It's always suspicious when an author begins a book asking the reader to be tolerant of the coming pages. And it's never a good indication of things to come when an author apologizes in advance. The title Against Love: A Polemic seems like it needs little explanation, but an advance apology for an attack on love is at least understandable. And once you get past the title, it becomes apparent that Kipnis, professor of media studies at Northwestern University, is not so much against the idea of love as she is against the idea of monogamy.
Why write such a book in the first place? As Kipnis warns us in her prologue: "Be advised: polemics aren't measured; they 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." What the book offers are questions and provocations; questions that Kipnis believes have been absent for too long from mainstream discussion. Her aim is simply to incite controversy and, hopefully, debate. This book supplies ample fuel.
Kipnis comes out swinging. Her survey of modern love in the first chapter, titled "Love's Labors," is so cynical it's difficult at times to take seriously. She relies too heavily on the love-as-work metaphor, equating the lover who desires to stray to the repressed worker held at gunpoint for striking from his duty as a laborer. Her rhetoric becomes even more extreme in the second chapter, "Domestic Gulags." The title is no doubt intended to bring to mind images of the work camps in Russia, but comparing modern love to forced labor seems to stretch the metaphor a bit thin.
Kipnis' perception of modern love is unforgivingly black and white. Either you're living an impossible fantasy of true love and great sex, or you're in a monogamous hell where the sex went bad right before you stopped talking to each other. According to Kipnis, sex is everything in a relationship. Once it goes bad (and it will), Kipnis argues, either partner is allowed to think about straying.
Kipnis devotes the final chapter of the book to wondering why we continue to hang on so tightly to the institution of marriage when its public supporters seem to have so much trouble keeping their own marriage vows. Many political leaders continue to defend marriage as a sacred institution between a man and a woman, even as their own marriages collapse as they give in to the urge to stray. Kipnis is quick to point out that many of the key conservative figures who sought to condemn President Clinton for his private indiscretion, conservatives who where also strong supporters of the Defense of Marriage Act, were themselves adulterers.
If marriage really doesn't work anymore, why do we continue to hang on to it at all? Kipnis doesn't really offer an answer to this question. What she does deliver is a series of inquiries on a subject that doesn't seem to receive much discussion. Against Love, while not a particularly stunning work, is still worth the read, if only because the questions posed by Kipnis might be more important, for the time being, than finding answers.
-- Eddie Kovsky