A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring
"Love" and "romance" are hardly synonymous, yet in Nehring's telling, the most tempestuous incarnations of the latter seem to define the former almost in its entirety. Love's other crucial aspects--care and responsibility, empathy and commitment--are bit players in her narrative. But concurrently with passion, it is these elements of love that make the art and achievements she idealizes possible. The practice of art resembles childbirth and rearing far more than lovemaking or even falling in love, and it is this encompassing love, rather than mere romance, that one must harness in order to produce art; this great love is what makes the birthing of art and then its passage into the wider world, where so often the maker finds that love gone unrequited, bearable.
There is an alternative explanation for Nehring's silence, which is that her book, for all that it glorifies their authors, cares little about the masterworks: the tracts, novels, poems and paintings. It is, rather, a book that takes these justifying principles as the building blocks for a theory of life that gleans what it can from art and has no intention of giving art back its due. Such a work is not a vindication of love through the evidence of love's necessity to art; it is a book that vindicates lifestyle through its relation to an ineffable artiness.
If that is the case, then it makes sense that Nehring wouldn't entertain the possibility that our relationship to romantic love has and may still change in ways that are elemental, that this change is one visible in our altered literary landscape and that, in a thousand years, the Western love tradition might be unrecognizable or a quaint historical artifact to our descendants. "It is a peculiar form of cultural narcissism to imagine that only we, in the modern day, are capable of such refined and transformative emotions," Nehring chides us. Perhaps, but it may also be a form of narcissism to imagine that those who preceded and will succeed us must think, feel and love as we do.
The points Nehring does make, quite plainly, constitute a charter for her nascent republic of love. We should embrace love, she tells us, as ecstatic, risky, transgressive, unequal and perhaps violent. It is, she has said, a faith, a demon and a divine madness, but the suffering it induces may be the crucible in which we refine our souls. Individually any one of these recommendations should come with a caveat, and to her credit, most of them do; in sum, they begin to sound Dionysian--a bit like the tragic, mad love of antiquity that, as Lewis describes, "plunges otherwise sane people (usually women) into crime and disgrace. Such is the love of Medea, of Phaedra, of Dido; and such the love from which maidens pray that the gods may protect them." These are all the vital elements of a love cult, and Nehring herself--who tells us that as she writes these words, "I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled by love"--seems a fitting high priestess; she has already been marked in the initiation rites.
I don't fault her for the sentiment behind this vision. If in our world of serial marriages and friendly divorces, when our freedom is so great and what we do with it so little, the only alternative to the prepackaged non-love Nehring describes is a love cult, then sign me up; I, too, have felt this yearning, and could use a little ecstasy now and again. I pray the gods will protect me from plunging into crime and disgrace, but I also hope that, when all these brave new lovers stop to catch their breath, they will write a poem or novel, or two, for posterity.