David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Donald Sutherland Performs a New York Marriage (Little Murders, by Jules Feiffer)

Christopher Lasch is probably rolling over in his grave, but for those of us who are a little fonder of civil liberties and civil rights and less fond of homilies about the sanctity of marriage, I can think of no better tribute than this scene from Little Murders, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin. “An abandonment of ritual in the search for truth.”

You all know…why we’re here. There’s often so much sham about this business of marriage. Everyone accepts it: ritual. That’s why I was so heartened when Alfred asked me to perform this ceremony. He has certain beliefs, which I assume you all know; he is an atheist, which is perfectly all right, really it is. I happen not to be, but inasmuch as this ceremony connotes an abandonment of ritual in the search for truth, I agreed to perform it.

First, let me state to you, Alfred, and to you, Patricia, that of the 200 marriages that I have performed, all but seven have failed. So the odds are not good. We don’t like to admit it, especially at the wedding ceremony, but it’s in the back of all our minds, isn’t it: how long will it last? We all think that, don’t we? We don’t like to bring it out in the open, but we all think that. Well I say, why not bring it out in the open. Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won’t put any of these reasons down, each in its own way is adequate, each is all right.

Last year I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating. Please, don’t be startled, I’m NOT putting him down. That marriage did not work. But the man TRIED. He is now separated, still masturbating, but HE IS AT PEACE with himself because he tried society’s way. So you see, it was not a mistake, it turned out all right.

Now, just last month I married a novelist to a painter. Everyone at the wedding ceremony was under the influence of an hallucinogenic drug. The drug quickened our physical responses, slowed our mental responses, and the whole ceremony took two days to perform. NEVER have the words HAD SUCH MEANING. Now THAT marriage should last.

Still, if it does not, well, that’ll be all right, for don’t you see, any step that one takes is useful, is positive, has to be positive because it’s a part of life, even the negation of the previously taken step is positive, that too is a part of life. And in this light, and only in this light, should marriage be viewed: as a small, single step. If it works, fine! If it fails, fine; look elsewhere for satisfaction. To more marriages, fine, as many as one wants, fine. To homosexuality? Fine! To drug addiction? I will not put it down, each of these is an answer for somebody. For Alfred, today’s answer is Patricia. For Patricia, today’s answer is Alfred. I will not put them down for that.

So what I implore you both, Patricia, and Alfred, to dwell on, while I ask you these questions required by the state of New York to “legally bind you” — sinister phrase, that — is that not only are the legal questions I ask you, meaningless, but so too are the inner questions that you ask yourselves, meaningless. Failing one’s partner, does not matter. Sexual disappointment, does not matter. Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful. Nothing can destroy, if you do not see it as destructive. It is all part of life, part of what we are.

So now: Alfred. Do you take Patricia to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love — whatever that means — to honor, to keep her in sickness and health, in prosperity and adversity — what nonsense! — forsaking all others — what a shocking invasion of privacy! Rephrase that to more sensibly say, if you choose to have affairs, then you won’t feel guilty about them. …as long as you both shall live, or as long as you’re not tired of one another?

Alfred: Yeah.

And Patsy, do you take Alfred to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love — that harmful word again, could not one more wisely say, communicate? –to honor,– I suppose by that it means you won’t cut his balls off, but then, some men like that! –to obey,– well, my first glance at you, told me you were not the type to obey. So I went to my thesaurus, and I came back with these alternatives: to show devotion, to be loyal, to show fealty, to answer the helm, to be pliant. General enough, I think, and still leave plenty of room to dominate. …in sickness and health, and all the rest of that GOBBLEDYgook, so long as you both shall live…?

Patsy: (confused, speechless… finally stammers:) I do.

Alfred and Patsy, I know now that whatever you do…will be all right.

To Patsy’s father, Carroll Newquist — I’ve never heard that name on a man before, but I’m sure it’s all right — I ask you sir, feel no guilt over the $250 check you gave me to mention the Deity in the ceremony. What you have done is all right. It’s part of what you are, it’s part of what we all are. And I beg you not to be overly perturbed, when I do not mention the Deity in the ceremony. Betrayal, too, is all right, it too is part of what we all are.

Helpfully transcribed by someone on IMDB. Thank you.


  1. fond of both civil liberties AND Donald. Thanks!! that was great.

  2. Something… something bad seems to be happening to my moral fiber….

  3. Des Esseintes

    25 June 2011 at 16:51

    “An abandonment of ritual in the search for truth.” Or an embrace of ritual in the search for master culture. I’m all for marriage equality, in any event.

    I don’t love the breezy complacence of the clip, though. One of the most repellent cards played by the religious right is its colonization of civil rights language for anti-civil rights activity, the idea that taking issue with bigotry is a violation of the bigot’s civil rights. It’s easy to hear their justifications in the reverend’s philosophy.

  4. David Auerbach

    25 June 2011 at 17:14

    DE: You have a point. All of Feiffer’s work has a cynicism to it that ultimately opens the door to a certain sort of disgusted conservatism. (Obviously not Lasch’s kind!) Little Murders shows it off at its best, I think; Carnal Knowledge at its worst. (Well, actually, the movie Feiffer did with Resnais, I Want to Go Home, is its absolute worst.)

    But I think the clip does portray what Musto said this week about one of his paradoxes of being gay: “You spend your whole life fighting for rights you don’t even want for yourself. (Marriage and the military? Blech! No thanks!)” i.e., that equal rights comes in the form of having rights to societal mores that are dubious to begin with. And if equal rights to those mores does cause increasing questions about those mores, all the better. A small, single step.

  5. Waggish, you are setting up a regulative ideal of criticism of social mores that I find kind of unnecessary. It seems from your comment that you are gesturing back at a hermeneutics of suspicion. You are saying look, “marriage and the military” can be pried open by gay marriage the gay military. I think this so called paradox flummoxes me precisely because the regulative ideal would render the intermediate steps useless. EG if gay marriage is a way to get at the family tout court, then why strive for the recognition offered by the civic, ritual etc. complex of marriage? In other words, you either care for societal acceptance or don’t. The regulative position does little to answer why someone who starts out with the assumption that all the mores need to be “questioned” would want the interim recognition of gay marriage. Moreover, if we are to believe the gay marriage discourse, the profoundest thread is one of normalization. Unlike Musto, we are led to believe that many gays want the state to recognize their families, adoptions and dog walking activities as legitimate and normal. In other words, contrary to what you are setting up, there seems to be a desire for victory rather than some unending struggle. Why precisely this ironic lexicon has arisen where one cannot be satiated with simply winning is another question best left for later. If I were gay I would be amazed that a majority of the country has been made to listen to sappy idiotic stories about my High School experiences, how “it gets better” and how prop 8 hurt my dads and did not instantly change the channel. As Scientology and Kabbalah have taught us, controlling the entertainment industry is not enough to prevent a total meltdown along these lines. For the past 20 or so years gays have stayed on message and people have at least allowed them to be background noise if not a political force. If people with the alternative lifestyles of caring about income inequality, health care or a working political culture had only opened up about how they were bullied for sashaying around school with their rainbow shirts decrying the lack of a national health care, but don’t worry, later they made bespoke linen pants and moved to Brooklyn, we might at least have more youtube videos to associate with non meaningless, ceremonial and otherwise pointless aspects of our national life. Income inequality…It gets better. Or not.

  6. One of the major points of gay marriages is to gain access to some vital resources, e.g., receiving mundane practial benefits after death;. being able to be with a partner when in hospital, and the like. If you don’t prefer these cultural norms, don’t. You should have the privilege if you prefer.

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