Lori Gottleib thinks you should settle for "Mr. Good Enough." Elizabeth Wurtzel concurs. Cristina Nehring thinks you should settle for nothing less than Sorrows of Young Werther-grade transcendent love. Sandra Tsing-Loh and Liz Gilbert were both at one point settled…
Until they weren't, but earlier this month the news officially broke that Liz Gilbert had made peace with settling down again and earlier this morning I read that the same goes for Sandra Tsing-Loh. But her recurring fantasy about having a housewife flies in the face of her fellow Atlantic Monthly regular Caitlin Flanagan's assertion that we all have an inner housewife. Can't this settling shit be settled already?
If I were not one of those women who reflexively wonders, "How is it that I came to know all this about all these women's lives?" (Duh: I used to work here) I would be one of those women reflexively wondering, "Who are these women to think I give a shit?"
Well, Gottleib and Wurtzel assume I don't give a shit, but I should probably rethink that, because before I know it I'll be 40 and alone with even more rapidly eroding skin elasticity — although possibly, if Wurtzel's example is anything to go by, nicer tits? — and Nehring is just offering the necessary counterbalance, because she's single and aging and proud of that, because it frees her to travel the world in pursuit of dangerous new love, the kind of love that "at its strongest and wildest and most authentic...is a demon."
The rest don't need to care what I think, because millions of other readers do, but they're often so apologetic about the subject material (sample headline: "The author is ending her marriage. Isn't it time you did the same?") that you do get the sense that they care you're sort of judging them, against the uneasy backdrop of a mutual-suspicion/insecurity-fueled interior dialogue dynamic not entirely unlike that I have encountered between the SAHMs and WOHMs on Urbanbaby.com*
-Oh god, here comes another WOMEN'S SHIT WRITER, writing about WOMEN'S SHIT STUDIES AGAIN. I hope we get some PERSONAL REVELATION
-Christ lady, look who's talking
-Yeah, well that was different. I was young, needed the money, etc. And anyway you know I wasn't hating the player, I was hating the CAPITALISM etc.
-Well, you know what they say, "the market's always right" etc.
-Dude, but you've read The Black Swan. The market can be changed!
-Hey, whatever happened to The Black Swan of dating books you were shopping around, about "love in the era of creative destruction" or "love in the era of romantic deregulation" or whateverthefuck…
-Whatever, only MBAs who can't actually read and your lame ass would cite The Black Swan anyway. But hold on, wasn't this originally intended to be a post about Miriam's piece? Why's it always gotta be about you, anyway, solipsistic FEMALE WRITER WHO WRITES ABOUT HER LIFE ON THE INTERNET…
And so forth.
Which is to say, "this was originally intended to be a post strictly about a brilliant essay in The Nation by my brilliant friend and sometime editor Miriam, but I as usual I got so carried away by my own monologue that I failed to seriously critique — or even, ha ha, directly mention — the work at hand." (It happens a lot, with the internet.) (Miriam would call it "scaffolding.")
The thing is, serious critiques are difficult to pull off, all the moreso when the subjects are as shallow — which is to say, as democratically perplexing — as love and marriage and the Human Condition. Before the rise of the middle class and the attendant rise of the self-help genre, when this stuff was mostly the realm of novels and poems and witty aphorisms, its merits could be formally considered along the formal lines of style and beauty and verisimilitude and wit. Whether something was actually "prescriptive" or "actionable" was beside the point.
Then came market capitalism, Seven Habits, Dr. Spock and Men Are From Mars, and suddenly style and beauty and wit and verisimilitude were all downsized to make room for the ascendant merchants of "aspirationalism."
Cristina Nehring's book A Vindication of Love is an attempt to reconcile these things. Its Pyrrhic victory, as the essay points out, is that it fails in every single department. Her somewhat unfortunate characterization of Ovid's Allegory of Love as "first-century self-help book" as well as "the first dating book ever written" reminds us that we can still learn practical lessons from works of beauty; what you learn from this book is simply not the result of its beauty. And maybe that is a good thing:
Throughout the book, "love," "romance," "erotic culture," "amorous passion" and various other terms are used carelessly, without regard for each one's distinct, individual meaning.
"Love" and "romance" are hardly synonymous, yet in Nehring's telling, the most tempestuous incarnations of the latter seem to define the former almost in its entirety. Love's other crucial aspects—care and responsibility, empathy and commitment—are bit players in her narrative. But concurrently with passion, it is these elements of love that make the art and achievements she idealizes possible. The practice of art resembles childbirth and rearing far more than lovemaking or even falling in love, and it is this encompassing love, rather than mere romance, that one must harness in order to produce art; this great love is what makes the birthing of art and then its passage into the wider world, where so often the maker finds that love gone unrequited, bearable.
There is an alternative explanation for Nehring's silence, which is that her book, for all that it glorifies their authors, cares little about the masterworks: the tracts, novels, poems and paintings. It is, rather, a book that takes these justifying principles as the building blocks for a theory of life that gleans what it can from art and has no intention of giving art back its due. Such a work is not a vindication of love through the evidence of love's necessity to art; it is a book that vindicates lifestyle through its relation to an ineffable artiness.
The new book Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea opens with the story of a teenage boy and girl in the North Korean city of Chongjin who exploit the electricity shortage to take long, amorous walks in the darkness. They never get beyond first base, but their love is intense and nearly unconditional. "Without electricity, there is no culture," a border guard laments. And he is 99% right, but if romance can still bloom in such an apocalyptically desolate landscape as North Korea, and a thoughtful 6,000-word essay can still get published in such an apocalyptically abundant landscape as my internet, then I guess the apocalypse will continue to elude us, and we might as well continue to aspire for the things we desire, and if "good writing on the internet" is still possible maybe affordable health care and a loving marriage are too, so let's not give up aspiring.
A Fine Romance [The Nation]
*I have visited this site for research purposes only.