Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Disavowal

broad expanses of white

The vow has fallen on hard times. About the only “vows” left are those in the phrase “marriage vows,” the increasingly metaphorical nature of which are daily demonstrated in the divorce courts. Good old-fashioned, extravagant, literal-minded vows—of the genre “The day that I blah blah blah….,” or “No daughter of mine blah blah blah…”—are now largely a matter of literary history. Some of these are funny, others less so. They can be amusing especially when they reverse the modern trend, and move from the metaphoric to the legalistic, such as Dorigen’s vow (in Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale”) that she will go to bed with the importunate Aurelius when the black rocks disappear from the coast of Brittainy. The actual meaning of this vow is, roughly, “Drop dead, creep!” By taking it literally Aurelius manages to keep the plot moving briskly.

Less amusing is the biblical account of Jephtha the Gileadite and his daughter (Judges, cap. 11), a story that does little to commend the primitive Hebrew concept of divinity, or for that matter of fatherhood. Jephtha was a mighty warrior who made the following deal with God. If God will let him win a battle against the children of Amnon, Jephtha vowed to sacrifice the first person he saw walking out of the door of his house after the victory. (Were this a freshman essay rather than Holy Writ I would probably write “Logic?” in the margin at this point.) He slaughtered the Amnonites, but was required to do the same to his only child when she came out of the door to congratulate him with a celebrative tambourine concert. He was probably counting on a redundant uncle or, at worst, his aging mother.

The technical term for this sort of thing was “rash vow,” and several will doubtless occur to you from folklore. The rash vow was a legal category under the Code of Justinian, and a theological category in the medieval casuistry of penance. The lawyers and the theologians were for once in perfect concord: it was bad to make a rash vow, but it was far worse to honor it. Exhibit number One: Jephtha the Gileadite.

One of many things I admire about my wife Joan is that even after all these years she is still on occasion capable of making a rash vow. More admirable yet is her ability to repent of it. Many years ago she made a rash vow that will strike most Americans, and probably even more Brits, as most peculiar. She vowed that she would never tread upon the soil of the State of Florida! The origins of the vow are a little obscure, but a childish distaste for Mickey Mouse, and by extension all things Disneyan, played a role. Yet more fatal was the corrosive effect of certain cultural stereotypes, which had simply seeped in around the edges of her consciousness.

Joan's old view of Florida


Joan's new view of Florida

So when Luke and his cara sposa (a) got married in July, (b) moved to Saint Petersburg in September, and (c) invited us to spend Christmas, she was presented, perhaps, with a momentary dilemma—but one quickly resolved in anti-Jephthan fashion. We were in Florida for Christmas with our children, and we had a ball. The only bad moment was literally the first. At the Tampa airport, as we stepped out of the boxed-in landing corridor, immediately facing us at close range were two blue-haired old ladies in wheelchairs! Joan deftly acknowledged one of the original grounds for her vow, but was able to move on. After that it was all smooth sailing.

bloguiste and boys

And “sailing” would seem to be the mot juste. We found our progeny very nicely settled in a waterfront condo near several of the world’s most famous beaches. One could look out from the living-room window to see a nearly endless flotilla of wisely invested tax breaks moving hither and yon in the lagoon. Everything was coming up roses. For the first time in perhaps a decade I actually beat Luke in a game of chess. Brilliant, if I do say so myself—and we won’t mention the follow-up matches. Several restaurant meals were memorable, even though they could not match the Christmas groaning board itself. We took in the Salvador Dali Museum, just about to move into its sumptuous new quarters.

life imitating artist

We feasted (according to the tolerant policy of eat-and-let-eat adopted in that domicile) on a choice of Tofurky du Roi or the roasted flesh of swine, followed by a coconut cake that was to die for. As the first vague and distant rumors of an East Coast blizzard reached our ears, we were investigating the habits of pelicans on the warm sands of Pass-a-Grille beach.

Our three-hour return flight to Newark was only slightly marred by the five hours of delay (especially since only three of those hours were actually spent strapped into our seats on a plane motionless on the tarmac). Returning to the cozy warmth of home base, we had the feeling of a vow well disavowed.

broad expanses of white


  1. Love it! Especially the line about "Tofurkey du Roi and flesh of swine." Thanks for joining us down in FL and making it such a great Christmas.

  2. "Life imitating artist"
    Happy 2011,

  3. Happy New Year to you from (unplanned emergency trip) sunny Scotland--indeed, I write to you illuminated by the last rays of the purple hazy remnants of a marvellous sunset. Much snow, ice, and positively American temperatures here: whence sympathies for your return journey to, well, equally sunny New Jersey. Maybe sunnier, you do have a little more daylight there ...

  4. A belated Merry Christmas to you and yours, and a Happy and Healthy New Year to both of us!

    I intended to fly to Florida last Monday but was thrwarted by the Broad Expanses of White that fell on LaGuardia Airport. I didn't get to fly out until Friday, arriving at 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and departing the next day (as previously scheduled) at 1 p.m., a grand total of 21 hours on the ground. But it was spent with my family, so it was worth it. I'm glad that Joan disavowed her rash vow so you could be with yours!

  5. Speaking of vows, the Oklahoma Supreme Court justice for whom I used to clerk used to say that the divorces she had granted when working as a district judge usually turned out better than the marriages she had performed. So when she officiated at my civil wedding she wielded us with "as long as you both shall love." I never knew whether that was a commitment to eternal love or a legal loophole!

  6. How delightful to have this anthology of comments from an international group of readers--no one of whom (I think) can possibly know any of the others, yet who in their individuality represent so many different aspects of my personal and professional lives. If I could bottle the essence of your combined intelligence and benevolence, we might at last have a cure for most of the world's ills. Benedictus benedicat.