With Friends Like These (ii)

The closing episode of Conversations with Friends brought to mind a curious phrase of Badiou’s, from Logics of Worlds:

Rooting itself in the possibilities of enchanted existence, the reactive subject works towards their abstract legalization, their reduction to routine, their submission to guarantees and contracts. Its tendency is to reduce the pure present of love to the mutilated present of the family. The most common name of this subject, through which the couple of the infinite power of the Two becomes familialist, is conjugality.

It’s possible that “mutilated present” is an overly colourful Anglicisation of whatever Badiou originally wrote in French. Either way, it’s stayed with me. Badiou’s contempt towards conjugality finds an echo in the observation Frances and Bobbi make during their reconciliation that they had become “like a married couple” in their feelings of possessive ownership towards one another, and in Frances’s various subterfuges – stonewalling, sniping, the cultivation of petty secrets – which were meant, consciously or not, to break the grip of a possession which had somehow outlived their sexual relationship.

I wrote in my previous post that I wasn’t convinced that Conversations with Friends was really seriously addressed to the question of monogamy and non-monogamy, but I think it is concerned with the difference between “the pure present of love” and “the mutilated present of the family” – or, to put it another way, with conjugality and non-conjugality. When I suggested that the story’s characters would be “stupendously miserable as a polycule”, what I had in mind was the “abstract legalisation”, “reduction to routine” and “submission to guarantees and contracts” which can as readily come to govern a ménage of many as a ménage of two.

Badiou mentions somewhere a fondness for comedies of remarriage, in which the warring couple encounter one another anew in the centre of a crisis generated by the escalation of conjugal hostilities. It’s significant that Frances’s published text on Bobbi is both a last-straw betrayal and an extremely naked confession: both “fucking dehumanising”, as Bobbi complains, and an expression of rapt, helpless erotic fascination. When Melissa informs Frances that her actions and her writing “have consequences”, there is an attribution of agency by the older woman to the younger, and a challenge: those consequences are not yet fully worked-out, what are they to be? The conjugal relationship governed by the reactive subject’s demand for “guarantees and contracts” promises continuity, the subjection of contingency to the known and accounted-for, but rules out acts with unknown or underdetermined consequences, acts which bring possible futures into view.

(An aside: I write this six days after the birth of my fourth child. So many parents seek to reduce or eliminate contingency in the adventure of child-rearing, cruelly optimising for the reproduction of the known, or of those markers of status and distinction which point the way, in the last instance, to superior earning-power. This, again, is the “familialist” tendency at work: the child as possession, or as the maddeningly uncooperative object of an intense and unrelenting possessiveness. At one point Bobbi shoots a barb at an interlocutor who speaks up for exclusive love – “I’m trying to figure out whether you were your parent’s most favourite or least favourite child”. These things are all connected.)

I can’t bring myself to be enormously interested in Frances/Nick; the importance of Nick really seems to be, in the end, that he is someone who can be brought to see his happiness as depending on her, so that her closing invitation – “Come and get me” – positions her as desirable and worthy of pursuit. She has “arrived”, in a sense, as a viable player of the game of heterosexuality, able to participate while holding a treasured part of herself (which is busy having sex with Bobbi) separate from its lures. This may be the only set of conditions under which the heteropessimist imagination can picture sex with men as remotely tolerable: first of all, one must have a lesbian partner whose “sweet converse” can sustain one’s integrity and independence. Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? similarly intertwines the proper initiation (after much fruitless dalliance) of a heterosexual couple with the settling of accounts in a female friendship. There is no friend like a sister.