Sunday, January 24, 2010

He's Sure the Boy I Love

[I Sit Corrected: This morning I received a very generous (under the circumstances) e-mail from Cristina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love. She wrote that the Nation review misunderstood and misrepresented her book, and gently but firmly chastised me for improvising on a book I hadn't read. So if you read this blog post, bear in mind that I am riffing not on the book, but on the review. I now feel obligated to read A Vindication of Love for myself, which I'll do as soon as I can get a copy from the library, and will report here when I do.]

There are so many other things I should be writing about, but the new issue of The Nation arrived in my e-mailbox (I subscribe digitally), and while scrolling through it to find Alexander Cockburn's rebuttal to some letters attacking his views on climate change, I came across this lengthy review of Cristina Nehring's book A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century. I am very ambivalent about romance, which I don't equate with love, but that's one of the other things I should be writing about, and I'll try to get to it one of these days.

Nehring's book sounds like a bit of a mess, if I judge from Miriam Markowitz's rather ambivalent review.
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 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."
With that stuff about how love is demonic at its most authentic, Nehring sounds as if she might be a disciple of Camille Paglia, but I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it. First, I've had me some of that ferocious, passionate, demonic love in my day, and I think I'd rather take up heroin than mess with it again. I've known numerous people who've been through the same sort of thing, and Nehring's dismissal of love "streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence" makes me think of T. S. Eliot's infamous dictum in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." People who quote this line are less likely to quote the sentence that immediately follows: "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." Somebody who's spent a week unable to stop crying over it might be less celebratory of wild, authentic, demonic love.

According to Markowitz, Nehring leans heavily on C. S. Lewis's theory of courtly love and its influence on later European conceptions of romance. I haven't read much of Lewis's literary criticism, only his apologetics, but it seems that he ignored non-European literature on love. A critic of his day could perhaps be excused for such tunnel vision, but nowadays it's not merely "politically incorrect" to believe that only Europe and the US constitute culture, it's bad scholarship.

But the main thing that occurred to me was that I hadn't noticed that "novelists, poets, and their ilk" had stopped writing about love in the twenty-first century. For that matter, while love was indeed a major theme in the past, not every writer or artist focused on it all the time. Nowadays, for example, most people think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning for her Sonnets from the Portuguese, but I'm not sure Browning herself cared as much for them as for her feminist novel in verse, Aurora Leigh (which I read a few years ago and, though it was uneven, it was pretty good), and for other liberal causes, like Italian nationalism.

Some of the great romantic novels aren't all that romantic either, as Nehring uses the word. Markowitz quotes Vivian Gornick's The End of the Novel of Love to the effect that "When Emma Bovary was loosening her stays with a man other than her husband, or Anna Karenina running away from hers, or Newbold Archer agonizing over whether to leave New York with Ellen Olenska, people were indeed risking all for love." It happens that I recently read Madame Bovary, and it didn't seem to me that Flaubert was celebrating the glory of romance -- I thought he portrayed Emma as a foolish young woman looking for a mirage she'd read about in romance novels. Jane Eyre is popularly thought of as a proto-Gothic romance, but as I recall it Jane rejected both surrender to destructive passion and a sensible but loveless marriage. Only after Rochester was blinded and lost an arm (read by many critics as symbolic castration) did she trust him with her happiness. If writing about love is only "authentic" if it ends in suicide, disgrace, and misery, though, I can't say I consider it much of a loss.

At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, a good many "novelists, poets, and their ilk" were writing about love. Nehring apparently demonizes feminists, but even feminist poets like Marge Piercy and Adrienne Rich wrote and published love poetry. Nehring also apparently concerns herself only with "serious" writers, which is a mistake. Popular music is still mostly about love; movies and popular fiction still thrive on love stories, happy and unhappy. ("The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily," Miss Prism told Cecily Cardew of her abandoned three-volume novel. "That is what Fiction means.") There's no need for teenaged girls to harrow the nineteenth century for fantasy fodder when they've had Titanic and Twilight, among so many others, in the past few years.

Which brings me to another curious narrowing of focus in Nehring's book, or at least in Markovitz's review. Markowitz praises Nehring's
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.
I'll have to have a look at Wineapple's book, but she's not the first to challenge the picture of Dickinson as a "hermetic poetess." There's evidence in letters and poems, collected and discussed by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith in Open Me Carefully (Paris Press, 1998), that Dickinson's passions were not directed only at males. Gay and lesbian novelists, poets, and their ilk (including moi) have written a great deal about love in the past half-century, and since 1981, at least, no one could accuse gay men of having thought of love as safe. But I'm sure it's just an oversight that they escaped Nehring's [p.s.: or at least Markowitz's] notice.