“What is love?”
The 1993 global dance-pop mega-hit never answered the question, substituting instead a weak plea:
Baby, don’t hurt me
don’t hurt me
Cristina Nehring also fails to define the emotional phenomenon she’s charged herself with vindicating, but she certainly doesn’t beg not to be hurt. Quite the opposite: for Nehring, truly loving means embracing pain. She disdains Valentine’s roses, cozy snuggling, even vibrators—all the sappy rituals and pathetic artifacts our culture has produced to compensate for an epidemic lack of passion. By contrast, Nehring’s old-style “love” is “a religion, a high-risk adventure, an act of heroism … ecstasy and injury, transcendence and danger, altruism and excess.” Today’s “love” is commodified and ordinary and perpetually available. It can no longer ennoble our souls. Two apparently contradictory forces—the anti-feminist “cult of safe love” and the “man-hating clichés of old-style feminism”—have rendered us timid where we should be fearless. To re-inspire (or, as she might put it, “re-ensoul”) us, Nehring has written a polemic in the form of a parade of exemplary lovers from history and literature.
The writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft chased her lovers all over the world, and when one of them broke her heart, she swallowed laudanum and threw herself into the Thames. The great 12th-century scholar Abelard was hired to teach the beautiful young Heloise. Eventually they fell in love. When Heloise’s family found out, they took it upon themselves to cut Abelard’s balls off. From then on, for the rest of their days, Abelard and Heloise exchanged passionate but chaste letters describing their love of God. Remind you of anyone? Yes: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre would read each other’s work and tell each other how great it was; occasionally Simone would bring home a comely co-ed for Jean-Paul. These stories are meant to teach us to stop treating this cosmic force as something ordinary, hygienic, and potentially controllable, and to focus instead on its transcendent potential. Sometimes when Diego Rivera was flirting with a lady at a dinner party, Frida Kahlo would start singing bawdy songs about his genitalia to get his attention back. “Love is a volatile play of shadow and light,” Nehring concludes. “It is a brush with the sublime.”
Both books very frankly, in their different ways, describe how fearful we are of the brittleness of love.Tweet
Nehring’s weakness for overstatement and her lofty tone—imagine a book-length version of the famous SNL “My Lovahhhh” sketch, in which a pair of fattish academics stroked each other’s corduroyed thighs while telling horrified guests about the heights of their bedroom ecstacies—can make it hard to take her seriously. But Nehring is not only wistfully wondering, as lots of reasonable people do in the face of rampant rationalization and commodification, what happened to the good old days. She is also meaningfully championing the work of women who’ve lost credibility over the years for being too obviously consumed by love—like Wollstonecraft, and like Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose reputation as a poet, Nehring argues, suffered because of her promiscuity. Nehring is eagerly taking aim at everyone at once: At the men who once sought to quash the desires of women because they were women; at the women who later sought to quash other women’s desires because they were aimed at men and perpetuated the patriarchy; and at those men and women who now package simulated female desire and serve it up in all the manifestations of what Ariel Levy has called “raunch culture.” Nehring is fighting, against all kinds of prevailing norms, for women’s right to love, and she cannot but be right to do so.
So why has this book driven me bonkers? Is it merely the acknowledgements section? It’s a part of a book that should be off-limits to reviewers, and yet in this case serves as a clear extension of the text:
I would like to thank, first of all, the astonishing individuals I have loved. I would like to thank my first boyfriend, Michel Goussu—choir director at Paris’s San Sulpice church (made notorious by The Da Vinci Code)—for setting the bar so high on quotidian romance. I would like to thank Chris McCully, the fiercest poet the British Isles ever bore, and once my fiance.
It goes on. “Choir director”? “Fiercest poet”? Whose resume is this? Probably not Vasilis Tsakonas’s—his credentials are not listed. He is acknowledged instead for fathering Nehring’s recent child, and for taking her into his “proud Cretan heart.”
Maybe it’s that these florid acknowledgments are the most obvious symptom of a disease that infects the rest of the book, comprised of equal parts bragginess and prescriptivism. Nehring’s insistence that we all rush to reclaim love, Cristina Nehring-style, grates in the same way that any advice grates when the advice-giver presumes to know what everybody wants. “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, and unsettled by love,” Nehring writes in her book’s epilogue. Those of us who prefer to be stirred, but not shaken, are clearly, by her reckoning, doing “love” wrong. In flaunting her amorous credentials, Nehring also stops functioning as an advocate for passionate love per se, and becomes an avatar of women’s entitlement to be ridiculous and over-the-top in love, the way men—maybe?—are, and a defender of their right not to be punished for it. She becomes less a defender of love than a defender of herself in love, which is different.
Julie Metz is a woman who has been wronged by love. Her husband, “a writer and food enthusiast,” according to his obituary in the New York Times, cheated on her, repeatedly, exhaustively, with everyone from trusted neighbors to business-trip strangers. And now he has been punished: not by God, but by his widow. Julie Metz’s husband had the misfortune not so much of dying suddenly—though he had that misfortune, too—but of leaving his diaries, his emails, and—worst of all—his terrible love-poetry at the disposal of Julie Metz. In the memoir she’s produced he returns only as a ghost, but not, unfortunately for the reader, the avenging kind.
The book begins with a spare description of the husband’s sudden collapse and death: “Silence. Then the thud.” Metz finds him, felled by an embolism, on their kitchen floor. Despair. She flashes back to their early courtship and marriage—on the night of their wedding, he seized her by the waist and whispered in her ear how much he loved her, and, well, “I creamed the lacy panties I had bought for the occasion.” Like an oft-laundered pair of fancy lace panties, though, their love soon showed signs of wear and tear. The chapter ends with a scene at a lavish New Year’s party Metz’s husband hosted shortly before his death. Pausing to reflect that he’d recently thrown Volume One of the OED at her—”It missed, but I still felt wounded by the weight of a book with so many words I didn’t know”—Metz writes that she wished then that her husband had become a professional chef instead of a food writer. Before the party, he’d asked her whether the sauce he was fussing over needed anything. When she told him it was perfect, he said he didn’t believe her. Rather than additional salt, Metz sighs, “I suspected that his sauce just needed a larger, more appreciative audience.” In spite of this—in spite of everything, including having been introduced to a soon-to-be-discarded girlfriend on the night she and her husband had met—Metz doesn’t seem ever to have seriously suspected that his “sauce” was regularly splattering all over town.
She becomes less a defender of love than a defender of herself in love, which is different.Tweet
Metz spends the next few chapters slowly building up to the eventual discovery of her husband’s infidelities. She takes yoga classes, and a young lover, to help her through the first few months of grieving. (“His soft lips tasted of everything young and fresh. My insides exploded.”) The big moment doesn’t come until 84 pages in, and in the meantime Metz receives visitations from her husband’s ghost, who explains that he needs to inhabit a living body in order to commune with her. Metz’s young lover is told about the ghost and agrees to have his body used in this way—it’s like the movie Ghost, except the young man sounds much hotter than Whoopi Goldberg.
And it is the young man Metz is using as a sexual spirit medium—”Tomas,” who was once a boarder with the Metz family and therefore was friendly with her husband—who finally spills some of the beans. He tells her that her husband wasn’t faithful, and that she should probably look through some of the papers he left behind (his friends had done just that shortly after his death, but Metz had decided not to). “‘Tomas,'” says Metz, “‘I feel like I’m going to find out some very dark things, is that right?’ ‘Yes.'” The first dark thing Metz discovers is that her neighbor Cathy, the same woman who’s been occasionally taking care of her young daughter, who just that very day had left a fruit salad in her fridge, had been her husband’s mistress for years. Despite her recent forays into yoga, Metz does not accept the news in a mood of meditative calm.
Heat rose in waves from the asphalt road ahead of me
I gripped the steering wheel so hard that I veered off course.
I want to fucking kill that woman.
Over the next hundred pages, Metz proceeds to flagellate herself with every available detail about all the women her husband cheated with. She calls his psychiatrist and then she meets with his best friend, who sells out his old buddy by giving up the contents of his hard drive, which the friend had backed up. The hard drive includes the husband’s sex diary, which contains the following passage about fruit-salad Cathy:
She kneels down around my ankles, opens my fly, and takes me in her mouth. Wow. It’s like getting head when you were a teenager. It’s electric. I feel like I have an electrode attached to my glans.
Metz compares the passage to Henry Miller. But enough of that: “I was ready to move on to [his] emails.” These contain further gross sexual details (“I’ve been kissing you all over today, especially the pink tender bits”; “Are you having more sex with Steve? Is it anything like what we have?”) and catalogue his marital dissatisfactions. In much of the correspondence he comes off as malleable and silly, especially the emails he exchanged with a Californian named Eliana who seems to have encouraged him to think of himself as a “flowing crystal.”
“I feel like I have an electrode attached to my glans.”Tweet
Then Metz starts contacting and confronting the women themselves, on the phone and in person. She justifies this—well, it’s not clear how she justifies it. “I had to get to the bottom of the snakepit that was my husband’s life before I could be free.” At a Halloween parade she encounters Cathy, the fellating temptress who’d seduced her husband during their 6-year-old daughters’ playdates, and forces her daughter away from Cathy’s. By this point Julie Metz has put in numerous harrassing calls to Cathy’s home, and Cathy’s had enough. “‘You need to start behaving more like a mother,'” says Cathy, and Metz explodes: “‘Don’t you ever tell me how to behave, you who have the moral center of a worm.'” “Too bad this wasn’t Jane Austen’s day,” Metz glosses the scene afterward, “when adulteresses like Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park were sent away to live in forced isolation with crotchety old-maid aunts for the rest of their days.” She also reports that, after the parade, her daughter “cried for days.”
Later in the process of searching for clues as to why her husband cheated, Metz stumbles on a heavily annotated tome in his study. The Evolution of Human Sexuality, published in 1979 by evolutionary biologist Donald Symons, introduces Metz to the idea that we, like the hunter-gatherer ancestors whose brain structures we share, are not by nature monogamous. The indomitable Metz proceeds to enter into correspondence with Symons, sharing the details of her situation and treating the UC Santa Barbara professor a bit like a scientific Miss Lonelyhearts columnist. When she tells the professor that she suspects her husband of feeling that Symons’s theories absolved him of responsibility for his actions, the kindly professor reminds her that “evolutionary psychology can provide some insight into why we have the impulses we do, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how free we are to act on them or not.” But he also informs her that most forager tribes practice polygyny, and that for people who live in a society where multiple wives are the norm, “things are different.” Taking this newly gleaned information into account, Metz ticks off the available relationship options open to modern-day humans—monogamy, polygamy, polyamory—and finds obvious fault with them all. “Perhaps future generations will find a solution,” she hopes.
Absent anywhere in these two books is the idea that “love,” over the course of a long relationship, might distinguish itself from infatuation. Metz tells us of how passionately she loved her husband when they married, but in the years that followed she often found him “maddening,” and after his death she eulogized him by publishing, among other things, the Valentine’s Day email message he sent to two different women within minutes containing a line about how he had “a Valentine waiting … on the end of [his] penis.” And while Nehring sings the praises of great lovers throughout the ages, her acknowledgments section hints that the great lover whose exploits she regards most admiringly is herself.
Nehring proclaims that it is sublime to go mad because of love; Metz quite clearly does go mad because of love, and there’s nothing sublime about it. But both books very frankly, in their different ways, describe how fearful we are of the brittleness of love. We try to stave off our fear by publically enshrining our passions on VH1 reality shows or in the Times‘ Vows column or in our acknowledgments sections, but there is no escaping it: love dies. We know this from books, and from our own experiences (though we periodically develop amnesia about those)—love dies, and there’s nothing we can do about it. There is no solution but trundling blindly, foolishly, broken-heartedly on.
Well, almost no solution. Julie Metz details the ways in which she used yoga, and vacationing in Maine, and shopping for a kicky new pair of boots, and finding a new boyfriend, and beginning to write her memoir, as a way of cleansing herself of a painful past. These methods worked for Metz. Perfection made it to #16 on the Times bestseller list, and in June of this year the paper of record featured her beautiful duplex in its Real Estate section. Julie Metz had left the suburbs and moved to Park Slope. In the words of another popular song about love:
Ah honey how could you do it
We swore each other everlasting love.
I said Yeah I know but when we did
There was one thing we weren’t thinking of,
And that’s money.
Money changes everything.
Money, money changes everything.