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The Sunday New York Times, Week in Review
(as it appeared on their web page,
with a few revisions)

December 27, 1998

How Do I Lust After Thee?
Let Me Count the Ways.

Anyone just tuning in might imagine that a horrible new epidemic is sweeping over Congress, sidelining people with the dread virus of adultery. But this bug has been around for ages, and no one has yet devised a cure.

What's worse, legal diagnosticians don't even agree on what adultery is. As usual, the laws vary from state to state — some insist that the husband must be unfaithful, others the wife, still others allow both this option, while a few even demand that both lovers be married to other people.

Moreover, most of what's been written about adultery has been written by men, though history suggests that women have also played a role.

Amid all this uncertainty, many in Washington seem to favor an uncompromising Old Testament stance developed in the desert, long before the more sophisticated days in Jerusalem and Babylon, not to mention the advent of Christian forgiveness.

However it's defined, adultery and its lies have generated a vast folklore of opinion and anecdote in many cultures, an almost universal body of common law. Herewith a few examples:

It shall be considered adultery to offer presents to a married woman, to romp with her, to touch her dress or ornaments, or to sit with her on a bed.

    —"Code of Manu," Hindu law scripture (dated 600 B.C.-300 A.D.)

I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves. For the good man is not at home, he is gone a long journey.

    —"Book of Proverbs" (circa 500 B.C.)

When cheated, wife or husband feels the same.

    —Euripides, "Andromache" (c. 426 B.C.)

A man may commit adultery with a woman knowing well who she is, but not of free choice, because he is under the influence of passion. In that case he is not an unjust man, though he acts unjustly.

—Aristotle, "The Nicomachean Ethics" (c. 340 B.C.)

Venus likes her thefts to be concealed.

—Tibullus, Roman poet, "Elegiae" (c. 25 B.C.)

One should reflect deeply before having relations with married women. If it works, what do I risk? Is success possible without taking too many risks? When I have possessed her, what are the risks for the reputation of either of us?

—"Jayamangala," a 12th-century commentary on the Kama Sutra by Yashodhara of India.

Aroma had no intention of passively bowing to her fate. She simply could not accept the idea that her precious romance of the last 10 nights was all over just because her husband had come home.

—Li Yu, "The Prayer Mat of Flesh," a Ming Dynasty novel (1634). (The title refers to the Taoist and Buddhist belief that sexual indulgence may lead to divine union.)

What was thy cause? Adultery? Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery! No, the wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly. Does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive.

—Shakespeare, "King Lear" (1605-6). (Lear speaking to the blinded Gloucester.)

He that is robb'd, not knowing what is stolen, Let him not know it, and he's not robbed at all.

—Shakespeare, "Othello" (1604). (Othello responding to rumors of his wife's infidelity.)

A mistress should be like a little country retreat near the town, not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away.

—William Wycherley, "The Country Wife" (1675)

Love ceases to be a pleasure, when it ceases to be a secret.

—Mrs. Aphra Behn, British playwright, "The Lover's Watch" (1686)

No man worth having is true to his wife, or can be true to his wife, or ever was, or ever will be so.

-- John Vanbrugh, British playwright, "The Relapse" (1708)

No, I shall have mistresses.

-- George II of England, responding to Queen Caroline's suggestion on her deathbed that he remarry (1737).

Adultery is an evil only inasmuch as it is a theft; but we do not steal that which is given to us.

—Voltaire, "Philosophical Dictionary" (1764)

Where there's marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.

—Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac" (c. 1790)

It is better to have a prosaic husband and to take a romantic lover.

—Stendhal, "De L'Amour" (1822)

What we call adultery, like what we call heresy, comes as a natural right.

—Victor Hugo (1802-1885), "Pierres"

What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,/Is much more common where the climate's sultry.

—Lord Byron (1788-1824), "Don Juan"

To console ourselves for all those things, happily we still have adultery! Maryland tobacco! And Spanish cigarette paper!

—Petrus Borel, a French writer, "Rhapsodies" (c. 1850)

Young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless, and cannot.

—Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891)

To permit oneself the joys of adultery, one must be a pious person.

—Anatole France, "Le lys rouge" (1894)

When one loves in a certain way, even betrayal becomes unimportant.

—Colette, "'The Innocent Wife" (1903)

One man's folly is often another man's wife.

—Helen Rowland, "Reflections of a Bachelor Girl" (1909)

Adultery is the application of democracy to love.

—H.L. Mencken, "A Book of Burlesques" (1920)

The psychology of adultery has been falsified by conventional morals, which assume, in monogamous countries, that attraction to one person cannot coexist with a serious affection for another. Everyone knows that this is untrue.

—Bertrand Russell, "Marriage and Morals" (1929)

Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-racking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practised at spare moments; it is a whole-time job.

—Somerset Maugham, "Cakes and Ale" (1930)

Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

—An early code to "govern the making of motion and talking pictures by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc." (1930)

The Tasmanians, who never committed adultery, are now extinct.

—Somerset Maugham, "The Breadwinner" (1930)

The aura of the theocratic death penalty for adultery still clings to America, even outside New England, and multiple divorce, which looks to the European like serial polygamy, is the moral solution to the problem of the itch. Love comes into it too, of course, but in Europe we tend to see marital love as an eternity which encompasses hate and also indifference: when we promise to love we really mean that we promise to honour a contract. Americans, seeming to take marriage with not enough seriousness, are really taking love and sex with too much.

—Anthony Burgess, "You've Had Your Time" (1990)

Adultery is hard on a small town because it can cause sudden population loss, and usually it's the wrong people who get run out.

—Garrison Keillor, in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times (1994)

Alexander Gross is a translator and playwright.

Copyright 1998 by the New York Times

This article is Copyright © 1998
by Alexander Gross & The
New York Times. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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