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Feeld Conversations: Devorah Baum and Josh Appignanesi


July 12th, 2023

“You change with people. Monogamy isn't what it sounds like. You're never really with the same person twice.”

Feeld is proud to be a place where people can explore different relationship structures. This week, we wanted to turn our gaze towards monogamy: a mainstream idea that needs neither an introduction nor a defense, but which could benefit from some inquiry towards a deeper understanding. What is monogamy, and who gets to define it? Who practices monogamy, and how do individual experiences change our collective understanding of it? What are the cultural histories of monogamy, and in what ways are they evolving? What are the benefits of it, and which boundaries are upheld by its limitations? The week to come offers a dedicated deconstruction—as well as an open invitation to reconsider—the concept of monogamous commitment. 

Devorah Baum and Josh Appignanesi have given their marriage a lot of thought. Though their respective independent works have covered a wide range of topics (Josh has directed a number of feature films; Devorah’s books include titles such as The Jewish Joke and Feeling Jewish), their collaborations take aim at their relationship itself. Their 2016 documentary film The New Man follows their attempts at becoming parents; Devorah’s tumultuous pregnancy is frequently punctuated by Josh’s anxieties about being replaced in the family dynamic. Their follow-up film, Husband (out this year), further explores Josh’s crisis of masculinity as he follows his wife to New York City on her book tour. 

Though both films might appear to be projects of Josh’s that he has roped his wife into, both are adamant about being collaborators. Devorah’s work takes place, perhaps aptly, behind the scenes, in the editing room. They video conferenced in on a Friday afternoon from their home London, curled up together on a couch in a cozy scene with blankets and coffee cups, and explained how the films blur the lines between artifice and reality: some scenes are staged, and some arguments are recreated for the camera, often with Josh steamrolling through conversations while Devorah is the emotionally exhausted wife. They play versions of themselves, characters based in reality but exaggerated in funny, often uncomfortable ways, in order to act out what Josh has described in interviews as their version of a romantic comedy. “We’re still involved in the process of choosing each other,” Devorah elaborates to me about the experience of turning their marriage into narrative art.  

In real life, they split the conversation time equally.  Over the course of our interview they laughed frequently, finished each other’s sentences, and asked each other enough questions that my role almost felt redundant. We spoke about their films, but also about Devorah’s upcoming book On Marriage, in which she is able to deconstruct the institution of marriage from historical, literary, and philosophical perspectives, completely uninterrupted. 

Interview by Anna Fitzpatrick

Feeld is doing a monogamy theme week, which is exploring monogamy with neither judgment nor endorsement. Like, there's nothing wrong with it…

Josh: Let me tell you, there are a few things wrong with it.

Devorah: He's said that from the start.

J: I've said that from the start! I said, I think there's something wrong with it. I'll give it a go, within reason.

How's that been going?

J: Monogamy? Well we've been together for twenty years. It's quite a long time. I quite like it.

D: I think it's getting easier for you and harder for me.

J: Harder for you, yeah. Easier for me and harder for her. Why is that? 

D: I think it's personal. Monogamy was never your thing.

J: Why would it be?

D: I railroaded you into it. 

J: You did.

D: Due to things like sexual jealousy, stuff like that. And, also, I had a very strong desire to imitate my parents in some way. It just seemed to me I would do life according to the itinerary that had been laid down, and that would be my method. It didn't seem very likely that you were going to—

J: Survive that. 

D: But then you found, wow, this whole system is set up for, maybe for men? [laughs] And then I've had a whole bunch of consciousness raising since then, and thinking, “Hello! Maybe it's not set up for people like me.” I think the main thing I would say is, we're certainly not trying to convert anybody to this lifestyle. But I would want to make the case for monogamy as more interesting than it looks. I think it's actually remarkably interesting, and more experimental than it looks.

How so? 

D: Because you haven't given up on life, actually, if you're in a monogamous relationship. You are looking for a kind of predictability, but I think you also want your life to stay exciting and interesting. You change with people. You're changing the whole time. Monogamy isn't what it sounds like. You're never really with the same person twice. 

That gets into my next question. In On Marriage, you write “the person you’re marrying today may be familiar to you, who she’ll be however many years hence is impossible to know.” So much of the conception of monogamy is about being with the same person, but no one is really the same for a long period of time. You're certainly not the same.

D: You're really not.

J: You're really not.

D: If it's going to have any kind of meaningful chance, you're committing to change, not to sameness. There's a bit in the book, at the end of the first chapter, where I'm very interested in Scheherazade. Unlike in most Western literature where the marriage plot concludes at the wedding, all the excitement happens before the commitment and then there's the wedding and they live happily ever after. 

J: It's kind of like a death.

D: It's like a death! It's an ending. Obviously in Scheherazade's story, all the excitement happens at that moment. It's a sort of live or die situation. Her storytelling keeps having to be inventive, to save her own life. And this guy, who’s got all the power and has [decided] that he will kill her the moment he finds her boring, is converted to a sort of understanding that he has been changing who he's in bed with every night and the same person turned out to be this endlessly new person. 

J: If we're talking about monogamy specifically, in a way what you're talking about is long-term commitment in the form of marriage. That doesn't necessarily mean monogamous. The exclusivity is something slightly different. What do you think of that?

D: I agree. There's also just other ways in which I'd just say, adultery happens all the time, continuously. In every which way. Every time I talk to somebody else, I'm essentially, potentially, creating a bond with them that excludes you. And whether or not I'm getting into bed with them, does that really matter? There's something happening there. I'm creating something that you're not in, and it's a sort of exciting place for me to go to. I'm doing that with people all the time, and so are you.

That was some of the anxiety behind The New Man, right? The idea that all of a sudden you're going to have this new thing in your life that is not just the two of you. 

J: Yeah. I think having a family is polyamorous. It’s impossible to ignore there’s a new love object. That’s quite threatening. But when you go to a party and you talk to some people and nothing sexual happens, but you’re forming a bond, that’s potentially threatening to the partner, but it’s also a relief. Like, good! She’s going out, finally. Let her have something other than me, please! It takes the pressure off, right? You feel that with kids too.

D: I think it's so interesting, because in The New Man you see him so anxious about being replaced by this new, younger, cuter model. I was having a really difficult pregnancy. I was having a really rough time. It seemed unbelievably annoying that he was fretting about that, and that we had to make a movie of it as well. Then the baby came along, and he was totally right. He was right about everything! I was overwhelmingly in love with the baby. I just was so uninterested in him. I threw him out of the bed for as long as I could, like, “Don't come back in this bedroom ever.”

J: And I haven't really returned! So, you know.

D: And then a new baby came along, and the first baby had the same problem.

J: There's infidelity right there, in the nuclear family. 

I think one of the arguments that a lot of non-monogamous people make about jealousy, with the caveat that every non-monogamous relationship is different and infidelity can still occur, is that we see families where unconditional love can be divided between children. Infinity divided by two is still infinity. So you can have it divided by multiple partners…though I don't think you need to be in love with every single one of your partners the way you might with your children.

D: There's this sort of unwritten law that you can't talk about the math or the economics of love in the family home because there is some, actually. You may find yourself one day loving this one more than that one. It does happen. Your job is to just try to not show it. [laughs]

J: But there's two different ways of understanding the words “love” there, both of which are kind of, like, they're sort of idealized maternal love. This unruffled calm ocean of love. The reality is passion. Passion is: I fucking hate you, then the next minute, I'm so sorry! Then it's: you're my favorite person in the world. You have that with your kids, and you have that with your lovers. It's scary to recognize that love is fucking painful.

D: It really occurs to me now that I really migrated all that sexual jealousy I used to be forced to feel in relationship to you. I realize I am quite jealous of how the kids are so much more interested in you than they are in me. I had them when they were babies. They seemed to be mine, and somehow you've taken them from me. And now I sort of look longingly at them and wish they got excited when they saw me, and they don't.

J: I'm seductive. Well, at least I have somewhere to put it. 

I'm going to quote Devorah quoting Goethe. In On Marriage, you cite this passage from Elective Affinities. A character says, “Nothing is more significant than the intervention of a third party. I have seen friends, brothers and sisters, married couples, and couples in love whose relationships have been wholly altered and their circumstances entirely reshaped by the fortuitous or chosen advent of somebody new.” I was wondering how the camera works by inviting a third into your home?

J: That is what it's doing. And even when it looks like I'm the one holding the camera and it's my male gaze and I'm in charge and I'm in control and so on, even in those scenes, the camera still ironizes this guy who thinks he's in control and thinks he's framing the action. It’s actually framing him. Because these films are about relationships, then it is the sort of private/public interface. I think you wrote about [it] quite a bit in your book. All relationships of two have a third, and sometimes they're explicit. You get married, and there has to be a public to watch you validate that. 

Would you say collaborative documentary filmmaking is similar to a marriage?

J: An extension of the marriage, in which frequently I’m the crazy cheerleader and you’re the naysayer. And that’s kind of what we do.

D: But also I think it comes back to this idea of: can you take this old tried and tested form, a marriage or a romantic comedy genre, a film about a couple having fights in New York, and can you find something new in it that’s interesting to you and maybe to other people? Can you find something in it that gives you an ongoing appetite for it? In monogamy, that’s what you’re looking for—to still have your appetites ongoing and your interest ongoing, and that demands a great deal of this kind of creative work. 

It's like a kind of couples therapy role playing exercise. 

J:  I’m playing a character who is trying to characterize or solidify some trends you might see in masculinity. I’m talking all the time, I’m not listening, I’m talking over the woman. By the way, I do do this.

D: It’s not all put on.

J: It’s not all put on! But it’s also a character that we’re very aware of. Like, this is men. We just thought it was funny and more pointed and so on if we only did that. If he’s just relentlessly that. There are parts we didn’t put in that were less like that. Devorah had her own neuroses and acting out and so on. But in the end it was like, no, it’s called Husband. It’s just like, what do we do with this guy? What do we do with the figure of the husband right now?

D: Husband's also a verb. The film is not The Husband. It’s really about a kind of a husbanding process that we’re both doing with each other.

J: I was sort of thinking back, as we were talking about all this, to that moment where you’re moving towards what looks like a kind of death, and marriage did kind of look like a kind of death of possibility and so on for me. This would be this monogamous, patriarchal, end of bohemianism and everything. But then I went through it, and it really was quite embodied. In the moment of being married, up to the very moment of us actually being married, as we were actually going through the process of standing here, hearing people give these speeches, I was just thinking this is fucked, how did I end up here? I mean she's great, I guess, but whatever!

D: Do you remember how much we hated each other in the runup? We hated each other so much! 

J: I really felt, “This is the end.” And then the moment the holy vows were taken, I was like “Woo!”. It was like I joined a cult. Totally liberated, dancing. The ritual with the third, with the onlookers, is very transformative. 

D: There's something very radical about marriage specifically. This isn't monogamy, this is marriage. It's an institution. I find marriage extraordinary because in a way it's the most naturalized of institutions. You go up and you jump through these hoops and then you get married and you have children. It's also globalized, and we have no record of a time preceding it in our history books. But it's always been questioned. It sort of goes, “I now pronounce you...” And everyone goes, “Ok we agree, we saw it, it happened!” We can sort of see it's all smoke and mirrors, really. But because it shows its methods, it shows you you can do something experimental with it. It shows you that it's made up. I find that kind of extraordinary. 

It's a broad template that allows a lot of room for personalization.

J: Yes, but I think it's also this sleight of hand. I don't believe in magical transformations where you say one thing and then you're suddenly this other thing. That's nonsense to me. And then, because of that sleight of hand, it was transformative, and it was magic. That's something you can't calculate for. And these life choices or templates for being with someone who's with you through your life, that life will be changed. That's the part that, at least from my naive position, can’t be predicted. You just don't know anything.

  • Dr Devorah Baum is Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Southampton. She is the author of Feeling Jewish: a book for just about anyone and The Jewish Joke: an essay with examples. Her next book is a crossover creative/critical work entitled On Marriage. She co-directed the creative documentary feature film The New Man and the feature film Husband.
  • Josh Appignanesi is a writer/director based in London. With Devorah Baum, he co-directed The New Man and Husband. Other feature films he directed include Female Human Animal, The Infidel, and Song of Songs. He mentors, advises and teaches internationally for institutions including the London Film School, the Met Film School, Guardian Masterclasses, Film London and Roehampton University.
  • Anna Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Good Girl.