After the free-love ardor of the 1960s sexual revolution cooled down, a brave new vision of marriage emerged from its ashes. This has come to be known as "companionate marriage."
In such a partnership, spouses have a mutual interest in career and home, and share in raising children. They talk over dinner, take turns doing dishes, fret together over the children's schooling, and arrange the occasional date night. To many Americans, the Obamas' recent studiously scheduled outing together would represent the apogee of a successful equitable marriage.
To Cristina Nehring, author of the ambitious polemic A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, one suspects, it would represent all that is wrong with marriage today.
Nehring yearns for a revival of a messier ardor. In her view, we have domesticated love past all recognition, turning what is rightly leonine, destructive, and majestic into a yawning, chubby house cat.
A Vindication of Love is not a book that will persuade every reader to jump off the couch and into the arms of a dark, smoky-eyed stranger, but it will rearrange your tidily laid out mental furniture while you're not looking. For at its core is a well-taken point: With its emphasis on equitable marriage, "choice feminism" has endorsed a tyrannical habit of trying to subordinate passion to reason. And along the way it has demonized obsession. What, Nehring asks, is so wrong with being crazy in love?
At the core of this polemic lurks the age-old dilemma of how we resolve our desire for security with our need for passion. Nehring's answer is simply: Let go of security and embrace the radical alertness that comes with the fullness of feeling.
In a fresh reading of literary and historical figures from the Wife of Bath to Emily Dickinson, Nehring sets out to show us the many benefits of throwing ourselves headlong into love — not least, she reveals, deeper powers of insight. Charting the love lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Margaret Fuller, she argues that these women's capacity for heedless love is directly tied to their intellectual penetration.
Her zeal can seem adolescent. But her view usefully jolts our goal-oriented view of marriage and restores a vision of love as itself the quest that rewards brave vulnerability — an oxymoron not to be underrated. As the marriage-averse Heloise put it to Abelard, "I never sought anything in you but yourself."
Somewhere along the way, romantic vulnerability came to seem irreconcilable with achieving equality; Nehring flips the terms of the debate, noting that "the most ardent agents of women's advancement have often been the most ardent entrepreneurs of love."
But her book is not just a defense of vulnerability. It is a critique of domesticity. After all, distance is a form of eros. In our embrace of the companionate marriage and our fear of anything that smacks of a power difference, Nehring argues, we dismiss the erotic, the mysterious, the mythical elements of love as never before.
There are many flaws in Nehring's argument. Plenty of people in steadfast marriages may yearn for flashes of passion but prefer, ultimately, the repetitive pleasure of routine and domesticity, or get from their children the passionate expansion of vision Nehring believes romantic love offers us.
Security needn't mean a diminishment in passion; the transience of mortality can lend a long marriage the same sense of being at the brink that Nehring finds in the flamboyant suicidal gamesmanship of Goethe's Young Werther. Think of the aging husband who cares for his dying wife.
But Nehring's paean to unconventional ecstasy is a bracing reminder of how narrow and orthodox our vision of love has become. The equitable marriage is a worthy goal, but it is hardly uncomplicated. Just consider the recent AOL Living and Woman's Day study that showed 72 percent of women have debated leaving their husbands. Only we can judge how a relationship changes us — what new spaces open up inside ourselves, or how a turbulent encounter may enlarge our view of human nature, as it did for Heloise.
Rationalizing desire is a quixotic quest, as everyone knows. But so, too, is trying to protect ourselves from "failure." Instead, we might do as poet Jack Gilbert urges in these lines from Failing and Flying:
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake …
But anything worth doing is worth doing badly. …
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.