The story begins when a 28-year-old Hughes met Danne Emerson in London and began a sexual relationship. She fell pregnant, they married and a son, Danton, was born.
Hughes was traditional enough to wish for his marriage to be a "safe haven" in which he would experience "the dream of untroubled certainty of a woman's love, which I would repay with my own coin of protection."
But his wife was not traditional at all. She was a "liberated" 60s woman who believed in free love. The search for sex with other men became a kind of principle for her as she "equated it with freedom, grail or no grail. Her ruthlessness in pursuit of this reduced me to stammering misery ... I went into a moping spiral of helpless, unassuagable jealousy. I was a cuckold, going cuckoo. I was bewildered, shell-shocked and lacking the necessary defence of indifference."
Hughes responded by having several affairs of his own. He was never, though, won over to her idea of sexual liberation:
I am glad that I never bought into the absurd "f*** and you shall be free" ideology that was so common in London and elsewhere at the time. I sensed then, and know with a fair degree of certainty now, that it is an illusion to suppose that sexual promiscuity helps create personal freedom.
Nor was Hughes impressed by other facets of 60s leftism. He writes that,
It was a time of collective self-importance ... I hardly met a single person in the "underground" context who didn't ... turn out in the end to be ignorant and rather a bore.
The depths of tedium that can be plumbed by sitting around half stoned, listening to people chatter moonily about reuniting humankind and erasing its aggressive instincts through Love and Dope, are scarcely imaginable to those who have not suffered them.
The later consequences of the 60s lifestyle on Danne and Danton are sad, but I'll let readers discover their fate for themselves in Hughes' article.
I'll add just one point of my own. It's no accident that an ideology of free love should become popular during a period of radicalism. The mainstream liberalism of Western society tells us that what matters most is our individual autonomy. We are told that the highest good is a freedom to be unimpeded in our own will.
If taken literally and seriously, then a traditional morality will seem to be an oppressive restraint on our sexual freedom. It will seem logical and principled to throw off this morality, even if this means, like Hughes' wife, rejecting monogamy in marriage.
During times of political or social radicalism there will always be those willing to draw such conclusions, given the underlying ideas governing Western societies.
We can begin to see evidence for this as far back as 1535, when, during the turmoil of the Reformation, the Frenchman Rabelais published his ideal of a community of young men and women whose lives were not regulated,
by laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their free will and pleasure ... In their rules there was only one clause: Do what you will.
Rabelais thought that people "liberated" from any traditional forms of morality would nonetheless behave well as people had a "natural spur and instinct which drives them to virtuous deeds" and which was corrupted, rather than improved, by the external restraints of moral custom or law.
If we move forward to another great period of radicalism, the French Revolution, we find another prophet of the "Do what you will" philosophy, namely de Sade. De Sade too had no time for moral convention: he wrote "The most perfect being we could conceive would be the one who alienated himself most from our conventions and found them most contemptible."
Like Rabelais, de Sade believed that any attempt to repress natural instincts by following a moral law was wrong. It was de Sade's view that "no man has the right to repress in him what Nature puts there." However, he did not believe that Nature made men virtuous, but rather taught them to pursue their own pleasure selfishly:
Nature has elaborated no statutes, instituted no code; her single law is writ deep in every man's heart: it is to satisfy himself, to deny his passions nothing ...
If we run ahead to 1971 we find an editorialist for the London Daily Telegraph commenting on the radicalism of his own times by invoking another figure of the French eighteenth century:
We live, the young of us in particular, in an age of wild, almost insane, romanticism. Rousseau himself would be amazed to know what is said, thought and felt today. He thought that man was naturally good. The causes of evil he found in law, society, custom, restraint. This sentimental view was memorably rebuked by Coleridge ...
Yet some of the young have contrived to out-Rousseau Rousseau. For, where he modestly proclaimed that man without chains would be good, they proclaim that whatever unchained man does is good, even if it is manifestly evil ...
Do what thou wilt, they cry, shall be the only law; and drugs are invoked to free the will of the last vestiges of the old tyranny of reason, morality and charity ...
So, as long as liberalism remains unchallenged as the philosophy of the West, we are likely to lurch into radical periods in which "free love" is raised as a slogan of liberation, with the kinds of unwelcome consequences discovered first hand by Robert Hughes.