The pleasures of adultery

BRIEF ENCOUNTER, Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, 1945
© REX/Courtesy Everett Collection
Brief Encounter, 1945

Part of the problem is how keen we are to say, at once, how deeply awful it is. Society moves with unhelpful speed from recognition to condemnation. The only ones who would even think of it are, by definition, only ever very bad people indeed. In an age that has accepted almost every kind of sexual practice, it remains the ultimate transgression, violating the greatest of all contemporary myths: that of the natural lifelong monogamous fusion of love and sex.

Yet no understanding will come from such a hasty refusal to acknowledge adultery’s full power over the human imagination. Before we can begin to call it ‘wrong’, we should concede that it must also, at some level, for a time at least, for some people (who cannot all be merely monsters) be profoundly enticing. What might a case for it go like?

For a start, simply how normal it is to contemplate. It would be deeply unusual to expect people to grow up in hedonistic liberated circles, experience the sweat and excitement of nightclubs and summer parks, be bathed in images of desire and songs of longing and ecstasy, and then one day, at the command of a certificate, renounce all further sexual discoveries in the name of no particular god and no higher commandment, just an unexplored supposition that it must all be very wrong.

But why?

To be provocative: what if there was something wrong in not being tempted, in not realising just how short a time one had been allotted on this earth and therefore with what urgent curiosity one might want to explore the unique fleshly individuality of more than one of one’s contemporaries? To moralise too swiftly against adultery is to deny the seductive powers of a dramatic amount: another person’s laugh or well-timed irony, a first kiss, a new nakedness – each of these a sensory high point in its own way as worthy of reverence as more socially prestigious attractions, like the tiles of the Alhambra or Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Isn’t the blanket rejection of such temptations a little too neat, an infidelity towards the chaotic richness of life itself? Could one trust anyone who would not, under certain circumstances, show any interest in being untrustworthy?

© REX/Moviestore Collection©
© REX/Moviestore Collection
Isabelle Huppert in the 1991 film of Madame Bovary

The adulterer is meant to feel ashamed; the betrayed party is encouraged to be furious – with every right to an apology. And yet, from another perspective, shouldn’t the latter sometimes be the one to apologise to the former? Adultery may be the lightning conductor of modern indignation, but are there not other, subtler ways of betraying a person than by sleeping with someone outside the couple; by omitting to listen, by forgetting to evolve and enchant, or more generally and blamelessly, by simply being one’s own limited self? Rather than forcing their ‘betrayers’ to say they were so sorry, the ‘betrayed’ might begin by apologising themselves, apologise for forcing their partners to lie by setting the bar of truthfulness so forbiddingly high – out of no higher creed than a jealous insecurity masquerading as a moral standard.

Anger against adultery evades a basic, tragic truth: no one can be everything to another person. It is only a child who can believe this (wrongly) of a parent. Yet rather than accept the ghastly thought with dignified grace and melancholy, betrayed spouses are encouraged to accuse their ‘betrayers’ of sin. However, there may be only one cardinal wrong: the ethos of modern marriage, with its peculiar brittle insistence that one person must embody the complete sexual and emotional solution to another’s every need.

© REX/Caiaimage

© REX/Caiaimage

No other society besides our own has ever been so hopeful about marriage, nor ultimately, and as a consequence, quite so regularly disappointed. The needs for sex, for love and for family have never been so insistently and hysterically yoked together. This is the distinctive creed of our own times, an altar over which an unusual amount of pain continues to be daily expended. We’d be better off undertaking a more disturbing and useful thought-experiment: daring to humanise and understand the motives of our all too ubiquitous hate figure: the adulterer.

See Part 2: The stupidity and folly of adultery