Doing things with words

Cotton candy at the bride and groom’s table.

Today my cousin Luke married his girlfriend Lauren.

Luke is about ten years older than me, which either makes him the oldest of my generation of cousins or one of the youngest of the previous generation. (My mom comes from a family of seven kids, and the kids of her and her siblings break down into roughly two groups, pre-1980 and post-1980, give or take a couple years. I have a metric ton of cousins on my mom’s side.) Growing up, we visited Mom’s side of the family every summer, and my primary playmates were Luke and his three younger siblings, plus the five kids of my mom’s two younger sisters. When I was really little, like five, I couldn’t say the letter L, so I called my cousin Yook; it was with great pride that I finally learned to say his name properly. One of my favorite songs of my childhood was one Luke wrote, a darkly comedic country-tinged ballad about the mutant one-eyed frog they found in their swimming hold one year.

Luke’s not the first of my cousins to get married, but this was the first time I got to attend one of my cousins’ weddings. It was a very different experience than the last wedding I attended last year, which was between a Catholic Shakespearean actress and a Jewish stand-up comedian, officiated by a rabbi and priest whose ceremonial speeches resembled comedy club patter. This was a far more reverent wedding, performed in the open air on a spectacularly cloudless day in the mountains around Lake Tahoe — “God’s cathedral,” as the minister said.

So I got to thinking about the strangeness — the mysticism — of a wedding. Not of a marriage, though I’m sure there are strange mystical elements of that too. What I’m qualified to talk about, though, is performance, the power of symbol and word.

A wedding is composed entirely of air and intangible things. Oh, sure, there’s a lot of trappings, rings and bouquets and caterers, and a ton of ways things can go wrong, just like with any theatrical event. When we saw Luke before the ceremony and asked how he was doing, he said with a faint(ly stressed) smile that he was watching all the little disasters happen. But what I wanted to tell him as I watched him and Lauren gazing at each other is that every bit of it is inconsequential, really. As long as the bride and groom get to stand in front of each other and say “I do — I will,” everything else is gravy.

In college we read this article called “How to Do Things with Words,” one of those mind-altering bits of theory that make you go “Whooooa” like a stoner considering that my blue and your blue might be, like, different colors, dude. J. L. Austin proposes that certain utterances are performative “speech-acts,” like saying “I name this ship the Titanic” or “I promise to pay you back.” These phrases aren’t just assertions about or descriptions of the way things are; by being said, they create the way things are. They define things and change things. In the same way as if I throw a ball through a window, I’ve performed an action and changed the world, simply saying something like “I dub thee Sir Lancelot,” in the appropriate context, is performing an action and changing the world entirely with words.

When the minister asked Lauren’s parents if they approve the marriage and welcome Luke into their family, they said “We do” and changed the world. And when the minister asked the same of Luke’s parents, they said “We do” and changed the world. He asked us, friends and family, if we will support Luke and Lauren, and we chorused “We will” (although the first time we said it with insufficient enthusiasm, so he made us do it again) and we all of us changed the world.

And when Luke and Lauren said “I do — I will” to each other, there was a seismic shift in the universe and now nothing will ever be the same. They are two different people living one different life now — even though the quotidian details of their life together may change not at all, they are different now.

Suddenly I start to understand why people cry at weddings. How can you sit there and watch the very fabric of the universe be re-written with a few breaths of air, and not be moved?

I’m overjoyed for Lauren and Luke, and so honored to have been at the wedding. My own speech-act today is to thank them for having me, and to wish them love and happiness and every blessing in their new life together.

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