Having decided on marriage, my fiancée and I are now well immersed in the process of planning our wedding. And like many young couples, we feel a strong distaste for what we have come to call the wedding-industrial complex: the North American industry that makes a lucrative profit from telling couples what they must do and selling it to them, documented in Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day. And then too often, we have then wound up going through a process uncomfortably familiar to many couples in our situation: observing traditions you despise, deciding you’ll do it all differently, and then finding yourself going through the traditional process anyway. Susan Jane Gilman expressed it perfectly in her article (and then book) Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. She and her fiancé decided that they hated the expense, pomp and sexism of a traditional wedding, and so theirs would be different. They’d just leave it as a fun party: hire a DJ, a bartender and an ice cream truck. But:
Somehow, Bob and I had also overlooked the fact that even if all you wanted was an ice cream truck, a bartender, and a deejay, you still needed a place to put them. And if you decided it might be nice to have some photographs of the day — photographs that did not scalp anyone, or feature detailed close-ups of your uncle’s thumb — it was best to hire a photographer. And then, as my mother diplomatically pointed out, if relatives were going to travel across the country to witness your marriage, it was probably polite to feed them more than a Fudgsicle and a glass of champagne. And surely, you couldn’t expect older folks to balance a plate on their hand all night: they had to sit somewhere. And since you were going to have tables anyway, would it really kill you to put out a few flowers to brighten things up?
Eventually Gilman even accepts the pouffy white wedding dress of her essay’s title: “My mind might have been that of a twenty-first-century feminist, but my body was that of a nineteenth-century Victorian, and the dress seemed to have been custom-made for my proportions.” And so it begins: as much as one desires to buck tradition, one nevertheless winds up finding reason to embrace many of the traditions one intended to reject. Hegel, I think, would approve: for him, it is important to question the authority of the past, but primarily in order to discover the rationality that underlies existing tradition, the reason things are the way they are. That seems to me exactly what young couples go through these days: however much you might want to reject the tent rentals, the fancy catering, the flower arrangements, the expensive photographer, you find that there are good reasons people go through all of these. You can (and probably should) throw out some wedding traditions, but you throw them all out at your peril.
The Confucians love to talk about how traditional ritual is one of the things that civilizes us, makes us part of the community – it’s the act of participating in the ritual itself that does this, not a historical or theological meaning that the ritual has. And… [ellipsis in original] I think Confucians like their traditional rituals for exactly the same reasons many North Americans hate Christmas (or Thanksgiving, or Passover for that matter): the whole idea is to share activity with family, including family who are very different from us, family who have poor character, family we don’t like. In our individualistic small-household culture, the holidays are among the few large-family rituals we have, which is why many people understandably would rather not bother with them.
Confucius’s prime example of such a civilizing ritual was traditional funeral rites. And indeed, in the mobile and scattered West, the two occasions we are most likely to see our whole extended family are funerals and – weddings. More so even than Christmas or Thanksgiving, weddings are a time when the family comes together, and when family preferences matter, even if the wedding is supposed to be all about two individuals.
In a certain way I would think of weddings as even more supremely Confucian than funerals. For while one can take a funeral to be about only one person, a wedding is always about at least two. Few events have more to do with the intimacy orientation so characteristic of Confucianism (again using Thomas Kasulis‘s highly productive distinction). By deciding to get married, to a certain extent one rejects the integrity orientation – both the premodern integrity orientation of the unmarried monk, and the modern integrity orientation of the autonomous libertine who cares only for himself or herself. On my previous account of three ways of life, at a wedding one commits to some degree of traditionalism, against both asceticism and libertism.
There are even some who lament that, in a sense, today’s marriages are not traditional enough. Patrick Deneen points out on Front Porch Republic not only that most marriages in history were based on family contracts rather than individual consent; but also that even when individual consent became indispensable to marriage in the West,
it was still understood by all parties that marriage was most fully a union by and for the greater community. Blessings of parents and the publication of “the banns” was a necessary precondition for a wedding. This was especially because the married couple – by committing to marriage – was not merely joining to each other in an official capacity, but was in fact becoming a constitutive unit of the community and the conduit for the continuation of culture. Marriage was thus essential to the life and future of culture, and could not be permitted to take place between two individuals who happened to love each other but who were culturally unrelated. Rather, and necessarily, marriage was the union not simply between individuals, but between two people who would convey the lived traditions of a culture – most obviously (for instance), a man and woman of the same religious faith (this is one of the main points of Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye can brook the choices of his two older daughters – even marriage to a communist – because they are both Jews. It is only when his youngest daughter proposes to marry a Christian that he withholds consent). Marriage was most essentially a commitment to a community, not the sum of personal choices of individuals. [emphases in original]
Deneen writes as a conservative opposed to gay marriage, but he sees gay marriage as the inevitable outcome of an individualistic concept of marriage – the kind of concept that we or Gilman tried to follow, where we would decide to move away from established traditions. Deneen reminds me what a modern individualist I am; I’m grateful that I don’t live in Deneen’s world, which would in many ways be Confucius’s. I’m much happier to be in Hegel’s world. We still could throw out all convention, we still could elope, and it’s important that we be able to reserve that right; but because we want to give our families and friends a good time, we start to see the reasons behind a number of the conventions we thought we’d leave aside.
Such a point has implications well beyond weddings. I think it’s what gives rise to the old saw “liberal at 20, conservative at 40” – though I’d prefer “radical at 20, pragmatic at 40,” as self-styled conservatives, especially of the libertarian stripe, can be far more radical in the changes they wish to see than many are left-wingers. As teenagers, we learn – to our shock – what is wrong with the world around us, and set out to do everything differently from what came before. Only as we try (and typically fail) to do this over the years do we learn why things are the way they are in the first place.