Kate’s Contrarian Posts about Romance™!
i so enjoyed meticulously dissecting (oh, all right, haphazardly slinging about) many of the tightly-held notions about love and marriage last year that i thought, why not do it again? especially since i am still semi-obsessed with the book i just finished last week, against love: a polemic by laura kipnis, which actually meticulously dissects the social phenomenon of adultery and what it says about our societal schizophrenia when it comes to marriage.
good stuff, people, seriously. and a great book to be reading on the subway over the next week if you really enjoy going against the grain!
i highly recommend that you all check out stephanie zacharek’s review of the book on salon.com; it does a much better job of consolidating the book’s major points, themes, and opinions better than i ever could. but if you’re too lazy (i know you), here are a few crucial excerpts:
first, an explanation of the title and overall point of the book:
Her book isn't called a polemic for nothing, which means, as she explains in the introduction, it's designed to turn us upside-down: "Polemics exist to poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head, even about sacrosanct subjects like love. A polemic is designed to be the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z-Boy lounger. It won't injure you (well, not severely); it's just supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions." Let's forget that Kipnis even needs to explain what a polemic is. My guess is that she wanted to stem the tide of letters from serious-minded cuddlebugs everywhere, taking pen to paper to assert angrily, "We happen to like being married!"
a summary of how kipnis draws a parallel between “work” and “love”:
…in Kipnis' view, there are strong societal forces at work that depend on our swallowing, hook, line and sinker, the notion of marriage as a romantic institution…Submerged in the marital jelly of docility and numbness, we're much more productive and easier to manage. We work hard all the livelong day, and then come home, where we work hard at being married, because we all know that "Marriage is hard work." And then, before we know it, all our hard work has killed our libidos, leaving them limp and lifeless and hanging like damp, dejected rags on the clothesline of life.
a hypothesis about why that parallel might exist:
The point is that marriage, which ostensibly jerks us into a lockstep of manageability that should ideally last a lifetime, serves society more than it serves the human spirit. And that's where the idea of adultery as civil disobedience comes in. Kipnis isn't interested in feelings here: What she really cares about are social patterns…Adultery is a form of risk-taking, a renegade act, a reaffirmation that, OK, we may be married, but we're not dead. We're humans with "messy subjectivities."
…when she expands her argument, arguing that the hallowed halls of our government have much to lose if people either don't marry or don't stay married, she really gets cooking. Kipnis enumerates, with unrepressed glee, most of the politicians in recent history who have espoused family values only to be embarrassed by a naked mistress or two in their own closets…And, she reminds us, Bill Clinton, with Hillary's support, signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which she calls "a custom-built stockade fence to protect matrimony against infiltration by nefarious homosexual elements and safeguard the more panicky states from having to recognize another state's gay marriages, should any state actually grant the privilege, which none had."
that is a lot of block quoting, i know, but i wanted to give you an idea of what kipnis is doing here: taking what is considered in polite company to be an unmitigated evil – adultery – and unearthing the societal and cultural imperatives that make it so. we think of such things as givens, as naturals. “of course infidelity is bad! Of course ‘true love’ is good!” kipnis pulls apart these “truth”s that we have learned to regard, from day one, as self-evident.
all of this is not to say that i won’t, in the end, choose “companionate coupledom” (a phrase kipnis uses interchangeably with marriage to indicate lifelong, monogamous commitment between two people) as the best option – hell, i’m there now, and it’s working out pretty well! but just because i’m enjoying it doesn’t mean i can’t take a hard look at the bigger picture: how did i get here in the first place? what forces bigger than myself are influencing my decisions are far as this relationship goes? what price do I pay for it? and ultimately, is it worth it?
regardless of what the answers are for each and every different person, i think these are questions from which we shouldn’t shrink, or shy away. if society is screaming at you do one thing, consider why that is – consider what is being asked of you, as well as what is being offered. as the clichéd bumper sticker implores, “question authority”! chances are, you’ve got good reason to.
now that i’ve introduced this year’s Contrarian™ topic (luckily, it’s just about as broad and meandering as last year!), i am going try to post some excerpts directly from against love in the days ahead, to encourage some reactions and opinions from you all. so please, by all means: disagree, concede, tear apart, and “problematize” away. i’d really love (no pun intended) to hear what you all think about this massive, challenging, and complicated subject.