How do I love thee? Let me repeatedly text, IM, and tweet the ways…
May 17, 2010 § 2 Comments
Love, the kind for which Cristina Nehring argues in The Vindication of Love, is “a brush with the sublime.” It’s not quite the years of compatibility that arises from an arranged marriage that slowly matures into a resigned form of love, or the convenient companionship of two souls tilling common ground. It’s not the pee with the bathroom door open as your spouse clips his toenails on the bed type of love.
“Romantic love,” claims Nehring, “needs to be reinvented for our time. For those of us as bored by the cult of safe love as we are repelled by the man-hating clichés of old-style feminism, it needs to be formulated afresh.”
Why? “The purpose is by no means to beatify romantic love, or to reclaim it as a fine hallmark sentiment suitable for swooning schoolgirls. The goal is to embrace its dangers and darknesses as well as the light it sheds so amply, sometimes piercingly.” She wants us to reclaim romance from the vapid, insipid, sterile version of love that infiltrates the capitalist, mass-market culture of today.
Well, sign me up. Who doesn’t want to wrestle love from Taylor Swift’s puny grip?
As a writer, Nehring doesn’t hold back from expressing enthusiasm or interest in her subjects, and it’s hard to stay disengaged from a book where the author so clearly demonstrates affection, empathy, and fellow-feeling for the people she puts under her critical microscope. She marches boldly forward with her premise, and fearlessly argues her way through with examples ranging from solitary females like Emily Dickinson and Mary Wollstonecraft, to figures of myth and literature like Tristan and Iseult, and the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to real-life romantic explorers and screw-ups like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir.
Admittedly, though, there’s a fine line to be drawn between psychopathic, neurotic behavioural tendencies in love relationships and the kind of obsessive yet fully self-aware passion of a sustaining love affair. The problem is, I’m not sure where it is, and who draws it.
Inevitably, I turn to the self and use a personal barometer with which to measure levels of passion or insanity in the more general scheme of things. When I reflect upon it now with many years in between to fill in the blanks and shade the experiences a pretty shade of rose, my romantic past proves that I am an exceptionally intelligent and creative person with an emotional landscape stunning in its depth and breadth, not an over-emotional nutjob with a bad temper.
Yup, that’s right.
That’s the essential problem with Nehring’s book. It’s tempting to think that repeatedly drunk dialling an ex is normal behaviour – passionate and grand behaviour, the most loving of all gestures. With some sense of irony and perspective most of us might be able to make that distinction between gestures of passion and those of plain, pure lunacy, but we all like to think we have that sense of perspective. When we’re sane, and reasonable (ie. reading the book in freshly-caffeinated state on a Tuesday morning), it’s easy to take the good, and leave the bad. Committing suicide over love like young Werther – bad! Committing yourself fully to a love affair – good. But when you’re so obviously caught in the web of a complex, overwhelming, tricky relationship, (and let’s face it, which relationship isn’t all of those things?) it’s going to be a little harder to make that distinction. Throwing yourself under the train seems like a viable option – hell, even a healthy one – as opposed to enduring another one of those dinners at the in-law’s, or another one of those cocktail evenings with your partner’s set of judgmental, vapid friends.
But that’s a minor quibble on my part. While it’s not perfect all the way, I still enjoyed the book and learned much from it, and I thought her ideas were fresh and timely. I’ll be gladly recommending it to friends. I think we’re all kind of sick of instant porn and tabloid details on the sex lives of famous people we like to read about, but not care about in THAT way. I don’t really want to see Tiger Woods’ pitiful face crumpled up in tears, weeping in front of his wife for having had sex with numerous mass-produced women of same stripe. Whatever Heidi Montag did with her repulsive husband onboard an airplane that allowed her membership into the mile high club? I really don’t want to know. These repeated images tar love relationships in general with the same brush – that of decrepitude and shame, and utter futility.
Better instead to read about the passion that kept George Sand alive, or the love that sent Frida Kahlo crazy enough to produce those astounding paintings. Because I think most of us think, or else hope, that love is far from coordinating bath towels and choreographed bedroom moves, or matching t-shirts, or a reality TV show exploiting a couple’s moronic daily activities.
I suspect most of us could do with love that’s more Heloise and Abelard and less Bill and Giuliana Rancic. Love as a mass-marketed commodity rarely gets any heart beating faster. When popular culture (in this case, Hollywood) tries to spin love in a different or original way, it often gets it wrong, such as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (although to be fair, I’ve not seen the original Hitchcock version). Sexual desire as a point-and-click maneuver, done in isolation, rarely lifts the spirit or soothes the troubled soul. Pornography might teach us new ways to contort, but no one’s showing us creative, expansive ways to love, to woo, and to romance – or supporting anyone else’s attempts.
Far from Disneyfied happy endings, the real-life and fictional examples of romantic couples cited by Nehring saw their love stories end badly, or tragically. There’s almost always one partner left bereft, or still in love while the other has moved on. But the problem lies in the way in which people respond to heartbreak; the coping mechanisms which we don as armour and that enables us to continue to trudge through the world. As the author says, “When we fall out of love, we reclaim the blinders with which we trot horse-like through so much of our lives.” Love is not the cause of blindness; in Nehring’s imagining, non-love is the cause of it. She writes that when people “cease to love” we “return to the world of surfaces and stereotypes.”
Most interestingly, Nehring talks about “love as art” in one of her chapters. Throughout the book, there are many examples of women who have lived and loved large. Nehring is of the opinion that intelligence, complexity, creativity, and emotional breadth go hand-in-hand with a large appetite for love. She’s strongly critical of the notion that thinking and creative impulses are hampered by romantic impulses, or weakened by it. Specifically, she’s critical of the belief that women are somehow made lesser by their involvement in romantic relationships – that they can’t love deeply and think or create at the same time, like these inclinations are two opposing ends of the spectrum.
70 years ago Anais Nin was wrestling with the same questions in her journals, and concluded that for women, it had to be thus: “There are only two remedies: intellectuality or work, and adoption of masculine attitudes in love. Women are still too idealistic to admit duality, which can be achieved only by a comparative atrophy of feelings” (The Early Diary 1927 – 1931). Nehring would balk at those words. Nin was trying to figure out how to maintain both head and heart in pursuit of men, and her conclusion was to sublimate feelings, and prioritise desire, as though feelings and desires, love and lust, were two separate, tangible entities.
Nehring’s whole book is written to for smart, complicated souls who understand that love and lust, and all the things in-between, is simply an expression of the self. It need not be higher or lower on the scale. In fact, she wants you to believe that love is the ultimate creation. Despite myself, it’s an utterly captivating and delicious thought. If only, I think…
Lots of people will probably object to Nehring’s premise, and many already do, decrying what they see is her unusual obsession and affiliation for what some term the ‘cult of love.’ Nehring does fall prey to occasional bouts of over-feeling that border on the melodramatic when she writes words like these: “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,” but I’m more inclined to consider it an overstatement of profound feeling rather than an indication of unbridled mania to put Love on pedestal and worship it while chanting bad poetry.
Yes, love is a battle. It wounds, it leaves scars, and it fucks up belief systems and sends one from the world of sense to that of sensibility or worse, utter chaos. But for all that, Nehring’s book inspires some hope. It provides some measure of comfort to those of us who know that we love in different ways – to those of us who believe that love can be varied, complex, and astounding, as opposed to neutral, bland, and cookie-cutter – to dream big when it comes to romance. A far cry indeed from settling for ‘Mr. Good Enough.’