Romantic love needs to be reinvented for our time . . . it needs to be formulated afresh. The purpose is by no means to beatify romantic love, or to reclaim it as a fine hallmark sentiment suitable for swooning schoolgirls. The goal is to embrace its dangers and darknesses as well as the light it sheds so amply, so sometimes piercingly. We must confront the role of transgression, the effect of power inequalities, the place for obsession, the reality of strife, the seductuon of chastity, the necessity of heroism, the draw, sometimes, of death. Love is a volatile play of shadow and light. It is a brush with the sublime.
Those are fighting words from the first several pages of The Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century by Cristina Nehring. It was fascinating. Yes, Nehring has a tendency for melodrama [but I liked that], and I may not agree with everything that she says — But I kind of missed reading a book with a red pen at hand. It’s been a while since I argued with a book, scribbling my own inanities in the margins. Reading this, I was prone to treat it as an academic text, albeit an invigoratingly impassioned one [because, seriously, the worst academic texts make you wish you were illiterate.] And besides, sometimes it’s not just the argument the author poses that makes for good reading — it’s how she tries to make her point. Like I said, I was fascinated. It was different from my usual fare of late, and it was a welcome difference.
Now. Before I actually arrange my thoughts about this book into some semblance of order — responding to this book makes me feel inadequate, might be due to lack of exercise — I have to put forward some of the things I wish she’d touched upon. Things that I felt were vital to her argument, but she hardly looked at:
* * *
 Roland Barthes. Seriously? We talk about love, and Roland Barthes isn’t here? Oh, there’s big helping of The Sorrows of Young Werther, but where is my man Roland, who wrote the definite discourse on love, which happens to be called A Lover’s Discourse? Nothing? No? Fine.
 For an exhaustive examination of a sampling of great classic literature and cultural icons, I’m quite disappointed that she barely glanced upon contemporary works. Yes, I should assume that this is part of her single-minded determination to generalize about the meh-ness of our loving today, but a glance would have been satisfying enough – and not just mention of History of Love, among a string of examples.
Attached to this is, I dare say, romance novels. There has to be an anthropological and psychological reason why romance novels continue to celebrate this impassioned love she claims has withered away. One chapter lacerates the common notion that “love as inequality” is a terrible thing, and instead proposes that it is a natural thing, and laughs at the contemporary “puerile adulation of symmetry.” She puts forward Ulrich von Liechtenstein, Guenevere and Lancelot, Beauty and the Beast, and even Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster. Power differentials – it is always present. And the tables are almost always turned, at one point or another.
Now. If Nehring wants a big helping of power differentials – one that isn’t too keen on kowtowing to rabid feminist picketing, really now – go to romance novels. Nehring proposed that feminism has made us cower in front of the notion of love, for fear of ridicule, for fear of being accused of Neanderthalism. Man.
The gist: Highly successful man meets down-on-her-luck woman / not-as-successful girl. Sparks. Sexy times. A relenting of the selves. A sacrifice from the hero’s alpha-ness, the heroine then “taking the upper hand,” and usually emotionally. And guess what, romance is a ginormous industry, and it’s prevalent, and it’s still here, eating yer cheeseburgers. If anything, put forward the usual shyness re admitting to the reading and writing of romance novels. But acknowledge its presence, first and foremost.
Seriously, I like reading romance novels not because it allows me to be un-feminist, to give in to my baser urges (bah). I like reading romance novels because I enjoy it, and that enjoyment has a lot to do with the fact that I need not be so guarded about love.
I can go on, at length. But I’m feeling the dork vibes and I have to stop.
If it seems like I’m serving this book a helping of haterade, I’m truly not. I’m trying not to. Hence, this prologue-y post. I wanted to get all this out of the way, because I’m all too aware that you can’t criticize a writer for not writing what you wish she’d written, no matter how vital. Because that’s just stupid. So, really, this is mostly wishful thinking on my part.
Oh, and if you want, you can read the first pages in the publisher’s site.