Beowulf and Marriage, Gifts and Work

Dear heart,

I have indeed been at sea, but miss you and am sipping Tippy Assam tea and staring in befuddlement at a lovely bouquet of flowers much like the one you left me last time you visited. I’ve been thinking about gifts, you see, and am feeling a little seasick as a result.

I did read the articles on American Mothers, the bitch/nag problem, and have been pondering the complications you mention because a guest in my home is thinking of cohabiting with her boyfriend. We’ve had some frank discussions about the Unexpected Tensions that arise and arrest the pleasures of a shared life, sort of how a shoelace catches on a nail while racing into your backyard kills the spontaneous onrush of childlike whimsy.

This guest has a tendency, even now, to occupy the Nag niche, which arises in response to a partner who does respond to some prodding. An example: he proposed that they move together to another country so that he could study something for two years. She had a fit because in making the proposal he failed to think out a single step of the plan—not how they would pay for plane tickets, or what she would do there, or how they would live  (she doesn’t speak the language), or how the gap might affect her own very successful career trajectory.

The fight that ensued seems fairly typical of the NYTimes article dynamic: he was startled and hurt by her outrage. He claimed he was merely floating the idea, wanted her input, was very much considering their life together: he was asking her what she thought, wasn’t he? To him, the conversation itself was a gesture of inclusion, a move toward some sort of togetherness. She felt oppressed by the practical dimensions of the situation which he clearly hadn’t considered, and which by default she assumed. So while he intended the gesture to be inclusive, she ended up feeling not only alone, but also weighed down by work, the demands of two lives instead of one.

I bring up the backyard-run because the concept to me encapsulates one of the sweeter red herrings in the myth of domestic life. It seems like marriage  should aspire to that kind of ease: both parties are eager. There’s momentum, there’s desire and there’s that slightly embarrassing sentimentality or fresh-faced optimism that forces couples to hide their pet names and schlocky-but-tender rituals.

How does this all fit into your work, dear CF, and marriage generally? I suppose, like the reality (vs. the romance) of being a Writer, the real thing ends up being quite a lot of determinedly schlubby Work. So much bending is actually required on both sides in order to lay down peacefully and rest at the end of the night.

I drag gifts into this because I’ve been thinking about them a great deal in relation to the problem of work in my own life. I still haven’t read Hyde’s The Gift. I want to, because (thanks to you) it crosses my mind more than any unread book really ought to.

I have, as you know, recently been given some rather large gifts by someone very kind and quite lovely. However, my idea in pursuing this particular relationship was to experience something informal, light, and casual. The gifts were ostensibly given in that spirit, and yet they’ve done quite a lot of work weighing the whole enterprise down with the Ghost of Girlfriendhood Future.

Now, Beowulf. (I promise there’s a point buried in here. Bear with me.) The poem is about many things: kingship, the problems of aging, arbitrating between the competing value systems of Christianity and warrior culture; it’s about civilization vs. barbarism, truces and revenge.  To be cast out of the mead-hall, in B’s world, is to be condemned to death or to become monstrous. Not unnatural—nature, in this poem is monstrous, lethal, and hostile to human habitation. So any creature that can survive it (like Grendel and his mother) is by definition inhuman but also natural. What’s valued here is artifice, work. The work of building something solid and beautiful and absolutely unnatural together against the wilderness.

Most importantly, it’s about the bonds that hold a civilization together—a civilization structured (literally—the architecture of the mead-hall is hugely important) around male companionship. And the male bond between a king and his thanes (or other tribes) is cemented through a) the exchange of women through marriage, which always fails, and b) the exchange of gifts.

The gifts in question are incredibly worked. They are gold. They are beautiful and heavy. They come in sets. They are earned—and this is problematic—in battle. (They are in fact plunder.) But despite the emphasis on work, artifice, and the beauty of the object, the point is never the gift itself—rather, it’s the gift’s ritual function in cementing  a relationship.

A good king in the poem, Hrothgar, starts out a warrior (in other words a plunder-collector) and ends up a “ring-giver,” a giver of gifts. Beowulf dies in the end because he fails at this transition as he ages. No longer the warrior he was, he nonetheless decides to confront the dragon alone—a dragon who incidentally only turned on B’s kingdom because a banished man stole a gold object from his hoard to win back Beowulf’s favor.

The point is, he fails, and his mead-hall—which, like Heorot, is called the “best of houses”—fails too, because of misdirected effort. Work gone awry.

This illustrates something important, I think, between gifts and work. You know how the universe is created out of matter and energy? Relationships, I think, and houses, and families, and civilizations, are created out of gifts and work. Just as matter and energy are finally the same thing, gifts and work are interconvertible.

The key is, the gifts must matter to the recipient, and must be recognized as gifts. There must be a moment of ritual reckoning, a presentation, even, when both giver and receiver understand what is being transacted and why. What happens, I think, to these American moms (and it certainly happened to me in my marriage, and has happened to my own parents, and to my guest too) is that women often eagerly participate in this gift-giving economy with an idea of selflessness or modesty. They give “freely” of their time, their effort, their energy, sure that the results—a clean bathroom, Valentines for the kid’s classmates, space for the spouse to work—are noticed and appreciated.

This “free” giving makes sense for children, but not for spouses. It’s not really free, and the minute the giver realizes that the recipient didn’t even NOTICE the gift, much less appreciate it, a conversion happens: the gift retroactively turns into work. It’s a debit, not a credit. The result? Instead of achieving the exalted status of giver, the offering party becomes merely a worker. And the recipient incurred a debt when he didn’t even know he was shopping.

There’s a reason gift-giving in Beowulf works (and marriage doesn’t): it only happens between men. I think men are better at making a song-and-dance about gifts than women are. The culture raises them that way: the gesture, the bouquet, the ring. The new car for the kid. Women are NEVER taught to give in this way. Somehow women tend to opt out of the gesture-thing, the meadhall presentation of gifts. So we tend to offer smaller gifts without a lot of pomp, which (from the men’s point of view) pretty much invalidates the function of the gift since it’s the ritual meaning, not the gift itself, that matters.

The result is a weird disparity where everybody’s giving what they themselves would like to receive. The small thoughtful embroidered scarf vs. the anonymous Ferrari. It’s the absurdity of the Golden Rule. (Quick digression: A recent study found that men’s necks are approximately 10x less sensitive than women’s. Therefore, when a man kisses your neck, he’s unwittingly delivering 10x more pleasure than he himself feels when you kiss his. Because he doesn’t know that, he might not kiss your neck that often, or quite believe you when you tell him how good it feels.)

I can’t believe how rambly this has gotten. Sorry.

Back to my situation: the gifts I received from this kind person have turned out (for me) to be quite a lot of work because I SIMPLY REFUSE TO BELIEVE that he’s not participating in this Beowulfy gift economy where the point of the gift is the ritual and not the gift itself. He’s a warrior of sorts, and I just can’t convince myself that he’s really truly opting out of an economy that’s so firmly rooted in ritual. (You can’t get more Beowulfy than the military.) I refuse to believe that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a television is just a television, a bouquet is just a bouquet, because it flies in the face of everything I know to be true about men and their gifting ways.

Is it possible, I wonder, that he’s really truly transcended his own model and is participating quite insightfully in mine? It’s all very confusing, because while there was no ritual, no grand presentation, the object itself does amount to quite a large gesture that doesn’t quite compare to the quiet gifts of vacuuming every day or (in your very difficult case) putting off your work to accommodate his plans.

In your case, dear CF, I wonder if a small part of the solution is not to view your choices as Gifts, because they so often get converted in your head to Work. Relationships are work—they’re gold-roofed mead-halls that protect us from the wilds of nature—and it’s the work that invests them with value. But the work they demand is enough. There’s really no need to overachieve. I’ve already—just by agonizing about my own situation as much as I have—put in way more work than was warranted or appropriate or necessary or right, and am sucking all the fun out of it.

So: as far as the things that invite one to nag, I guess I’m suggesting an Experiment: If they are Gifts, proclaim them, celebrate them, build a fire and present them in full diamond-hand regalia. If they aren’t, don’t make them. For awhile, maybe try to stop yourself from making those invisible offerings, because they’re costing you too much and Mr CF is—through no fault of his own—maxing out his line of credit.

For what it’s worth, I think you’re both working hard, I think your meadhall is glorious, and I think you’re both fabulous ring-givers. How this work relates to your own work is, of course, an entirely different question, and God knows this has gotten long enough.

Fondly, and at sea (or, to use a kenning, on the whale-road),

(This post responds to “Le Marriage et Le Travaille,” available here.)