Nussbaum Reviews Nehring's "A Vindication of Love"

The Passion Fashion
Martha C. Nussbaum
The New Republic
September 11, 2009

A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century
By Cristina Nehring
(Harper, 328 pp., $24.99)

Women today are too risk-averse in love, charges Cristina Nehring. We “settle,” and seek comfort rather than passion. In flight from pain, we end up too often with mediocre and cramped relationships. Obsessed with control, we lack “the generous fault to put oneself entirely in another’s hands and thus be at his mercy.” We employ a whole battery of devices to lessen our exposure to experience, to distance ourselves from real vulnerability: we regard our passions with ironic distance; we convert sex into a commodity; we glorify momentary pleasure rather than lasting emotion.

In the process, Nehring continues, women are losing out on one of life’s great goods. For love is not just wonderful in itself, it is also a source of energy for the rest of life’s activities--particularly, perhaps, for artistic and intellectual creativity. And it is a source of insight, leading us to see ourselves and others with more generous and accurate eyes. (Here Nehring draws persuasively on Plato’s Phaedrus.) In sum, love makes the entire person come alive--but only if it is pursued with sufficient openness and daring that it brings with it a constant danger of pain and loss.

So far, so good. Nehring certainly raises an important issue--although it is not only with respect to love, and not only yesterday and today, that people have preferred to live in an excess of caution. Most people in most times and places have been averse to risk, avoiding deep commitments of all sorts--to work, to justice, to a cause, to a country-- because they can see that through such commitments they would risk failure on a large scale. Most people enjoy contemplating the sufferings of tragic heroes, but they do not wish to be called upon for heroism themselves. Not caring deeply; looking at everything with irony, as a mere spectacle; and pursuing superficial pleasures: these are clever ways of evading or thwarting tragedy--in love, but also in every department of life. The smallness of aspiration against which Nietzsche inveighed in his portrait of “the last man” is not, as he suggested, a recent creation of bourgeois European Christianity. It is a pervasive inclination of ordinary human life.