Monday, 26 May 2014

Dysfunction and Dissatisfaction Are Normal In Domestic Life

In Marketing 101 you learn that people don’t want your lousy product, they want what it does for them. Nobody wants buses, but they want to get from A to B. Nobody wants vinyl LPs, or CD’s, or even MP3, they want to hear music. Nobody wants watches, they want to know the time and have some personal decoration. Nobody wants a Mars bar, but they do want a sugar kick.

Men want to be entertained, fascinated, distracted, and taken away from the awful emptiness of their day jobs and the thousand insults of daily life. The chase after a pretty girl and subsequent night of serious shagging is a pretty good way of providing all that, but so is Arsenal v Chelsea, Spiderman 2, GTA 5, supper at Picture, making a painting, taking photographs, or a quiet evening reading Ceaser’s Gallic War.

You don’t think so? Well, for most men, sex is like money: when he doesn’t have any, it’s everything, and when he has enough, it’s not an issue. One difference is that money is only useful for what you can buy with it, whereas sex is an end in itself, like eating good food. However, just as people can go for years eating insipid white food, they can also go for years without sex. Eating white food won’t hurt anyone, but much more than six months without sex, and men and women start to go sour (some are better at hiding it than others). Another difference between poverty and chastity is that it is almost impossible to distract oneself from poverty, while it is a lot easier to distract oneself from chastity.

People still get married, and they do so because of what they think marriage will do for them. Over twenty years, thirty per cent of the wives and ten per cent of the husbands find it does not live up to the promises on the packaging. I have no idea what the other sixty per cent feel, because they don’t talk about it. But I stopped going out on Saturdays because I found that the misery, snarkiness and crying children (always a sign of parental dissatisfaction) in the affluent shopping towns of Surrey was unbearable.

If we suppose that people are supposed to be married and raise children, then very little about the history of domestic life makes sense, and the development of a rich, diverse culture of entertainment and self-improvement is a puzzle. But there is an assumption that makes sense of the whole sorry story of human co-habitation.

Start with the recognition that reproduction is something a species has to do automatically, as our autonomic nervous system breathes and balances and regulates core body temperature automatically. Reproduction is an autonomic activity for a species, not a conscious one. That’s why there is sometimes such a huge gap between the intelligence with which a man will do his job and manage his career, and the utter idiocy with which he will choose his partner. He doesn’t think about her with the same part of his brain as he would think about a business deal.

Domestic friction, dissatisfaction and grunting teenagers who won’t do their homework are the natural condition of mankind. If the parents can avoid actually hitting each other, continue to have sex at least weekly with some enthusiasm and put on a good show of mutual admiration and respect in public, then they are doing well. If their children get median-paying jobs, stay out of jail and don’t knock up / get knocked up by the local heroin addict, the parents have done pretty well at child-raising. Half-functional domestic lives and children who have only a handful of dysfunctions are the norm, not a sign of failure.

Why? Because dysfunction and dissatisfaction are essential creative drives. After all, if you are smugly satisfied with everything around you, why would you invent the wheel? Or forceps for childbirth? Or even look for dead bacilli in a petri dish (penicillin)? Or bother to wonder what happens when you put those dried-up leaves into hot water? Or decide you were fed up with candle-light and work for thousands of hours to create the incandescent light bulb? That same drive makes it difficult to “settle down” in domesticity. It’s also the same drive that has been exploited by consumer marketers to make people buy useless crap since at least the ancient Greeks.

People are made to fight, create, invent, trade, get high, to entertain, to feast and laze and compete, to sit in contemplation and yell in anger, and to organise so that they can achieve things together which they never could working alone. Other animals do bits of this, but only people do it all. People are not forsaking families and domesticity for the siren calls of after-the-day-job entertainment and creative work, rather, in a post-modern urban economy where everyone is an employee and households are mere dormitories rather than small farms, domesticity is itself a distraction from consuming and contributing to human culture and institutions.

Women are, after all, consumers. It’s not husbands they want, but what husbands can do for them. And if they can get most of that somewhere else at a lower price, that’s what they will do. For the first time in history they are able to, and a significant minority are “focusing on their careers” until they are safely out of the way of domesticity, after which they will utter ritual questions such as “where have all the good men gone?”.

Men are, after all, consumers. It’s not wives they want but what wives can do for them. It doesn’t help that nobody knows what, beyond bill-sharing, that is anymore. So a significant minority “refuse to grow up” until they are safely out of the way of domesticity, after which they will carry on, but trading up from pizza, computer games, sneakers and sloppy jeans to good restaurants, classic literature, polished shoes and well-cut chinos.

Of course your wife loves you and the kids: she loves you because of what you and they do for her, and the fact that you chose to do it for her. Of course your husband loves you and the kids: he loves you for what you do for him, and the fact that you chose to do it for him. Of course if either of you stop doing what the other person likes you for doing, the love will stop as well. Love is like respect: it is earned, not given. The feelings that just appear and overwhelmed you despite yourself? Those were lust and infatuation and teenage dizziness. That’s not love, that’s drugs.

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