The typical dating-and-mating trajectory of the modern woman consists of some combination of casual hookups, awkward first dates, and serious monogamous relationships, punctuated by periods of loneliness and culminating in cohabitation and/or marriage. To Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, this is a vision of hell on earth — or at least of something like Dante’s Vestibule to Hell, the abode of “the Futile,” those cautious and indecisive souls who couldn’t even make up their minds to sin in earnest.
Nehring would no doubt think it better to end up in the inner circles, with the Lustful, the Wrathful, and the Suicides, than with these poor cowards. It is the risk-averse, bland, and circumscribed nature of our current “erotic culture” that she finds unendurable. “Romance in our day,” she intones at the beginning of her polemic, “is a poor and shrunken thing.” What was once a transcendent experience with metaphysical implications has become “a recreational sport,” a “lifestyle choice,” and a “good-natured grasping for physical pleasure.” Safe sex is a bore, promiscuity is dull, and marriages are made for pragmatic purposes like stability and child-rearing.
It’s not a comparison she’s likely to find flattering, but Nehring’s diagnosis of post-sexual-revolution romance echoes Allan Bloom’s pronouncement that “the lion roaring behind the door of the closet turned out, when the door was opened, to be a little, domesticated cat.” Nehring believes that this supine feline can become a majestic beast once more; that, as her subtitle indicates, romantic love can be “reclaimed” for our age. She aims to show the way forward by drawing on the history of love in literature, myth, and the lives of famous lovers ranging from Tristan and Isolde to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
The problem is that Nehring’s vision of love is neither very appealing, nor very practicable. In fact, it’s exhausting. It requires courage, daring, “emotional entrepreneurship” (whatever that may mean), boldness, abandon, brilliance, self-dramatization, heroism, and conquest. She celebrates these qualities instead of say, patience and kindness, in part to show that “love can be a form of feminism” — an argument that seems to be both an attack on old-school feminism’s man-hating attitude and a pre-emptive response to critics who might otherwise see her critique of the current culture as alarmingly retrograde. She does, after all, deplore the widespread use of vibrators, argue for inequality in romantic relationships, admit that in our day “the single genuinely transgressive behavior might well be no sexual behavior,” and observe that “sex-on-tap attenuates rather than inflames passion.”
Notwithstanding the author’s dissatisfaction with what the sexual revolution has wrought, the book is hardly a call to man the social-conservative barricades of the culture wars. Nehring wants the “aphrodisiac effects” of transgression, inequality, and deferred desire without the traditional mores, class barriers, and courting rituals that made these things potent. Her attempts to apply the lessons of lovers past to our day often yield less-than-edifying results. For example, Nehring recommends that in the absence of the kind of passion-inducing obstacles facing Romeo and Juliet, we might emulate Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s “transgressive sharing.” Never mind that this exploitative and squalid relationship consisted of their sleeping with — and betraying — other people and then sharing the sordid details of their affairs with each other; Nehring can’t contain her effusions over their “unconventional honesty” and “the forbidden fruit that was their love.” In order to be titillated by the erotic effects of “power differentials” — think Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester — Nehring suggests an affair with a professor (if you are a student), or the pursuit of a challenging man, that is, a “bad boy” who in all likelihood will be utterly wrong for you — but that is the point: Things like compatibility and shared interests don’t make the sparks fly. If you’re so unfortunate as to be married — quotidian contact tends to put a damper on the libido — you might keep the flame alive by establishing separate living quarters from your husband, all the better to pass notes and arrange “amorous trysts” in imitation of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.
Nehring’s love-as-feminism thesis also leads her to overstate the continuum she sees between a “strong mind” and a “strong heart.” Thus she construes Wollstonecraft’s heartbroken suicide attempts as a logical extension of her passion for social change — both are apparently evidence of the same “vehement and noble heart” — and she tortuously reconstructs Emily Dickinson’s self-abasing letters to an anonymous “Master” as epistles of strength and superiority. A more convincing explanation of the seemingly incongruous realities is that women — and men — can be brilliant in one area of their lives and vulnerable or misguided in others. It’s not a question of feminine failings, but of human weakness.
One thing most of the lovers Nehring chronicles have in common is that their love doesn’t last. Their tumultuous affairs end in violent death, castration, or suicide; are interrupted by infidelity, separation, and divorce; or are simply superseded by new infatuations. This, paradoxically, is what happens when we make an idol out of love, as Nehring urges. An exalted Eros that scorns the humbler aids of affection, duty, and the bonds of mutual obligation cannot maintain itself in any form. It also tends to take itself too seriously. As C. S. Lewis said, “We are under no obligation at all to sing all our love-duets in the throbbing, world-without-end, heart-breaking manner of Tristan and Isolde.” Thank heaven for that.
– Katherine Connell is assistant to the editor of National Review.