Female desire has been my feminist project for a while. I’m focused on reclaiming it, understanding it, making room for it, staking out a place for it as something worthwhile. Cristina Nehring, I think, is on a similar quest in A Vindication of Love, and I rather love her for it.
Nehring isn’t out to say that feminism has failed us or that it’s made us miserable or that we should just go get married and have babies and then we’ll be satisfied. She’s arguing as much for our right to have our hearts broken as anything else. She points out, though, that in its rush to liberate women from the confines of marriage, children, and male control, feminism has left us very little space to negotiate the very real feelings that women have, often for men. In her view, this erasure of desire, combined with a consumer culture that sends us running to buy any new product that promises us instant gratification and online dating services where you can order up a date like a takeout meal, have caused us to forget love. And, I would add, its revolutionary, liberatory, even empowering potential.
Nehring embraces the fucked-up-ness of love, writes in defense of power imbalances, inequalities, hell, even infidelities. Her defense of failure in love is particularly passionate, an argument for holding your head up high if and when it doesn’t work out, for letting go of the dual guilt that being a “strong single woman” leaves you with: not only that you’re hurt that it ended, but that you should’ve never bothered in the first place. What did you think, that you needed a man!??!
What Nehring calls love is a feeling, a head-over-heels knock-you-sideways feeling that the more practical among us would nicely tell her is infatuation. While bell hooks, in Communion, argues for love as a conscious choice, as something we do, Nehring writes of the feelings that come whether we like them or not, and embraces them. The actions one takes when one is in love, according to her examples, range from running off together immediately, consequences be damned, to a long, tantalizing, never-consummated friendship, to lifelong happy marriage.
She’s been much maligned for her chapter on power imbalances, and certainly many of her examples in the book are NOT what we’d consider healthy. Yet by arguing for them, she gives us back our right to have screwed-up relationships and not feel horrible about ourselves when they end. What she terms “power imbalances” are often more an exploration of the different ways one can have power in a relationship—or how they shift, over and over again. She reads power back into women of history and literature who have had their agency stripped and their victimhood assumed—often by self-proclaimed feminists. (Some of us who do feminism on the Internet can probably relate.)
There’s always been a so-called “radical” feminist streak that calls for separation from men. There’s another vein of thought, far more common, that is perfectly OK with women dating, marrying, and loving men—as long as they are putting “career” before “love” as a life-goal, as long as they understand that they don’t “need” a man and can do just fine without one. Meanwhile, mainstream society still pressures women to get married, and to have children, and tells women that they will be massively unfulfilled without these things. You could argue that her approach is heterocentric, but Nehring is a straight woman, and is working through mostly (but not entirely) heterosexual examples of love because the specific pressures of being a straight woman in not-really-post-feminist times are the pressures that she’s struggled with.
I know, I know, us straight girls have such a rough time of it, whining that feminism fucked up our feelings for men. Except that the world is full of men, and women are their mothers, lovers, and friends and allies. Men as well as women fight for liberation from patriarchal norms that restrict our options, and our humanity. Maybe this project that I’ve set myself of reclaiming desire, even desire for men, won’t end rape or violence or war. But it is one that I think is important, and it’s why I read this book.
Nehring could have called the book “A Vindication of Desire” because often that’s what she’s defending. But she chose the word “love,” and I think her braver for it. After all, desire is too quickly elided into “sex” and sex is everywhere these days, so much so that when a work of fiction like Twilight focuses on the decision NOT to have it the entire pop-culture-consuming world stops and obsesses.
She also could’ve gone on Caitlin Flanagan-like rants about how women belong married, at home, in traditional relationships (with a nanny, getting paid large chunks of change to rant about how women are happier not working) or how the secret lives of girls are somehow different and special and they need to spend their time convincing boys to not want to have sex and to hold their hands. Or something. (Can you tell that I try not to read Flanagan all that much?) Or repeated tired Camille Paglia-isms about men and women needing… oh, goodness, I can’t even figure out what Paglia thinks we need.
Instead, Nehring decides to take famous feminists as her models, and points out how those of us who claim to support women’s right to do what they want with their lives have been guilty of discounting these women’s choices in love. From Cleopatra to Katha Pollitt, Mary Wollstonecraft to Frida Kahlo and Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir, she follows these women through their turbulent romantic lives and notes that far from sweeping those portions of their biographies under the rug and viewing them as the unfeminist price we have to pay for brilliant art and theory, we should embrace them as parts of their lives, evenpossibly feminist choices they made.
“The reputation of a male thinker is either untouched or improved by an erotically charged biography. The reputation of a female thinker is either subtly undermined or squarely destroyed,” she writes.
Her examples? Mary Wollstonecraft wrote one of the first feminist treatises—and attempted suicide for a man. Her memoirs, published by her husband after her death, got her called a whore at the time—and in recent biographies, her “irregularities of conduct” (here Nehring quotes Professor Janet Todd, a biographer) are “found embarrassing rather than enlightening,” though she “never completely abandoned the ideals of The Rights of Women.” Ladies, if the failures in my love life mean that I’ve failed feminism, well, feminism is screwed.
Frida Kahlo forgave and remarried Diego Rivera after he carried on a two-year affair with her sister. Katha Pollitt wrote poetry about getting her heart broken by a man. Emily Dickinson left behind, in addition to brilliant poetry, letters addressed to “Master” that have caused consternation among scholars. And many feminists like to gloss over these parts of their lives or admit that their heroines were “flawed” instead of embracing all the decisions they made in their lives, accepting that love—maybe, yes, of a man who hurt them—was important to them as well. “Perhaps this is what the game of love is finally about: playing injured,” Nehring writes. “Not avoiding injuries, but playing with injuries.”
Maybe this is where we go wrong, feminists who fall in love: We have bought into the idea that being hurt is a weakness. We believe in the (after all, patriarchal) idea that showing emotion is bad because it’s feminine, and that visible emotion is even worse when it’s visible emotion over a man. We forget that the willingness to open up to others is a strength, and that doing so requires even more strength when you’ve already been hurt. It grows progressively harder each time, yet Nehring’s favorite heroines continue to love despite the wounds. Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller opened up time and again to new lovers; Kahlo and Heloise forgave their loves over and over. All of them renegotiated their boundaries, their rules, and their lives for themselves and their lovers. That’s hardly a feminist failure.
The weakest parts of the book, I think, are where literature subs in for real history; where Arthurian legend or Shakespearean drama are held up as a comparable model to the lives of real people. But at the same time, Nehring identifies the threads that run through so much of Western literature—and notes when they changed. She points out—without statistics—that today’s poetry journals are not full of love poems even though most of the greatest poets in our history, from Dante and Shakespeare through Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote love poetry.
We’re not without modern examples, though I’d have liked to see more actual “reimagining” love for today. Nehring doesn’t go there; her most recent story is that of Katha Pollitt being pilloried for writing about her love for a man. She doesn’t tell us her own love story, either. This is not one of “those” books. Though looking back at history’s forward-thinking lovers, ones who refused to be reined in by the conventions of their time did offer up models beyond the “flowers and candy” that seem to be people’s automatic responses when one mentions love and romance these days.
Not for nothing do many of Nehring’s example lovers lead untraditional lives—from the loves of Socrates to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s lifelong open relationship and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s gloriously permissive husband. Nehring points out somewhere that marriage used to be a commercial decision, that love was expected to be something one found outside of its bounds. We are supposedly liberated from that kind of commerce—commerce in women, mostly— and able to love and marry whom we will, if we will, but what we’ve got instead is a fantasy sold to us wrapped in trinkets and empty promises that you have to buy access to. Instead of figuring out love for our damn selves — the way Nehring’s most inspiring examples do — we are shoehorned into “traditional marriage” by politicians and pastors who are doing anything but.
Witness the strange case of Mark Sanford, who Nehring took on in an essay at Truthdig at the time (and who I myself defended). I hate Mark Sanford’s politics. I wanted him gone for many reasons. But when the man stood up at a press conference and tearfully confessed his love, I felt for him. I never liked him so much. Sanford’s become a punch line about getting some action in Argentina, but let’s face it: He didn’t have to fly to Argentina and disappear for days just to get laid. He could’ve pulled a Spitzer and paid for discretion. No, the man who was willing to refuse stimulus funds for teachers and jobs for his state was in love.
It’s the sex that those concerned with traditional marriage claim to be worried about, but what if it’s just as much the love? Nehring takes Socrates as an early example in her book and his expanding definition of love — from loving one person to loving all people. And what is that if not an expression of solidarity? If we can learn from one to love more than one, wouldn’t that break down our selfish little walls and in turn pose a real threat to the system?
No matter how many self-help books, Cosmo sex guides, Internet dating services and roses and even diamond rings get tossed around, we still have a 50% divorce rate and nowhere near equality at home. And forget about supporting the love of nontraditional lovers, from gay, lesbian and bisexual folks to people in open relationships. This book doesn’t argue for marriage, for finding “the one” and playing by some arcane set of rules to catch him or her. Instead, it argues for trusting one’s feelings and allowing them freedom, and against thinking that our emotions are intrinsically worth less than our work, or that we are bad feminists for having our hearts broken.
Which brings me to my biggest question: If love is dead, what really killed it? Nehring notes that it certainly wasn’t just feminism, and I absolutely agree with her. Me, I’m always looking for the commodity-capitalism critique: Who gains from a devaluation of love? Love as leveling influence, as boundary-breaching, blind passion — when we trade that in for Match.com and a dozen roses, what are we doing? When love is something you can learn how to do from a self-help book, what’s happened? We’ve traded human feeling — sometimes messy, fucked-up human feeling — for something you can buy.