Published by Pantheon Books
Review by W. R. Greer
We all want to be in love, to be loved, to be special to someone else and feel that urge of desire and passion that overrides rational thought and consumes us whole. Riding the wave of lust and love, unburdening our soul to another, and sharing the innermost parts of our being leads to a coupling of selves and often a merging of lives in the legal contract of marriage. After years together, the passion has waned, the sex is infrequent, boring, or nonexistent, and the marriage just moves forward under its own momentum with one or both partners longing for either what they once had or something new. Then what?
In Against Love, Laura Kipnis has written a polemic about love, marriage, and infidelity. She warns us right at the beginning that this a polemic, and polemics "don't tell 'both sides of the story.' They overstate the case. They toss out provocations and occasionally mockery, usually because they're arguing against something so unquestionable and deeply entrenched it's the only way to make even a dent in the usual story." After all, who could be against love? Laura Kipnis' arguments are more against marriage, or perhaps against fidelity, then they are against love.
The conventional wisdom is that relationships take work. You have to work at a marriage. Ms. Kipnis immediately turns this idea on its head. "A 'happy' state of monogamy would be defined as a state you don't have to work at maintaining." If a marriage is so labor intensive, then by definition isn't it an institution full of defects? She pokes fun at the aids that help in the labors of love: self-help books, therapy, and antidepressants. They are all used to force people to accept a state of condition that they rationally find lacking. In perhaps her weakest argument in the book, Ms. Kipnis equates the work in a marriage with the work involved in a post-industrial society, where the rules and societal structures are in place to keep the citizenry productive and the capitalist economy running at full bore. Quoting Marx, Freud, and other philosophers, she suggests that marriage has become an institution to control the masses, to keep them working both on the job and off. Parts of the first chapter of the book make your eyes glaze over with the academic arguments and philosophical references.
Adulterers, in this scenario, are the rebels, those asserting their freedom and independence outside the system. Although they're not quite heroes, and Ms. Kipnis doesn't glorify them, but instead treats them as inevitable byproducts of an untenable institution of lifelong monogamy.
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, nevertheless, that wonderful elixir "mature love" will kick in just in time to save the day, once desire flags. The question remaining unaddressed is whether cutting off other possibilities of romance and sexual attraction while there's still some dim chance of attaining them in favor of 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, starting over is shameful, or wanting more satisfaction than you have is illegitimate, clearly grisly acts of self-mutilation will be required.
Ms. Kipnis takes a look at modern relationships. If 50% of marriages end in divorce and if you assume that many, if not most, of the remaining 50% are not happy, then clearly marriage as a lifetime bond between two people is in crisis. What is it about marriage that leads to failure? She provides a list that covers several pages of things you can't do if you're part of a couple. Many of these are humorous, and some are downright depressing. Some of these "can't" items spring from common courtesy in a relationship, you can't go out without the other knowing where you're going and when you'll be back and avoiding things that irritate your mate. Others stem from one partner controlling the behavior of another ("you can't have insomnia without being grilled about what's really bothering you") or losing your personal identity within the confines of the couple ("you can't have secrets -- about money or anything else").
Against this background, it's not hard to understand someone succumbing to an attraction to someone new, feeling that rush that makes them feel so alive, the resurgence of passionate sex, and long talks about everything that create the feeling of wanting and connection again. This runs headlong into the societal structures in place. This relationship can't be maintained outside the marriage. Eventually it dies of its own accord, or the other partner becomes aware and life as it was known will never be the same again. The adulterer may end with less than he or she began with, and if the marriage survives, is it a better one? Ms. Kipnis writes:
But as we all know (far too well), the fear and pain of losing love is so crushing, and so basic to our natures, that just about any trade-off to prevent it can seem reasonable. And thus you have the psychological signature of the modern self: defined by love, an empty vessel without it, the threat of love's withdrawal shriveling even the most independent spirits into complacency.
In the final section of the book, Ms. Kipnis looks at politics, marriage, and infidelity, especially the adultery scandals of the 90s. Why do we expect monogamous behavior from our country's leaders when we ourselves are so bad at it? Do their extramarital dalliances or sexual explorations make them less able to lead our country? She presents the citizens as those afraid of being cuckolds to our politicians, afraid that we're being fleeced and taken advantage by them, and their immoral sexual behavior is proof of this infidelity to the vows they made to us. The politicians, for their part, want to keep the status quo and use "family values" as a way to reduce change, even with the hypocrisy of their own adulteries. She frames the gay marriage debate as the conservative politicians afraid that this change to the tradition of marriage could open the floodgates to the citizenry questioning and changing other aspects of life and government in this country.
Against Love has two main weaknesses. First, sections of it dissolve into an academic polemic, full of twenty-dollar words and references to philosophy, social sciences, and historical figures making it difficult to read with interest. Second, as a polemic with its one-sided perspective, it doesn't offer any solutions. If lifelong monogamy to one partner is likely to fail, what's the alternative? She hints at a few answers such as serial monogamy and yearly contracts to renew the vows of monogamy and marriage instead of lifetime ones.
Ms. Kipnis has clearly identified the problems with modern marriage and fidelity, often with humor or penetrating insight. She expertly captures the monotony and ennui of a stalled relationship and the thrill of a new affair, making it easy to see why so many fall into the trap of adultery. Even though this framing of modern life can be depressing at times, and no alternative to the present system seems obvious, this is an eye-opening book. Approached with an open mind, Against Love will make you think and challenge many of the assumptions we all believe sacrosanct. For those who've been through adultery from any aspect, or have been divorced, parts of this book will either have you nodding your head in understanding or will deliver a virtual blow to your solar plexus making your pain resurface.
Despite its tedious reading at times and over-the-top generalizations, Ms. Kipnis has achieved her goal which she states at the beginning: "it's just supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions." Reading this book will force you to think about the relationships in your life. You may not agree with her arguments or assertions, but you can't deny that she's engendered new thoughts about beliefs you probably hold dear. As a polemic, Against Love succeeds in providing a conviction-rattling read.
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