A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring

A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring

If love has been exhausted as a literary theme, has it vanished from our experience of life as well?


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commenced with Adam and Eve soon after the dawn of the world, then the textual traces of their union were many years out of date by the time the Book of Genesis arrived a few centuries before the common era.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?

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.

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."

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.

The End of the Novel of Love is a collection of loosely related essays on the development of literary love since the late days of the nineteenth century, when George Meredith published Diana of the Crossways, one of a number of striking novels of the period in which the heroine, at the exact moment when she "should melt," suddenly hardens her heart against the novel’s hero. In this novel, as in Mrs. Dalloway, Daniel Deronda and The House of Mirth, the moment of reckoning signals a break not only with the hero but with the tradition of the novel of love as articulated by its greatest writers: Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Stendahl; I would add the Brontës and Austen, among others. At this moment, sentimental love "becomes a thing of the past. Which is not to say the marriage will not take place; half the time it will. It is only to say that in these novels this is the point at which the story begins."

Gornick shows how, with each generation of writers, the power of love as the activating force of the novel has waned, and how the metaphor of love has become, for writers such as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Jane Smiley, "an act of nostalgia, not of discovery." The difference between these later books and the old novels of love is not in the numbers of marriages made or happily ever afters accomplished–certainly it did not end well for Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary–but in the power of love to make or break the life of the protagonists, socially, physically and spiritually:

When Emma Bovary was loosening her stays with a man other than her husband, or Anna Karenina running away from hers, or Newland Archer agonizing over whether to leave New York with Ellen Olenska, people were indeed risking all for love. Bourgeois respectability had the power to make of these characters social pariahs. Strength would be needed to sustain exile. Out of such risk taking might come the force of suffering that brings clarity and insight. Today, there are no penalties to pay, no world of respectability to be excommunicated from. Bourgeois society as such is over.

In Gornick’s formulation, the great novels of love were written in an era when marriage, pregnancy and adultery were matters of life and death. The novels hinged on a love that was constrained by society; now that these constraints have been all but eliminated, the great novels of love are no more, and we are increasingly less confident in love’s existence beyond their pages. Many suspect it was a ruse all along, and who can really blame them?

Gornick does not enjoin us to mourn the passing of bourgeois society, and she seems to suggest that love’s exhaustion as a literary theme will find itself replaced, eventually, with something else, just as love had superseded the previous great themes, nature and God: "We are cast adrift, radically ‘alone’ now, in literature as in life, groping in the books we write to find the metaphoric elements that will achieve new power." It is unclear what those elements are, or even that they must exist and will reveal themselves to us in good time. What we do know is that "the very meaning of human risk" is no longer "embedded in the pursuit of love"; as an ingredient in our literary concoctions, love "might dilute the strength of a good novel rather than gather in it." Meanwhile, she who has abandoned love’s refuge finds herself profoundly alone in her "drama of the self," her "astonishing effort to climb up out of original shame–and the awful, implicit knowledge that love, contrary to all sentimental insistence, cannot do the job" for her. "For better and for worse," Gornick explains, "that effort is a solitary one, more akin to the act of making art than of making family."

Gornick, were she asked, might deem Nehring’s desire "to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed" atavistic. It appears to be the last, reactionary gasp of an era that Gornick suggests has passed with our grandmothers, who, had they loosened their stays, had all the world to gain, or lose.

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.

"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.

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