Sam Waxforth, the main character in Christopher Beha’s recent novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, is a tech-savvy young man who crunches numbers in order to predict results–whether in baseball sabermetrics or in political elections. What may seem baffling to us at the individual level can make sense in the aggregate. Or so Sam thinks. “The test of knowledge was what it told you about tomorrow.”
Approaching his own life in this way, Sam picks out an apartment to rent, using all the information available to him online. The bottom floor of the apartment building is called Hun Lee Poultry House. Supposing this to be a restaurant, Sam rents the apartment above it. Alas, Hun Lee Poultry House turns out to be a wholesale distributor, a warehouse full of live caged birds that produces a terrible stench beneath his living quarters. Readers can hardly be surprised as they watch Sam’s life–his work, his marriage, his friendships–fall apart in the course of the novel, one self-destructive act following another.
The story reminds us of Kierkegaard’s observation that, while life can only be understood backward, it must be lived forward. Caught in the midst of life as we always are, we are less able to chart out the future than we suppose. Life is always a venture that resists prediction or control of the sort Sam wanted.
One aspect of life that Kierkegaard surely had in mind (in fact, was obsessed with) was marriage. The church does not ask John, “Do you love Joan?” It asks, “Will you love Joan?” That is, we do not ask John what he knows about himself or about Joan that makes marriage for them a sensible undertaking. How can they say what sort of person either of them will have become a quarter century from now? So knowledge of their past, however detailed, cannot guarantee success in marriage. They must live forward, shaping a future about which they can know only one thing: that they have promised fidelity to each other. No counseling can guarantee that.
Is there then no point to premarital counseling? No point to seeking advice from those who have studied the factors that help a marriage last? No point to exploring one’s history in order to anticipate possible concerns? That cannot be quite right. Living forward does not mean simply venturing to do as I please, without instruction, guidance, or exemplars. But after we have considered what those with “expertise” can tell us, we must still take a vow–committing ourselves to a future that no past history can guarantee. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our culture has, in recent decades, been losing a sense of what that marital vow really means, of the way in which it invites us to live life forward together.
Reading Trollope is not very much like reading Kierkegaard, but in Can You Forgive Her?(first of the Palliser novels) he says much the same thing–though, to be sure, in a more sober tone than we could ever expect from Kierkegaard. “People often say that marriage is an important thing, and should be much thought of in advance, and marrying people are cautioned that there are many who marry in haste and repent at leisure. I am not sure, however, that marriage may not be pondered over too much.”Two very different writers, but each with a sense of how marriage should invite us to live life forward, shaping together a future that could never have been predicted.
It’s too bad that Sam had spent his whole life with statistics aimed at predicting the future, rather than reading Kierkegaard or Trollope in order to learn a little about living toward the future. Sam was unable to find any algorithm that could help when it came to matters of the heart. Such matters cannot be dealt with in the aggregate, as if the past could somehow give certainty about how we are to live our lives forward, or about what a sensible vow should promise.
Santayana is often cited to the effect that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. True enough, perhaps, in some matters. But when it is a question of commitment, Kierkegaard may be the better guide. Looking backward cannot, in the end, tell us how to live. Not, at any rate, unless we want to find ourselves living above a warehouse full of caged birds.