The Flora Effect: Cataclysmic Events on Behr

The following Notes from the Editor are excerpted from the Preface to the Revised Edition of Dr. Martin Behr’s seminal work, The End of Marriage: A Guide to the Universe.

The author’s words are often an instructive point from which to begin examination of the text. Let us consider the following passage:

The swirling mist of the universe is indifferent to the corral called the rational, at least when the universe is momentarily left in non-dispute by the cosmologists. Humans, however, hunger for an organizing principle and have managed to devise a workable contraption called marriage out of the fertile muck of desire and faith. This carnal cord is neither as silken nor smooth as words such as ‘desire’ and ‘faith’ might indicate. In fact, the marriage bond is closer kin to a knotted jungle vine than to an elegant accessory.

That even this much is known with verifiable certainty about marriage is due to the pioneering work of Martin Behr, Ph.D., who began and then abandoned a career in space physics before embarking on a radically personal quest for meaning through the marital relationship. The untimely death of Dr. Behr before he could complete his life-long study of a life long lived with another is to be mourned in terms of what will never be understood about what happens to the players in a marriage when one of them succumbs. The elucidating mind behind the intended final volume, I Am Now a Widower will remain lost and this serves only to underscore the poignancy of the previous volumes.

Behr’s passionate search for meaning beyond mathematical calculation earned him the title of “metaphysicist” by his puzzled colleagues at the observatory early in his professional life. But as photos of his young wife, Flora, proliferated in his lab and accounts of her mundane affairs were submitted for review then publication in the most scholarly journals, Behr was tagged with the scornful title of “resident triviologist.” Relations between colleagues deteriorated quickly thereafter. Although the story is apocryphal, it is widely accepted that the final straw for Behr came during a conference slideshow when a smiling photo of Flora replaced the anterior quadrant of Uranus.

Ironically it was Behr’s term of unemployment caused by his immense interest in his wife that nearly drove them apart permanently. It was during this period of separation and on Flora’s part, dating, when Behr developed his knotted jungle vine theory. An exacting man, he created a diagram of her movements throughout a single day without one misstep in her rhythms, astonishing her with his accuracy when she opened the envelope containing the photographs. Plotting Flora’s path from afar soothed the troubled Behr and eventually convinced her of the constancy of his devotion, evidenced by her return to his side.

Behr’s flagging health during this period was buoyed by occasional retreats to more restful facilities, quarters identified by Flora who was now deeply concerned over her husband’s lassitude. Although he protested that his exhaustion required no more than her usual ministrations, Flora exerted herself in committing him to a full recovery. The shifting tones of marriage are evident in his letters to her; the stentorian trumpet has given way to a more wistful pleading for reunion.

The role and contribution of Flora Behr cannot be overemphasized. While Flora-as-wife provides the locus for meaning in the life and work of Behr and is therefore of interest, Flora-as-individual remains largely an enigma. What little is known from objective sources is this: she spent much of her time doing simple research for her frequently melancholic, unemployed husband. The introspection resulting from the brilliant Behr’s retreat from everyday life and periodic removals to pastoral settings was undoubtedly the cause of his increasingly fluid writing style and deepening powers of empathy.

It may be impossible to identify the boundaries between married couples, particularly when the force of consciousness is so clearly directed by one member of the relationship as to affect, even, to some extent, create, the other. It is interesting to note the difference in how Flora and Behr exhibited their mutual impact; Behr describes their initial meeting as an essentially subjective “Big Bang event” (Behr, M. “Origins of Floral Activity on an Unattached Body,” Journal of Vacuum Research, Vol. 32, February 19xx). But while the event was cataclysmic on Behr, it was as singular as it was profound. Once rung, Behr did not require subsequent jerks on his rope from Flora to continue ringing. Flora, however, shows herself to be far more malleable, more prone to entropy, and less stable than Behr as he documents early on (Behr, M. “She’s Safer Orbiting Me Than Out There Floating in Nothingness,” monograph, NASA Special Publications, Langley, VA, 19xx), (Behr, M. “First She Wants to be My Wife Then She Wants an ‘Interesting Job’,” In Brief, Scientific American, Vol. 71, October 19xx.), (Behr, M. “I’ve Got Work to Do Analyzing Data on Our Marriage and She Decides We Need to Talk,” Statistical Analysis and Computation Quarterly, U.S. Bureau of Standards, Vol.457, June 19xx). It is to be hoped that scholars will rescue these valuable early writings from obscurity as they provide a fascinating counterpoint in tone to the later work.

Despite the brief flurry of attention caused by Behr’s death and this publisher’s reissue of The End of Marriage: A Guide to the Universe, the breadth of his work is unknown, a strange fate for a man who thumbed his nose at the scientific community when he said, “It is of no use to search for meaning in that which can never be known. My wife is right here. I will find my meaning in her.”

Flora Behr has provided a coda of sorts for the life-long study that ended too soon in her recent memoir, Can You Even Say the Word ‘Love’?. While its tone shows the devastating effects of menopause on the female mind, it also provides solid evidence that a profound connection existed between Martin and Flora Behr. How else to explain her voice, so close to that of her husband’s, when she writes, “The hunger for union, like all hunger, is the defining human principle.”

1998

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