A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring
What we know about love in the times that preceded ours we have learned from proverb, myth and literature, and that knowledge remains, to this day, somewhat spotty. Love may be blind, a baptism and many splendored. A red, red rose or a wild plant born of a wet night; unlucky at cards; the course that never did run smooth; done with the compass, done with the chart! A labor we lose. The lineage of love is provisional and perhaps discontinuous: if the reign of love commenced with Adam and Eve soon after the dawn of the world, then the textual traces of their union were many years out of date by the time the Book of Genesis arrived a few centuries before the common era. Did Adam profess undying love to Eve before the serpent stole her heart? Perhaps not, but how are we to know?
It seems there are two possible ways love has developed from the beginning of time until now: either it is a universal passed down to us from the first generations--the passion of Adam for Eve--or it is a cultural manifestation of lust, a kind of expressive outpouring that, if it roils the soul, does so only in the ways that our hearts have lately been conditioned. The question of love's universality is not only unanswerable but untranslatable, lost in the slippage between our understanding of the English word "love" and the meanings of the Greeks' eros, agape, philia and storge, the various Latinate iterations of amor, Hebrew's ahava and other near cognates of diverse languages and epochs.
That said, literature remains our best, most comprehensive archive of human love. All that we expect of love, our notions of how it will lift us, reward us, transform us, comes from a long line of books, poems and songs that have detailed what we may hope for from love and what price it will exact in exchange for its pleasures. Yet as Cristina Nehring argues in her recent treatise, A Vindication of Love, given that love has long been an animating force in literature it is surprising that it is so out of favor among novelists, poets and their ilk today. "Where once upon a time love poetry was the most abundant poetry written, it is now among the rarest--particularly in high-brow publications. Adolescents are still allowed to write love poems. Famous poets are not--or only if they demonstrate Latin American provenance or prodigious restraint."
Nehring's book is an elaborate defense of ferocious, passionate love, a love that "at its strongest and wildest and most authentic...is a demon," a religious faith and a "divine madness." In Nehring's view, this love is endangered after an embattled twentieth century that brought us Freud, feminism, pheromones and friends with benefits. Love in the twenty-first century has never been freer or easier, she writes, and yet, paradoxically, it has been "defused and discredited.... Streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence." Not just love itself but its many attendant rites and rituals: courtship, mating, marriage--all these have been attenuated, coupled "with AA batteries and [sold] over the counter." Romance in our time, Nehring asserts, has gone flaccid, and it is the task of writers and other lovers of high feeling and good prose style to arouse it, not just in their art but in their lives--their love lives, to be exact. Balzac wrote that "grand passions are as rare as masterpieces." Nehring's revision: "Not only are grand passions as rare as masterpieces; they are masterpieces."
Nehring's examples traverse centuries and vocations, but in recounting the stories of nearly all of her heroines (and the heroines of this book far outpace the heroes, both in love and in art), Nehring finds that the quality of their creative output is correlated with their capacity to love. Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, was a "warrior princess" and "lover-revolutionary" whose terrific power for love fueled two suicide attempts as well as the writing of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the treatise by which Nehring's own was clearly inspired. "We reason deeply," said Wollstonecraft, "when we forcibly feel."
Nehring posits an intermingling of life, art and imagination that assumes love, while on the run, still exists as a constant, a universal experience that is in a period of retrenchment but has not, in any fundamental way, disappeared. In the final pages of her book, she describes the yearning of men and women for a "new era," one "of revived romantic hope, of greater trust between genders and fresh daring among lovers," and she is confident that the paragons she has described in the preceding pages--among them the ability of Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller to love ardently and unrequitedly, the breathless physical and intellectual infatuation of Abelard and Heloise, and the long marriage of the minds of Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher--will provide a blueprint for a new model, one that will include but transcend the loves of our predecessors without betraying their spirit.
A noble sentiment, and one that I share. I know many women, and even a number of men, who believe that something is missing from their experience of love. It is easy to dismiss their sense of loss as a manufactured fantasy or nostalgia for a golden age that never existed; this reasoning takes as its starting point stasis, assuming perpetual continuity instead of investigating the possibility of real rupture. Nehring, too, ignores the possibility of rupture, which allows her to address many important questions about the state of love in our time--why we still stigmatize women who choose romantic exhilaration over conjugal security; why love's long and spectacular association with the heroic seems to have disintegrated--without ever asking those most crucial to her investigation. If love and art are so intimately linked--if love begets art and art documents love--who is to say that one can survive without the other? And if, then, love has disappeared, how can we be sure it is ever coming back?