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Devorah Baum on Marriage, Love, and Divorce

Devorah Baum, author of On Marriage, talks with us about the proposal that sparked her writing on marriage, the woes of modern dating, and the important role divorce plays in our imaginative life.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, transcribed from an episode of the Yale University Press Podcast. Some questions have been omitted—listen to the full conversation here.

This book has been described as “a fascinating exploration” by The Guardian, and you as “an erudite and entertaining guide through the landscape of marriage, bringing a lively intellectual rigor to changing attitudes on matters of religion, feminism, parenting and sexuality.” Can you tell us how you came to write about marriage?

DB: I think the first line of my book is something like writing a book about marriage wasn’t my idea. Someone else someone eligible proposed it to me. And I said, “yes.”. . . .The moment I have a proposal, ideas and images and ways of thinking, begin to just coalesce. And, I’m inspired. I thought to write this book on marriage only when it was proposed. But once it was proposed, I understood the logic of the proposal. I understood that the person who proposed it to me had seen something in me that I haven’t particularly noticed. And what he had seen is that I’m clearly obsessed with marriage.

You talk about the veil, both metaphorically and literally. Why is the veil important to understanding how humans have conceptualized the usefulness of marriage?

DB: So fascinating, because actually, the word nuptial comes from Latin term, nūbere, to veil. In a way, marriage has always been associated with the idea of creating a private life. A space within the world that requires the sanction of the world, because one of the main things about marriage institutionally is that the world has to sanction this relationship between two people. There’s a permission there for the couple, to have a private life that the world does not bestow on anybody else, including single people. That strangeness about it taking the world, the public world to sanction this hiddenness of marriage interests me.

You write extensively about language and marriage, conversation, gossip, vows, and everything having to do with talking or not talking about such a union. How has the invention of social media complicated language and marriage?

DB: It has this sort of propensity to make even more emphatic these aspects of identity of relationship status as though you’re required constantly, no matter who you are, to update the world. I say this as somebody with absolutely no experience of social media myself—I’ve never been on it. But, you know, I’ve heard about it. One of the things it seems to do is demand a constant curation of your identity in the world. If you’ve got any updates to make, you must go online and immediately make them. To that extent, it’s the very opposite of what in its best iteration marriage offers behind its veil, which is the possibility to be indecisive, non-determinate, changing, to be constantly exchanging roles. Being one person one day, somebody else the next.

In the book, you observe that the rise of streaming has changed how couples watch TV, because each person can choose what they want to watch and do it on their own. But you do argue that co-watching is still important for couples. Can you talk about these kinds of joyful benefits of co-watching?

DB: Well, joyful and traumatic. There’s a chapter called co-watching. In a way it’s a sort of code for middle age. Basically, we’re tired. We’ve got jobs and we’ve got children and we’re mostly just mostly our married life, mostly our interactions are just one big management meeting. We do comms with each other. Did you organize this? We need to book that, so on so forth. With our jobs and our children and so on. There is a risk, of course, particularly when in that period of life and marriage that intimacy goes away. And all kinds of hell can break loose when you let that happen. It can happen very easily and by accident, but then it is something to watch out for. I suppose one of the things a lot of couples I know, including my own couple, do in lieu of other forms of intimacy very often when we’re so tired is we just we watch box sets together. And that’s my favorite bit of every day.

In a moment where divorce rates are common and rising, what does divorce reveal about the entanglement or interconnections of marriage?

DB: Divorce, in its fullest sense is very rarely seriously entertained in our imaginative life. Can one ever really be outside wedlock? Can one ever really be unmarried because the world we’re in is so wed locked in all of its interlinked interlinking institutions, in so many different ways. I wind up in this book, I make a quite radical statement or provocation in relationship to divorce. I’m partly reading this through other thinkers, including the Great American philosopher Stanley Cavell. I wind up, I think, more or less saying that you should divorce if you can. . . .we should look at divorce in the way that Milton saw it as a really fundamental story about human freedom, and a really important part of our imaginative life.

Devorah Baum is a writer, a film director, and an associate professor in English literature at the University of Southampton. She is the author of Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) and The Jewish Joke: An Essay with Examples (Less Essay, More Examples). With Josh Appignanesi, her spouse, she is both codirector and performer in the documentaries The New Man and Husband. She lives in London, UK.

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