One of the major themes of Luchino Visconti’s 1967 adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (which I recently watched) is, about a perceived conflict between the liberty of the individual and the integrity of society. We can also turn to the story and to one scene in particular, and find a good parallel to the question of whether the marriage of non-heterosexual couples should be legally recognised: the issue of ‘gay marriage’/ ‘marriage equality’.
Camus is one of my favourite public figures of conscience. Visconti’s Lo Stranero is a very faithful adaptation. His interpretation of Meursault as a benign sensualist is sound; and if anything the film is perhaps too faithful1Camus’ estate placed limits on artistic licence and selected the script writer; and in several scenes of the film Meursault narrates lines directly from the book which are jarringly flowery coming from the voice of the film’s typically direct and concise character.
This is the story of the trial-by-character of the Algerian Frenchman, Meursault who inexplicably kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. Many have read The Stranger during a ‘coming of age’ period of their lives where they appreciate the social rebellion embodied in Mersaults’ apparent amorality, yet, as one of those amorphous stories that can be seen from a different light when read again, today I will be exploring it in parallel to contemporary debates about marriage.
One of its key themes is how Meursault’s murder trial transforms to fixate not on his killing a man, but on his personal character: he found a lover the day after his mother’s funeral; and he does not believe in God, love, or repentance. Basically, he is tried for rejecting norms and conventions precious to Society.
Meursault and Marriage
Although Meursault has a characteristically flippant attitude to the institution of marriage (I probably don’t love you but we can get married if you like), the scene which I think best parallels the debate about marriage reform is the first meeting between Meursault and the magistrate when they run through the particulars of the crime together.
Exasperated with Meursault’s answers, the magistrate returns from a cupboard bearing with seriousness, a silver cross. When pressed on the question, Meursault states that he does not believe in God. The magistrate then reflects that his own belief could not survive any doubt. He asks if Meursault wants his (the magistrate’s) life to be meaningless. In the film Meursault’s answer is “It doesn’t matter to me”. The magistrate bids him farewell, calling him Mr Antichrist.
Meursault does not value the religious symbol and seems unwilling to curb his blunt honesty to accommodate the feelings of others (his behaviour is also likely a result of his failure to perceive the seriousness of the quandary he is walking into – “it is a simple case” he foolishly says).
The magistrate’s allusion that in denying the significance of religious iconography Meursault is undermining his own personal belief will strike many as ridiculous; this was likely the intention of Camus at this point of his intellectual development. But I want to suggest that this runs parallel to debate about marriage reform and arguments that allowing the legal definition of marriage to embrace relationship configurations outside of the traditional structure of man+woman weakens societal institutions and ultimately the integrity of religious culture itself. This is a view which I think is held by many, but one which is not well articulated.
What’s the problem?
Why does it matter to the magistrate that Meursault does not believe in God? And in later scenes, why does it incense the prosecutor and the jury that Meursault did not cry at his mother’s funeral? In the context of marriage, ‘why would it matter that the state recognises gay marriage? You can still have a traditional marriage’.
Undoubtedly resistance within the community to the marriage of LGBTI people arises from a confluence of factors; ignorance and bigotry are there in the overall mix – though certainly not held by everyone who is resists reform – as are psychological reasons which incline some to resist change. An easy case to make is that these people are insecure – as magistrate’s attitude toward Meursault suggests – how strong can his belief be, and how genuine if one dissenter is great enough to topple it? (Nietzsche – “that which is falling, deserves to be pushed”). But these do not explain all the motives beneath resistance to ‘marriage equality’. I think there may be something deeper here which goes to the crux of debates about liberty vs. community, and religion vs. the state.
The explanation I will develop in the following can be loosely summarised with the following sociological remarks:
- Culture is not unique to individual nor is language the product of an individual; yet culture and language are the collective product of individuals
- Christianity and most other religions are not only about an individual’s relation to God but have a prominent cosmological dimension/community-orientation.
- The beliefs and actions of individuals have repercussions which are not neatly delimited by their private lives
- Change that emerges from within a social group (or individual) is practically invisible compared to pressures for change coming from outside
Religion and Community
I will start with a somewhat facetious, easily relatable example: a strong attachment to an ‘underground’ band (or other facet of culture) which later becomes hugely popular. Some will relate to the sense of loss that comes once their precious subculture has been breached. Language changes, culture and concepts change, and the power to define yourself by that band has been swept away from beneath. This is relatively superficial stuff. Yet a social scene is involved and band-culture can fill the place that religion plays in other people’s lives (in providing a sense of meaning and of community). Losing the band to the ‘mainstream’ can be experienced as a loss of community, and to an extent, a loss of ‘self’ until (if) the subculture reconstitutes itself in a different arrangement.
Religions, unlike individual bands, permeate society, our institutions, they extend deep into our past. Religions are not just sub-communities within the world; they are universe creating (figuratively and literally) – through symbols, conventions and myths. Losing the language and symbolic capital associated with religion can be ‘world-shattering’ – this is the threat that Meursault presents – he redefines the meaning of symbols and presents an example for others to follow – for him those symbols have no intrinsic worth, the record of his life is a testament. Still people ask ‘why does it affect you what other people do? You can still believe what you believe and raise your children to believe it’.
Christianity and Individualism
Max Weber has argued Christianity was like a railroad lever-switch that directed western civilisation down the historical path of rationalisation with an affinity for liberalism, capitalism, individualism. This is a historical paradox, because, I am arguing, although there have been more and less individualistic variants, Christianity is not a strictly ‘individualistic’ religion – its creed is outward looking too; and although it is a point of credit granted by the non-religious to some believers and a mark of pride to many themselves that they ‘don’t preach’ – as though all that matters is the way I act in this world (determining whether or not I am rewarded in the next) – the Christian world handed down through the centuries has had as a fundamental duty that Christians spread the wor(l)d and, loving thy neighbour as thyself, to rescue the souls of others from death, at the very least. This mission is fundamentally at odds with liberal ‘to each their own’. In the Christian world, we all –whether believers or not- live in the world awaiting the day of judgement. And to paraphrase Carol Rovane, Christians do not have the power to remake the whole of culture and the world, they – as with all of us – live in a world that is modified by so many different actors and interest-groups.
Marriage, Religion and Tradition
Seeking some basis for the notion of ‘traditional’ marriage in the bible [Matthew: 19?] “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” as a foundation for claims about the truth of Christian culture is problematic. Regardless, it is an inescapable fact that in western society – as in many other societies – the tradition has been one of marriage between man and woman. In the (western) Christian tradition this has been accompanied by a morality in which sex is sinful except with procreation as an endpoint. Only in marriage was procreation (and sex) sanctified – a beautiful intertwining of souls before God.
As an important aside, a survey of European birth-rates strongly suggests that most Christians do not live up to the demand of ‘chastity or progeny’ and have not for quite some time – for example, in Italy (96% Catholic) between 1980 and 2000 population growth remained close to 0%. This, the increased acceptance of contraception is a good point by which to contrast the present issue of marriage reform: the use of contraception was able to transform culture, perhaps, because it increased gradually as a largely private matter within the homes of church members and non-members alike. In addition to the promotion of contraception in health discourses, it fit with individual desires (pursuit of bodily pleasure). Contraception as a practice was allowed to slip by, til it eventually became the norm in Western countries. The culture changed, and Christian conventions changed too with the tacit endorsement of believers who were complicit (privately).
The re-constitution of ‘marriage’ by the state to include more diverse relationships under the umbrella of ‘love’ rather than procreation (and ‘loving’ a God ordained order) is a reconstitution of culture, too. The difference is that to ‘conservative’ Christians it feels, like this pressure, which has fundamentally influenced religious discourse, is emerging from outside the traditional church – before, ‘marriage’ the word and implied concept, was sanctified by the church as ‘proper’; now, marriage is taking on a different meaning not from within the church and out, but from out of society – this transition from one set of conventions to another is not new but its recognition in law is; nor is marriage the only concept under transition – all are, some more quickly than others.
For what it is worth, my personal stance on the issue of marriage reform is that this is really about the church/state separation, a distinction I would want maintained [my opinion]The debate should not be about churches being forced to comply against religious convictions – though they may adjust in time, whether coerced or not; it is the government that would recognise different combinations of couples. The government is a secular democratic institution(?) and therefore should not favour the will of church leaders over the will of the people – the question of whether politicians should act on their personal (religious) convictions is a more complicated matter) Having said that, this is also the crux of the issue – who has the right to determine culture? Should state/church separation hold? Does state/church separation actually hold? These concerns are unstated though it is likely that they lurk in disquiet somewhere beneath debates about marriage reform.
Meursault and Marriage Reform
In the eyes of those who fear him, Meursault is either the first stepping stone towards the decay of religious significance, and perhaps a transition to a new spirituality, or he is symbolic of this process. He is the man (or a representative of men) who begins to redefine culture, removing it from the power ambit of its previous arbiters (the Church) and ‘traditionalist’ public. Resistance to the reconstitution of marriage, perhaps unlike Meursault’s magistrate (how can I believe if you don’t?), is not about insecurity of personal belief; it can be a genuine insecurity in the face of cultural loss, and the threat of the loss of a world (‘how can there be Christians as we understand the concept if the language of Christian values is redefined?’). This is a motive beneath the formation of the Amish.
One often hears the criticism that ‘the Catholic church has not kept with the times’ because it has not adapted to liberal, ‘modern’ permissive attitudes toward relationships – but why should churches follow current trends when religion is supposed to be a universe in the greatest metaphorical-sense of the world, rather than an accoutrement? Conversely the church is also criticised for not preceding the times re: paedophilia within the church – a more significant criticism in my view because religions should be held to the highest standard of the values (hypocrisy, justice, compassion as in the case of Christianity) they promote).
All religions that have survived must necessarily at one time or another adjust to the mores of their time; perhaps, right now, the call for a modern reformation of marriage is a lightning rod representing the forces that orthodox churches, (some) devout believers and (some) lay-believers alike feel they are twisted to comply with. These pressures arise from groups external to themselves, and from the ‘march of history’, and unlike the issue of contraception they appear to be against their own personal inclinations. Perhaps they feel that new forms of life will make the old ones indistinguishable. Perhaps they genuinely feel much like the magistrate assigning the title Mr Antichrist to Meursault, that an alteration of the Marriage Act is a cultural adaptation that is anti-Christian.
“Marriage equality” will increase the freedom of many individuals (to get married); it also represents a beacon of equality, symbolic, though nonetheless important. But it is a cultural change on behalf of all of us; and though it may appear insignificant from the vantage point of one century hence; it is a change which affects us all. It is understandable that some regard it warily.