A Bridge Too Far
A saga of contemptible love
by Alexander Wordsworth
-a harvest of sorrow –
To Revere Inordinate Love
Oh What a Costly Toll
For When We Gather What We’ve Sown
We Reap But Fractured Souls
Aujourd’hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d’etre dit, on le chante.
Today if something is not worth saying, people sing it.
– De Beaumarchais
To glance at a Best Sellers list from fifty odd years ago one would find the likes of George Orwell, W.H. Auden, and John Steinbeck; authors whose words still echo in the halls of academia today. Men of literary renown. A peek at a similar list today and we stumble upon the self portrait of a woman who shared clothes, drugs, and boyfriends with the slain former wife of a football star; a recipe book by the personal chef of a talk show host who happens to alternate between bingeing on food and bingeing on fitness; and a romantic novel about the “affairs” (strictly pun-intentional) of a frustrated farmer’s wife and a free spirited, free-lance photographer.
The latter, The Bridges of Madison County written by Robert James Waller, has been received with wide acclaim among “cultural luminaries,” major media personnel, and the general public at large. It has been lauded as one of the most significant love stories of the 20th century, a stirring “etude d’amour,” the mother of all romantic epics. It has recently been adapted for the silver screen and is now playing in theaters, starring two of America’s most exceptional talents, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in the principal roles of Robert and Francesca. But before we drive Shakespeare from our shelves or stow Tristan and Isolde under the short leg of our coffee table we must ask ourselves, “Is there a right way to do a wrong thing?”
In “Bridges,” we are introduced to Francesca Johnson, a middle aged woman of Italian descent who, if she is not frustrated, is definitely bored with being the wife of an Iowa farmer, Richard, and the mother of two teenagers, Michael and Carolyn. As a young girl she dreamt of being swept off her feet by a handsome American sailor. Her Admiral Charming failed to come, so she settled on a simple soldier boy from Iowa who to her represented “a reasonable alternative: kindness and the sweet promise of America” (two top prerequisites, I suppose, to stand before God and family and swear love everlasting).
When the story continues to unfold, we will find that Francesca’s grasp of true love has never matured further than that of this dreamy schoolgirl. While her husband is away with the children at a state fair in Illinois, she stumbles upon Robert Kincaid, a photographer for National Geographic who has stopped to ask directions to a bridge that he intends to photograph. They “fall in love” and for the next four days spend every waking moment talking, dancing, sharing poetry, and, yes, compromising Francesca’s wedding vows.
In a letter discovered after her death, by her children, she implores them to take this “love” seriously and assures them that she “was not scouting around for any adventure. That was the furthest thing from my mind. But I looked at him for less than five seconds, and I knew I wanted him…”
As the couple contemplates what to do upon the family’s return, a torn Francesca reasons that she must stay. She has a responsibility to her family. Kincaid leaves and they never see each other again. They do, however, take to their death this martyr-like love. Francesca even leaves her journal and an explanation of what she felt was “too strong and too beautiful to be left unsaid” to her children.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis lays the foundation of his whole book on two statements: the first, that of the apostle John, that “God is Love;” and the second, that of modern writer M. Denis de Rougemont, that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god.”
While many claim to understand the former, it is the latter statement that seems to ignite much confusion Lewis goes on to explain that “Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost … it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done ‘for love’s sake’ is thereby lawful and even meritorious … It is for love’s sake that I have neglected my parents – left my children – cheated my partner – failed my friend at his greatest need.” What de Rougemont means is that when we change the apostle’s statement from “God is Love” and state that Love is God, then we have become idolaters, and love has become a demon. This, says Lewis, was the great error of 19th century literature.
“Browning, Kingsley, and Patmore sometimes talk as if falling in love was the same thing as sanctification; and being in love, no matter how often, was the goal despite code or vow, honor or creed.”
This is the error that Waller makes, for when he speaks of love, it is either a Shavian Romanticism an elan vital quenching the “evolutionary appetite” – or a Neo-platonism – that “failing in love is the mutual recognition on earth of souls which have been singled out for one another in a previous experience.”
Forgive me for an oft stated quote, but I do not think that anyone has put it as succinctly as Robert Fitch when he wrote, “Ours is an age whereethics have become obsolete: they are superseded by science, deleted by psychology, and dismissed as emotive by philosophy. They drown in compassion, evaporate into aesthetics, and retreat before relativism. The usual moral distinctions between good and bad are simply drowned in a maudlin emotion in which we feel more sympathy for the murderer than the murdered, the adulterer than the betrayed, and where we have actually come to believe that the true guilty party – the one who caused it all is somehow the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime.”
I suppose that if Robert James Waller cared to, he could rewrite the story of David’ and Bathsheba, scripting their love in glowing terms while casting Uriah to the side as an insignificant bore. To the casual reader Waller has a great ability to persuade – I dare not say deceive one into having respect for a most contemptible love-story; but to the critical reader he is most unfair. Indeed, he writes with the authority of the cruelest of judges who, having been bought allows the defense to present its case while closing both eyes and ears to the prosecution.
Given the chance we must ask the following:
What kind of love can be realized in less than five seconds? Is this love or simply infatuation, attraction, or the indulgence of a selfish need when given the opportunity? Why not think of your responsibility to your family before you submit to temptation? What do the children learn from this affair and its passionate defense?
In fact, this is where the story takes a most improbable turn: for the children, having learned of what took place, not only accept the affair but applaud its devotion. It seems as though their mother’s views have already worked in their lives because, prior to their knowledge of her affair, we read that “Michael is getting into his second marriage” and that “Carolyn is struggling with her first.” I am sure with this more enlightened view of “love” to add to their portfolio, they can look forward to seeing quite a bit of both a therapist and a lawyer.
How much more truthful she would have been to admit as in the words of Oscar Wilde, “And the wild regrets and the bloody sweats, none knew so well as I; for when one lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.”
But, I ask, what is the logical outworking of this lesson in “true love”? Are we not bound to infer from this saga that when we are moved physically or emotionally, we should suspend, or abandon, our marriage vows? In the words of James Kirkwood, “Emotions are a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.”
At the premier of Bridges, Steven Spielberg, the quintessential moviemaker of our time, said, “I think it’s so meaningful because those of us who grew up in that generation can really relate to it.” His comments might explain why the number of divorces has increased nearly 200 percent since 1960, while the marriage rate is at an all-time low.
As Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for President Reagan has written, “What you applaud, you encourage. Watch out for what you celebrate!”
Much has been said lately about the great influence the arts have on influencing public perception and pushing a certain world-view. William Blake put it simply years ago when he wrote:
This Life’s dim windows of the soul
distorts the heavens from pole to pole
and goads you to believe a lie
when you see with and not through the eye.
The Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias., has commented on Blake’s magnificent poem saying, “We are meant to see through the eye, with a conscience, while the arts and the media are teaching us to see with the eye devoid of a conscience.”
Love has become a god and so it has become a demon. Revealing that natural loves are not self-sufficient, Lewis reminds us of a brief review of William Morris’ poem, Love is Enough which simply read: It isn’t.
In a brilliant -example of love’s true glory, he writes:
“It is no disparagement to a garden to say that it will not fence and weed itself, nor prune its own fruit trees, nor roll and cut its own lawns. A garden is a good thing, but that is not the sort of goodness it has. It will remain a garden, as distinct from a wilderness, only if someone does all these things -to it The very fact that it needs constant weeding and pruning bears witness to its glory. It teems with life. It glows with color and smells like heaven and puts forward at every hour of a summer day beauties which man could never have created, and could not even, on his own resources, have imagined.”
The tragedy of The Bridges o Madison County is not the deafening applause of the secular world but the frightening endorsement and acceptance given it by those of us that are Christians. We must stand aside from both those that choose to debunk the natural loves and those that choose to sentimentalize them.