Vindication of Love redux

If you’ve been interested in Cristina Nehring’s new book, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, you might enjoy Slate Magazine’s recent Audio Book Club discussion from August 20, 2009. (See my entry from August 9 for my thoughts.)

Katie Roiphe, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, Meghan O'Rourke, who reviewed it for Slate, and Laura Kipnis, author of the iconoclastic 2003 polemic Against Love, have a lively and intelligent discussion. While conceding that the book is provocative and highly original, they do have some reservations. Perhaps I’m alone in my unqualified enthusiasm for it.

Two Minds

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in his Pensées presents us with what he calls l'espirit geometrique and l'espirit de finesse. Simply put, the former is a way of thinking that deals with exact definitions and mathematical and scientific abstractions; the latter deals with intuition and ideas and perceptions that cannot be subject to exact measurement. Truths of different natures are to be found by each.

The illegitimate heir and pretender to Pascal's ideas is the right brain/left brain dichotomy, which is often presented as an either/or proposition. But Pascal suggests that there are not two species of individuals: there are two directions that one human mind can take. As Jacques Barzun writes in From Dawn to Decadence, and as any functioning Gemini knows (Pascal was one), it is possible for a well-trained mind to “think like Euclid and like Walt Whitman.”

The suggestion that one could contain both l'espirit geometrique and l'espirit de finesse within one mind is made clear by Pascal’s statements, “All mathematicians would then be intuitive if…” and “intuitive minds would be mathematical if….” But what if one contains neither? Pascal calls these minds dull.

Read for yourself what Pascal writes about the difference between l'espirit geometrique and l'espirit de finesse, translated in this 1958 edition (with an introduction by T. S. Eliot) of his Pensées as the mathematical and the intuitive mind:

“In the one the principles are palpable, but removed from ordinary use; so that for want of habit it is difficult to turn one's mind in that direction: but if one turns it thither ever so little, one sees the principles fully, and one must have a quite inaccurate mind who reasons wrongly from principles so plain that it is almost impossible they should escape notice.

“But in the intuitive mind the principles are found in common use, and are before the eyes of everybody. One has only to look, and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight, but it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and so numerous, that it is almost impossible but that some escape notice. Now the omission of one principle leads to error; thus one must have very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the next place an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from known principles.

“All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.

“The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselves perceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it. We must see the matter at once, at one glance, and not by a process of reasoning, at least to a certain degree. And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind does not do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technical rules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a few can feel it.

“Intuitive minds, on the contrary, being thus accustomed to judge at a single glance, are so astonished when they are presented with propositions of which they understand nothing, and the way to which is through definitions and axioms so sterile, and which they are not accustomed to see thus in detail, that they are repelled and disheartened.

“But dull minds are never either intuitive or mathematical.

“Mathematicians who are only mathematicians have exact minds, provided all things are explained to them by means of definitions and axioms; otherwise they are inaccurate and insufferable, for they are only right when the principles are quite clear.

“And men of intuition who are only intuitive cannot have the patience to reach to first principles of things speculative and conceptual, which they have never seen in the world, and which are altogether out of the common.”

A Vindication of Love

What if the model of today’s happy couple is a kitschy trope marketed to us through self-help books, therapy, movies, and advertisements, just like fast food, designer jeans, and bucolic-sounding subdivisions named after the very thing destroyed by their construction? (Does Babbling Brook Estates really have a brook? Probably not.)

This is difficult for us to see but represents the invisible domestication of our unruly and creative consciousness by the marketplace. After all, if you could ask a fish what the most salient feature of its environment was, the chances are it wouldn't notice that it was water.

This past June, Cristina Nehring published her manifesto A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century (Harper/Harper Collins) in which she explores the murky waters of love and relationships in which we swim, although it may more often feel like treading water. Her title pays homage to Mary Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from 1792, which in turn was influenced by Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).

Ms. Nehring’s book argues ardently against the “pragmatic and pedestrian” and celebrates lovers who refused to be domesticated by their cultural norms and who had the creative passion to express their love through more than just the physical. That they suffered only serves to remind us that an archaic meaning of the word “passion” was to suffer as a martyr.

Abelard and Heloise, Frido Kahlo, Margaret Fuller, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Goethe’s Werther had no interest in our obsession with balanced relationships (and who is to say what balance is?), shared bank accounts, equally divided chores, or the need to “work on the relationship.”

Imagine a creature that could only live on the surface tension of the water of a lake and could move only in the two dimensions of the surface. This creature would be incapable of imagining depth. What if love exists in a world containing dimensions beyond the imagination of most, just as depth is unimaginable to our surface-dwelling creature? What if love has its own equivalents of length, width, height and time — the four dimensions we need to locate an object in space and time.

If love has its own dimensions, dimensions we need to be able to experience in order to locate all of love, then maybe we can imagine those who can only love in one or two dimensions. Perhaps they're convinced they are loving fully: It's all they know, yet we know it would feel incomplete.

And then also, can we perhaps imagine those capable of loving in some hidden dimensions, dimensions that are not observable and are experienced by only a few? This love may be inscrutable, but may end up being more real. This is the love that Ms. Nehring wishes to vindicate.

Katie Roiphe wrote of A Vindication of Love in The New York Times, “Nehring sees in the grandeur of feeling a kind of heroism, even if the relationship doesn’t take conventional form or endure in the conventional way. For Nehring, one senses, true failure is to drift comfortably along in a dull relationship, to spend precious years of life in a marriage that is not exciting or satisfying, to live cautiously, responsibly. Is the strength of feeling redeemed in the blaze of passion even if it does not end happily? she asks. Is contentment too soft and modest a goal?” Ms. Roiphe later refers to Ms. Nehring’s “outlandish romantic arguments” but concedes that the book may cause people to re-examine their intimate lives.

Most of the crew (Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner) at Slate Magazine’s Culture Gabfest found it “irritating,” “softheaded,” “the worst-possible argument,” and “a screaming totem of hypocrisy.” (Go to the 28 minute mark where they start discussing the book.) Did they miss the point? Are the thirty-somethings of today irrevocably anti-romantic? Are they embarrassed by the no-holds-barred expression of feeling that Ms. Nehring draws upon? Are they so immersed in the water of today’s culture that they cannot see that within which they are swimming? (Meghan O'Rourke comes closer to the essence of the book in her review for Slate.)

Perhaps what they’re really missing is the essence of the Romanticism. At its truest, Romanticism validates passion, risk, and imagination, and are not these the qualities Ms. Nehring seeks to vindicate? I thought the book was brilliant. Brava, Cristina Nehring!