Cristina Nehring's A Vindication of Love. 

Examining culture and the arts.
June 19 2009 11:44 AM

Crazy in Love

A new book makes the case for passionate obsession.

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There are many flaws in Nehring's argument. For one thing, not everyone wants to lead a "heroic" life. 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. At times, too, Nehring seems to willfully ignore the dangerous side of vulnerability. Pursuing a difficult, unreachable guy is a sign of your own self-confidence and strength, she argues in an attack on cautionary self-help manuals like He's Just Not That Into You. Perhaps. But it can also be a sign of your cluelessness. Finally, the suffering she extols can take too large a toll for some. As Nehring herself (melodramatically) notes, "As I write 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, unsettled."

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But Nehring's paean to unconventional ecstasy is a bracing reminder of how narrow and orthodox our vision of love has become—and how that in turn bequeaths us a vast swathe of "unsuccessful" relationships. Most of us know more single mothers and unmarried partners than ever, yet we still think of relationships as goal-oriented, and that goal is conventional: until death do us part. Since when are longevity and frictionlessness, Nehring prompts us to ask, themselves a sign of "success"? 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.

This article also appears in Double X.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.