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Book Review / Essays

The Pulsing Heart of Romantic Love

THE END OF THE NOVEL OF LOVE by Vivian Gornick; Beacon Press; $20, 165 pages


Vivian Gornick's prose is so penetrating that reading it can be almost painful, like pouring iodine on a wound. Gornick is one of the few contemporary critics who has taken George Orwell's warning--that muddled writing is less a stylistic problem than an ethical one--to heart. At a time when incomprehensible prose parades as profundity, Gornick's new collection of critical essays--in which she examines various connections between love and literature--stands out as a model of luminous clarity.

For 150 years, Gornick argues, romantic love was viewed as "emblematic of the search for self-understanding"; passion was the key to breaking "the bonds of the frightened, ignorant self." This was true partially because erotic love often required freeing oneself from one's family and one's class, and partially because erotic love was still a kind of terrifying psychic terra incognita. Tolstoy, Stendhal, James and Lawrence weren't lying when they posited love as the crucible of the soul.

But we are. Today, Gornick contends, when social taboos have been eroded, when "bourgeois society as such is over"--when we have experienced sex and love, adultery and divorce, drugs and politics, psychotherapy and feminism--today we know that romantic love, in and of itself, is not the foolproof agent of transformative change. Love cannot make us brave, compassionate, tender and wise any more than it can turn water into wine; love is not magic, and it will continue to be the god that fails precisely so long as we deify it. Gornick writes: "Love, . . . like food or air, is necessary but insufficient: it cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves. . . . What is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness."

Gornick defines freedom as "the steady application of self-understanding," and as these essays progress, it becomes clear that the crucial word is "application." For Gornick, knowledge itself is never enough; thus, of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart and James' Isabel Archer, she charges: "They say they want a real life, but they do not mean what they say. They do not understand that to have a life one must act, consciously and deliberately, on one's own integrated behalf." In an analysis of Willa Cather, she notes "that to be oneself is a lonely and fearful thing and, in the end, we each manufacture, or refuse to manufacture, the courage necessary for the task at hand." And she observes, rather depressingly, that "nowhere in literature is there a female equivalent of the protagonist locked in successful struggle" to separate from her parents--no female equivalent of, say, "Sons and Lovers."

Gornick's tone, though bracing, is never harsh. Still, she is mightily annoyed at the self-pitying romanticism that permeates the work of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Andre Dubus, whom she regards as Hemingway's heirs. Although acknowledging their "astonishing capacity" as writers, she finds their desolation ultimately false, based on a nostalgic longing for an obsolete model of love. Even more infuriating, in her view, is their characters' wistful, woozy bewilderment about their lives--a bewilderment that is actually firmly self-willed. Carver, Ford and Dubus create men who would rather endlessly repeat the same affairs and marriages and breakups than risk change: "Theirs is the distress of people unable to arrive at wisdom."

Gornick is fascinated by Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger's unfathomable, lifelong obsession with each other. Ironically, Arendt may have been a victim of her own rationality: Gornick depicts her as deeply contemptuous of unconscious desires and conflicts, which left her, paradoxically, "more vulnerable to them."

In this book's bleakest yet most moving passage, Gornick writes: "What it comes down to is this. If you don't understand your feelings, you're pulled around by them all your life. If you understand but are unable to integrate them, you're destined for years of pain. If you deny and despise their power, you are lost."

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