Almost two thousand years ago the Apostle Paul’s pronouncement that it is better to marry than to burn in hell was a reluctant admission that human sexuality must have some sort of outlet. Marriage – the institution within which sexuality was to be experienced – was thus
accepted by the church – though not yet blessed: that came only later. This view of St Paul’s had far-reaching consequences for Western civilization.
The story of Anna Karenina, told by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and set in Czarist Russia, is deeply sad. Trapped in a marriage with Karenin, twenty years her senior, Anna travels with her family to St Petersburg, where she meets Count Vronsky. Vronsky is a professional soldier, a gifted horseman and a man of honour, and does what he can to avert the impending disaster. But their feelings cannot be suppressed, they fall hopelessly in love and – as is common in an extra-marital relationship – become increasingly reckless and careless. When the affair reaches Karenin’s ears and he publicly disowns his wife, Anna’s status and life are shattered, and she finally throws herself under a train. Vronsky suffers no more than a setback to his career.
People will go on being unfaithful until the end of time. Playing away retains its attraction, even for people who in practice never indulge. The fact is that many people are unfaithful in their fantasy: 60 per cent of women and 80 per cent of men fantasize about sex with someone other than their own partner. Figures on actual adultery differ so widely that it is difficulty to say anything conclusive about them. It probably happens more frequently than we think. However, we are left with the problem that ed quite frequently occurs with adultery, since the man often feels guilty about deceiving his partner. Guilt sometimes also derives from the awareness that one is being unfeeling and cruel to the person one is deceiving. Many men realize that they can no longer truly love their partner, and the same probably applies to women: adultery causes one’s partner, male or female, great suffering and painful humiliation.
A poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) illustrates this point. In ‘The Diary’ he describes meeting a pretty young woman at a country inn. There is an immediate spark of attraction, and very soon they find themselves in bed, but at the crucial moment his penis leaves him in the lurch. The poet describes the accompanying feelings of rage and shame: ‘My master player, hitherto so hot, / Shrinks, novicelike, its ardour quite forgot.’ He is a prey to anxiety and despair. ‘Better a bloody foe/In battle than this shame!’ ‘I raged a thousandfold, my soul was rent/With cursing and self-mockery both at once.’ He cannot comprehend why he cannot perform better. Then the mood of the poem changes. Despite his failure, his bedfellow is satisfied, having experienced love and tenderness:
How chaste she was! For though she made me free
Of her sweet body, loving words, a kiss
Contented her; she nestled close to me,
Desiring, as it seemed, no more than this;
Happy she looked, peacefully, yieldingly Satisfied, as if nothing were amiss.
The real moral of Goethe’s poem is that male impotence is a divine punishment for adultery. Wasn’t the sacrament of marriage after all instituted to combat promiscuity and ensure that the reproduction of the species took place in an orderly manner? Imagine the general surprise at an article that appeared in a newspaper on 18 April 1995 under the headline: ‘Bishop: adultery in the genes.’ In the article Richard Holloway, Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, was reported as saying that the church should not condemn adultery. ‘Man can’t be blamed for being unfaithful. It’s how God made him. It’s in the genes,’ said the bishop. This statement was part of a series of lectures in which he wanted to take sex out of the taboo sphere. The response of the head of the Anglican Church, despite the appeal to genes in mitigation, was unambiguous: ‘Adultery is and will remain a sin.’
The bishop probably has a valid point. Human beings are not innately monogamous: the vast majority of cultures recorded by anthropologists are polygamous. Sociobiology sees men as having a deeply rooted urge to supply their sperm to as many women as possible, just as women prefer to receive as many suppliers as possible in order to optimize the chance of pregnancy. That would explain why so many people – both men and women – have such a problem with monogamy: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. That is definitely not just a matter of our Judaeo-Christian cultural roots. Who cannot feel Othello’s genuine jealousy? He loves Desdemona and his jealousy is mingled with the fury of the insulted husband. This kind of jealousy – clearly timeless – should not be confused with the feeling of besmirched honour.
The only possible answer to the question of the jealous husband, of Othello: ‘What are you thinking, what are you feeling?’ is the pathological answer of masochism, self-torment. Where adultery has been proved, the only way out is love itself: surrender, acceptance of the freedom of the loved one. Impossible? Perhaps, but it is the only exit if we are imprisoned by jealousy. Love can exist only by the grace of freedom. In the view of the Mexican writer Octavio Paz freedom in love is a great mystery, a paradox that grows in a psychic substratum which unfortunately also contains poisonous plants like faithlessness, betrayal, jealousy and forgetfulness.