Thus, Cassandra at the Wedding. On a list of books I have maintained on my computer more of less without interruption since high school, Dorothy Baker's short 1962 novel found an early place. This list, I should explain, is designed for those books that I haven't yet read, and perhaps don't really intend to any time soon, but which I dimly sense are going to come in useful someday.
Here, I perceived correctly. Cassandra at the Wedding is the book that one absolutely has got to read at the end of that particular year in one's Twenties -- perhaps you have had it yourself, or are in the midst of it yourself. It's that year when you are invited to a seemingly endless series of weddings of the vast majority of one's friends and acquaintances, as they are paired off one by one.
Since by the time that particular year is complete, it amounts to a considerable cumulative performance of social and amicable responsibilities, and one has been on one's absolutely best behavior the entire time, it is a great and deserved pleasure to curl up at the end of it with Baker's novel and savor the company of her protagonist and chief narrator, Cassandra Edwards, as she insists upon taking it all so badly, and behaving so abominably. The novel is the great song of the single friend or sibling being invited to the public demonstration of another person's private happiness. If Frank Norris wrote an epic of wheat, then this surely is the epic of sour grapes.
Let us begin with a cast of characters. Cassie Edwards -- our hero -- is living in Berkeley, attending graduate school, and writing some dissertation on French literature, which she generally refers to -- with feeling -- as her "idiotic thesis." (Her utter loathing of her own research is pleasantly reminiscent of the thoughts and feelings of that other great campus misanthrope, Jim Dixon, upon the sight of his opus, The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. Writes Amis in Lucky Jim: "Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most for its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.")
Cassandra's true ambitions are literary -- yet as much as her doctoral work is plainly proving to be an inadequate substitute for the former, she cannot quite bring herself to get started. Part of the problem is the example of her novelist mother, whom she cannot dare to either fall short of, or to surpass. "It's something about not wanting to be compared," she tells us. "And not wanting to measure up, or not measure up." (5-6)
Cassandra also has an identical twin -- although she forbids her family from ever using that term to describe what she deems their "condition." (Indeed, the word "twin" never appears in the text.) She is likewise opposed to the idea of she and her sister dressing alike or being confounded with one another, and takes note of their age gap of several minutes' time, observing that she is the slightly older one.
On the other hand, Cassandra is no less insistent that she and her sister are two necessary halves of the same super-personality. They cannot subsist as separate entities; if ever halved, both sides would have to perish. As Cassandra explains this seeming paradox -- that of insisting on their differentiation while also denying their individuality -- "there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project." (100).
Cassandra -- a none-too-reliable narrator -- depicts their childhood as an early '60s bohemian idyll, complete with emancipated novel-writing mother-- with gamine-like qualities and a penchant for reading Yeats aloud in order to discourage her daughters from worldly ambition and the cheap adoration of the vulgar multitude -- and a whiskey-sodden father who is a former professor of philosophy and a student of ancient Pyrrhonism. He shares the depressive inclination and expansive reading of the great early modern adherent of that school, Montaigne. (It is likewise fitting that he can quote by memory from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.)
As for the college and post-graduate years the two sisters have shared in an apartment at Berkeley, Cassandra portrays the pair of them as so inextricably soldered together, and so broadly indifferent and even marginally hostile to all people but themselves and the members of their immediate family, that they could give June and Jennifer Gibbons a run for their money -- in all but the idioglossia. Such, at any rate, is Cassandra's telling. Judith -- Cassandra's sister -- gives a different version of events, when it is her turn to speak later in the novel.
One can only imagine the trouble that would have resulted if June Gibbons ever wandered off for nine months and came back to tell her sister that she was engaged. Cassandra at the Wedding opens with just such havoc already introduced on the scene. Judith has given word that she is to be married, and Cassandra is devastated. She had thought the misanthropic seclusion of their family life would continue forever. She had laid out for them in her dreams a shared monastic existence devoted to their respective arts -- she of the pen, her sister of the lyre.
She even believed she had secured a definite commitment from her sister to this same vision of their future existence, but Judith smashed the idol. Cassandra turns her affronted eloquence to full force. "I'd never choose to come home with a stranger and enact before our household gods the brutal double ceremony of the destruction of Athens and the founding of something that could never at its best equal it," she tells us. (19).
Cassandra narrates her portions of the novel in this general tone of outraged black comedy, always taking care to include herself in the merciless strafing of her sarcasm. I'm on board. The older one gets, the more this seems the only proper way to write about the tragedies and disappointments of adult life, because one is always in such an absurd position in confronting them: I know this shouldn't hurt so much, one thinks, but damn it, it does!
Cassandra, for one, has no socially approved reason to oppose her sister's marriage to a handsome doctor from Connecticut -- "no rights in this matter" has she, being "neither father nor lover," to quote a famous line from Roethke. She has nothing to complain of -- except for the fact that it constitutes for her a catastrophic loss.
So, knowing all the time that she is behaving badly, she decides to do so anyway. She sins, and sins boldly. Cassandra listens in surreptitiously on her sister's phone calls. She makes not the slightest effort to pretend she is so happy for her and excited to meet her fiancé. And she gets terribly sloshed at every opportunity, over the mere two or three days in which the book's events unfold.
It is only for this last failing --the booze -- that her sister Judith takes her explicitly to task, but Cassandra rightly perceives in it a synecdoche for all the other breaches of wedding etiquette. Drink is the portal to all the other sins against politeness, she tells us, which are variants on the failure to suppress or disguise what one is actually thinking. "[T]he emblem of good women [like her sister]," she avers, "is always this anxiety about drinking -- other people's drinking. And I knew why. Because alcohol releases truth and truth is something good women never care to hear [...] They only want to hear clichés about how lovely it is to be home again, and what a happy occasion this is [...] and may I please take a peek inside the hope chest, Pandora's dear box?" (52)
Cassandra is not a good woman, so defined. She is unalterably opposed to sexual and romantic convention and to the way of life that her sister's marriage signals she is planning to adopt. She refuses utterly to sacrifice truth to smoothness of social interaction -- which is partly why she is so incensed later on in the book when her grandmother accuses her of never being "serious" -- in truth, the mordant satire of her conversation is a product of just the opposite failing ("It's my whole trouble [...] to know how serious I can be about what I love," she says. "I'm so committed to true seriousness that I spend my time clearing out rubbish.").
"She sounds to me like a bad bad girl," says Judith's fiancé, when he does finally appear on the scene and begins to hear a little bit about what Cassandra has been up to. (He generally confirms Cassandra's worst expectations of him, i.e., that he will be dopey and masculine, albeit broadly well-meaning. When his mind drifts, it is not to reflect on the troubles of Cassie, which is where her own and her sister's always do, but on how to decorate a blank stretch of wall by the door in their new apartment). Indeed, Cassandra is "bad bad" by most standards -- not just those of 1962-- which is why one likes her. She is one of those "passionate sisters" who "shall not escape hell," in Marina Tsvetaeva's words (Feinstein trans.) -- the ones who do "not lean over cradles or/ spinning wheels at night." She is implacably committed to her individuality.
Dorothy Baker does not waste a lot of time specifying or circumscribing her protagonist's sexuality. To an extent that is really quite astonishing for a novel from all the way back in 1962, she signals in an unsurprised and unemphatic way that if Cassandra is romantically involved with anyone, it is with other women (she and her female analyst both edge toward a seduction in one scene later in the novel, before both thinking better of it).
But for the most part it is plain that Cassandra does not really structure her emotional life around romantic relationships, whether with men or women. Cassandra recalls what she told her sister on the night she first brought her round -- or thought she had -- to the vision of a life of mutual misanthropy and artistic achievement: "[I] told her as honestly as I could how I'm constituted. With men I feel like a bird in the clutch of a cat, terrified," says Cassandra, whereas with women, "at the point they stop[...] being strangers I always wished they'd be strangers again." (14).
Cassandra is, it would seem fair to say, a confirmed bachelor, and her response to the institution of marriage suddenly intruding itself into her primary relationships is reminiscent of those of the other literary specimens of the genre-- who also, but the way, tend to share her mordant wit. The narrator of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, Ernest's godfather, for one. As he puts it: "I never have heard that any young man to whom I had become attached was going to get married without hating his intended instinctively, though I had never seen her; I have observed that most bachelors feel the same thing, though we are generally at some pains to hide the fact. Perhaps it is because we know we ought to have got married ourselves."
Well, Cassandra certainly abides by the same principle. She is intent from the beginning on disliking every aspect of her sister's fiancé, beginning with the first detail she encounters -- his name, which of course is insufferably WASP and pulchritudinous and monosyllabic, worthy of its owner: Jack Finch. This she refuses to learn at all, referring to him variously as Jack Lynch and Walter Thorson.
Part of Ernest's godfather's objections to his godson's marriage, meanwhile -- in Butler's novel -- is the fact "that a young man of much promise [...] should fling himself away[.]" Likewise, Cassandra is convinced that her sister will be squandering her talent and her artistic ambitions. "If a person of her stature and her gifts chooses to sell herself short and go the way of all suburbia, who am I to speak up for what I think of as virtue?" (40).
But the true objection in both cases, of course, has nothing at all to do with the specific qualifications of the intended, or with whether or not marriage actually gets in the way of anyone's creative plans. It has to do with the loss -- however limited -- that a wedding necessarily represents to those who are left outside it. It has to do with the fact that a friend or family member may have been a primary relation in a previous part of one's life, and a wedding can seem to signal a kind of demotion. It is as much a sundering as a coming together. As Judith reflects, in her narrated portion, contemplating Cassie and reversing the usual liturgy in her head: "Whom God hath split asunder, let nothing join together." (164). And earlier, she thinks, continuing in her High Church vein: "[Jack] took the position [...] that once we were married we'd be married; forsake father, forsake grandmother, and forsake, please God, sister, and cleave unto each other someplace a long way away from where the forsaking took place." (139).
One might have expected this loss -- this sundering -- to have provoked somewhat more in the way of literary treatment over the years, given its near universality in modern societies that place such an odd premium on romantic love ahead of all other forms. Yet, Cassandra at the Wedding seems to have little competition in this genre (though it could easily best any that happened to arrive). It is fitting that an endorsement from Carson McCullers should appear on the back cover of the NYRB Classics edition of Baker's novel, as her The Member of the Wedding would be my only other major contender for the distinction of being the greatest literary depiction of the pain and confusion (along with other emotions, of course) that come with attending other people's nuptials -- particularly those of people to whom one is close.
The difference being, of course, that the protagonist of McCullers's novel is a child, who doesn't understand why her sibling's marriage should disarrange the slightest detail of her current life, and indeed why she can't simply come along for the honeymoon. Cassandra, meanwhile, is an adult, who understands exactly what is happening and is determined to fight it.
Her methods for trying to avert the looming catastrophe are -- for most of the novel -- typically self-defeating. These are the mistakes that every single friend makes. Perceiving the first crack in what threatens to grow into a continental rift between themselves and a friend or loved one, the single friend's first instinct is to try what has always worked in the past -- honesty, openness, vulnerability. They turn to the friend or loved one to tell them exactly what is on their mind. But since what is on their mind is precisely the friend's own alleged or feared or consummated betrayal, this just leaves the other person with a sense of vague guilt, which turns to resentment, and widens the separation. Cassandra, for one, regales Judith with all the emotional devastation she experienced as a result of the latter's decision to leave and go to New York, and she is genuinely surprised that her sister lashes out at the close of this narration with some cuts of her own: "I couldn't believe that I could confide in someone so close to me, the only one -- tell her I'd had to go to a psychiatrist for help three weeks after she abandoned me , and two minutes after I revealed it have her knife me with a word, the key word -- disturbed." (123).
Less subtly, Cassandra also deploys various devices -- bordering on the Munchausen-esque -- for securing the sympathy of her sister and relatives, culminating in an ultimate attempt at vengeful self-destruction. Early on in the novel, she discovers that if she cannot quite induce her sister to want to go back to their former life and relationship; if she cannot perfectly resurrect their idealized childhood (if it ever existed) -- in short, if "nothing can bring back the hour/ of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower"-- then at least she can make her sister worry about her, as a test of devotion. Her first taste of this is when she tells Judith that she fell from a ladder on her way to see her. When her sister evinces concern at this statement, it whets her appetite for more of the same. "I loved the sound of it," says Cassandra. "Loved it." (26).
Yet, guilt and anxiety are, of course, no real recipes for rekindling devotion. Eventually the other person will recoil from the constant emotional test-taking, which will only deepen the perception that the wedding really does represent some sort of final separation. Guilt in adults is a highly unstable emotion. It transmutes very quickly into resentment. So it is that the fear of betrayal is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This cultivating of resentment in others is not the only problem with Cassandra's favored strategies for processing her grief, however. She is also mistaken to imagine her sister can provide her any words of comfort in her present predicament, when the latter indeed shares all of Cassandra's fears. Judith has only just escaped solitude and loneliness by finding love and marriage, after all. To go back to the former estate would be the worst thing she can imagine. Seeing Cassandra in her state of singlehood, she can only regard her with pity and horror -- not with any real hope for the other's future. "I belonged somewhere, and Cass didn't," she thinks in her narration. "And probably never would." (169).
Gradually, we learn that Judith did not ever truly share Cassandra's vision of their future, and her sense of destiny. She describes to Cassandra how lonely she actually felt, during the years together in the apartment -- the same that Cassandra had mythologized as a holy anchorite existence. She believes that she found the key to her own happiness by fleeing. While she can utter comforting platitudes to Cassandra, therefore, she is not really likely to be convincing on the subject of how Cass will be just fine living on her own.
The words of reassurance from her other family members are hardly more persuasive. Cassandra's grandmother, who is the unfailing source in the novel of all the bromides that people typically say during and around the time of weddings -- much to our protagonist's dismay -- gives her one of the more hackneyed in a long and delightful scene between the two of them at the breakfast table. It is the same line people have been selling to the unmarried since the institution began (or at least since it became such a big deal in the 19th century, which gave us both romance and Wagner's wedding march) -- viz., essentially that she should just wait around and trust that her own Mr. Right will turn up one of these days. "You'll know, dear [...] Your day will come, and when you meet someone who is right for you, you'll know it as surely as Judy did." (97).
This is of course not actually comforting at all, to those who hear it, partly because we know that however many people it may have been true for in the past, it need not apply to us; and more importantly because we -- even if we are unmarried -- are not satisfied with pie in the sky by and by. We have the audacity to expect happiness here, as we are, en este mundo (to borrow a phrase from Roque Dalton).
What Cassandra really needs to know is not that there will be a Jack Finch of her own in her future -- because there very well might not be, and there's an even better chance that she wouldn't want there to be if there was. What she needs to know -- or perhaps, remember -- is that happiness is possible even in the absence of the romantic or marital deus ex machina.
Other people's weddings are, confessedly, a very difficult place to get back in touch with this knowledge. I know from experience. Those who are getting married are often so happy about the step they are about to take that they are not likely to be able to persuade others with any real conviction that the world holds so many other glorious options. Likewise, the older relatives who always point their fingers at one in comic warning on these occasions and say, "You'll be next, you know!" do nothing to answer the internal questions of: What if I'm not, though, and/or what if I'm not sure I want to be? Isn't there any other way for me to live? Is it really marriage or perish?
Our broader culture is not exceedingly reassuring on this point either. It often seems to be the fate of the unmarried and romantically uninvolved character in our films and literature to die young -- preferably while sacrificing themselves for the sake of the procreating ones, those who are going to get hitched just before the credits roll and start producing some of those "lissome scions" that Hopkins talked about (himself singularly unpersuasive on the subject of the glories of matrimony, as if he were trying a bit too hard-- being not only a confirmed bachelor, but a consecrated one). Frodo goes off to the Grey Havens, after attending Sam and Rosie's wedding (I can sympathize with how this might render the Grey Havens all the more appealing). Also, I recall one otherwise forgettable Alicia Silverstone movie, in which she's a vampire or something, living with another single vampire. For some reason she has to die at the end of the movie while her younger and more marriageable companion makes off with the chisel-jawed male lead.
Viz. as well Nabokov's Lucette, from Ada or Ardor, whom Van describes as "passing alone, drinking alone, always alone" (460), and who eventually perishes at her own hand. Also Jesus, of course, the most famous self-sacrificing confirmed bachelor of them all.
Don't get me wrong -- sacrifice is a very fine thing -- but it seems hardly fair to have it be the only option available to people just because they aren't married. Cassandra recognizes this and rails against it.
Yet here's the problem -- her response to this injustice is to turn around and inflict the same upon her sister. Not being willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of the married folk of the world, she insists that her sister sacrifice herself for the unmarried -- namely, her. She wishes to deny Judith the life she wants. She attempts to freeze their childhood and place it under a sealed dome, like one of the rare Beanie Babies (will be returning to this image below-- stay tuned).
I confess that after some weddings of close friends, confronted with the inevitable changes the event will introduce into our mode of life and way of relating to each other, I have felt this same impulse. I have felt possessive of the way things were. Can't we just go back? What was so wrong with that that anything needed to change? Also -- why don't people realize that this is a big deal for me? Our society tends to treat friendship and sibling-hood as a secondary kind of relationship -- far lower in the hierarchy than romantic love, and maybe even one that is meant eventually to be replaced. But what about those of us for whom they are primary, and always have been?
Far and away the best place to turn for solace in these moments is the great poetry of homoerotic longing, seeing as how gay and lesbian adults have been in this position for much longer -- i.e., that of having some of their deepest affections written off as a juvenile phase that will eventually be passed through. (The Freudians of course are partially responsible for this notion that the well-lived existence will culminate in heterosexual love -- and that if it doesn't, something must have been stunted or gone amiss along the way. As Anne Sexton -- a satirist, among other things, of the over-idealized post-war American marriage -- puts it in her version of Rapunzel, the girl and her bold rescuer, "lived happily as you might expect/ proving that mother-me-do/can be outgrown,/ just as the fish on Friday.")
A.E. Housman's poem about the famous incident in which he confessed his love to a friend who could not reciprocate, because he was destined for a heterosexual marriage -- a loss that then sustained nearly all the rest of Housman's poetic work -- speaks as well to the plight of the single friend:
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.
And Langston Hughes needs no great translation to apply to my or Cassandra's case equally: "I loved my friend. He went away from me. There is nothing more to say."
Yes, that really is the rub.
What begins to pull the single friend out of the raw pain of this fact, however, and to accept the loss, is not that one eventually achieves a return to the status quo ante -- it never is that way with grief. Rather, one draws upon a lifetime's accumulated confirmed bachelor wisdom -- the things that made one, perhaps, a bit of a skeptic toward marriage in the first place.
Here are a few samples of the lore: the emotional truth, for one, that one is actually best able to maintain positive and close relationships with people when one is not investing one's happiness primarily in those relationships -- i.e. when one is not making them bear quite such an intolerable load as the whole of one's happiness. Another would be that you actually do people harm by trying to catch them in place, or freeze them into a particular moment in time, or a state of feeling toward oneself -- even when this catching and freezing is done in the name of "love."
Possessive love, then -- the kind that Cassandra feels for her sister, or that makes one want to read maudlin Housman poems after going to a friend's wedding -- is ultimately a pretty poor sort of love, strong as it feels itself to be in the moment. It is a poor sort of love because it is not really about the other person, even though it believes itself to be -- even though it presents itself as entirely, obsessively, about the other person. It is actually about oneself, and the story one is telling in one's own mind.
Cassandra's story is that she and her sister are marked out by destiny for greatness. That they are artistic titans who only need to stay together, and exclude any contaminating influences, and they will achieve their goals -- she in literature, her sister in the world of music. She talks on and on about their intellectual superiority, and their "informed taste." "Who else do you know that drives a Riley and owns a Boesendorfer, or even knows what they are[?]" she triumphantly queries. "We didn't [....] go steady with some clod, or live with the Alpha Kappa Thetas, because we never talked that language or thought in those terms." (117).
The more we get to know Judith over the course of the novel, however, the more we realize that this is not her story. For one thing, her chosen mate, Jack Finch, is -- while a nice enough guy -- decidedly rather clod-like. Judith might have different goals. "I never really understood why you think we're so special. Are we?" (116) she asks her sister, shortly before this speech. This is what leads Cassandra into yet another blazing illumination of their great destiny and future. "Take it on faith -- we're special." (117).
Cassandra speaks about her relationship with Judith as if they were meant to submerge themselves in one another, and lose their separate identities. Yet, this is not truly proposed as a reciprocal merger, in which they meet somehow in the center. What she is really asking of Judith is that she submerge herself into Cassandra. Toward the end of the novel, Cassandra begins to realize that Judith is actually a very different person than the one she had invented -- a person far less bohemian, and for whom marriage might be a logical destiny -- the one she actually wants. As Cassandra puts it at last, in typically cutting fashion, "You're a beautiful bride [...] and a very conventional girl. I think you'll be very happy." (219).
The truth that Cassandra has uncovered about her sister by the end of the novel -- the great disappointment -- is something like the one that Ernesto Sabato describes with a particularly indelible image at the end of El Túnel. His narrator describes his life as a kind of solitary excavation of the earth, through a subterranean cavity. He recounts -- metaphorically -- that he first saw his love traveling through a transparent hole in the cave wall next to him -- and he thought perhaps that she was in a parallel tunnel just like his, and that was why he could see her. But no, upon closer examination, he realized that she was outside the tunnel entirely, like the rest of humanity, and he alone is encased within.
Cassandra likewise has found that her sister cannot share her solitude. There is an impassable membrane between her and others. That the outcome of her need for solitude is, logically enough, that she is alone.
Yet this is as it should be. To ask someone to share one's own solitude -- to enter one's tunnel -- is to ask them to become oneself, to have just the same goals and destiny and desires as oneself. It is, in that case, not really to love them. It is not to love them for themselves, that is, as people who are not oneself, who are different, who have their own paths to trod and tunnels to excavate.
Love that is truly about another person thus cannot be possessive. It is, rather, something like the love described at the end of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr. Fortune's Maggot -- another great book for confirmed bachelors -- when the erstwhile missionary Mr. Fortune finally decides to give up trying to proselytize to his charge, Lueli. Indeed, far from prolonging his attempts to change Lueli's 'idolatrous' practices, he instead carves an idol himself. It is one that celebrates Lueli's personality for the free creature that it is -- showing it in the form of a bird -- and depicts himself as a kind of loyal companion observing it, from the ground, and refusing to interfere. The passage, read in the whole context of Warner's novella, is possibly the most touching depiction of human love I've encountered.
That is why there is no romantic deus ex machina at the end of Cassandra at the Wedding. Because that is not the solution. There is no Jack Finch to call her own in the final scene, and there doesn't have to be. She doesn't even go off to pursue the taboo love of her psychoanalyst. She realizes instead that Judith has her own story to live out. Cassandra does not need her to complete her own -- instead, she just has to find it in herself to start on living out her own story, to fulfill her life's ambitions.
Once one has weathered the griefs of change -- of friends parting, or at least, of becoming somewhat different people -- one realizes that to accept these changes is actually the true basis for love among adults. To love another person -- whether a spouse, partner, sibling, or friend -- enough to accept their individuality, and their autonomy, where it leads them, requires a far greater love than the kind of attachment reflected in devotion to a single and unchanging state of affairs.
To return a final time to our novel, it is ironic and rather unfair that Cassandra accuses her grandmother in one scene of seeking to make her and Judith into a couple of "Bobbseys." When ones reads the following image in Anne Sexton's "Cinderella" (here are our rare Beanie Babies again), one feels very much that it is Cassandra who is seeking such a pair:
" they lived [...] happily ever after
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothering with diapers or dust[...]
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey twins."