I was recently sitting in the back of a cab with a boy, the radio on. A
commercial began with a woman telling her husband in a teasing, sexy
voice that she had something that would excite him. Instead of a trip
to Turkey or a pair of handcuffs and a paddle, the item was revealed to
be a new set of curtains. The man playing the husband sounded bemused
at best. Although it was just another poorly produced local radio ad,
dread crept in. I imagined myself finding sexual pleasure in textiles
made of synthetic fabrics, yelling at my husband for not picking up his
socks, and wearing only practical underwear for the rest of my life. I
turned to the boy and without explaining myself announced, “I never
want to get married.”
- A Vindiction of Love by Cristina Nehring. Harper. 336 pages. $24.99.
- How to Love by Gordon Livingston, M.D. De Capo Lifelong Books. 240 pages. $19.95.
Marriage has freaked me out since I received a proposal at the age of 21 from a nice young man who didn’t see why I needed to work. My mouth said, “Umm, I need to think about it;” my brain said, “Run.” Ever since that event, I have fled all the men who prefer to set up a house, packing my bags the second he starts hinting about rings. It’s a difficult position to take in a culture so marriage obsessed. Let me rephrase that: Wedding obsessed. Engagement ring obsessed. Proposing on top of the Empire State Building obsessed. The crushing need to find that man, get that ring, and pick a date permeates movies, books, television, and the commercials. Even in that horrible Sex and the City movie, after one attempt at a wedding goes awry, our heroic couple reunites to wonder why they needed to get married in the first place. Couldn’t they just be together? The sentiment only lasts a moment, and then they’re off to the altar again.
And a wedding is the assumed goal of any love story. You can be one of those crazy couples together for 10 years, but when you fall in love, those around you immediately start asking when you’ll get married. Yet never has marriage seemed less appealing. Divorce is not only probable, but expected, to the point that the cynical phrase “starter marriage” has entered our vocabulary. The great love stories of our time are tabloid wedding photos of celebrities, everything airbrushed and shiny and choreographed to the last second. The same tabloids will stop at nothing to find cracks in the marriage only a few issues later, and will shame and pity a divorced or single woman until that rock is on her finger. It’s love as business arrangement, as item on a checklist, as social conformity.
Perhaps nothing sums up this view on contemporary love quite as well as Gordon Livingston, M.D.’s new book How to Love. The back of the book compares Livingston to psychologist and author Rollo May. He is no Rollo May. May was a student of existential philosophy who pushed his readers to be courageous enough to live the fullest life possible. He understood the empty pressures of the culture, and that the best way to counteract them was to find selfhood and authenticity, which takes bravery and will certainly be painful along the way.
Livingston, on the other hand, appears to believe that the best way to live your life is to avoid pain as much as possible. I don’t disagree with his central thesis — that you must cultivate in yourself the qualities you are looking for in another person — but his treatment of love as a hazardous substance bothers me a great deal. How to Love has a long list of people to avoid romantically because they might cause you pain: depressives, narcissists, neurotics, alcoholics, complainers, pessimists, bores, the damaged, products of bad parents, sociopaths, hysterics, the anxious, and the moody. Great, I thought when I finally reached the end of the section on who not to love; now that you’ve wiped out my entire social circle, who’s left? The steady gentlemen who have good jobs and are not afraid of commitment, apparently. Too bad I qualified for so many of the types not worthy of love myself.
And what exactly do you get if you manage to find someone on the planet who is not on this list and he falls wildly in love with you (as wildly as the emotionally stable can, I guess)? Livingston writes:
Then, over time, we become bored if we’re lucky, antagonistic if we’re not. The love of our youth becomes the bane of our middle age. If you think this formulation is overly cynical, look around you. How many of the established marriages with which you are familiar would you describe as fulfilling?
Oh, sign me up, baby. It’s such a common viewpoint — that marriage is nice but boring, that a year after the wedding you live a life of celibacy and suburban mediocrity, that it can lead sensible people to think that’s the only definition of love available.
Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, believes that this is not a great time to have a passionate nature. Nehring finds modern-day love — or its depiction in our culture — disappointing. She is an excellent writer to tackle this subject. I first started paying attention to her after reading her 2007 work of criticism, “What’s Wrong with the American Essay?”, wherein she spanked contemporary essayists for shying away from large subjects and focusing on tiny fragments of their own lives. She wrote, “Given the choice to publish a provocative polemic or a navel-examining indulgence of private nostalgia, a haymaker from a literary heavyweight or an unbearably light appreciation of the author’s slippers, editors today will invariably choose the latter.” Nehring herself embraced the chance to write a “provocative polemic,” and the result is a wild appreciation of men and women who fling themselves across continents and off bridges in the name of love, who passionately and fearlessly and recklessly redefine romance.
How did love become so tame? Nehring in part blames feminism. The idea that an intelligent woman could also be consumed with love seemed a contradiction to many of the second-wave feminists who downplayed the contributions of women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir because their love-life antics were embarrassing. It was as if love for a man — irrational, dramatic, sometimes painful love — were the same as love for the patriarchy. While Nehring downplays the importance of Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and others in redefining heterosexual partnership, she’s right that they did go too far. It became — and in some feminist circles still is — shameful to love too greatly.
Nehring uses models such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo, and Margaret Fuller to illustrate how women can be consumed with love and still be creative, intelligent, and productive. In fact, for many of the women profiled in the book, love actually fueled their creativity. Wollstonecraft, who had already tried to kill herself over spurned love, wrote her great Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark for a man. It was her love for him that made her strap her baby to her back and take off on a dangerous adventure. When she returned, after being rejected by the same man, she again fell into despair and threw herself into the Thames (she was rescued by a passerby). This should not diminish the importance of her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, an argument some feminists have made. Nehring instead believes that Wollstonecraft and the other women in her book should be applauded for living with such courage.
A Vindication of Love is not a perfect book. It could be heavier on the social criticism, on the pressure to be above all else sensible in your love life, but it does a pretty good job making an insensible love life attractive. Her odes to long distance relationships, open relationships, love triangles, and unrequited passions make them strangely appealing. The sexual and creative energy created by such scenarios could be a little addictive: “At its strongest and wildest and most authentic, love is a demon. It is a religion, a high-risk adventure, an act of heroism. Love is ecstasy and injury, transcendence and danger, altruism and excess.” That’s half the world away from trying to placate your husband’s libido with some new furnishings.
Nehring writes, “For women authors in general, love — whether it be reciprocal or spurned, happy or sad, chaste or promiscuous — seems to be a public relations gaffe, a death blow to one’s credibility as a thinker.” Perhaps that is because the most prominent female writers on love and marriage are authors like Ayelet Waldman, who like a demented talking doll can’t stop revealing details of her sex life with her husband and revealing in the New York Times her sex-toy shopping habits. That’s not passion as transgression or creative fuel. It’s exhibitionism disguised as a relationship, an end in and of itself.
Nehring has bravely stepped up to rescue love from mommy blogs and overly confessional memoirists and tabloid fodder. The passionate creatures who refuse to play it safe and settle down now have an intelligent, like-minded advocate. • 24 June 2009