A Life of One’s Own “The End of the Novel of Love” Reviewed by Mahin Hassibi, M.D.

A Life of One’s Own “The End of the Novel of Love” Reviewed by Mahin Hassibi, M.D.

The underlying assumption of this new book by literary critic Vivian Gornick is that love — despite all we’ve been led to believe — is certainly no salvation, and may not even be life-enhancing at all. She explores this unfashionable notion in a series of sharp, insightful essays: readings of the stories and novels of Kate Chopin, Willa Cather, and Christina Stead; reflections on the life and death of Clover Adams (the wife of Henry Adams); and an examination of the love affair between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.

Gornick is concerned with the subtle power struggles inherent in intimate relationships. Her essays focus on the ways in which one partner in a marriage slowly comes to dominate the other, or how the life-long intimacies between parents and children generate anger and anxiety instead of affection. She shows how frequently attachment leads to bondage, and how often women’s youthful fantasies about love, family and fulfilment give way to the realities of “unlived” lives.For Gornick, it is essential that women understand there are worthier goals than success in love. Achieving a clear understanding of one’s own thoughts and feelings; becoming independent in one’s actions; asserting one’s active will — all contribute to becoming oneself, to defining a life on one’s own terms, rather than by one’s position in a relationship. Gornick is willing to face the bleak realization that love — erotic or filial — cannot do the job for us. This short, well-written, engaging book leaves the reader with the task of finding out “how to connect yet not merge, how to respond yet not be absorbed, how to detach but not withdraw.”

The following are excerpts from two chapters of The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick published by the Beacon Press.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin began writing in 1888. She was thirty-eight years old, the widow of a New Orleans cotton factor. The stuff poured out of her: swift, sure, immediate, without hesitation and without revision…In no time at all she was established. Her stories were set among the Creoles and Cajuns of rural Louisiana, and she was welcomed into American literature as a delightful regionalist whose work was wonderfully mimetic.

For more than a decade Chopin worked on as a popular, well-known writer. Then, in 1899, she published The Awakening. This novel came as a shock and a scandal. It was not delightful. It was realistic in the European style.

More Zola than Zola, it was said. Too strong for the children, it was said. Should be labeled moral poison, it was said. Chopin was stunned. Why was this book being received so differently from her other work? After all, there was nothing here that she hadn’t said, one way or another, before. It was all there in the stories. Surely people had seen that, hadn’t they? No, it was explained, they hadn’t. The stories had only implied what she was not saying openly.

Depression set in. She stopped writing. No doubt, given time, she would have come out the other side, but as it happened there was no time. In 1904 Kate Chopin suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. She was fifty-four years old. She left behind three novels, eighty-five stories, and a reputation as an “odd one” in American letters.

During her marriage Chopin had discovered that the strain of sensuality in herself was serious and the power of erotic love immense. It was a piece of understanding that became integrated into her inner life, and her stories were marked from the beginning by a startling adultness about sexual love.

Two things in her work made this adultness palatable to American readers in the 1890s: the sex was among Creoles and Cajuns (for which read people not like ourselves), and it was never made explicit.

She had discovered something else as well: that under the best of circumstances marriage was an opposition of wills. One or the other of the married couple was always being gently, subtly, lovingly pushed out of shape; dominated; made to do the bidding of the other. Usually — but this was not her theme — it was the woman because it was the woman who came to married life the least experienced, untried, and unknowing. Women, more often than men, awakened from the long dream of adolescence to find themselves bound in perpetuity into their lives without any realization of how they had gotten there. Men suffered, too, from the condition — she could see that– but when all was said and done, after the awakening men know better how to make use of the baptism by fire. Women were left staring into the fire.

A woman’s life, she saw, was a metaphor for the consequence of this dream of life gone on too long. Knowledge, when it came, was often without the power to activate the chronically dormant will. Without action of the will, a vacuum formed. Into the vacuum flowed the force of domination. Men did not have to learn (or even understand) the imperative of the active will; they were born to it. Women, however, once they were made conscious, often remained frozen, impaled on Hamlet’s conflict.

Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

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….

The story of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger belongs to the dramatists, not the critics. It is a tale of emotional connection made early, never fully grasped, then buried alive in feeling the protagonists kept hidden from themselves. Such feeling is like a weed pushing up through concrete. When the hurricane is over, and the world is littered with destruction, it is still waving in the wind.

Hannah Arendt became Martin Heidegger’s student at the University of Marburg in 1924. She was eighteen years old. He was thirty-five and already famous in university circles. (Three years later, when Being and Time was published, he would be hailed as a major philosopher.) She was beautiful and, needless to say, the smartest girl in the class. He was attracted, and he moved. Within months they were lovers. The affair lasted four years.

Heidegger did all the controlling, Hannah did all the worshiping — naturally, how could it have been otherwise — but the dynamic between them was something of an equalizer. He needed her intelligent adoration as much as she needed to give it. They both approached his talent for thinking with reverence, each believing he was a vessel of containment for something large, something to be served, protected, and responded to always. This intensity between them, as it turned out, proved a bond stronger than either love or world history.

In the spring of 1933, Heidegger became rector at the University of Freiburg. In an infamous inaugural speech, he endorsed National Socialism and laid the university at the service of the Nazi regime. That summer Hannah Arendt left Germany. She did not return to the country of her birth for seventeen years. By the time she did, she had become a political thinker of international reputation, and Heidegger was living in poverty, in occupied Germany, with a ban on his thinking.

She told herself that she would not contact him, that February in 1950, but the minute she reached Freiburg she picked up the phone. Within hours he was at the hotel. Two days later she wrote to him, “When the waiter announced your name it was as though time had stopped. Then, in a flash, I became aware — I have never before admitted it, not to myself and not to you and not to anyone else — that the force of my impulse [to get in touch] has mercifully saved me from committing the only truly unforgivable disloyalty, from mishandling my life. But you must know one thing…that had I done so, it would have been out of pride only — that is, out of pure, plain, crazy stupidity. Not for any reason. “

Three months later Heidegger sent her four letters in quick succession to say that her return to his life had brought him joy; that she alone was close to him when he was thinking; that he dreamed of her living nearby and of running his fingers through her hair. He sounded like a man newly charged, filled with hope and longing, excited and immensely glad to be alive.

They were both mesmerized by the reconciliation, Heidegger no less than Arendt. Afterward, of course, they were overtaken repeatedly by the people they had actually become, but to a remarkable degree each remained compelled by the other, continuing to write and meet for the next twenty-five years until 1975 when, as it happened, they died within months of one another.

Reprinted from The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick.
©1997 by Vivian Gornick.
By permission Boston: Beacon Press.

Dr. Hassibi is professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College.

© 1998 – 2010 On The Issues.