Monday, September 14, 2009

Love in a Time of Feminism

Prof. Martha Nussbaum is seeing a culture shift. Compared with students in the 60s and 70s today's college students are more risk-averse, more cautious, and more practical about their future plans. Link here.

In her words: "... they certainly do seem to be more cautious and calculating-- about career choice, political engagement, and aspiration generally. They make prudent life plans, and are unembarrassed by all their prudence. It would not surprise me if attitudes toward romantic love have become more cautious and calculating, and perhaps also similarly ironic and detached."

The culture shift is not difficult to understand. In the 60s and 70s the country was solvent. Now the country is bordering on insolvency.

Students have become more prudent because they are dealing with new realities. Those of us who grew up in a different America should feel proud of these young people. We should not, as Nussbaum suggests, instruct them to feel embarrassed for having learned the virtue of prudence.

Nussbaum wrote these lines in a review of Cristina Nehring's book: "A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance in the Twenty-First Century." My own comments on the book can be found here.

While Nussbaum does not hold Nehring's book in very high regard, she does agree with her that romantic love is an extraordinary, soul-shaping experience, and that it entails considerable risks for those who enter its hallowed corridors.

Nussbaum and Nehring place great value on the experience of falling madly in love. They differ on the nature of the experience. For Nussbaum true love is a more philosophical, more Platonic emotional intimacy, something that is best left to artists and intellectuals. For Nehring true love is more melodramatic, a wild excursion to the dark side, promising, thrills, chills, and spills.

Beyond the fact that they are talking about two different kinds of love, Nussbaum and Nehring are divided on the role feminism has played in women's search for love.

Nehring says that feminism has made women so practical-minded that they have lost touch with their appetite for romance. A woman who assumes career responsibilities will be less free to give all for love. Modern women, then, do not go for the grand passion, but settle for less-than-ideal amorous arrangements.

If feminism is responsible for this state of affairs, then that is to its credit.

Besides, in our everyday lives we rarely see the grand literary passions that Nehring worships. That kind of love is the stuff of fiction and dreams. At best, it is the domain of adolescent girls. But it is certainly not something to build an adult life on.

Nussbaum especially objects to Nehring's blaming the lack of romance on feminism. For her, feminism has mostly offered legal protections to women. Without these legal protections, a love based on mutual respect would be impossible, she believes.

To me this feels like an intramural dispute in a church I do not belong to. But it raises a number of basic issues about relationships and the larger culture.

As I reflect on these issues, I keep thinking of a term that Nussbaum never mentions in her long review: marriage.

Romantic love and marriage are not necessarily the same thing. Platonic love and marriage are also not necessarily the same thing.

Once the question rises beyond emotional and sexual affinity into the realm of making a life together, the free-wheeling, often careless, adolescent passion yields to a more sober, temperate, adult love.

If adult women are not indulging the extremes of romantic love, then perhaps the reason is that they have grown up.

Whatever kind of love we are talking about, the most important question is whether a woman's choice of a mate should be based entirely on love or whether it should make love one among other considerations.

Marriage is a social institution. Romantic love is not. Nor is philosophical love. Making an individual part of your life is not the same as seeking out passionate intensity.

In fact, the more inappropriate your lover would be as a spouse, the more intense your passion.

This question is central to Nussbaum's review. My take is as follows: it often happens that choosing inappropriate lover causes you to alienate friends and family. Then, seeing yourself as having made a grand sacrifice for love, you will harbor the expectation that your lover will compensate your loss by offering constant and undivided attention. Since no single human being can be the the entirety of your social network, the passion will necessarily end badly.

For me, however the most provocative concept in the debate is... risk. Nehring and Nussbaum seem to agree that young women today are more risk-averse, thus, less apt to let themselves be carried away on wings of ecstatic rapture.

But, there are risks and there are risks. There are emotional risks in falling in love, but there are also risks involved in the opposite of true love: casual sexual encounters.

Admittedly, modern medical science has mitigated these risks, but it has not eliminated them.

Yet, I cannot agree with Nussbaum when she says, following Nehring, that women: "did not have much of an opportunity to take risks for love until feminism came along."

The practice of adultery in pre-feminist cultures contradicts this assertion. Think of the medieval practice of courtly love. And think of what was at risk for a married woman when she took a teenaged lover.

Certainly, these passions were more intense as the risk was greater. But they were also more intense because were purportedly unconsummated.

Finally, Nussbaum asserts that true love, based on mutual respect, cannot exist without the agency of the law. Until women gained the legal protections that feminism fought for in recent years they were not, in her view, free to engage in love relationships.

Beyond the fact that this assertion demeans countless generations of women, it does not feel true on its face. The notion of marrying for love dates to seventeenth century England, and does not seem to have been a consequence of feminist legal reforms.

For my part I would guess the first marriages based on love date to the time of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther and his monkish followers broke with the Catholic Church over the issue of a celibate clergy they created a new form of marriage, one that was not arranged, that did not involve titles and possessions, but that was based on love.

Defrocked monks, priests, and nuns marrying each other... at the risk of consigning their souls to eternal perdition... that was probably the way the Western world introduced love into marriage... and also granted women a fuller measure of social respect.

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