A History of Love, or why American marriage is loaded with so many expectations

Europeans find the American cult of marriage (and of the related rite of passage, the mega-wedding) somewhat freakish. We tend to get married somewhat later (there is no such concept as the “starter marriage” over here), and we divorce a bit less. Also, it seems to me that we do not load our spouses with expectations that they’ll be the exclusive source of intimacy, companionship, and fulfillment. That is for reasons both good and bad, as (I speculate) we are on average better at maintaining our pre-marriage friendships alive, but at the same time we tend to stay much closer to our family of origin, marital mobility being lower than it is in the United States – in much the same way people are markedly less willing to relocate for work.

An article published a couple of years ago by history professor Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, makes some interesting points about how Americans got to fold their expectations for bliss into one relationship alone, the one with their spouse. Of course, things didn’t start out that way: for centuries, marriage was pretty much an economic arrangement, period:

Until 100 years ago, most societies agreed that it was dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion. […] From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

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Of algorithms, apps and autism

I know that everybody who gives a damn has been reading the March issue of Wired magazine (much discussed for Chris Anderson’s preview of his forthcoming Free) about a month and a half ago, and I know that for someone who used to read it in the pre-Condé Nast days it is considered uncool to be still reading it, but what the heck, I still find it interesting and I still like to wait (forever) until my paper copy comes in the mail. Three articles on topics I found interesting, if you’d just like to skim through the highlights:

  • “This Psychologist Might Outsmart the Math Brains Competing for the Netflix prize, on how devilishly difficult it is to create a noticeably better recommendation algorithm – even for something that comes with a lot of descriptive variables and data points, like movies; but kudos to Netflix for opening up the data and trying the crowdsourcing route;
  • “The Brash Boys at 37signals”, on the latest personality cult in the software industry and on David Heinemeier Hansson’s and Jason Fried’s endearing disdain for growth, venture capital, and other people;
  • The somewhat overpromisingly titled “The Truth About Autism” (for one thing, we still don’t know where it comes from), a look at the achievements of autism activists Amanda Baggs (more about her here), Michelle Dawson and others, which highlight the uncommon cognitive strengths of at least some autistic people and may be close to sparking a new civil rights movement  (a stretch? remember, until 1974 homosexuality was a mental illness for the psychiatric establishment).


“That seems to me to be a commonplace and to be therefore a matter needing no comment at all”: Ford Madox Ford on sexual passion

I am enthralled by stories told in the voice of an unreliable narrator, and it appears that The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) is a prime example of the technique. It is also a novel on which, almost a century after it first appear, critical opinion is firmly divided, covering the whole spectrum from “perfect” to “wholly improbable”. I’ll let you take sides; but, so you can decide whether it sounds like something you would enjoy reading, I offer you, my dear readers, a couple of pages (courtesy of Project Gutenberg). The narrator – who, you see, is quite inexperienced in these matters – is musing about the nature of love, apparently resigned to his own startling insights:

I have come to be very much of a cynic in these matters; I mean that it is impossible to believe in the permanence of man’s or woman’s love. Or, at any rate, it is impossible to believe in the permanence of any early passion. As I see it, at least, with regard to man, a love affair, a love for any definite woman–is something in the nature of a widening of the experience. With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory.

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An evening with Eels (and with quantum mechanics)

Last Friday I went to the Conservatorio di Milano to hear Eels, an alternative-indie-progressive-country-folk-rock group mostly consisting of Mark Oliver Everett (also known as Mr. E), a musician and singer with a cool Virginian twang. They are touring in their two-man-band incarnation, the other musician being introduced merely as The Chet. (Interesting things happen when spaces meant for classical music invite performers of contemporary popular music – I loved Nick Cave’s concert at the wonderful pearwood-paneled Auditorium di Milano a few years ago.)

The performance combined musical virtuosity and stand-up comedic humor; in a particularly surreal page from Everett’s forthcoming autobiography read aloud by The Chet, Everett recalls getting to Hollywood for the first time in his life, finding himself standing next to Angie Dickinson on the Walk of Stars, and offering her a tape with his music. But there was more autobiography than in most concerts because Everett chose to show the audience, before getting to the music, a one-hour BBC documentary called “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives“.

It turns out that Mark’s father was Hugh Everett, a physicist best known for having been the proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an interpretation flatly rejected by Niels Bohr (causing Everett to abandon theoretical research and get a job at the Pentagon) and only later rehabilitated as a legitimate (though still a minority) interpretation, popularized for the lay reader in David Deutsch’s excellent The Fabric of Reality, which I recall reading with fascination a few years ago. The BBC movie starts with Mark, an artist with no scientific education or talent whatsoever, realizing he knew nothing about his father. Although Mark and his father lived for 19 years in the same house, and Mark found his body when he died of a heart attack at the age of 51, it was as if they had been living in separate worlds. So Mark, followed by the BBC cameras, sets out on a journey to meet the scientists who had known Hugh Everett, from Princeton to Copenhagen, and gets a rough but effective overview of quantum mechanics (a memorable Schrödinger’s cat is drawn in chalk and dies on a blackboard) in the process of trying to understand who his father was and what he believed: in particular, the many-worlds interpretation does away with the need for an external observer to determine a quantic state, since the wavefunction collapse is only a subjective appearance, and the cat is both dead and alive, so to speak, in parallel worlds. The documentary is set to a soundtrack of Eels songs and is, well, brilliant (but not available online – the good souls at BBC only uploaded a short, non-embeddable teaser on YouTube).

I may be unable to take my Friday nights lightly, but I always love it when I learn something, in addition to having fun.