William H. Gass Considers the Conditions of Adultery
A Never-Before Published Essay by the Iconic American Writer
A contributor to Conjunctions since the second issue in 1982, William H. Gass (1924–2017) was a fiction writer, essayist, and critic. His works of fiction include Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and The Tunnel, as well as many essay collections. Gass was recipient of numerous honors, including the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. First published in Conjunctions:76, Fortieth Anniversary Issue, “The Pattern of a Proper Life” is used with the kind permission of the Estate of William H. Gass.
Suppose you arose one morning with a little problem: not your shins, which were in splints from being kept in shape, or your head, which hurt from staying up late or with a fragment of nightmare left to darken your day, but a small cloud of intellectual confusion that would not go away, a problem that seemed to be all heads and tails, an ethical aftertaste, perhaps, from last month’s brief encounter, nothing calamitous like a swelling waistline or a bout of country-western rhyming, but something to do with the fudge factor, an intention to confuse, the radiation level of unreality, reasons for suspicion. Normally you would take your ailments to a physician, your laxities to your lawyer, or there would be a guru, maybe, you were fond of, who spoke in simplicities so pure that nothing could come from swallowing them. The kids to their counselor, the kar to the kar-man, and all knots to the sword that would sever them: such was the pattern of a proper life.
How to handle this troubling sense that things no longer cast the same kind of deceiving shadow, that it had ceased to be true that a bit of padding would suffice when whole cloth was in such abundance. And what of this temptation to keep to the straight and narrow when everyone else was off the road? For there was nothing wrong, surely, with a little wholesome hanky-panky; a hit or two of alliteration never hurt anybody (its high was low by most lights). In sum: why worry, since the skies are dry and the menace of metaphor has been reduced to hyperbole by the media?
Maybe the little fibs of childhood have grown as you grew, and are now the size of your suits and dresses, crowding the closets, swelling the shoe and hat boxes. Don’t people sue at the drop of a suture? How about pollutions of conscience and those easy outs of hard innings? Seven and six don’t forty-two the way they once did—so weak is the mathematics lobby—and an air of “Anything goes if it wears the right clothes” is being sung in every shower. Has it reached this? That there is nothing left to get away with.
All right, so you always believed that the old saws cut best, that you should “get it while the getting’s good,” and other low-budget wisdoms from the Horatio Alger era, but now you have to wonder: is the getting ever going to get good? How will you know when you’ve got what you were supposed to get, let alone get it good? And what is this “it” since Clara Bow is dead? Your adultery, for instance. So small you could carry it on a plane, an ordinary overnighter. You could make a tick if keeping score. You could count it a mild reassurance, physiquewise, that you could still call up the beast. As a sin, though, it was worth no more than a wag and a chuckle. Or do you deserve a dunking, a stay in the stocks, an A placed sizzling where it will hurt the most? What’s right? What’s true? Thus confounded and confused, you decide to consult a philosopher.
Adultery. He will ask you to spell it. You have made a major mistake.
Should you feel triumphant or ashamed? Guilty or full of the canary? You are looking for a straight answer. All the straight answers you’ve been told about are badly bent. You have heard that philosophers practice clarity as if it were a religion; that they simplify things, shave hairy problems back to the beardless boy; that they traffic in certainty; that they are satisfied with nothing but the Truth.
Why do you believe this when you don’t believe anything else you hear? Philosophers obfuscate in order to appear profound, creating little circles of understanding like bare ground beneath a greedy tree. Philosophers mimic the sciences in order to seem precise and profit from their prestige. Philosophers hide their spite behind argument and their ignorance under their rhetoric. They never practice what they preach, and if they do, their spouses divorce them.
So the first thing a philosopher should tell you is that his morals are as low as the next fellow’s, and he is proud to be as confused as you are. He should be happy to listen to your language, of course, and critique that. By calling your encounter “adultery” you have condemned it before anyone else has had the pleasant chance to. For instance, you might say, “Darling, will you adulterate this gin with a little tonic,” but you would never say, “Darling, will you adulterate this tonic with a little gin.” You could have described your affair as a friendly visit to a foreign body. When adulterate, you spoil the stock, and that’s what we gentlemen who perform philosophy worry about, along with all the other potential fathers: that we won’t know whose son is whose, and which one, therefore, will be at the head of our line to inherit, to carry on the family business, put our name on the side of the truck. That’s why, although men fool around, sow wild oats, be boys, tell jokes, only women commit adultery, because only they can put that discombobulating wiggle in the line of blood. Adultery has always been something shameful that happens to property like too much goo in the goop. What is the first thing philosophers do then? They give the wording a going-over.
Questions like yours don’t just fall like snow from a July sky. Certain conditions have to be met. Some have their origin in actual events. But we’ll pretend your query is purely hypothetical. Nevertheless, the question by itself supposes that an act occurred; that you, a principal agent, knew it to be adultery according to certain viewpoints, and that now you wonder whether any of these primitive, old-fashioned, out-of-date attitudes is correct. (Some philosophers, incidentally, believe that truth is eternal, so your angry adjectives won’t impress them; others, however, think that truths are seasonal, and come and go like birds.) You are calling into question one of the Ten Commandments, and, by implication, the pronouncements of God. Adultery is the least of it. Your query is in a lot of trouble. Anyhow, the second thing philosophers do is question the question.
What does it really take to commit adultery? Does it happen only in motels? If someone gets pregnant? Might get pregnant? Or is a little smooching enough, holding hands through a blue movie? Suppose you thought you were a widow. Suppose your spouse was weird, frigid, mad, ill? Or is adultery adultery, and whether we should excuse it just another question? Who cares if you did it to put meat on the table, worm secrets out of OPEC, get even with the gods? And remember that Jesus made everything damnably difficult by warning us that if we looked at a woman with adultery in our heart, we had, in effect, done the dirty deed.
The moral map contains a number of territories: the indefinitely receding expanse of consequences, the presence of pleasure or pain, knowledge or ignorance, force or free will, the fact of the act itself, then the region of our intentions, the valley of secret desires, the dark cave of primitive need and inescapable instinct. It is possible that I will want to commit adultery yet never intend to do so (because I am a scaredy-cat), or that I intend to every afternoon at the office, but business drops by, the phone rings, I mislay essentials.
As you can see, making distinctions is another thing philosophers do. Satan may be the Prince of Darkness, but the Prince of Difference is a philosopher. We unpack ideas, we draw maps, we make seating charts, administrative diagrams. Which do you find to be simpler: the radio that goes on when you turn a single knob, or the one that won’t work because the parts are all lined up on the floor? Take apart an adultery and what do we find? Most marriage vows, for instance, contain a promise of fidelity. Adultery breaks that promise. So don’t make promises and you’ll be OK.
Tradition tells us that it is given to woman to be faithful, but it is given to man to wander. Can a man make a promise he can’t keep? Darling, for you I will hold up the world! Is that a promise? Perhaps it is not the promise, as we say, per se, but the expectation that the promise creates, that is crucial here, so that one party feels injured and betrayed. Hence it is the pain that is the problem. OK, be discreet and all will be well. No harm, no foul. What they don’t know . . . etc. Yet what is poisonous is the secrecy which that requires, the deviousness that ensues, the chicanery that is its consequence. Isn’t intimacy frankness of heart, and don’t lovers cry out together that nothing shall come between them, that a lover’s nakedness is essentially a symbol for the openness of love?
Where is the real wrong, then, in the wrongdoing? Is it my shame at being a cuckold, yours at being an alliterator? Is it the broken promises, my borrowed and misused property, your polluted parentage, our personal pain? What a lot of question marks. What happened to the answers? Answers (I answer) shut down inquiry, close cases. Answers are the end of philosophy.
Furthermore, do folks who fuss at the festival of life, just when the fun is at its height, deserve to be told the truth? They will whine and cry and threaten to die. Some people have heartbreak more chronically than heartburn. If you could come home from the Happy Hour Motel, confess your happy hour, be absolved after seven “I love yous” and two household repairs, go to bed and sleep tight, then who would keep secrets? People who are lied to a lot—they mostly make it necessary; they deserve to be deceived. But such behavior is wrong on principle, some say, and it doesn’t matter a bit to whom you lie, or for what reasons, or what color you call it: just a little blue lie, just a small mauve one. They make life hard, such sayers. It is hard, they insist. Maybe, someday, insisters will come in smaller and smaller sizes. Tell them the zip you use on your lips. Practice telling tall tales to yourself.
In addition (as if more were needed), the philosopher will rise as quickly as he can from your particular case to the universal, from this or that instance of adultery to all such breaches of faith (if that’s what they are), and then from the nature of vice and virtue to the concept of goodness itself, and the general rules for right conduct. You want to know what the pattern for a proper life is? It is thinking about the pattern for a proper life. Certainly, such a conclusion sounds silly, but you will begin to realize, if you practice philosophy for even a few minutes a day (jog your head around the block), that simplicities themselves are seductive but suspicious; that it is unwise to trust rhetoricians or other rhymesters; that every issue is polygonal—nothing but sides; that reason is the only mistress/master of the mind, and that it pays to be faithful; that in the so-called realm of ideas, there is a lot of garbage out there . . . and it is being sold in some high-class shops.
Although the universal fits all sizes like a sock, like a sock it must be stretched this way and that to cover all its cases. Cases are unclear, unclean, infected, who knows what you may catch. They are mostly made of irrelevance anyway, so let us leave by the first train for the abstract.
In short, not another word about you.
“The Pattern of a Proper Life” by William H. Gass, reprinted with permission of Conjunctions. Copyright © 2021 by the Estate of William H. Gass.