Often, thank heaven, it does. Lets not forget or belittle that. There are many happy families and, no matter what Tolstoy says, they arent all alike. They may not be quite as dramatic as unhappy families, and they may not make headlines quite as often, but under scrutiny they can be every bit as interesting.
In recent years psychologists have begun to study happiness for a change. Psychology has generally been the study of pathologies and abnormalities failure, in a word but now its turning its attention to happy and successful people. That study should include families that dont wind up in court, jail, or angry memoirs.
Still, close kinship is no guarantee of bliss, and its foolish to pretend otherwise. C.S. Lewis once wrote that the Victorian sentimentalization of the family produced the reaction of a savage anti-family literature in Ibsen, Shaw, Samuel Butler, and just about every early modernist novel you can name; one thinks of P.G. Wodehouses unsparing realism about aunts.
This reaction wasnt confined to literature. Its still with us, in the form of sexual revolution for instance. Today, in an inversion of Victorian sentimentalism, one gets the impression that the only happy marriages are those of same-sex couples. Among the rest of us, the fatherless household has become virtually normal. As Ellis Cose has observed, the problems observed in the black family a generation ago now afflict white families with similar frequency. Should that surprise us?
From the Greeks to Shakespeare to the Russian novel to Tennessee Williams, literature and drama have dealt with the most embarrassing (white) family secrets. And the remarkable thing is how close to the bone they can get. When you watch King Lear make a horrible fool of himself and tear his family apart with his crazy demands, you dont feel youre watching some incomprehensible stranger. If he doesnt remind you of your own dad, you may have an uncle just like him.
I recently caught up with a family I used to be close to but hadnt seen in decades. These people, all lovable, arent speaking to each other anymore. Its sad, even heart-piercing, but not that unusual. You dont really know a family, sometimes, until you know things about them you wish you didnt.
The Schiavo case also reminds us what has become of marriage. We used to think you had to stick it through in sickness and in health, but soon we may have to amend wedding vows to take into the account the option of pulling the plug. Isnt relieving oneself of an unwanted spouse a fundamental human right? Michael Schiavo, Robert Blake, Scott Peterson sure, we may disapprove of their methods, but dont we all know where theyre coming from?
Such men show that conjugal love isnt unconditional; at least not always, or not for long. Men may abandon their children, but they seldom want them dead. Even the man who kills his wife may still adore the kids she gave him. Its Terri Schiavos parents who want her to live.
Comedy rings down the curtain just when everyone is about to get married and live happily ever after. Tragedy shows what may actually happen afterward, when Othello and Desdemona get around to setting up housekeeping and discover each others little quirks. Soon the neighbors are talking, and finally Verdi is writing an opera. From romance to family squabbles to La Scala you never know where it will lead.
But Otello is a worst-case scenario. In spite of everything, there are still happy families, and even husbands who stand by their hopelessly ailing wives to the bitter end. In fact, these are the norm we should be paying more close attention to.
The beleaguered and battered family still exists, and it still manages to produce healthy children. It has even survived all of our enlightened modern societys determined attempts to reform it. Thats because modern society knows when something is working wrong, but hasnt a clue when, or why, its working right.
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