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The sexual revolution is justly celebrated for the freedoms it brought—birth control, the decriminalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce, greater equality between the sexes, women's massive entry into the workforce, and more tolerance of homosexuality. But as Pascal Bruckner, one of France's leading writers, argues in this lively and provocative reflection on the contradictions of modern love, our new freedoms have also brought new burdens and rules—without, however, wiping out the old rules, ...
The sexual revolution is justly celebrated for the freedoms it brought—birth control, the decriminalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce, greater equality between the sexes, women's massive entry into the workforce, and more tolerance of homosexuality. But as Pascal Bruckner, one of France's leading writers, argues in this lively and provocative reflection on the contradictions of modern love, our new freedoms have also brought new burdens and rules—without, however, wiping out the old rules, emotions, desires, and arrangements: the couple, marriage, jealousy, the demand for fidelity, the war between constancy and inconstancy. It is no wonder that love, sex, and relationships today are so confusing, so difficult, and so paradoxical.
Drawing on history, politics, psychology, literature, pop culture, and current events, this book—a best seller in France—exposes and dissects these paradoxes. With his customary brilliance and wit, Bruckner traces the roots of sexual liberation back to the Enlightenment in order to explain love's supreme paradox, epitomized by the 1960s oxymoron of "free love": the tension between freedom, which separates, and love, which attaches. Ashamed that our sex lives fail to live up to such liberated ideals, we have traded neuroses of repression for neuroses of inadequacy, and we overcompensate: "Our parents lied about their morality," Bruckner writes, but "we lie about our immorality."
Mixing irony and optimism, Bruckner argues that, when it comes to love, we should side neither with the revolutionaries nor the reactionaries. Rather, taking love and ourselves as we are, we should realize that love makes no progress and that its messiness, surprises, and paradoxes are not merely the sources of its pain—but also of its pleasure and glory.
"Here to help clear things up is Pascal Bruckner, a French thinker who has mercifully never fallen for the post-structuralist poppycock that convoluted prose signifies complexity of thought. The Paradox of Love is in many ways a deconstructive take on our ideas of romance and desire and obsession, yet you will seek in vain in its succession of suave pensées for a sentence that does not immediately make sense. Derrida's obfuscation and Foucault's obscurantism can have you shouting at the walls. Spend a few minutes in Bruckner's company, though, and you want to read him out loud. Which means that the reviewer's temptation is to do nothing but quote. A few pages in, I realised I'd be better off underlining what I didn't want to commit to memory, lest the book become a web of scrawls and scribbles. 'The couple is a little principality that votes its own laws and is constantly in danger of falling into despotism or anarchy.' Whoa! And after a sentence like that you get another just like it: 'Lovers are simultaneously sovereigns, diplomats, parliament, and people, all by themselves.' In a book bursting apart with ideas, it feels almost fatuous to suggest that Bruckner has a thesis—but he has, and it is that the sexual revolution was no such thing. Far from liberating us, he argues, 'the accursed parenthesis of the 1960s' did no more than usher us into new jails—jails in which we are both prisoner and guard."—Christopher Bray, Financial Times
"Bruckner's book seeks to reverse the sentimental trend. His aim is to strip away the 'illusions and false expectations' connected with all matters of the heart. It has to be said—he does a pretty thorough demolition job, starting with religion. . . . Bruckner's vision of the future is chilling, though it is already coming about. He sees a world of solitary souls who form their relationships exclusively online, through 'social networking sites'."—Daily Mail
"At the start of his exhilarating new book, The Paradox of Love (Princeton University Press), Bruckner recalls that the parents mostly hung out on the second floor of the building, smoking dope and enjoying sex, while downstairs the big kids tormented the little kids. . . . In France the bestseller status of The Paradox of Love owes much to Bruckner's suave pensées. Comparing marriage with politics, for instance, he compacts half a dozen insights into a sentence: 'The couple is a little principality that votes its own laws and is constantly in danger of falling into despotism or anarchy.' There were a few parents who did some work. They were among the first to see what was happening and the first to withdraw. They shifted their children to schools run by what they sometimes called 'the bourgeois capitalist state.' After a few angry meetings, the alternative school closed its doors. That was a major event in Bruckner's disillusionment with the ethos of his own generation. A few years later he became one of the nouveaux philosophes in Paris, a group that arose partly in reaction to the standard-issue leftist thought that dominated French discussion for many years. He's now best known as a social critic, the author of The Tears of the White Man, about the often destructive policies intended to help the Third World, and The Tyranny of Guilt, on the West's neurotic desire to blame itself for all the ills of the planet."—National Post
"Bruckner confirms that there is indeed a 'paradox' about today's laissez-faire sexual mores in Europe: the freedom it offers is exactly the freedom of the market, in which there are always winners and losers. . . . What's more, even as Bruckner embraces the ideology of romantic love—'a whole erotics, love that makes us as much as we make it'—he shows how the lifelong pursuit of passion exacts an awful toll on relationship. . . . In the end, Bruckner's urbane but unsparing portrait of the way the French love now suggests that sophistication has as many pitfalls as naveté."—Adam Kirsch, B&N Review
"Pascal Bruckner's The Paradox of Love is . . . playful and wicked. It is ruminative and essayistic in style, following a tradition that harks back to Montaigne. Its purpose is less to persuade or to explain than to provoke."—Peter Beilharz, Australian
"Obama Begs U.S. Not to Embarrass Him in Front of French," read the Onion headline during the 2011 state visit by Nicholas Sarkozy. Once again, the fake newspaper got the real story: Americans tend to feel that whatever we do, the French do it better, or at least cooler. French women, a popular weight loss guide has it, don't get fat. A subsequent Wall Street Journal article caused a sensation by explaining why French children are better behaved and more self-sufficient than American children. And of course, when it comes to love and sex, the French are our touchstone for sophistication: just compare the Lewinsky affair to the funeral of François Mitterand, where his wife and mistress stood side by side.
The Paradox of Love, the latest book-length essay by the prominent French intellectual Pascal Bruckner, confirms most of these American assumptions about France. Among the many subjects of Bruckner's highly readable meditation is a section titled "Europe, the United States: Different Taboos," in which he marvels at the parade of American sex scandals — Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer. All this "strikes French people as grotesque," Bruckner writes; "on the moral level...one can only urge Americans to learn from the Old World how to be temperate."
Yet Bruckner also suggests that all is not entirely well with the French libido, either. It is not a coincidence that the most famous living French writer, Michel Houellebecq, got that way by writing novels full of sexual despair, in which unattractive men, edged out of sexual competition, patronize prostitutes or succumb to sheer nihilism. Bruckner confirms that there is indeed a "paradox" about today's laissez-faire sexual mores in Europe: the freedom it offers is exactly the freedom of the market, in which there are always winners and losers. "Rejection is so terrible in democratic countries because it cannot be blamed on the wickedness of the state or ukases issued by a church. If I am not received with open arms, I have only myself to blame; I may be dying of desire, but it is my being as such that leaves the other person cold. The judgment is as final as one handed down by a court: no thanks, not you."
What's more, even as Bruckner embraces the ideology of romantic love — "a whole erotics, love that makes us as much as we make it" — he shows how the lifelong pursuit of passion exacts an awful toll on relationships. "In some Western European countries marriage has become pointless," he writes; "instead of the conjugal straitjacket," people prefer "a light coat that one can change at will." After all, if the delight of new love is the highest of human experiences, then a relationship of more than a year or two is simply a kind of martyrdom: "Our romances have never had such short lives." This is a romantic "poverty that is more insidious than any other, because it arises from satiation, not from lack." In the end, Bruckner's urbane but unsparing portrait of the way the French love now suggests that sophistication has as many pitfalls as naïveté.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.
Reviewer: Adam Kirsch
Part I A Great Dream of Redemption 7
Chapter 1 Liberating the Human Heart 9
Chapter 2 Seduction as a Market 32
Chapter 3 I Love You: Weakness and Capture 57
Part II Idyll and Discord 77
Chapter 4 The Noble Challenge of Marriage for Love 79
Chapter 5 Fluctuating Loyalties 100
Chapter 6 The Pleasures and Servitudes of Living Together 121
Part III The Carnal Wonder 139
Chapter 7 Is There a Sexual Revolution? 141
Chapter 8 Toward a Bankruptcy of Eros? 161
Part IV The Ideology of Love 181
Chapter 9 Persecution in the Name of Love: Christianity and Communism 183
Chapter 10 Marcel Proust's Slippers 202
Epilogue Don't Be Ashatned! 218
Afterword: Pascal Bruckner's Paradoxes 221