Morrissey never actually utters the words comprising the title of his 1988 song “Will Never Marry,” but he expresses sentiments throughout that indicate his position on marriage. Originally released as a B-side to “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” an edited version got a deserving spot on 1990’s “Bona Drag” alongside some of Morrissey’s best and most enduring post-Smiths output. In the song’s scant two minute and twenty-five second runtime, Morrissey issues a characteristically courteous but resolute refusal to a hypothetical (one assumes) romantic partner. And in a languid but tuneful lilt, he appears to denounce not merely marriage – the word “marriage” does not appear apart from the title – but even something like devotion:
I’m writing this to say
In a gentle way
Thank you, but no
I will live my life as I
Will undoubtedly die, alone
Morrissey levels his sights on a target broader than marriage, but an attack on romantic commitment constitutes an indictment of the institution. Why the opposition? Shall we interpret his aversion as one among his many counter-cultural idiosyncrasies, a symptom of his irascible contrarianism? True to his word, Morrissey has never married. Could his refusal bespeak a deeper cynicism about human nature? Or might we read his position as holding to an ideal?
The second verse of the song offers clues:
For whether you stay
An in-built guilt catches up with you
And as it comes around to your place
At five a.m., wakes you up
And it laughs in your face
These lines testify to more than Morrissey’s unwillingness to commit to a domestic arrangement or traditional civil union; they reveal his skepticism of all romantic longing and involvement. In his view, it doesn’t matter if we observe the customs of courtship faithfully or indulge in lascivious excess – both are symptoms of a disingenuous or counterfeit relation to self. Whether we are devoted to a partner or eschew commitments to lead lives of wanton debauchery, romantic intimacy invariably collapses under the weight of a dawning self-loathing and resentment. We reach a point where we can no longer in good faith esteem our romantic intentions, and our desire betrays something wretched about our condition.
One could easily dismiss Morrissey’s cynicism as maudlin sentimentality, an affectation cultivated to safeguard his longstanding position as rock’s most forlorn frontman. For decades he has voiced the frustrated yearnings of solitary sufferers the world over, and condemning romantic devotion would only solidify his stature as the preeminent spurned lover.
But another interpretation suits the evidence equally well. Morrissey’s lyrics remind me of another cultured sensualist, the dissipated aesthete in part one of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. That character – Kierkegaard simply refers to him as “A” – also opposes marriage, electing to seduce women as a means of staving off boredom and despair. Despite his unscrupulous habits, he expresses reservations that cast light on Morrissey’s song:
“If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both [. . . ] This, gentlemen, is the sum and substance of all philosophy.”
As I interpret him, “A” is voicing dissatisfaction over his romantic conquests and the hollowness of victory. But he is caught between the misery of inactivity and the shallowness of seduction, and appears to advocate resigned fatalism. In “A’s” view, the totality of philosophic wisdom advocates stoic suppression of our impotent volition and acceptance of the inexorable forces molding our lives. We are not masters of our fates, and in rare instances of authentic self-possession we perceive how feeble and flawed are our efforts to break free from the insurmountable currents carrying us from one calamity to the next.
We feel anguish over this impotence most keenly in romantic ventures, for no other realm of human activity is more closely associated with our deepest aspirations than erotic desire. To concede that even in this most impassioned of pursuits we are hapless passengers and observers makes a mockery of life and awakens an “in-built guilt” and shame over our having deluded ourselves into believing that our selection of a mate expresses a profound truth about our innermost selves, or that we are deserving of our partner’s devotion. In moments of understanding we see ourselves as the depraved pawns we are, and can only laugh at the audacity of our self-deception.
Perhaps Morrissey is motivated to withhold from marrying by a similar outlook on human depravity and impotence. Maybe he opposes marriage, not because he considers it unworthy of our respect, but because he considers it too valuable to pollute with human frailty. On this reading, to oppose marriage does not amount to a condemnation of romantic fidelity, but the highest affirmation of its nobility and virtue. Unwillingness to subject the most precious of covenants to the caprice and chaos infecting human action may be the only means of preserving its purity. A refusal to marry is, on this view, an act of rebellion against a relentless and eroding tide of contingency and error marring our every decision. Rescuing marriage from the imperfections of the actual world and restoring it to the pristine unity of unrealized abstraction may be the highest endorsement of the institution one can issue.
That, anyway, is how I choose to interpret the song, and at this stage of my life I find Morrissey’s solution appealing. Having endured divorce, I no longer find it conceivable that I could ever again defile marriage by deeming myself worthy of its oath. I am an incompetent and compromised agent, no longer my own master, and can only laugh at the mendacious voice occasionally coaxing me to reconsider. Anyone who can remarry after divorce never took marriage seriously in the first place. Anyone who can love after losing love, never loved. Those vows, once bestowed, are forever the possession of the recipient.
And so it is out of respect for marriage that I renounce marriage.