Sunday's Times featured a pair of articles on the power of art to shock, from Rite of Spring forward, and left us wondering whether we were still subject to such shock. It has been a long time since Nude Descending a Staircase was anybody's cause celebre, and even Karen Finlay's infamous yams seem a little quaint these days. But then we flipped to the Styles section (talk about infamous!), and by gum, they actually hit us with a joy buzzer.
"Stop the presses," Ada Calhoun quotes a tabloid newspaperman saying; "People have sex! And sometimes they even have sex with people to whom they are not married." Her point, of course, is that infidelity is neither new nor, under ordinary circumstances, news. True enough.
But Calhoun's subject is not marriage and fidelity in the abstract, but her own marriage. She and her husband are monogamous, she says, adding that "there is a small asterisk where I am concerned." In other words, under the rules they have negotiated between them, she is allowed the occasional extramarital fling -- and he is not. She is a bit coy about the details; she contrasts her own youth to her husband's, letting us know that she had many more sex partners than he did, and associated sex with adventure in a way he seems not to. She hints that he may be aroused by the prospect of her infidelity ("Type 'cuckold' into a pornography search engine," she suggests. We suggest that you do not). But beyond a stray kiss and some yearning, she does not actually confess to much -- nor need she; this is a family newspaper, after all.
She's right that there's nothing especially novel about any of this. Calhoun mocks the "open marriages" and "key parties" of the 1970s, but her essay is little more than a different testimony to the same underlying truth: that couples have always worked out the precise meaning of their marriage vows in private, and in ways that would sometimes surprise even their friends. So what, then do we find so shocking? It is hard to say; perhaps because our work includes marrying people, and we naively like to believe that they mean their promises just as we ourselves would. Or perhaps it is merely the fact that we are private by nature, and she is exposing a deeply private truth in one of the most public places one possibly could: the Sunday New York Times.
One shudders to imagine the contents of her inbox on Monday morning.
Calhoun (whose undergraduate degree was in Sanskrit interpretation) is no fool. The last article to shock us this way was Daphne Merkin's autobiographical essay on masochism, which added a great deal to her luster as a writer. It is entirely possible that Calhoun's self-revelation will bring her lots of new professional assignments.
Still and all, her essay -- whether one considers it brave, shocking, opportunistic or narcissistic -- is noteworthy for people who spend much time thinking about marriage. For example, one concern sometimes raised about same-sex marriage is that gay people may not interpret expressions like "lifelong committed relationship" (or as we used to say, "forsaking all others") quite the way straight people do. To this, some may cite Calhoun and others like her as a reminder that many conventional marriages are less conventional than they seem at first.