A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century
By Cristina Nehring
(Harper, 328 pp., $24.99)
Women today are too risk-averse in love, charges Cristina Nehring. We “settle,” and seek comfort rather than passion. In flight from pain, we end up too often with mediocre and cramped relationships. Obsessed with control, we lack “the generous fault to put oneself entirely in another’s hands and thus be at his mercy.” We employ a whole battery of devices to lessen our exposure to experience, to distance ourselves from real vulnerability: we regard our passions with ironic distance; we convert sex into a commodity; we glorify momentary pleasure rather than lasting emotion.
In the process, Nehring continues, women are losing out on one of life’s great goods. For love is not just wonderful in itself, it is also a source of energy for the rest of life’s activities--particularly, perhaps, for artistic and intellectual creativity. And it is a source of insight, leading us to see ourselves and others with more generous and accurate eyes. (Here Nehring draws persuasively on Plato’s Phaedrus.) In sum, love makes the entire person come alive--but only if it is pursued with sufficient openness and daring that it brings with it a constant danger of pain and loss.
So far, so good. Nehring certainly raises an important issue--although it is not only with respect to love, and not only yesterday and today, that people have preferred to live in an excess of caution. Most people in most times and places have been averse to risk, avoiding deep commitments of all sorts--to work, to justice, to a cause, to a country--
because they can see that through such commitments they would risk failure on a large scale. Most people enjoy contemplating the sufferings of tragic heroes, but they do not wish to be called upon for heroism themselves. Not caring deeply; looking at everything with irony, as a mere spectacle; and pursuing superficial pleasures: these are clever ways of evading or thwarting tragedy--in love, but also in every department of life. The smallness of aspiration against which Nietzsche inveighed in his portrait of “the last man” is not, as he suggested, a recent creation of bourgeois European Christianity. It is a pervasive inclination of ordinary human life.
But it is certainly possible that in America in our own era we are seeing a rising tide of risk aversion. If I compare my students today with my student contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s, they certainly do seem to be more cautious and more calculating--about career choice, political engagement, and aspiration generally. They make prudent life plans, and they are unembarrassed by all their prudence. It would not surprise me if attitudes to romantic love have become similarly cautious and calculating, and perhaps also similarly ironic and detached. How could they not, if people are determined not to take large risks in any precinct of life?
Nehring provides no systematic evidence for the claim that attitudes to love have changed. She ignores a huge stretch of popular culture when she says that we badly need some books that make passionate romance sexy for women. Can it be that she has never encountered romance novels? Does she not go to the movies? Still, she is on solid ground when she contends that many people miss a lot in life, including a deeper understanding of self and other, because they are determined not to fail and not to suffer--because they hold the conviction that it is not better to have loved and lost. If you are a person globally averse to risk, then you will circumspectly avoid profound personal love, because its riskiness is obvious.
Nehring seeks to “reinvent” romantic love for our time, and to accomplish this by telling great love stories from literature and history, trying to get us to see how appealing they are in their proud openness to risk and in the magnitude of loss to which they make themselves vulnerable. Abelard and Heloise, Antony and Cleopatra, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Margaret Fuller and Count Giovanni Ossoli, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera--they are all fun to read about, and they do remind us of the joyousness and the wisdom that can come from life lived on a grand scale, without crippling self-protectiveness. (Although most of Nehring’s key examples are heterosexual, she expresses sympathy with same-sex lovers too, and evidently thinks that the same analysis applies to their choices.) Nehring rarely mentions the fact that some of these examples are fictional and some real, but blurring that line does not cause confusion, because her strategy is to show the lasting appeal of these stories for women today, as models and possibilities.
Unfortunately--since there is a good idea here--Nehring does not have terribly good taste about what is sexy in literary love. She adores the large melodramatic gesture, but does not seem drawn to subtlety, playfulness, or finesse. There is “hardly a sexier moment in the history of opera,” she pronounces, than the scene in Carmen in which Carmen convinces Don José to release her. Well, all right, the music is first-rate, but the view of love on offer is so adolescent that even Nietzsche--famous for his silly views about women and love--went for it. The simple man brought low by the wiles of a heartless seductress: this is a banal male fantasy, and it has very little to do with anything like love.
One suspects that Nehring would be utterly bored by the passages in opera--which is indeed a vast literature about love--that explore love and sexuality in a more subtle and, I think, more genuinely erotic manner: the playful, tender seduction duet “Il cuore vi dono” in Così Fan Tutte, which surely depicts risk in its own way, by showing how one can search for one’s own heart and then discover that it is beating over there, in someone else’s body; or the ecstatic final duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, which shows why one would want to take a risk in the first place--so as to attain a rapturous focus on the person one loves. Notice that in both lyrics the “you,” not the “I,” is paramount: these lovers are savoring one another, not their own interesting mental states.
For Nehring, only the crashingly obvious and way-over-the-top is sexy. This is a considerable defect in a book that aims to re-invigorate romantic love. Similarly, and astonishingly, she dismisses Shakespeare’s comedies as sources for insight into romantic love, calling them “frivolous,” “light-hearted,” and “without gravity.”
(A part of the problem is that she appears to think that laughter is incompatible with passion.) And Nehring’s aesthetic deficiencies are amply on display in her writing, which is breathless, full of cheap effects, and as narcissistic as a teenager’s diary:
As I write these words, I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled by love.
There is a lot more writing as bad as this in Nehring’s book. Her bad prose has an ethically unpleasant flavor, in its fascination with her own experience, her own pain, and her own ecstasy. This is surely not helpful if what one is pursuing is love, which is, after all, directed at another.
Her style is not Nehring’s only problem. Her central thesis is really two distinct arguments, one sensible and wise, the other adolescent and silly. The wise thesis is that one should be willing to incur risk for the sake of a deep and valuable love. This advice may not be for everyone, but for those who have the strength to live that way, such a life does, as she says with Plato, promise great rewards--even when, as often happens, the love turns out to involve reversal or some other type of suffering. (There is always death at the end of even the happiest love.) We can add to the wise thesis a corollary that Nehring at times endorses: given that people tend to be self-insulating and risk-averse, valuable love involves “conquest and self-conquest,” a struggle against one’s own selfish and self-protective propensities. In this sense, struggle does seem intrinsic to the valuable type of love.
The second thesis, which Nehring regularly confuses with the first, is that the quality of a love can be measured by the amount of danger, distance, riskiness, suffering, and so on that it involves. In the pursuit of this melodramatic idea, Nehring writes chapters with subtitles such as “Love as Inequality,” “Love as Transgression,” “Love as Absence,” “Love as Failure.” The idea that love is improved by suffering and loss is an adolescent view (despite the fact that some great Romantic writers have had it--but then Romanticism had its elements of immaturity). This argument generates some of the book’s silliest parts, in which Nehring recommends to today’s women a life spent in unseemly narcissistic reveling in their own tribulations.
The second thesis is not the same as the first. All of Nehring’s favored lovers were willing to endure suffering for love, if life brought suffering their way--but they did not seek it out. They were quite prepared to live happily, and they eagerly did so, until illness and death took their inevitable toll. Sartre and de Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft and Godwin, Antony and Cleopatra: none of these lovers courted suffering as a good in itself. By Nehring’s own account, they enjoyed life and one another--and then, because of the way life is, they had to deal with adversity, loss, and death. But the roiled Romantic sensibility of Nehring’s second thesis, and the characters who are its exemplars, is quite different: Werther was not prepared to live happily with anyone, and he clearly regards his love as deep in proportion to its painfulness. Nehring clearly loves the Werther model of love, but I would question whether this is a model of love at all, and not a type of acute self-preoccupation--narcissism masquerading as love. Unlike love (as Nehring in her Platonic mood describes love), it yields no insight into any other person, because the gaze is resolutely on the vicissitudes of the self. Nor does it yield any insight into nature, since nature is seen through a fog of the sufferer’s own projected emotions. Nehring asks women to take generous risks, rejecting self-concern and self-protectiveness, but in her fascination with the pain of the self she moves awfully close to the invincible self-involvement that she rightly criticizes.
Each of Nehring’s chapters generates its own version of the two theses, and of the tension between them. Real love may be able to surmount social inequality--but does it require or thrive on social inequality? Real love may require suffering or loss, and this suffering may move us when we contemplate it--but does the love itself really get better or more “purified” the more the lovers suffer? Nehring certainly does not show that lovers are more open to one another because of the suffering that they endure. Again, deep love may at times lead lovers to transgress restrictive social norms, but surely it does not follow that love is deeper and more real the more transgressive it is. And this confusion about transgression is nothing other than a staple of male mid-life crisis. Politicians seem particularly prone to this confusion, perhaps because that profession selects for a high degree of narcissism.
Nehring addresses her book to women. She thinks that it is women in particular who need to hear her message, because she has an unusual diagnosis of the reasons for today’s risk-averse living. Bypassing such plausible causes as pervasive human anxiety, the desire to control the uncontrollable, the felt need to surmount mortality and the limits of the body, she pins the whole thing on--fanfare of operatic trumpets!--feminism. Feminism is to blame for women’s rejection of romantic love because, says Nehring, feminism asks women to be always rational and always in control, rejecting the romantic emotions as sources of low status or even of servitude. Moreover, feminism urges us to see love in contractual terms, and that sort of calculation is incompatible with real passion.
Let us admit that some feminists have mistrusted love altogether, and have urged women not to allow themselves to fall under its sway. One can always find such passages from some of the early radical feminists (though Nehring is quite wrong to pin this view on Andrea Dworkin, who wanted to open a space for real passion by getting rid of the idea that the man is always entitled to use force to gain his ends). And let us also admit that some feminists have at least suggested that correct sexual relations should not involve anything like abandon, or play with power relations--a view that Nehring appears to target, albeit unclearly. Some feminists may have been so severe in their critique of inequality that they insisted on too vigilant a control over people’s unruly fantasy lives. But the dominant view in feminism, I think, has been that the context of the relationship as a whole is all-important: in a context of mutual respect, intimacy, and trust, there is nothing problematic about experimenting with passivity, abandon, and temporary power and powerlessness.
Let us admit, too, that some feminists have wrongly criticized Mary Wollstonecraft for her passionate erotic life, in which she seems to them to be too susceptible, too lacking in pride. To the extent that some feminists have said this, Nehring is right to point out that the energy of some of the best feminist work comes from a willingness to seek passion without self-protection.
On the whole, though, the idea that women who are romantic and sexually passionate cannot be real thinkers has come more from males than from females, as Nehring herself notes. Men have had an irritating propensity to react to the presence of a sexually and romantically charged woman as if she were a source of trouble and confusion, and to feel that clear thinking can only take place if she is ushered out of the room. But that is their problem, not ours; and Nehring is right to say that women should never have listened to them. Male artists, as Nehring emphasizes, have always been allowed to have love lives, and women should have demanded the same right from the start. So I agree with Nehring that a productive feminism should not internalize the male critique of female sexuality, and that it should claim the right to equal erotic lives. How far this is the problem of feminism, and how far it is just an understandable reaction to a real problem that women were having in the workplace, still needs to be determined.
What certainly cannot be maintained, however, is that the search for equality itself is the death knell of passion. Nehring agrees that women did not get much opportunity to take risks for love until feminism came along: they were treated like property, and they could not really choose a mate for love. They were subject to force, and this was taken to be normal, the way things were, especially in marriage. Real sexual agency, for all but a lucky or privileged few, required feminism, with its insistence on the right to divorce, and its protection against marital rape, and increased attention to problems of sexual coercion in the workplace. Nehring seems to grant this--but then she should grant also that the entry of law into the domain of intimacy is not the end of romance, but its necessary condition. Unless and until women can earn money without depending on men; unless and until they can protect their bodies against assault, even in an intimate relationship; unless and until they can protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy; unless and until they feel free to go to the police when they have been assaulted--unless all these conditions of freedom and autonomy are in place, the pursuit of adult romance may be jeopardized for many women. Fear and silence will reign supreme. Why were the students of my generation so joyful and so willing to accept risk? In part, because feminism had cleared a space for risk of the valuable sort, by beginning to control the bad and non-necessary risks that women used to run every day in a male-dominated world.
But, says Nehring, love thrives on inequality. Here, of course, we have the two-theses problem. The first says, wisely, that real love should be prepared to overcome inequalities of power, class, and station. (That is the plot of more or less every Victorian novel.) The second says, foolishly, that real love requires inequality of power, class, and station. So confused is Nehring at this point that she interprets Pride and Prejudice as confirmation of her second thesis rather than her first: it shows, she says, that people always eroticize class difference and would never love people of similar station. What a trivialization of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy! Their deep moral and intellectual affinity, and their strong romantic attraction, gradually manage to surmount the obstacles imposed by rigid social norms and the internal dispositions (prejudice and pride) that they engender. It is true that there would be no novel without the distance: after all, there has to be a plot. It seems obviously untrue, however, that there would be no love without the distance. Far from social distance being eroticized, it is, until late in the novel, a source of erotic blindness. At this point Nehring’s argument loses all clarity, as, seeking confirmation for her anti-feminist thesis, she begins to treat any qualitative difference at all as “inequality”: the very fact of heterosexuality, she now says, shows that sexual desire thrives on inequality.
But does passion even require qualitative difference? Here Nehring appears to endorse a view of sexual attraction that Roger Scruton popularized some time ago in his book Sexual Desire. Really valuable sexual passion, Scruton said, requires qualitative differences between the parties, because sexual love, when valuable, involves a kind of risky exploration of strange terrain, and we should think less well of those who stick to the familiar. Scruton could not advance this claim as a descriptive thesis about sexual choices, for nothing is more obvious than that people tend to choose people close to themselves in all sorts of ways--religion, class, education. But he did put it forward as a normative claim, and he used it to argue that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality, because it involves greater adventure and risk. Something like this is probably what Nehring has in mind, although she has no disdain for same-sex passion.
What should we think of this? Do people who choose qualitatively similar partners really lack courage? The most obvious problem with Scruton’s thesis was that it was capriciously and inconstantly applied: to sexual orientation, but not to romances between adults and children, between Protestants and Catholics, between the virtuous and the immoral. A more subtle problem with his argument is that it is not even clear how it could be assessed: for, as the philosopher Nelson Goodman showed in his great essay “Seven Strictures on Similarity,” the concept of similarity is so slippery that it has basically no content. Any two things are similar and dissimilar to one another in manifold respects.
But the real problem with Scruton--and Nehring, who speaks, Scruton-like, of the “enigmatic Other”--is that they both mislocate erotic risk. What is risky is not getting in touch with some trait that is dissimilar to some trait of one’s own. It is the whole idea of becoming vulnerable to an inner life that one cannot see and can never control. It is not qualitative difference, but the sheer separateness of the other person, the idea of an independent source of vision and will, that makes real love an adventure in generosity--or, if one is like Proust’s narrator, a source of mad jealousy and destructive projects of domination and control. And this has nothing at all to do with class difference, or gender difference, or even temperamental difference. It has to do only with the fact of human individuation--that minds and bodies never merge, that intimacy is not a fusion but a conversation.
There is a grain of truth in Nehring’s thesis about personal qualities: it is at least plausible to maintain that loving someone who is complicated, opaque, and in some respects concealed can be of particular interest or value. At any rate, we often think less well of people who are willing to love only people who are altogether obvious and lacking in complexity. Rightly or wrongly, we think that such lovers are refusing some challenge, or lacking in curiosity. And yet an erotic attraction to psychological complexity does not require pursuing class difference, career difference, power difference, or some other obvious kind of difference. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how one could ever pursue a relationship with persons as complicated as some of the artists and writers adduced by Nehring without a context of shared activities, commitments, or aspirations that would generate the kind of friendship and openness that make insight into another person’s complexities possible. The way she tells the stories of those complicated artists and writers, they understood this well.
Nehring’s complaint against feminism appears to be groundless (apart from offering a fair critique of some of its radical excesses). Pursuing equal respect is perfectly compatible with love. And what’s more, Nehring herself seems to think so. I would say that she is a feminist in spite of herself. For among the many relationships that she depicts, she keeps being drawn to the ones that assuredly do involve equal respect and reciprocity: relationships between strong thinkers or artists who respect one another’s work and sphere of action, and find a way to enact equality even in a world of inequality. In the case of Margaret Fuller, she makes it clear that she finds the Cambridge suitors who fail to appreciate Fuller’s intellect pathetic and contemptible, and she is very glad that Fuller ended up with Ossoli, who did know how to respect her.
All these are feminist paradigms, in the sense that the male of the couple is prepared to defy convention by giving the woman a respect, and a sphere of action, that the surrounding world does not give her. They involve deep connection and a willingness to risk difficulty and adversity, but they combine these qualities with reciprocity. Indeed, it is clear that much of their depth is owed precisely to their reciprocity, because mutual respect generates trust, and trust in turn promotes greater openness and generosity. Nehring herself concludes that “romantic love is better between partners with equal rights. . . . We can have both knowledge and mystery, equality and abandon.”
Nehring seems like a very sensible person with some provocative and useful observations, and some wonderful historical and literary material. If her book has an emboldening effect on some of its readers, if it makes them question their inclination to prudence and calculation, then it will almost certainly be for the better. How unfortunate, then, that--led on, perhaps, by the demand for hype and extremism that is a large part of the book-marketing industry these days--she should have rushed into print with an unrefined and not fully disciplined set of ideas, uttered in breathless and melodramatic prose. Her own thoughts deserve better.
Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Her new book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution, will be published by Oxford University Press in February.