Faerie tales give the promise of happiness If. If you return by midnight, you may have the appearance of nobility and be with your beloved; if you do not trespass into the West Wing, the castle is yours; if you do not eat from this tree, you may live in paradise; if you do not do something - something that is never unreasonable, something always arbitrary, something it is rarely clear you should not do - then you can live happily ever after.
That if sours the promise of happiness. It corrupts even the memory of the offer; hearing the condition leaves a bad taste in your mouth that lingers on even in your recollection. It is not worth it, I think, to have even surpassing happiness on condition that… The forbidden thing becomes tantalizing, intoxicating, that which itself promises fulfillment, not the already-offered. The library is nothing; the West Wing, everything. The forbidden fruit becomes the sweetest for me, for at its heart is the I, the self; it is a pure choice, for there is no admixture of another; it is simply Me, my choice, the path of my own desire. If there is a reservation - a time, a room, a tree - are we really being offered everything? Can it really be a happy ending without everything?
Since the forbidden is so attractive, we must ask, “Why? Why is the forbidden forbidden?" “Because”? Merely because the Lawgiver, the Lawyer says it is? Because Rules must be followed? Is that why we are here, why we live, so that we can follow rules? Are we to be no different than trained monkeys or well-oiled machines? Why is obedience so important? Why does it matter that much?
Legal language, the language of contracts, of assurances, of bargains, immediately makes me suspicious. It causes distance, difference, and division; it raises dry, sterile formalities. A well-written contract is easily digestible and therefore not what the soul longs for. It is contrary to the erotic spirit, the soul of yearning, seeking, pursuing, and delight. Cool, mechanical detachment is its mode. It is not the tool of friends, for friends among friends do not need contracts. Rather, simple friendship is sufficient, else it is not really friendship; even as a marriage dependent upon legal guarantees is scarcely a marriage. Why then should happiness, the reason for our existence, the aim of our lives, be different than what man prizes most in this world: intimate friendships and a lifelong beloved? Contracts are useful, they are even necessary; but the merely necessary is contemptible, forgettable; it is the useless, the “for its own sake”, that is noble, that must be pursued if we are to live genuinely human lives. Man may not be able to live without contracts, while he can live - or rather exist - friendless, alone, and without seeking wisdom, but who would not rather be wronged by an unjust law while he had close friends and a wife who loved him? To thus require a contract as a condition for ultimate fulfillment, a life that’s happy, seems to contradict our nature, or at least raise serious questions about our nature’s purpose: whether we should seek wisdom or obedience first.
The contract arouses suspicion: because friends and lovers do not need them, I sometimes think the contractor is keeping something back from me; the thing which will turn out to matter most. Is he actually interested in my own good if he is saying “if”? Am I actually being wronged, even cheated? Am I missing out? If I cannot see a necessary reason for the prohibition, does it make much sense to follow it?
The “If” invokes control and trust; a challenge to the radical trust which leads to an obedience; an obedience which ushers in an entirely new relationship; a relationship which I hope transcends the intimacy of a marriage but which, at the time, cannot from the outside be clearly and necessarily distinguished from slavery. When a faerie tale says “If” it is a test; a test which requires we become naked and vulnerable, exposed to every danger; without safeguards or guarantees we will not be deceived, ruined, and played for fools. Equality does not exist here, for obedience and equality do not mix. Our closest analogies help make the matter clear, but they terrify instead of reassure, for they invoke Master and Slave, or more viscerally, Hunter and Prey - hardly a triumph of rhetoric even in a hierarchical society, to say nothing about its resonance in a fiercely democratic people.
Accepting that condition means placing your whole self into the hands of another, and not even letting yourself think the second-guessing “But…”. It means relinquishing all claim on being the center towards which all things tend; not only in the cosmos (simple enough in a sophisticated, scientific age), but even (especially) in your own life as well. It means ceding absolute control absolutely, the very act a wandering carpenter once called true purity of heart.
That is why every faerie tale ever told recollects the condition’s transgression, for it is unthinkable, or almost unthinkable, that someone would stake something as important as a life that’s happy on something so absurd and unnatural as an if, trusting that the ensuing relationship would leave friendship, marriage, even wisdom-seeking, far behind. Nothing less than the fulfillment of all desire is at stake. The if is the Question, and the Answer is either “Yes” or “No.” There is no third.