After the free-love ardor of the 1960s sexual revolution cooled down, a brave new vision of marriage emerged from its ashes. This has come to be known as “companionate marriage.” In such a partnership, spouses have a mutual interest in career and home, and share in raising children. They talk over dinner, take turns doing dishes, fret together over the children’s schooling, and arrange the occasional date night. To many Americans, the Obamas’ recent studiously scheduled outing together would represent the apogee of a successful equitable marriage. To Cristina Nehring, author of the ambitious polemic A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, one suspects, it would represent all that is wrong with marriage today.
Nehring yearns for a revival of a messier ardor. In her view, we have domesticated love past all recognition, turning what is rightly leonine, destructive, and majestic into a yawning, chubby house cat. Hers is no modest project. She wants nothing less than to radicalize our framework for love, mainly by restoring its chaotic potential: “Romance in our day is a poor and shrunken thing,” she writes. “Among the many rights we must reclaim in love is the right to fail.” A Vindication of Love is not a book that will persuade every reader to jump off the couch and into the arms of a dark, smoky-eyed stranger, but it will rearrange your tidily laid out mental furniture while you’re not looking. For at its core is a well-taken point: With its emphasis on equitable marriage, “choice feminism” has endorsed a tyrannical habit of trying to subordinate passion to reason. And along the way it has demonized obsession. What, Nehring asks, is so wrong with being crazy in love?
At the core of this polemic lurks the age-old dilemma of how we resolve our desire for security with our need for passion. Nehring’s answer is simply: Let go of security and embrace the radical alertness that comes with the fullness of feeling. In a fresh reading of literary and historical figures from the Wife of Bath to Emily Dickinson, Nehring sets out to show us the many benefits of throwing ourselves headlong into love—not least, she reveals, deeper powers of insight. Charting the love lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Margaret Fuller, she argues that these women’s capacity for heedless love is directly tied to their intellectual penetration. “We reason deeply when we forcibly feel,”as Mary Wollstonecraft put it. And she should know, as Nehring explains. After falling for a series of brilliant, difficult men, Wollstonecraft had a child with one who married her only for political security. Her subsequent attempted suicide has long been seen by left-leaning thinkers as a blot on her feminist C.V., but Nehring persuasively claims that Wollstonecraft’s erotic passions are bound up with the ferocious sense of justice that made her a great political thinker.
Impatient with the bromides of our therapeutic age, Nehring is trying to make a case for love as a source of suffering. For her, love is a heroic act because it involves suffering: “At its strongest and wildest and most authentic, love is a demon. It is a religion, a high-risk adventure, an act of heroism.” Her zeal can seem adolescent. But her view usefully jolts our goal-oriented view of marriage and restores a vision of love as itself the quest that rewards brave vulnerability—an oxymoron not to be underrated. As the marriage-averse Heloise put it to Abelard, “I never sought anything in you but yourself.” Nehring is exhilarated by the theatrical vulnerability in Emily Dickinson’s letters to her “Master.” Referring to herself in as “Daisy,” Dickinson asks, playfully, “Would Daisy disappoint you?” and then answers, “no—she wouldn’t sir—it were comfort forever—just to look in your face, while you looked in mine.” Even committing suicide after a failed marriage, as Sylvia Plath did, is not a failure of feminist courage, but a sign of it.“[L]ove can be a form of feminism,” Nehring declares, usefully inspiring a double-take: When did we decide otherwise? Somewhere along the way, romantic vulnerability came to seem irreconcilable with achieving equality; Nehring flips the terms of the debate, noting that “the most ardent agents of women’s advancement have often been the most ardent entrepreneurs of love.”
But her book is not just a defense of vulnerability. It is a critique of domesticity. After all, distance is a form of eros. In our embrace of the companionate marriage and our fear of anything that smacks of a power difference, Nehring argues, we dismiss the erotic, the mysterious, the mythical elements of love as never before. “We must transgress against our own fears,” she urges, “—against the narrowness of our vistas, the modesty of our wishes, the slightness of our altruism.” What looks like inequality is often more complex than we think: A professor may be “older” than a student, but a student has youth and beauty on her side. Emily Dickinson may submit to her Master, but in doing so, she claims all the imaginative power for herself, dictating the terms by which the relationship will be described and, even, experienced.
There are many flaws in Nehring’s argument. For one thing, not everyone wants to lead a “heroic” life. Plenty of people in steadfast marriages may yearn for flashes of passion but prefer, ultimately, the repetitive pleasure of routine and domesticity, or get from their children the passionate expansion of vision Nehring believes romantic love offers us. Security needn’t mean a diminishment in passion; the transience of mortality can lend a long marriage the same sense of being at the brink that Nehring finds in the flamboyant suicidal gamesmanship of Goethe’s Young Werther. Think of the aging husband who cares for his dying wife. At times, too, Nehring seems to willfully ignore the dangerous side of vulnerability. Pursuing a difficult, unreachable guy is a sign of your own self-confidence and strength, she argues in an attack on cautionary self-help manuals like He’s Just Not That Into You. Perhaps. But it can also be a sign of your cluelessness. Finally, the suffering she extols can take too large a toll for some. As Nehring herself (melodramatically) notes, “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, unsettled.”
But Nehring’s paean to unconventional ecstasy is a bracing reminder of how narrow and orthodox our vision of love has become—and how that in turn bequeaths us a vast swathe of “unsuccessful” relationships. Most of us know more single mothers and unmarried partners than ever, yet we still think of relationships as goal-oriented, and that goal is conventional: until death do us part. Since when are longevity and frictionlessness, Nehring prompts us to ask, themselves a sign of “success”? The equitable marriage is a worthy goal, but it is hardly uncomplicated. Just consider the recent AOL Living and Woman’s Day study that showed 72 percent of women have debated leaving their husbands. Only we can judge how a relationship changes us—what new spaces open up inside ourselves, or how a turbulent encounter may enlarge our view of human nature, as it did for Heloise.
Rationalizing desire is a quixotic quest, as everyone knows. But so, too, is trying to protect ourselves from “failure.” Instead, we might do as poet Jack Gilbert urges in these lines from “Failing and Flying”:
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake …
But anything worth doing is worth doing badly. …
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
This article also appears in Double X.