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A Vindication of Love

By Cristina Nehring
Harper Collins, 2009

Were a 25th century anthropologist to attempt to understand the men and women of our epoch by examining the “Relationships” section of Barnes & Noble, a strange picture would emerge. Flashy, fuchsia-colored editions of 101 Sexy Dares, The Cosmo Kama Sutra, and The Sex Games Bible would sit next to dating manuals with joyless titles like Dating Makes You Want to Die But You Have To Do It Anyway, He’s Just Not That Into You, and (by a different author) Be Honest—You’re Not That Into Him Either. Marriage would be represented little better, with proudly mundane names such as Will Marry For Food, Sex, and Laundry: How to Get Him and Keep Him and The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands crowding the shelves—next to a corral of divorce books.  

If the thought of being judged by such volumes fills you with annoyance or derision, fear not: essayist Cristina Nehring has produced an eloquent plea for romantic daring and idealism designed to rescue us from this paperback purgatory of “sexy dares,” dating, and domesticity. A Vindication of Love is a bold, high-flying—and sometimes exasperating—polemic which sets out to do nothing less than reclaim romantic love for our times. “Romance in our day is a poor, shrunken thing,” she laments at the outset. According to Nehring, the blame for diminishing love rests on several parties, including the goal-oriented, heatproof love gurus of dating books, feminists who run from the slightest whiff of romantic foolishness or power imbalance, and the commodifiers of sex, whether they are selling vibrators, Girls Gone Wild videos, or books with names like Wicked Quickies. What love “once partook of the heroic and transcendent has been lost.” Worse than lost, she writes. Our culture actively starves, tames, and disfigures it:

Almost everything in modern society militates against our falling in love hard or long. It militates against love as risk, love as sacrifice, love as heroism. As presented to us in dating books, matchmaking sites, and advice columns, love is—or ought to be—an organized adult activity with safety rails on the left and right, rubber ceilings, no-skid floors, and a clear, clean destination: marriage. Anyone who embarks on something more ambiguous, more dangerous or difficult to predict is counted all but pathological—especially if she is a woman.

Enough, Nehring declares, and sets out to restore to love its honor, abandon, and inventiveness. If feminism gave women the right to enjoy and actively pursue sex, it is high time, Nehring argues, for women to proudly pursue romantic love with all its attendant turmoil and potential humiliations. Using her denunciation of cautious contemporary romance to anchor her argument, Nehring aspires to rumple carefully laid-out assumptions about romantic success. To make the case for ardor’s creative and transformative power, she embarks on a rhetorical tornado of a tour through history and literature. To show transgression’s power to foment love, she takes us to the lush bower of leaves where Tristan and Iseult sleep in post-coital bliss with a sword stretched between them while Iseult’s husband searched for the pair. She ushers us into the dim, cramped New England study where Emily Dickinson writes coy letters, alternately vulnerable and demanding, to a man she refers to as “Master” to show how absence strengthens love. Towards the book’s end, we watch an ornately dressed Frida Kahlo carried into a crowded Mexico City gallery on a four-poster bed hung with paper-mache skeletons and a portrait of her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. “Frida will be remembered as an artist of love as often as she will be remembered as an artist of oil paint,” Nehring writes. “And for all the protests of the academic gatekeepers, this is exactly what she would have wanted.”

This is a crazy-quilt of a book. The tempestuous inspirations of Kahlo and Rivera appear alongside Alfred de Musset and George Sand’s epistolary foreplay and the generous intellectuality of Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blucher’s open marriage. Nehring zigzags between epochs, her ideas united by authorial and associative verve. Her bent toward generalization and literary allusion makes her writing closer kin to the aphoristic 15th century essays of Michel de Montaigne than to any contemporary author. She pulls it off because of her eloquence and conviction: her style refreshes and rivets. The book’s disparate chapters are also (mostly) knit together by Nehring’s over-arching mission: to assert love’s intellectual and artistic integrity, especially for women. Nehring bemoans the fact that while the romantic failures and conquests of male intellectuals, from Dante to Byron, are ignored or celebrated, formidable female writers like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Simone de Beauvoir are stigmatized for their passionate travails. This is all part of what Nehring deems a pernicious trend to demonize the power of love. Taking her title from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Nehring champions the agency and originality of female intellectuals, past and future, urging others to do the same. “Acute feelings attend acute intellects,” she writes, noting that it is no coincidence that many of the strongest advocates for female equality, like Wollstonecraft and de Beauvoir, were also ardent and unconventional lovers. Errors, risks, and romantic unorthodoxy “endowed them not merely with an emotional wisdom inaccessible to their more prudent colleagues, but also with richly variegated and dramatic lives.” The romantic biographies of prominent women are to be celebrated, she cries, not swept under the rug.

By pointing to the creative and romantic achievements of her subjects, Nehring hopes to inspire daring and ambition in her readers. She intends her book to be “an invitation to risk, an incitement to unruliness, a cry to battle.” She closes by exhorting young lovers of both genders to surpass the examples of passion she has given:

Love, we know somewhere within ourselves, transcends ordinary expectations and experience. Love gives more and it takes more. It is a metaphysical minefield—or a mine. It glitters, illuminates, endangers. The stakes are real. You win some. You lose some. You are never undamaged. But you are, with any luck, undaunted.

Strong stuff.

But is Nehring just in her diagnosis of contemporary romantic malaise? And how practicable is her cure?

Nehring can be hard to pin down. She often celebrates love as though it were an astonishing tonic, with the power to cleanse us of pedestrianism and superficiality, replacing them with inspiration, empathy, and grit. But what about the darker corners of love? Nehring argues for the value of pain and for the idea that our failures and overreaches indicate bravery and fortify the heart. Love is a risk, she announces; it is like getting behind the wheel with a drunk driver:

It can be magical; you can end up in places you never expected, embracing in the tall blades beyond the road bend, or you can end up dead in a ditch. Not through anybody’s malice, but merely because of a temperament insufficiently alert, a sensibility a little dull, an instance of timing a bit unfortunate.

  Yet Nehring spends most of the book exploring the wild bends of road and the tall blades of grass. She glances over the cold bodies in the ditch only for the occasional rhetorical flourish. This gives her argument a slightly tinny, saccharine aftertaste: the danger of ending up bruised, bloodied, or dead because of passionate obsession is very real. Nehring brilliantly invokes love’s heights, but does not probe deeply enough into its ugly, underground reaches. This exclusion is the symptom of a larger problem: because the book traffics in exhortations and ideals, it sometimes loses connection with reality. Nehring lauds lovers who differ in age, ethnicity, experience, and status because such trysts tap into the eroticism of otherness: “One moment you are in control; the next moment you are not…. The to-and-fro movement of power mimics the to-and-fro movement of sex itself.” A refreshing challenge to simplified dichotomies of victim/victimizer. But what about deep imbalances between the self-worth, intelligence, or financial independence of romantic partners? Far less sexy, to put it mildly.

In another passage about how love entails struggle, she quotes the passage of Canterbury Tales where the Wife of Bath swoons over her fifth husband, whom she pushes into a lit fireplace and who knocks her on the head in return, shattering her eardrum. She boxes him in the face but, seeing the harm she is causing, she suddenly embraces him tenderly. The anecdote is meant to show that conflict is an important source of passion, but Nehring does little to elaborate it beyond saying, “Of course it is not to be taken literally: Love can never be a matter of exchanging bruises.” Very well. But what about when it is? She approvingly quotes Ovid’s advice to lovers seeking to keep their mistresses interested:

Heat her cooling mind, and let her get anxious about you….
I would not mind, in that case, if she…
Tore at my cheeks with her nails, frantic and weeping with rage,
Gave me her angriest looks, and wanted to do what she could not,
Namely, live without me, what an impossible hope!

The advice is striking coming from the pen of a skilled Roman poet. But the same sentiments would be menacing if Ike Turner said them of Tina: the line between game romantic provocation and emotional and physical abuse is sometimes far thinner than Nehring cares to admit. A Vindication of Love does well to remind us of love’s power to bring out the best in people, but Nehring does her book a disservice by skimming over love’s equal capacity to bring out the worst. In this way Nehring is also injudicious to her opponents. For much of what she indicts, whether in the form of cautionary self-help books or the most dour of feminisms, is a response (even if it can be a wrong-headed one) to relationships that are shot through with abuse and manipulation, to romances genuinely destructive and unproductive, to loves that take far more than they give. Nehring places her description of love’s heroic and creative potential in opposition to the insipid finger-wagging of books like He’s Just Not That Into You and Smart Women/Foolish Choices. She quotes extremely radical feminists, like Andrea Dworkin, to make counterpoints about how ardor strengthens, rather than weakens, the work of female artists. But by quoting her rhetorical opponents at their most prudent or reactionary she trivializes her own argument and dodges her subject’s thorniest problems: There are sometimes deep tensions between passion and self-realization. Canny manipulations and selfish demands have been known to cloak themselves in the most romantic of guises. Some lovers are worth following down a rabbit’s hole of risks and difficulties; others are not. For every Heinrich Blucher who helps a Hannah Arendt deepen her work, there are a dozen lovers threatened by a partner’s ambitions, who will weaken a love’s autonomy if it brings that person closer. Nehring makes the topic of debate whether love is worth having at all, but it would be far more interesting to see her go deeper into what she makes implicit: how and when to best pursue passion once we have taken up the challenge of love.

Nehring is most inspiring when she argues for romantic unorthodoxy, the right to expect more and strive for more in love, to view it as a quest, to measure relationships by the inspiration and expansion they provide, not by their end-point or duration. What makes Nehring’s love worth seeking has much to do with the strength and integrity of the individuals involved. But it is well worth noting that there may be prerequisites to the individuality and freedom needed to pursue heedless or creatively-charged love affairs.

This is another blind spot of Nehring’s—even if power imbalances can be romantically charged, her vision of love presupposes a certain amount of mutual agency and self-sufficiency on the part of her lovers. It is no coincidence that the women whose loving Nehring applauds, from Heloise to de Beauvoir, were among the most privileged and educated of their time. Mary Wollstonecraft was financially independent and a well-known author and intellectual when she attempted suicide over a failed love. But such drama is more remote and more risky absent such independence. Nehring dismisses those who do not aspire to her particular vision of love: “The emotionally and intellectually dull do not fall in love hard or long.” But there are many people who are ill-positioned to fall in love hard and long. Those that lack the safety net friends, family, and work provide or who have dependants, for instance. Others will simply never desire Nehring’s brave and precarious passions. She is not generous enough to those who seek more bedrock romances: That some people prize stability over ardent tumult, crave commitment and family more than intellectual and amorous synergy, has to do with taste, personal ideals, and temperament, not timidity. Preconceptions and traditions do not die easy deaths, either. It is more than a minority of women who, no matter how unconventional in other ways, will keep chasing “the ceremony of the bells and lace,” as Joni Mitchell once put it.

However, at the dawn of the 21st century more men and women are poised to experiment with novel forms of romance than ever before—and to follow the footsteps of some of Nehring’s lovers. Nehring admonishes 70s feminists like Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone for labeling romantic love demeaning. But if, amidst campaigns against misogyny, rape, and domestic violence, earlier generations of feminists sometimes gave short shrift to the ways men fulfill women, their work cleared land for the growth of stronger individuals and stronger relationships—a mantle contemporary feminists are taking up. The spread of education, equality, and new familial arrangements mean that there is every reason to expect the present generation to bravely explore the fault lines between passion and intellect, creating bold works of art and thought, and following fresh paths to emotional and sexual satisfaction. Nehring recognizes this:

We stand poised, I think, at the opening of a new era. An era not of sobriety and self-protectiveness, of feminist resentment and masculine “backlash,” but an era of revived romantic hope, of greater trust between genders and fresh daring among lovers. We have been pragmatic and pedestrian about our erotic lives for too long; there is impatience in the air…There is rebellion among young women around me, and among the young men who keep them company.

Few readers will fully embrace Nehring’s vision of love as all-consuming art. But Nehring does well to remind us not be too literal-minded in our pursuit of passion and that the right balance between our loves and other aspirations is well worth fighting for. Though A Vindication of Love has its flaws and omissions, Nehring valiantly draws into question tattered assumptions about romance, demanding that we take love seriously—reflecting on which passions are worth our time, toil, and risk, and then pursuing them with open minds and intrepid hearts. As she suggests, the task of negotiating the distance between ourselves and our lovers, of balancing the demands of Eros and vocation, is up to us.

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Ingrid Norton has written for publications ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Soundcheck Magazine. This is her first review for Open Letters.

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