A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring
For Nehring, whose defense of love is at bottom an argument that love is essential to the creative endeavor, the question of the expression and survival of art and literature in the era of non-love is one that should matter. If we have embraced this facsimile of love as our relational model, does it not follow that perhaps we have created a literature of facsimile, a nonliterature, to accompany it?
Her chapter headings suggested to me that this would be, in the end, the underlying nature of her inquiry--she proceeds from "Love as Wisdom" and "Love as Inequality" on through to the seventh and final chapter, "Love as Art." The premise of this chapter--that love itself, independent of substantive creative output, can be a form of art as exquisite as any concerto or oil painting--is one for which Nehring believes she has laid the foundations in her preceding chapters, which tell of the many women whose greatest achievements were dependent upon their preternatural ability to love.
The apotheosis of this is Margaret Fuller, the feminist, transcendentalist and editor of The Dial, who was too much woman even for the greatest man of her time. "You appeal to sympathies I have not," Ralph Waldo Emerson told Fuller; "All natures seem poor beside one so rich," he confided to his journal. Nehring describes her as "always queenly" and "a lover par excellence," warning us that "a little of Fuller's energy always pleased her interlocutors; the whole of it put them into flight." If Nehring fails to substantiate her claims that "never did Fuller act as boldly, write as gorgeously, or argue as acutely as when she loved" and that "her public treatises often pale next to her letters," her basic insight into Fuller's life, and that of these other warrior princesses, is one supported by no less than Emerson himself: "Nature does rarely say her best words to us out of serene and splendid weather."
So when Nehring wonders whether it was Fuller's problem or the world's that those she encountered were "not strong enough to inhale Fuller's undistilled emotion," she clearly believes no one could doubt that it was the world's. And it was, but not because polite society could not tolerate so slight a threat as Fuller, whose drowning with her illegitimate baby and his father, a disreputable Italian count, as she returned home from Europe was apparently a great relief to her scandalized Massachusetts circle. It is a problem that was and remains relevant because if there is a real connection between great love and great deeds or great art, a world in which love has been so eroded may imperil the fates of these others. This seems to me to be the most important repercussion of Nehring's thesis, and one that, oddly, she entirely ignores. We love so much less, she tells us, and our greatness, in art and otherwise, depends upon our ability to love. What, then, given the state of our love, can we expect of our art and philosophy, literature and music?
Nehring quotes Ortega y Gasset on the curiosity that "both Stendahl and Chateaubriand took their love affairs much more seriously than their work." It is peculiar, the Spanish philosopher considers, "that only those incapable of producing great work believe that the contrary is the proper conduct: to take science, art, or politics seriously and disdain love affairs as mere frivolities." In this light, it seems possible that Fuller's letters were the most original of her writings; that Frida Kahlo "used her painting to feed the artwork that was her love life"; that the structural core of Hannah Arendt's monumental thinking was welded in a lifelong conversation with her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, that was itself a magnum opus.
Arendt's relationship with Blücher, as her biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has demonstrated, was the most important of her life. Her infamous affair with Martin Heidegger was significant but ultimately secondary to the intellectual partnership she formed with Blücher, an autodidact who published almost nothing but was a much beloved lecturer at Bard College, where he taught for many years while Arendt wrote her books. This is just one of the many key details that Nehring gets right. Correct, also, is her characterization of Emily Dickinson, redeemed from her long scholarly captivity as the lady in white, a hermetic poetic priestess of a sensibility so squeamish she could hardly bear to pass her parlor door. As Brenda Wineapple recently documented in her excellent biography White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the frisson of Dickinson's poetry derived from what Nehring describes floridly as a "carnivorous want" that came from holding the world, and sexual intimacy, at bay. But it seems bizarre that if all these women were great lovers of one sort or another--and I believe that they were--and if love was the precondition for their accomplishments, that what Nehring would learn from our culture's degradation of love, our certainty that its frivolity cannot compare with such serious matters as politics, science and literature, is not that our art is in trouble but, rather, that our lives can be our art.
"When I was in high school," Nehring explains, "my English teacher told our class that the most important thing about life was to live it as if it were a good novel--as if, she said, it were a good film script. 'Would audiences walk out during the movie of your life?'" The teacher was censured by school authorities, but Nehring took this lesson to heart, and it is the lesson she hopes we will glean from her book: that the life of anyone who lives "deliberately, gracefully, inventively, and fearlessly--can be a piece of art."
Nehring has little to say about our contemporary arts and letters, and makes no predictions as to their future in her hopeful "new era"; these extraordinary fruits of love, which have thus far been held up as its absolution, are not, apparently, what's truly at stake. I wonder if this silence is the consequence of confusion. Perhaps Nehring ignores the role of the thing itself--the art, the achievements--because her vocabulary is muddled. Despite the subtitle to her epilogue, "Waging Love: Toward a New Definition of Eros," Nehring never attempts to define the "love" vindicated in her book's title against the "romance" that modifies it after the colon. Throughout the book, "love," "romance," "erotic culture," "amorous passion" and various other terms are used carelessly, without regard for each one's distinct, individual meaning.