IT MAY SUPRISE NO ONE that women love men, but for those who struggled towards an independent identity in the wake of feminism, this knowledge can still pose problems. On Loving Men explores feminist Jane Lazarre's renewed interest in sexuality and its relationship to creativity and autonomy in her life. By autonomy Lazarre means self-governance, the ability to work and keep the self intact, and she sees this in conflict with the consuming force of passion and its goal of union with another. Although for years she "closed my eyes to men in fear of their betrayal," in her mid-thirties a distracting preoccupation with her sexuality nonetheless reemerged. She uses both literature and archetypes to explain the renewed demands of her body, as she considers her relationship to her father, husband, sons, lovers and friends.
Lazarre's father is a dominant influence. When her mother died during her childhood, he became the parent she could never quite please, who urged her to be more dignified. His discomfort with that part of herself she calls the "Shameless Hussy" mirrors her later self-imposed control. She discusses the way her marriage to a man of opposite temperament, emotionally restrained but supportive, enabled her to develop autonomy. She also describes her unsettling quest for the "Lost Brother," her emotional match.
Lazarre draws heavily on her own experiences and frankly conveys the emotional details of love, intimacy and desire. She chooses the literary form of confession, which "conjures up . . . thoughts of heroism . . . the tearing off of the writer's skin in an attempt to get down to the beating heart: an action rooted in a faith in our immutable kinship." She writes as part of the feminist tradition encouraging women to communicate their deepest feelings and experiences. Initially, women needed this sharing to create a common history, to confirm the validity of individual perceptions and thus build in each one a sense of worth and understanding. With a body of literature established, however, the simple presentation of feelings no longer carries the quality of revelation. This continued intense focus on personal experiences, as if they were all universal, seems self-important. By examining in public questions which many of us have already examined inside ourselves, Lazarre raises expectations for answers she does not provide. She relies too heavily on the reader's acceptance of the implicit value of revealed emotions, without explicitly connecting them in an organized structure which others might use to tackle the question of sexuality and self.
On Loving Men is both stimulating and disappointing. Lazarre is insightful. She recognizes the woman's responsibility for her vulnerability in a passionate relationship. She demonstrates that the conflicts engendered by love are often internal, as much as between men and women, and she understands the necessity to recognize the body if one is to fully comprehend oneself. She accepts the need for intimacy and passion as a positive force, but she offers no means of reconciling this part with other aspects of the self. The place of sexuality in Lazarre's life remains unresolved, potentially threatening: "No matter how creative and filled with pleasure and depth a passionate relationship with a man may be, there is this other thing, this not yet understood link between enormous passion and the willingness, the need, to obliterate the self." Nor does she fully examine the connection between sexuality and creativity she mentions frequently, but only concludes they "both require an absolute assertion of the self." They remain separate; whereas a view of them as the same force, nurturing in different forms the human spirit, carries greater hope for the possibility of an integrated, fully expressed self.
Since passion still disturbs Lazarre, she longs to possess "the masculine capacity to distance oneself through various kinds of work," healthy so long as "it is used to assure oneself that there is a life that persists beyond personal passions and emotional needs." It is difficult to believe that life can be successfully compartmentalized in this way. Self is a combination of love and work, solitude and relationships, experiences, emotions and ideas. It may be that to live fully and richly we need to feel pain, or certainly conflict -- that the goal is not rigid self-control or withdrawal, but a continuous tension generating the energy to work and love. One is not truly free or autonomous if she lives with constant fear that an essential part of her being might emerge to embarrass or annihilate her. And in the culturally developed desire to connect, support and nurture, in their ability to "be emotional," women have tremendous strength. They must learn to use these qualities in concert with self-respect and judgment, but not deny them.
The limitations of On Loving Men make clear the need for some way to integrate the enriching experiences and complex demands of the body as part of an enlightened, secure and productive self. Sex, passion, motherhood -- these offer women a most challenging paradox. They are what feminism should most help us understand and enjoy as celebrations of womanhood, but about which its teachings make us most ambivalent. They depend on unpredictable connections with others; they are rooted in emotions. By their very nature they are out of our control, although without control over our own lives we can not be independent. At the same time, they express the very essence of ourselves. We need a more mature, challenging literature to deal with this ambivalence in all of us, men and women. In the light of the particular societal and political pressures they feel, women may first need solitude and denial as a necessary step to establish strong identities, but as a final way of life this is both limiting and defeating.