What is the secret to seduction? For Marcel Proust, the answer is two words: denial and delay. “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free,'” he once said. What makes a potential paramour so appealing is their very potentiality: the fact that they remain a distant horizon instead of a familiar shore makes us desire them all the more desperately. First love is exciting because there’s an element of uncertainty. When a crush is just a crush instead of a long-term partner, we’re not certain of anything: does he/she like me? if I declare my love, will my feelings be reciprocated? or will I be met with the most demoralizing rebuff in the English language (“Oh, I really like you but not in that way…”).
The early days of love are equal parts excitement and torture. On one hand, it’s thrilling to get to know someone: on the stage of dating, each party performs a role and exhibits only their best behavior. Before a heart-racing one-night stand transforms into monogamous matrimony, we don’t really know our possible lover: he/she is simply an embodiment of our fantasies and desires. Each silence in the conversation, each lingering, too-long glance offers the opportunity to project what we most long for. But therein lies the torture. Was our beloved’s invitation to a movie Saturday night really a bold romantic gesture? or was it simply the request of a purely platonic friend and not a lover? When he/she holds our hand as we stroll through the aisles of the grocery store is it a sign of deeper commitment or an act merely undertaken out of obligation because we’re sleeping together?
No one explores the obsessiveness of first love with more charmingly British wit and humorous insight than Alain De Botton. In his best-selling part-novel, part-philosophical inquiry, On Love, Botton maps the topography of romantic relationships from the exhilarating heights of initial attraction to the devastating deserts of heartache and despair. When his nameless narrator first falls in love with Chloe, he exhibits all the tell-tale signs of lovesickness: an undying, irrational devotion to the beloved, a mind made mad by obsessive-compulsion, a pathological tendency to locate meaning in the smallest deeds from an innocent “hello, how are you this morning?” to a passing text. As Botton writes, love is a language brimming with indecipherable words and meanings that are difficult to detect:
“Every smile and every word reveals itself as an avenue leading to a dozen if not twelve thousand possibilities. Gestures and remarks that in normal life [that is, life without love] can be taken at face value now exhaust dictionaries with possible definitions. And, for the seducer at least, the doubts reduce themselves to one central question, faced with the trepidation of a criminal awaiting sentence: Does s/he, or s/he not, desire me?”
To be in love is to be in a state of perpetual distraction. Whether we’re only pretending to listen to our best friend or are absent-mindedly looking out the window while our tweed-jacketed professor is lecturing about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when we’re in love, we can think of only one thing: our beloved. He/she is an all-consuming obsession, the epicenter around which all other thoughts pivot:
“Though under pressure to complete plans for an office near King’s Cross, my mind drifted irresponsibly but irresistibly back to her. There was a need to circle around this object of adoration. She kept breaking into my consciousness with the urgency of a matter that had to be addressed, though these thoughts were part of no agenda; they were [objectively speaking] desperately uninteresting, having no development or point to them. They were pure desire.”
Why is love at once ecstasy and agony? Botton would say the answer is uncertainty. After all, the initial stages of love are defined by a lack of knowledge. Is the man we’re sleeping with actually interested in us or merely using us for our bodies? Does our crush view dinner and drinks as a rendezvous of lovers or a platonic evening between friends? Is he/she as enamored of us as we are of them? Behind every exchange lies a mysterious subtext.
Words that at one time only had a single meaning now have countless definitions. Take, for example, a smile. Oxford English Dictionary defines smile (v.) rather unambiguously as “to form one’s features into a pleased or kind expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed.” But in the romantic arena, the meaning of a smile is manifold: it can be a coy come hither invitation to greater flirtation or simply a sign that our love interest is carefree and convivial; it can express smugness or amusement, derision or approval. And what of a graze of the arm? Does he gently caress you to establish intimacy? Or does she only brush the arm of your blazer to entice you to buy her one more round? In love, there are endless questions but few answers. As the narrator recounts his first date with Chloe, he writes:
“Questions pursued me throughout seduction, questions relating to the unmentionable subtext of every word and action. What did Chloe think as we made our way to Trafalgar Square from her office in Bedford Street? The evidence was tantalizingly ambiguous. On the one hand, Chloe had been happy to take the afternoon off to tour a museum with a man she had only briefly met in an airplane a week before. But on the other, there was nothing in her behavior to suggest this was anything but an opportunity for an intelligent discussion on art and architecture. Perhaps all this was simply friendship, a maternal, sexless bond of a female for a male. Suspended between innocence and collusion, Chloe’s every gesture had become imbued with maddening significance. Did she know I desired her? Did she desire me? Was I correct in detecting traces of flirtation at the ends of her sentences and the corners of her smiles, or was this merely my own desire projected onto the face of innocence?”
Ideally, words are mathematical equations: a single word equals a single meaning. But in love, words (not to mention actions) are no longer solid anchors affixed to one singular stable definition— they are bobbing buoys floating free of fixed significance: on a first date, it’s just as likely that a man’s offer to pay is a generosity demanded by old-fashioned heteronormative notions of gender as a genuinely thoughtful gesture. Similarly, an “I had such a good time” text after a date can mean he sincerely enjoyed your company and can’t wait to see you again or he’s only texting as a common courtesy— there will be no part two in your short-lived saga.
In love, text messages become cryptic codes to decipher, incomprehensible foreign languages in need of translation. Why, we wonder, did he use a period instead of his usual lack of punctuation? What is the significance of a strategically placed smiley face? What do all his conventional expressions of endearment (“honey”/”cutie”/”babe”) really mean? Does he only address us in these affectionate terms because he’s performing his socially defined role as masculine courter? Is all love a stage and are we merely players? Or do his adoring words contain hints of genuine feeling? When we’re besotted with a beloved, anything and everything has meaning:
“As soon as one begins looking for signs of mutual attraction, then everything that the beloved says or does can be taken to mean almost anything. And the more I looked for signs, the more there were of them to read. In every movement of Chloe’s body, there seemed to be potential evidence of desire— in the way she straightened her skirt [as we crossed into Early Northern Painting], or coughed by van Eyck’s The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, or handed me the catalogue in order to rest her head on her hand. And when I listened closely to her conversation, it too revealed itself as a minefield of clues— was I wrong to read a degree of flirtation in her remark that she was tired, or her suggestion we look for a bench?”
Ultimately, love is a maddening form of reading, the lover, an enigmatic text. Romance operates by hints and implication— little is directly said. After all, when we’re lovesick for someone, do we confess our infatuation? When someone is smitten with us, do we expect them to simply state, in no uncertain terms, the depths of their devotion? Of course not: the language of love consists not of easily understandable modes of expression, but a series of strange symbols as inscrutable as ancient hieroglyphics. To solve the puzzle of our paramour, we have to read between the lines of what is done and said.
The result? We become romantic schizophrenics and drive ourselves mad with over-analysis. Desire behaves like a drug, injecting an intoxicating, addictive surge of dopamine straight to our brains and impairing our intellect. Soon the most trivial things take on colossal significance: a tender kiss over coffee and breakfast is an indication our connection is not purely physical but also romantic, an invitation to the family dinner of our sort-of-boyfriend is a sure sign things are getting serious.
Struck by Cupid’s bow, we begin to read less and less critically. Because we so hopelessly yearn for our lover to love us, we can no longer distinguish what we see from what we want to see. Rather than use rationality to interpret the raw data of our experience, we have a tendency toward confirmation bias, a systematic (and tragic) error of reasoning:
“It was desire that had turned me into this detective, a relentless hunter for clues that would have been ignored had I been less afflicted. It was desire that made me into a romantic paranoiac, reading meaning into everything. Desire had transformed me into a decoder of symbols, an interpreter of the landscape [and therefore a potential victim of the pathetic fallacy].
“Nothing of what she said could I take at face value. I clung instead to the underbelly of her words, sure the meaning lay there rather than its obvious location, interpreting instead of listening. We were talking of love, my Venus idly stirring her now-cold tea, but what did this conversation mean for us. Who were these “most people” she spoke of? Was I the man who would dispel her cynicism?
Or was this a ridiculous suggestion? Was there nothing on the table but a half-eaten carrot cake and two cups of tea? Was Chloe perhaps being as abstract as she wished? Did she mean precisely what she was saying, the diametrical opposite of the first rule of flirtation, where what is said is never what is meant? How hard it was to keep a level head, when Cupid was a biased interpreter, when it was so clear what he wanted to be true. Was he attributing to Chloe an emotion that only he felt? Was he guilty of the age-old error whereby the thought that I desire you is mistakenly equated with the corresponding thought You desire me?”
Quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, “love is three quarters curiosity.” In On Love, Botton’s narrator recognizes this fundamental law, noting the key to seduction is concealment, not disclosure:
“Yet whatever my impatience, nor were these questions free of the inflaming power of all things enigmatic. The ambiguity promised either salvation or damnation, but demanded a lifetime to reveal itself. And the longer I hoped, the more the person I hoped for became exalted, miraculous, perfect, worth hoping for. The very delay helped to increase desirability, an excitement that instant gratification could never have provided. Had Chloe simply shown her cards, the game would have lost its charm. However much I resented it, I recognized that things needed to remain unsaid. The most attractive are not those who allow us to kiss them at once [we soon feel ungrateful] or those who never allow us to kiss them [we soon forget them], but those who coyly lead us between two extremes.”
An astute analysis of the human heart, On Love is a delight from start to finish. For more witty insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, read De Botton on dating as a sort of performative play-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment. If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit De Botton on status as the construction of culture, how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment, and how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety.
10 thoughts on “Seduction as Subtext: Alain de Botton on the Lover as a Detective Obsessed with Decoding Symbols and Discerning Significance”
I always find de Botton interesting. I think he’s right about the strong contribution of doubt and uncertainty to love. But then, you have to be attracted to begin with, otherwise it’s just a case of ‘random guy/girl not interested in me… well so what, you and the other six billion…’