eugenides does the portrait in different voices

According to [Eve] Sedgwick, performative utterances can be ‘transformative’ performatives, which create an instant change of personal or environmental status, or ‘promisory’ performatives, which describe the world as it might be in the future. These categories are not exclusive, so an utterance may well have both qualities. As Sedgwick observes, performative utterances can be revoked, either by the person who uttered them (“I take back my promise”), or by some other party not immediately involved, like the state (for example, gay marriage vows).

You’ve decided to love me for eternity
I’m still deciding who I want to be today

-Ani Difranco, “Light of Some Kind”

Sedgwick comes pretty close to getting this exactly right; she makes the crucial distinction between promises and transformations. I would only object that these two forms cannot mix. When I make a promise, I do so because I will ultimately decide whether or not to follow through. Depending on the promise, I may have to follow through once, or every day for the rest of my life. A transformation, on the other hand, is either involuntary or becomes so after a certain point. It is not something one keeps; rather, it is what one has become.

In the world of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot, neither type of utterance is worth much. Marriage, which has changed from a transformation (joining souls) into a promise, is not irrevocable. That reality permeates everything. Before Leonard Bankhead ever proposes marriage to Madeleine Hanna, he’s imagined divorcing her by saying “I divorce thee” three times. (According to him, this is the Islamic divorce procedure. He’s not a Muslim, but no matter.) There is no way to know whether he would have proposed, in the first place, if the stakes were higher.

As it turns out, the underlying issue is that the site of transformation has moved from the soul to the brain. At earlier points in history, the abstraction of the soul produced real transformations: baptism, marriage, conversion, karma, excommunication. If your soul was severed from God’s kingdom by excommunication, that was it — you couldn’t wake up the next day and make a fresh start. In The Marriage Plot, the one legitimate transformation involves Leonard’s lithium, which he takes to manage being bipolar. When he “goes off his meds,” as we say, the result is quite interesting psychologically: he essentially invites another person to possess his body and make his decisions. This person has some good qualities and some bad ones, but above all, it is not him. (Or, if you prefer, Leonard transforms when he begins taking the lithium, in which case “going off the meds” is the exorcism.) As a novelist, Eugenides doesn’t have to bother reassuring Leonard that he’ll be his same old self. Not only is this not true because of the effects of lithium, it is not true because the diagnosis forces Leonard to continually think of himself in the third person, as bipolar.

The character who actually seems ripe for a transformation of the soul, the poorly named Mitchell Grammaticus, finds out that performing charity is pretty much like eating lunch. If you eat lunch on Monday, that doesn’t mean you’ll eat it again on Tuesday, or that you’ll eat the same thing if you do. Mitchell tries to create the conditions for self-transformation, but to no avail. The closest thing to a “divine voice” that he hears is the voice of class origins, which tells him to get out of India and to find a reasonable, secular job. He literally “hears” this near the end of the novel.

It’s a bit surprising that, after fleeing his post at Mother Teresa’s hospital, Mitchell doesn’t spend more time doing drugs in Goa. He has a marijuana shake right away, but that’s all. On the other hand, it’s not too surprising — an extended “lost weekend” probably wouldn’t transform him permanently either. This is the saddest thing about Leonard’s highs and lows; they are real transformations, but they don’t last. The prescribed dosage doesn’t last because he can’t bear the side effects, and the unmedicated state doesn’t last because it turns Leonard into a public nuisance.

For all three main characters, books and vacations do produce brief swerves of character, but class and family always come roaring back again. (The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.) It’s haunting to watch Madeleine becoming increasingly good at Victorian criticism as her actual experiences diverge, more and more, from those of her idols.

Eugenides considers his novel to be a critique of deconstruction. He’s made that point in interviews, and he beats it to death in the actual book, which spends its first half attending a lot of college seminars. Meanwhile, what he actually wrote is a deconstructed version of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, with Leonard as Osmond, Madeleine as Isabel, and Mitchell as Caspar Goodwood. The problem is that Osmond is no longer responsible for his swings, being bipolar, and Goodwood can’t get away with imposing his will on a troubled young woman. In James’s novel, at least, it is possible to lose one’s chance; failure and disillusionment are permanent transformations. The decline of the novel — if, indeed, it is in decline — is not a result of divorce. It comes from a more general loss of the ability to make meaningful choices with lasting consequences. In this novel, such choices are made for you before you’re born, or get handed down by someone with authority: a professor, a psychiatrist. Even failure doesn’t last. Leonard doesn’t destroy Madeleine, and Madeleine doesn’t leave Mitchell especially heartbroken.

Roland Barthes never intended to spare Madeleine the pangs of love. He was only warning that she can’t stop her love from guttering out, almost as soon as it catches fire, or from appearing trite whenever she looks back on its fragile joys.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper