Against Love: A Polemic
NY, NY: Pantheon
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LOVE IN THE 21ST CENTURY: Against Love
By Laura Kipnis
Love is, as we know, a mysterious and controlling force. It has vast power over our thoughts and life decisions. It
demands our loyalty, and we, in turn, freely comply. Saying no to love isn't simply heresy; it is tragedy -- the
failure to achieve what is most essentially human. So deeply internalized is our obedience to this most
that artists create passionate odes to its cruelty, and audiences seem never to tire of the most deeply
unoriginal mass spectacles devoted to rehearsing the litany of its torments, fixating their very beings on the
narrowest glimmer of its fleeting satisfactions.
Yet despite near total compliance, a buzz of social nervousness attends the subject. If a society's
romantic pathologies reveals its particular anxieties, high on our own list would be diagnoses like ''inability to
settle down'' or ''immaturity,'' leveled at those who stray from the norms of domestic coupledom either by refusing
entry in the first place or, once installed, pursuing various escape routes: excess independence, ambivalence,
''straying,'' divorce. For the modern lover, ''maturity'' isn't a depressing signal of impending
sterling achievement, the
sine qua non
of a lover's qualifications to love and be loved.
This injunction to achieve maturity -- synonymous in contemporary usage with 30-year mortgages, spreading
waistlines and monogamy -- obviously finds its
in modern love's central anxiety, that structuring
social contradiction the size of the San Andreas Fault: namely, the expectation that romance and sexual attraction
can last a lifetime of coupled togetherness despite much hard evidence to the contrary.
Ever optimistic, heady with love's utopianism, most of us eventually pledge ourselves to unions that will, if
successful, far outlast the desire that impelled them into being. The prevailing cultural wisdom is that even if
sexual desire tends to be a short-lived phenomenon, ''mature love'' will kick in to save the day when desire flags.
The issue that remains unaddressed is whether cutting off other possibilities of romance and sexual attraction for
the more muted pleasures of mature love isn't similar to voluntarily amputating a healthy limb: a lot of anesthesia
is required and the phantom pain never entirely abates. But if it behooves a society to convince its citizenry that
wanting change means personal failure or wanting to start over is shameful or simply wanting more satisfaction
than what you have is an illicit thing, clearly grisly acts of self-mutilation will be required.
There hasn't always been quite such optimism about love's longevity. For the Greeks, inventors of democracy and