A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring
In A Vindication of Love, any number of topics nettle Nehring--Internet dating, vibrators, the cult of safe sex--but none so much as the "antiromantic bias" of conventional feminism, which she details at length.
"In fact, love can be a form of feminism," Nehring says, and her numerous examples of passionate and impassioned feminists prove her point. Despite digs at Andrea Dworkin and "the man-hating clichés of old-style feminism," Nehring is not against feminism so much as critical of the way feminism has been a party to the diminishment of love. But feminism (and only the mainstream of it, though Nehring never tells us which of its apostate strains she can support) is merely one of a bevy of co-conspirators: "Undermined over the centuries and decades by feminism, materialism, pragmatism, and cynicism, [love] has been eclipsed, in our own day, by an assembly of inferior idols. Stripped of its lyrical charge, it has become as convenient and tasteless as fast food. It has become fast love. Or rather, it has become non-love."
It is no accident that "fast food" appears here as the analogue to "fast" or "non" love. Nehring's critique of feminism is in essence a critique of its unholy alliance with consumer culture, which has reduced love not only to a commodity but a rather tatty one at that. Nehring never makes this argument explicitly, but in using the language of consumerism to describe what feminism hath wrought (she rails against "the Hallmark universe of romantic sentiments" and the maligning of any prospective mate who "lacks a perfect plastic Fisher-Price shell"), she makes it clear that sins of each are inextricable. But to focus on Nehring's demonization of certain strains of feminism is to lose sight of her true adversary, one that she describes only briefly and yet serves as the primary foil to her thesis: the theory of the invention of courtly love, as popularized by C.S. Lewis in his 1936 monograph The Allegory of Love.
Lewis believed that love as we understand it was born at a precise moment in time. "Every one has heard of courtly love, and every one knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc," writes Nehring, quoting Lewis. "Before the eleventh century, according to this view," she tells us, "romance, such as we know it today, did not exist. There may have been animal lust, there may have been amiable companionship, there may have been boisterous sex play, but there was not that spiritualized sort of euphoria, that combination of sexual and metaphysical transport that we, in our day, associate with romantic love." Nehring then explains that this thesis has since become the consensus of modern scholars, and counters with a number of examples that prove, in her mind, that romantic love as we know it must have preceded medieval French poetry and that Lewis was mistaken.
For example, Lewis argued that Renaissance readers of the Symposium misunderstood Plato when they imagined that the "ladder of love" did not require the abandonment of individual, mortal love in the ascent toward the absolute beauty of the divine. According to Nehring, this is "pedantic" if not "willfully blind"; for her, the revolutionary perspective on love inaugurated by the Symposium emphasized "not the abandonment of the beloved but his eye-opening and elevating effect on the lover." Later she derides scholars for ignoring the Ars Amatoria, Ovid's bawdy, seductional instructional manual, as a likely origin of the "rule-breaking fervor of Western love literature" and for favoring, instead, the theory that it was "a group of far graver young men who lived 1000-plus years after him," the troubadours, who popularized the adoration of other men's wives.
Despite her clear implication of Lewis among those errant "modern scholars" who hold the troubadours, rather than Ovid, responsible for our culture's longstanding fascination with adultery and transgression, Nehring never directly addresses Lewis's discussion of Ovid in The Allegory of Love. A reader wouldn't know that Lewis considered Ovid to have written the Ars Amatoria as an "amusement," an "ironically didactic" poem that "presupposes an audience to whom love is one of the minor peccadilloes of life, and the joke consists in treating it seriously." Nehring describes Ovid's work as a "first-century self-help book" as well as "the first dating book ever written," though she recognizes that the "rambunctious" Ovid was "forever making fun." She points not to Lewis but unnamed "modern-day editors" who consider the work a "'tongue-in-cheek' parody." She asserts that "Ovid takes his subject seriously," and whether or not he did, it seems worth noting what Lewis sees as the distinction between Ovid's perspective and the troubadours'. According to Lewis, the "conduct which Ovid recommends is felt to be shameful and absurd," but
the very same conduct which Ovid ironically recommended could be recommended seriously by the courtly tradition. To leap up on errands, to go through heat or cold, at the bidding of one's lady, or even of any lady, would seem but honourable and natural to a gentleman of the thirteenth century or even of the seventeenth century; and most of us have gone shopping in the twentieth with ladies who showed no sign of regarding the tradition as a dead letter.