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A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring | The Nation

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A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring

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Nehring's glancing jabs at Lewis--which, though they aren't gross mischaracterizations of his argument, are so brief and reductive that one may hardly comprehend what it is she is arguing against--obscure the real threat that his thesis of fundamental change poses to her assumption of basic continuity. Nehring fails to seriously assess the keystone of his argument, which is that specific historical conditions made a new conception of love possible and that "our only difficulty is to imagine in all its bareness the mental world that existed before its coming."

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Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation.

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Lewis argued that love did not evolve into chivalry, the "romantic species of passion" some still cherish today, until it arrived in singular circumstances: medieval Provence, where many landless knights would serve a single lord, whose lady and her small coterie of attendants were the only suitable objects of romantic desire, and for whom the knights would perform heroic deeds to prove their love; where the relationship between lord and vassal, "in all its intensity and warmth, already existed" and was a "mould into which romantic passion would almost certainly be poured"; and where the Christian tradition of religious piety might be easily mapped onto another form of deference and devotion, equally pure, for all that the object was mortal. Thus, Lewis argues, courtly love, which revolved around the tenets of humility, courtesy and adultery, became "an extension of religion, an escape from religion, a rival religion."

Through first the lyrics of the Provençal troubadours and then the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes and the Breton lais of Marie de France, this religion gradually infected the literature of Europe. Over the years, scholars have challenged various aspects of the theory of "courtly love" (the term is thought to have been coined by the medievalist Gaston Paris in the 1880s) on the basis that what occurred in the literature had little correspondence to actual social life--that the position of women, even among the aristocracy, in feudal France was no more exalted than in its neighbors to the north. Especially controversial are the notorious "courts of love," in which noble ladies, beginning with Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Champagne, were supposed to have arbitrated cases according to the laws of love. There is evidence of these courts in chivalric literature, just as there is evidence of dragons and fairies. Whether all these existed as such in the world remains dubious.

But the question of the reality of these courts is, in some sense, immaterial. In the realm of chivalric romance, the ladies ruled, and the men, obligingly, obeyed them, and since the Middle Ages, chivalry has become the template for romance in the Western world, if not for marriage. (Courtly love, as the French would have it, by definition excluded amour between spouses.) That love existed and was recorded in world literature before such a time seems obviously true; that its form might be fundamentally different from the romantic tradition we have inherited from European literature does not. And if this latter case is undecided, then the question of the exhaustion of that tradition, in art and in life, remains open as well. "Real changes in human sentiment are very rare--there are perhaps three or four on record--but I believe that they occur, and that this is one of them," Lewis ventures. Earlier he reminds us that "it seems to us natural that love should be the commonest theme of serious imaginative literature: but a glance at classical antiquity or at the Dark Ages at once shows us that what we took for 'nature' is really a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end."

Sixty years later, in The End of the Novel of Love (1997), the critic Vivian Gornick argued that what Lewis prophesied had finally come to pass. When Gornick was a girl, she recalls, the whole world believed in love. This was the Bronx, New York City, sometime around World War II. The mothers had various advice for their daughters about the nature of love and its embodiments of greater or lesser disappointment, but whatever their admonishments, "love" itself was the creed, a simple operating principle in an unpredictable world. "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man"; "Don't do like I did. Marry a man you love"; "You're smart, make something of yourself, but always remember, love is the most important thing in a woman's life."

When Gornick was a girl, love wasn't just meaningful--it was the quality that gave life meaning. It put each woman "at the center of [her] own experience." Indeed, only love guaranteed that one would experience "experience." In midcentury America, she explains, the great novels of love were long ago written, but they were still read, and they informed her girlish hopes and dreams and those of her childhood friends. Then, when the girls grew up, everything changed:

We loved once, and we loved badly. We loved again, and again we loved badly. We did it a third time, and we were no longer living in a world free of experience. We saw that love did not make us tender, wise, or compassionate. Under its influence we gave up neither our fears nor our angers. Within ourselves we remained unchanged. The development was an astonishment: not at all what had been expected. The atmosphere became charged with revelation, and it altered us permanently as a culture.

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