundry list of 50-odd genius bachelors throughout history (many of these, as some critics have pointed out in the comments section, were gay and nearly all lived during a time when it was common for members of the educated class to let their servants deal with the messiness of daily life); cites the much-reported Japanese study of 280 scientists that showed the majority of them peaked in their 20s (though those who remained unmarried apparently remained productive well into their 50s); and provides a cavalcade of quotes that, on first glance, could double as a gift book labeled "Misogyny: The World's Greatest Hits" (now available at a Barnes & Noble near you!).

But while some of these guys may have become titans of Western culture, Orlet also points out that the much of the time bachelors were considered a menace to society and described in the kind of hyperbolic language reminiscent of the way some of today's conservative commentators describe, say, that amoral cougar slut Samantha in "Sex and the City." The Puritans went so far as to require those men who indulged in "the selfish art of solitary living" to live as boarders (i.e., under the moral supervision of women) and pay a bachelor tax. Hey, at least no one, to my knowledge, has proposed fining women for failure to reproduce.

Shifting to the present tense, Orlet argues that, if anything, these days it's the married guy who is viewed as a liability in the workforce ("Old dad is unable to work overtime because he has promised to run Sissy to her soccer game and Junior to his ballet class") and asserts that modern women are better at putting their "sexual and financial" independence before marriage, while guys are still "hopelessly reliant on the fairer sex." (He also invokes the research of occasional Salon contributor Stephanie Coontz, who has found, in his words, that "more men than women describe being married as their ideal state, and men who remain single fare far worse emotionally than do their female counterparts.")

Plenty of Orlet's essay, especially the inflammatory quotes from historical thinkers that dot the first half, reminds me why feminism's first and second wavers got so pissed off. But on the whole, it's an interesting reminder that, historically, discrimination against those who fail to follow the culture's dominant mode of family has hardly been confined to one gender.

More important, the idea that Orlet may seem to endorse -- that great art is best made by those who toil in isolation, far from the "roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise" of daily life -- is a prejudice that we haven't yet seemed to have shed. You could draw a through line from Orlet's bachelors to Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" to Judy Syfers' 1971 essay in Ms., "Why I Want a Wife," and land smack-dab in the center of today's question of the "work-life balance." Part of the lesson may be that how best to achieve great things while maintaining a life has never been merely a question for women or feminists. But my personal question is: Why would anyone trust an artist, thinker or philosopher with no knowledge of roughage, bills, garbage disposal or noise, whether married or single? Isn't that a good part of what this thing known as life is all about?


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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