Against Love?

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix on December 19, 2003.

The title of Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic, advertises its tone and theme. The book, however, does not make a contribution to public reason, the usual function of polemics, so much as it dramatizes a mood. It succeeds brilliantly. No recent publication more perfectly unites the stylized despair of urban singles with the hip anti-intellectualism of academic radicals. Think of it as a companion to Sex and the City. If you appreciate that show’s attitude, this is the book for you. Then again, if you believe in Sarah Jessica Parker, you have bigger troubles than love to contend with.

Everyone will recognize some truth in Kipnis’s complaint. Despite revolutions in sexual mores, she says, one thing has remained the same: we are expected to find love, pledge fidelity, and settle down into monogamy. So we get clapped into couples by therapists and moralists, only to find that sex with the same partner gets boring. The flames of passion die down while the cost to our freedom rises higher. Kipnis supplies a list of things we “can’t do” in the “domestic gulag,” everything from smoking pot to watching infomercials. From such strains, ambivalence sets in, and once ambivalence sets in, all is lost—until we try again.

This cycle of loss and gain is worthy of Kipnis’s sardonic adjectives. The trouble starts when she finds heroism in the wreckage: adultery. “After all,” she writes, “if adultery is a de facto referendum on the sustainability of monogamy—and it would be difficult to argue that it’s not—this also makes it the nearest thing to a popular uprising against the regimes of contemporary coupledom.”

Is she serious? Yes and no. A “Reader Advisory” blasts today’s “uniformity of opinion” and posits Kipnis as a maverick kicking dirt in the face of society. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Martin Heidegger are cited on almost every page, but they’re invoked for their prestige value. Kipnis introduces her cast of stars with the razzle-dazzle of a real-estate agent walking a client through a Manhattan townhouse. “Psychological interiority” and “materiality of triangulation” have no purpose amid her otherwise breezy, conversational prose except to intimidate credulous readers into believing in the author’s superior intelligence.

This is the stock-in-trade of today’s academic left. But showy vocabulary mixed with a disinclination to assume responsibility for ideas enlarges the distance between intellect and wisdom. At one point, Kipnis rediscovers the obvious: adultery causes pain. Still, conflicted desires and divided loyalties don’t present a pretty picture when seen up close … “Still,” she argues, falling in love “doesn’t just mean committing to another person, it means committing to certain emotional bargains and trade-offs also, some of which prove more workable than others.” She calls for annual contracts to replace vows, and she casts sexual experimentation as a legacy of Marx. In fact, Marx opposed the sexual experiments of 19th-century utopian socialists; he believed their vision of the individual as a free agent reproduced the theory of exchange embedded within liberal theory. What does this mistake mean in practice? In The Art of Loving (1956), Erich Fromm explained that under capitalism the “marketing personality” dominates. The habit of calculating costs and rewards (Kipnis’s “bargains and trade-offs”) poisons intimacy. We approach love not as a capacity but as an object—a commodity. Instead of cultivating relationships, we exchange “personality packages.” Fromm’s book remains in print, a brilliant antidote to dating services and reality-television shows.

If the standard must be “what works,” it’s worth remembering that alternatives to monogamy have also failed. Ambivalence, uncertainty, and complexity raise obstacles to the best-laid plans, and the emptiness of modern life shows an ever-changing face. Faced with these difficulties, narcissists collapse into themselves because they harbor childlike fantasies of omnipotence. They experience all obligations as impediments. Suffering degenerates into despair; shame feels like humiliation.

Mature love demands the kind of spiritual strength for which modern society makes no provision but which characterizes all great striving. If this amounts to conservatism, so be it. In this passionless age, radicals walk in many disguises.