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.

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!