Sunday, 21 September 2008
Even in this knowing, decadent age, infidelity has an image problem. The absurd politician caught with his pants down, the shifty celebrity snapped emerging from a basement flat in the early hours of the morning: these inglorious archetypes of modern adultery tend to represent sex at its saddest, silliest and most furtive.
Almost any other contemporary sin is treated with more respect, either glamorised or demonised but, according to the everyday media which informs our culture, there is nothing tragic or interesting about an affair. Adultery is a low-grade, contemptible form of domestic misbehaviour. Advice columnists, professionally sympathetic about most personal problems, reserve a special brand of scorn for those, particularly men, caught up in an affair. "That's why adultery is called adultery – because it 'adulterates', which literally means to make something poorer in quality by adding another substance," Bel Mooney recently scolded an unfaithful husband who had rashly written to her for guidance.
It is odd, this chilly social disapproval because infidelity is all around us. When, every month or so, a marketing firm or a dirty-minded academic conducts a survey into sexual behaviour, a large proportion of those interviewed, men and women, invariably admit to having strayed at some point in their lives. What the polls fail to reveal, because it is one of domestic life's more unsettling secrets, is that among the virtuous non-strayers, only the dullest and least imaginative will not have dreamed of infidelity at some point in their marriages or relationships. Many, reaching an age when the possibility of illicit romantic adventure seems to have passed, will look back with regret not at opportunities rashly taken, but at those missed. Fidelity causes as many restless and sleepless nights as its more daring polar opposite.
The reason why society is so disrespectful of adultery is fear; its power makes the faithful world tremble and feel insecure. Sexual infidelity stands for everything which undermines and disrupts an ordered domestic life – desire, selfishness, romance, a childish, amoral longing to escape from the world of bills, washing up and responsibility.
So let us try this: infidelity, when it is the real thing, can be a beautiful transgression. It has given meaning to empty lives, made the weak strong, the thick-skinned vulnerable, the stupid wise. It can provide almost the only adventure which modern can life can offer. Our ancestors fought in wars, discovered uncharted parts of the world; we cheat on our spouses.
Novelists and playwrights, who see the world more clearly than journalists, have recognised the power of the affair. In fiction and drama, there is nothing small and sleazy about infidelity; it one of the great tragedies that life has in store for humanity. For the great modern celebrants of sexual betrayal – Graham Greene, Harold Pinter, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, Philip Roth, John Updike – guilt and jealousy are what make desire interesting.
In the real world, the power of infidelity is a more clandestine thing. Those who behave well, or pretend they do, anxiously disapprove; those who do not are sensible enough to keep quiet. Only prats and slappers boast about sexual betrayal. The rest, a mighty army of secret lovers, remain silent and not only for the obvious, practical reason. An affair is not social. The only reality which matters is that which exists between two people: the dinner in a suitably unfashionable restaurant, the parked car in a dark street, the glass of wine on the bedside table.
There is something oddly pure about this kind of love. It cares nothing for the way it looks to the outside world. It exists in its own bubble, beyond the pressures and compromises of everyday existence. It allows its star performers to step out of the cheap soap opera of real life, with its longueurs, crap production values and predictable dialogue, into a sparkling two-hander where the only plot is about them, their desires, their romantic, tragic plight.
In the perfect affair, desire is never far away, conversation is always interesting and poignant, and jokes – even bad ones – are irresistibly funny. During those snatched hours of the afternoon or evening, there is no time for boredom or over-familiarity to dull its sharp, bright colours into domestic pastel. Differences and incompatibilities, which would irritate in the faithful world, are yet another fascinating topic to explore.
Everything is startlingly new. "With you it was fresh – so fresh I was hypnotized by me," says the female character in Philip Roth's Deception, a novel which consists entirely of the conversations between two adulterous lovers. "There I was, on weekends, still snuggling... under the covers in my bedroom in Bedford, with my ballet shoes in the closet from when I was 10, and then, Monday afternoons, total abandon in some anonymous bed in some anonymous room on some anonymous floor in some anonymous Hilton. And so intimate, it made my head spin – the only familiar thing in that entire hotel was our flesh. I suppose you could call it basic training... Somebody who is disillusioned involved with somebody who is innocent – educational all around."
Lovers caught up in an affair are playing a delicious trick on the outside world. If only X or Y could see them now, they think; how amazed, how shocked they would be at what was going on. In their happiness, they believe that their adulterous selves, living in this parallel world, are more real than the people their family, friends and colleagues see every day.
Yet it suits our ordered, sanctimonious society to re-write the script so that adulterous desire becomes an undignified itch, like something out of a bad Carry On film. Exposed to the light of gossip or news coverage, every affair is trivialised, each act of betrayal is portrayed as the same seedy shuffle down a path made familiar by cliché. When Edwina Currie and John Major, to take an admittedly unglamorous example, were revealed to have had a four-year affair during the Eighties, media commentators pronounced confidently about what had happened. There had been an amoral seductress of a mistress, a weak and befuddled husband, a virtuous betrayed wife. It was pathetic and utterly predictable. To his shame, Major played along with this line.
Perhaps it was true, but it is also true that no one really knows what goes on within a marriage, much less an affair. In this case, it seems at least possible that, without an energising affair between 1984 and 1988, Major might never have even reached Downing Street. For all anyone knows, it could have been the making of him. Who has the right to decide that one kind of love is acceptable while the other is, by its nature, trivial and contemptible?
I wrote a column along these lines at the time and the e-mails in response surprised me. Several were from people who themselves were having, or had had, an affair. One of these secret lovers argued that, as the loving mistress of a married man for several years, she had denied herself the normal rewards of a relationship: children, company, comfort, shared holidays. All that mattered to her was to see her man now and then. In its way, her love was more selfless, less morally compromised, than many marriages are.
The truth is that affairs are never happy. Disappointment is hard-wired into the arrangement from the very first breathless meeting. Guilt plays its damaging part – only a heel or a fool actually enjoys betraying someone else – but, beyond that, an unfaithful relationship of any depth is by its nature tragic. It depends on desire, and desire dies. Once an affair becomes tamed and domesticated, passion making way to friendship and shared interests, it loses its point. It might as well be – and sometimes, in the end, is – marriage.
The alternative to this decline into cosiness is that the fantasy is ratcheted up, rendered more extreme and dangerous through jealousy, perversity – anything to retain that important edge of desire. The enemy of the adulterer is boredom, the banal business of getting from one day to the next. The narrator of Howard Jacobson's new novel The Act of Love, a daring and funny exploration of marital voyeurism, explains his unusual form of infidelity (he is desperate for his wife to be unfaithful to him) by saying that "there is no continuum of aberration, except in the sense that every act of sex sits at a crossroads which leads to every other. We would all perish ecstatically in sex at last if we had the courage to go on travelling."
Some, out of the pages of fiction, do go on travelling. Martin Amis, speaking of his father Kingsley, said "he lived for adultery". The writer Willie Donaldson, who went to unimaginable extremes of erotic betrayal throughout his life, claimed that the problem had begun when he was at Cambridge where he had discovered that sex was the ultimate distraction from responsibility and duty. "I made this disastrous discovery at the age of 21," he wrote later. "We can't organise happiness but we can organise unboredom. It was downhill all the way since then."
The affair has to end. Lying in bed together, the lovers know that already the clock is ticking. Adultery time moves faster than that in the faithful world. The more they talk about what might have been had they met at a different time and under different circumstances, the more aware they become that their fantasy à deux will soon fade.
That is, if they are lucky. Adultery is not famous for its happy endings. In the great novels, it is rewarded with death and shame. For the modern adulterer, things merely decline into murk and misery. Lies are built upon lies, spreading outwards from spouse to children to family to friends to colleagues. The technical aspects of running the affair – so complex that it sometimes seems that organising a small war would be easier – begin to take their toll. The balance between present pleasure and future pain shifts towards guilt-free domestic comfort. Meetings, once so eagerly anticipated, become matters of duty. Adultery fatigue sets in.
It is cruel. It is a mess. The collateral damage to innocent bystanders is considerable. Yet, there is something spirited and alive about those who refuse to play by the conventional rules of love. Adultery does not lend itself to the end-of-term prize-giving which has become part of our lives – the Pride of Britain Awards are unlikely to have a Love Rat of the Year category – but the next time you read a sneering gossip item or hear the scolding tones of a rent-a-gob media moralist, it is worth remembering the words John Dowell, the narrator of Ford Maddox Ford's great novel of betrayal The Good Soldier, "I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and to madness."
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