Robert Jensen on Christina Nehring : Conflicting Visions of Romantic Love

Christina Nehring. Photo by Russell Jacob / Philly.com.

Conflicting visions of romantic love:
A review of Christina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / July 21, 2009

[A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century. By Christina Nehring. HarperCollins. 336 pp. $24.99.]

Cristina Nehring’s title marks the problem with her attempt to vindicate love and reclaim romance: Love needs no vindication, and we shouldn’t be eager to reclaim the vision of romance she offers — dark and dramatic, tortured and tragic, always a heroic individual endeavor. If humans are to survive and thrive in the 21st century, we will need a very different vision of love from Nehring’s.

Many, myself included, would agree with Nehring’s central point: There is something shallow and unfulfilling about the readily available, commodified sex so common in contemporary U.S. society, and something equally empty about the passionless paint-by-numbers relationships in which so many find themselves trapped.

The problem comes in her celebration of romance as constant, tumultuous, emotional struggle and tedious existential angst. Her prescription — to intensify the erotic charge in romance and sex by celebrating and intensifying the domination/subordination dynamic — is rooted in a misdiagnosis of the malady. Our warped sexual ethic derives directly from that dynamic, and we can’t save ourselves by deepening our attachment to patriarchy.

Perhaps the term patriarchy — the unequal share of power society accords to men and male concerns — may seem old-fashioned. It’s less commonly used than it once was to describe U.S. society, yet it remains useful: Men and male concerns still dominate the private and public spheres, and men’s violence enforces that domination in a rape culture. The very idea of domination can become “natural”: It can become accepted that society always will be hierarchical and that the best we can do is smooth off the rough edges and find our place.

Instead of eroticizing inequality, as Nehring suggests, there is no reason we can’t eroticize equality. Feminist movements have long argued for a cultural shift toward a sexuality based on an egalitarian spirit, which doesn’t rob us of passion but opens up new space for a different idea of passion.

Nehring regards feminism not as a social movement dedicated to the liberation that comes with the end of hierarchy and real equality, but rather as an impediment that mutes rather than enhances our emotional lives. She observes, correctly, that a woman’s reputation as a thinker can be tainted by “an erotically charged biography” in a way a man’s typically is not, but suggests that feminism, with its “antiromantic bias,” must share the blame along with patriarchy.

But let’s imagine a more radical feminism, one that rejects hierarchy and commits itself to real community — couldn’t that make possible a more meaningful kind of love? Nehring wants none of that political struggle; she insists on setting herself up as a heroic figure beyond politics who wants to lead us to a transcendental love and romance.

Although she draws most of her examples from literature, at the heart of Nehring’s book is a failure of imagination. After describing power discrepancies as having a “magnetic force,” as if they come from nature rather than human choices, she asserts that adult erotic relationships “thrive on inequalities of almost every ilk.” That is true enough in a patriarchal society, but such inequality is neither natural nor desirable. Nehring can’t seem to imagine life outside patriarchy’s hierarchy: “It is precisely equality that destroys our libidos, equality that bores men and women alike,” she writes. Trapped within such an ultimate victory of patriarchy, our imaginations atrophy and our choices narrow.

Nehring tries to package this capitulation as “transgression,” but it feels like empty macho posturing. “Real transgression takes guts,” she tells us, sounding like one of the guys in the locker room. This transgression transgresses nothing and, in fact, keeps us trapped. When the trap springs, the results are often brutal. Nehring offers us violent metaphors — “When we fall in love, we hand our partner a loaded gun” — but we should remember that the violence in relationships is often not metaphor but reality, with women most commonly the target.

On the book’s last page, Nehring reveals that she bears “the bodily scars of a loss or two in love,” including being “hospitalized by love.” No details are offered, and she is under no obligation to provide them. But throughout this book, Nehring’s own words contradict her thesis and hint that we should strive for something beyond her notion of love-as-heroic-quest. If such love is always tragic, maybe it’s time to reconstruct love and romance rooted in different values.

I suggest an alternative title: A Vindication of Love Grounded in Equality and Community: Reclaiming Life. Not as snappy, but it highlights key ideas that would help us sort out our emotional and erotic connection to others. Love is more than the meshing of bodies in sex. Love is more than the acceptance of conventional relationships. But striving for something more doesn’t have to mean glorifying domination and subordination, or accepting the brutality that flows from them.

There’s a sadness at the core of this book that tells us much about the ultimate emptiness of romance as Nehring envisions it. What we need is a new conception of love: we need to rethink the community within which love happens. What would love-as-the-eroticizing-of-equality look like in a society that was defined not by hierarchy but by justice? We may not know that from experience, but we can try to imagine it.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). This article was also posted at Philly.com. Robert Jensens articles on The Rag Blog are here.]

Find A Vindication of Love, by Chrintina Nehring on Amazon.com.

The Rag Blog

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8 Responses to Robert Jensen on Christina Nehring : Conflicting Visions of Romantic Love

  1. M Wizard says:

    Thank you, Robert! I haven’t read Nehring’s book – indeed hadn’t heard of it – but if her views are as you suggest (and I’m quite certain you haven’t misrepresented them), this book deserves a quick slapping-down.

    Anyone in this day and age who argues that sexual equality limits or harms eroticism or romance must have awfully limited (and limiting!) erotic experiences! I really can’t imagine any of the young folks I know buying into this crap! Sure, it can be fun to play some power games; a little domination/submission (whoever gets each role) is spicy now and then – but have we not learned that arousal is 98% mental? And if we deny our partner’s equality in that most erotic sphere, what is the point of having a partner?

    What Hehring seems to prefer is disguising the isolated activity of masturbation, where secretly-directed Self takes the place of spontaneous Other. Useful, of course, but not really romantic, even when it involves a puppet-like partner. Talk about paint-by-numbers!

    btw, does she address same-sex relationships? How do they fit into this narrow matrix? Or is one partner always “dominant” and the other always “submissive” regardless of gender? What a crock!

  2. Cristina says:

    I’d like to make two quick points in response to Robert Jensen’s unhappy misreading of my book, A Vindication of Love. (July 17 and 19 on web). Mr. Jensen claims I condemn feminism, that I see it “not as a social movement dedicated to the liberation …[of women] but as an impediment….” Surely, he realizes (or does he?) that the very title of my book hails from the mother of modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman got the ball rolling on women’s liberation in the first place.
    A Vindication of Love is, in fact, very much in the tradition of books by feminists like Wollstonecraft in the 18th century, Kate Millet and Germaine Greer in the 20th. Each of these writers benefitted from the initiative of sister-fighters before them—but also tried to push feminism forward in ways necessary for their own era. Far from “setting [my]self up as a heroic figure beyond politics,” I am trying, like them, to change politics. I am trying, specifically, to make it okay again for liberated, thinking modern women to love. Not just to “assert their sexual rights,”—or their reproductive or career rights, for that matter—or their political rights or their rights to have orgasms with a hook-up or a vibrator–but the right to love: sentimentally, passionately, pro-actively, and without being counted gullible or unfeminist by their peers. It may be the last great right western women need to reclaim in our day.

    Too long love has been seen as a weakness in women, a spot on their feminist credentials. It is time we see it as a strength, a form of enterprise—as it was in the lives of the Heloises, Juliets, Cleopatras, Wollstonecrafts, Hannah Arendts whose lives (real and fictional) I explore in my pages.

    Nor is my “prescription” for such strong love an embrace of “patriarchal” dynamics of “domination/submission.” Mr. Jensen seems only to have read one chapter of Vindication, the one entitled “Love as Inequality”—and he has read it badly. The chapter is not a plea for subordinate women and dominant men, but an invitation to both sexes to countenance difference in relationships and assume power. My examples range from princesses who love frogs (in the tales of Grimm) and medieval queens who love beggars, to the marriage of Edna St. Vincent Millay and her submissive spouse, Eugen Boissevain. My point is to decriminalize differences of stature in relationships, believing, as I do, that love can overcome and even glean fire from inequalities that in ordinary life might be debilitating.

    Mr. Jensen is a college teacher, but he has not learned the first lesson of Freshman Lit: read the book, Professor, before you write about it.

    Cristina Nehring

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think a large component of that complex entity labeled “love”, is
    being gentle with the partner, dialoguer ,you know. Always gentle, really, really, gentle.
    Don’t you all think so? It could do no harm.
    pms

  4. Steve Russell says:

    The problem with Brother Jensen’s remarks is that his concern is our ideas about passion. Those ideas may drive our artistic universe but not our relationships. Passion is not an idea about passion.

    Professing love is exactly what the author claims. It leaves the lover vulnerable in so many ways, too many ways to count. In that sense, there is an unavoidable power dynamic.

    Good people make heroic efforts not to hurt each other, and this can take precedence over life as a contest to accumulate sexual experiences, which is how patriarchy most often plays out in the US.

    What to do with that power dynamic? How to tame it?

    I look at a healthy relationship as a negotiation that never ends. Nothing sits still. What we can give and what we need to get change over our life cycle. But, of course, one who holds all the power has no need to negotiate anything, right?

    Who dominates in the bedroom is not much of an issue unless somebody thinks sex play is not play and brings “I get to be on top!” into everything.

    Who is More Important in the community, is that a big deal? I guess it could be to some people, but during my second marriage I got along fine as Mr. Donna Mobley. She was more of a political big shot than me but the only times we even talked about it was when she was about to do things that could catch my career in the prop wash–hey, it’s all a negotiation, right?

    And in the industrial strength patriarchy, there is nothing to negotiate. A man who negotiates signals weakness. Is that a correct statement of the game? If so, count me out.

    But back to Jensen. I’m not clear how one goes about the premeditated task of eroticizing something–in this case, equality.

    As to all the women in my life with whom I had that kind of intimacy, the eroticism was there at first or we did not proceed to the bedroom. A sense of playfulness prevailed there or that aspect of the relationship did not last. But the matter of equality comes up even later, when you are making the relationship last or not.

    I think I believe most of what feminists believe, but those thoughts do not lead to an erection. I do not know how to eroticize those thoughts. I guess I would if I could. Those thoughts seem to me important to public policy and to relationship maintenance…but eroticism?

    Either I’ve missed his point or I’ve not progressed to his plane of understanding.

  5. Anonymous says:

    No Steve you are likely BEYOND our ‘village idiots’ plane of understanding. Jensen’s moronic ramblings reflect his ‘plane of MIS-understanding’ – endemic to his writing and beliefs.

    I say get the guy a red nose cover, big shoes and frizzy wig so we can see him for what he really is – BOBBO THE CLOWN!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sadomasochistic relationships are based on economic dependence. How to get past this?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Let me know when you find out! I too am looking to get past the economic part of my sadomasochistic relationship. My dominatrix cleans out my checking account every month.

    Bobbo

  8. A ‘lotto-of-u-anonymous’ – I guess not that many have g-mail????

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