Philosopher Alain de Botton rewrites the marriage vow for the modern couple | Daily Mail Online
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Martin Luther King, Jr. He often appears on lists of Great African Americans as well as lists of "firsts". Howard University, where he worked for the majority of his teaching career, christened a prominent building in his honor and several other schools bear his name.
Any discussion of the Harlem Renaissance will find it nearly impossible to omit him from the account. And yet, the sheer grandeur of that reputation rests almost entirely upon his editorship of and relatively brief introduction to a book of essays, poetry, fiction, and reproductions of artworks that defined the cultural moment: An Interpretation preceded by the "Harlem" number of the Survey Graphic, containing several of the same essays, from that same year.
Compared to the considerable heft of the writings of DuBois, the relative paucity of Locke's output is surprising, perhaps disappointing, and presents a considerable challenge to the historian. There is no doubt that Locke's intellectual influence was essential to the development and shaping of the Harlem Renaissance; but how is one to account for that influence when he produced so little and what he did produce, aside from the introduction to The New Negro, was not widely read in his lifetime and remains unfamiliar today?
In his new biography, The New Negro: Stewart rises to this challenge by producing a thorough and detailed narrative of Locke's life. Although he longed to do so, Locke never managed to cultivate the persona of the public intellectual in the manner of his idol William James; nor was he able to craft a position as a leader of the black political struggle in the manner of DuBois.
Locke's primary contribution seems to have come in the form of his encouragement toward black artists he described himself as a "midwife" to African American art. He fervently believed that black advancement would derive from an African American aesthetic contribution to society, that what the black voice offered was a newly invigorated view of the world constructed through art.
Understanding Locke's impact involves more than an examination of his writings which actually reveal precious little.
Philosopher Alain de Botton rewrites the marriage vow for the modern couple
While those writings ought not to be cast aside, they must be set in the context of Locke's personal efforts to foster, promote, and promulgate an emergent black aesthetic. This requires an investigation of his many interpersonal relationships, sifting them for some insight into his vision for the future and the role of black people within that future. Moreover, Locke was a difficult man to know.
Preternaturally conservative and reserved, he was also a black homosexual in a time when it was dangerous to be either, much less both. His closest relationship was with his mother. She was his confidante, the catalyst for his productivity at least in the first half of his lifeand he spent a large part of his life cohabitating with her.
She was his guardian and, in many ways, his ward. When they were separated while he was at Harvard, he still managed the household financial situation from afar. His mother also perhaps unwittingly protected him from the suspicions surrounding a man who obstinately remained a bachelor.
As long as he was living with his mother, he had an excuse for being unwed. His actual sex life remained largely obscured from view.
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Although a prolific correspondent with his friends and colleagues and when they were apart, his motherLocke rarely openly acknowledges his homosexuality although he becomes increasingly open toward select friends as he aged ; indeed, much of his correspondence reveals little about him aside from his intellectual ambitions.
In short, many of the characteristics that draw our desire to come to know Locke are precisely those characteristics that are hidden from view.
As Locke's biographer, Stewart imaginatively interprets various events in Locke's life, mining them for whatever insight they might provide. At times this provides the kind of critical engagement one longs for in a biography. At other times, one can't help but feel that Stewart conjures up material out of the thinnest of resources and then makes rather outsized claims on Locke's personality and character based on his flights of imagination. Stewart divides his book into 44 chapters grouped into three parts.
Part 1 tracks Locke from his birth through his extensive education and ensconcement at Howard University to just before his mother's death inwhen Locke was 37 years old. Throughout, Stewart engages in quite a bit of armchair psychology but that tendency is at its most pronounced in the first third of the book.
A spanking delivered to the four- or five-year-old Locke by his father Pliny becomes in Stewart's narrative punishment for the child's nascent homosexuality: Locke's fastidiousness at school—his discomfiture with the slightest uncleanliness arising, for instance, from contact with chalk—becomes, for Stewart, "psychologically associated with feces; but here, interestingly, it is 'chalk' Locke is trying to wash off his black body.
Normally, one would assume a young hyper-assimilating African American would be trying to wash the black off. Given the amount of space Stewart devotes to Locke's longing in his youth and early adulthood for identification with his white patrons and friends, this reading seems unjustified.
Similar issues arise with respect to Locke's sexual life. Again, one can understand the dilemma Stewart faced. For a marriage to work, we need to move firmly out of the child position and into the parental position. We need to become someone who subordinates their own demands and concerns to the needs of another. The cause of these words might be hunger, a lost but crucial piece of Lego, not being allowed to play a computer game, or that they have an earache.
We find it exceptionally hard to make this move with our partners: I accept the dignity of the ironing board. They must draw up work rosters, clean, chauffeur, cook, fix, throw away, mind, hire, fire, reconcile and budget. None of these activities has any glamour whatsoever.
Those obliged to do them are therefore highly likely to resent them and feel that there is something wrong in their lives for having to involve themselves so closely with them. They should be interpreted as the bedrock of a successful marriage, and accorded all the honour currently given to other activities in society such as mountain climbing or motor sport. Because marriage has other key concerns companionship, administration, the next generationsex will suffer. We are ready to get married when we accept a large degree of sexual resignation.
Both parties must therefore scrupulously avoid making the marriage about sex. They must also, from the outset, plan for the most challenging issue that may, statistically speaking, arise for them: We are properly ready for marriage when we are able to behave maturely around betraying and being betrayed. The inexperienced, immature view of betrayal goes like this: It can be quick and meaningless, just like playing tennis.
But this is to wilfully ignore an impregnable basic of human nature. No one can be the victim of adultery and not feel that they have been found fundamentally wanting and cut to the core.
They will never get over it. On the other side of the equation, one should ready oneself for betrayal. It is easy to believe that they are deliberately trying to humiliate us and that all their love has evaporated.
The more likely truth — that our partner just wants to have more, or different, sex — is as hard to master as Mandarin or the oboe and requires as much practice. We are ready to get married when two very difficult things are in place: And at the same time, we are ready to believe in their stubborn inability to keep love and sex apart.
Both parties have to be able to master both feats because they may, during the course of a lifetime, be called upon to demonstrate both capacities.
This, rather than a vow never to have sex with another human again, should be the test for getting married. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. We should, at key points, see our partner as the teacher and ourselves as pupils.