When I was young, I was deeply committed to a life of love: my twenties were a string of intense affairs and serious long-term relationships interrupted only by brief periods of singledom. I loved to love, to be loved: the tender kisses, the holding hands, the constant person to lean on. I loathe to admit it but I’ve always devoured sappy romantic comedies and weepy chick flicks: my earliest memories are singing along with Roy Orbison during the ending credits of Pretty Woman (a movie, I now realize, for a four year old was wildly inappropriate). These movies all seemed to say one thing: love is an integration of two inadequate, incomplete halves to make a perfect whole; to be happy, you had to have someone. I blame these enduring myths of modern knights in shining armor for my deep-seated terror of being alone.
Because I thought love was a need rather than a want, I leaped from relationship to relationship, becoming a sort of serial monogamist. The result? I lost who I was (after all, isn’t that, to some extent, what a relationship is: a steady dissolution of self?). Perhaps love is always a kind of osmosis, a process by which our personality passes through a semipermeable membrane and intermingles with that of someone else. In a relationship, two independent, autonomous “I’s” merge into an indivisible “we”: we adopt their preferences, we trade tastes in books and movies. In an ideal relationship, this would be an equal exchange between partners. But in a lopsided union, only one partner is assimilated into the culture of the other, absorbing their viewpoints, their philosophies, their beliefs, their ideas.
This subsumption of self begins with the very first date. During the initial stages of infatuation, we long for one thing: our beloved. In order to allure our lover, we’ll do almost anything from pretend to be obsessed with their favorite band to overstate our admiration for Jack Kerouac. Dating is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self behind many masks. Existing at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, the idea-orientation of an essay and the narrative-orientation of a novel, Alain De Botton’s On Love explores this phenomenon with great wit. Though a portrait of a single couple, a nameless narrator and Chloe, his beloved, the story gives us broader insight into the riddles of attraction and seduction, desire and love. In one of my favorite chapters “Authenticity,” our narrator takes Chloe to Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a chic new French restaurant on Fulham Road. In an exquisite sentence that superbly captures the timidity and tension of a first date, De Botton writes:
“I had lost all capacity either to think or speak, only able to draw silently invisible patterns on the starched white table cloth and take unnecessary sips of bubbled water from a glass goblet.”
But why is it so nerve-wracking to get to know someone? Why do we get the first date jitters, even the most seemingly self-assured among us?
When we go on a date, especially with someone we’re fond of, dinner is no longer casual, convivial conversation over the clink of champagne glasses and beef bourguignon— it’s a performance carried out with the intent to seduce someone. The label of “date” transforms a simple evening out into a blinding extravaganza of sparkling costumes and Oscar-worthy drama. If, as Fitzgerald wrote in his quintessential American masterpiece, personality is an “unbroken series of successful gestures,” so is seduction. In many ways, seduction is a form of acting, a theater where our behavior is not spontaneous but carefully calculated and rehearsed. Dating requires we play a part. After all, if on a first date we were completely, unreservedly ourselves, would anyone ever love us? Probably not. No potential paramour would be enthralled by our annoying habit of always arriving at least thirty minutes late or won over by our troubled history of abusive relationships and alcoholism. Just as we adopt the role of perfectly punctual, reliable candidate when interviewing for a job, on the stage of seduction, we craft ourselves into the character we imagine our beloved most wants:
“Out of this perceived inferiority emerged the need to take on a personality that was not directly my own, a seducing self that would locate and respond to the demands of this superior being. Did love condemn me not to be myself? Perhaps not forever, but, if it was to be taken seriously, it did at this stage of seduction, for the seducing position was one that led me to ask What would appeal to her? rather than What appeals to me? I asked How would she perceive my tie? rather than How do I judge it? Love forced me to look at myself as through the imagined eyes of the beloved. Not Who am I? but Who am I for her? And in the reflexive movement of that question, my self could not help but grow tinged with a certain bad faith and inauthenticity.”
On some level, dating always requires we exchange our authentic self for a fictitious one. Though he desires one of Les Liaisons Dangereuses’s delectable wines, the narrator resists for fear of looking like a drunkard when Chloe only orders a glass of water. Abstaining from a glass of pinot noir may sound trivial but it represents one of a million ways seduction demands we reject who we really are and assume a persona:
“If staying true to oneself is deemed an essential criterion of moral selfhood, then seduction had led me to resolutely fail the ethical test. Why had I lied about my feelings toward a delicious-looking selection of wines, prominently advertised on a blackboard above Chloe’s head? Because my choice had suddenly seemed inadequate and crude next to her mineral thirst. Seduction had split me in two, into a true [alcoholic] self and a false [aquatic] one.”
In a witty if not altogether serious moment, the narrator encounters a serious roadblock on his route to seduce his beloved: he knows little about her. How, he wonders, can he mold himself into the role of her ideal lover if he doesn’t have the script for the part?
“Given my wish to seduce Chloe, it was essential that I find out more about her. How could I abandon my true self unless I knew what false self to adopt? But this was no easy task, a reminder that understanding another requires hours of careful attention and interpretation, teasing a coherent character from a thousand words and actions. Unfortunately, the patience and intelligence required went far beyond the capacities of my anxious, infatuated mind. I behaved like a reductive social psychologist, eager to press a person into simple definitions, unwilling to apply the care of a novelist to capturing the polyvalence of human nature.”
When we first meet someone, they are black-and-white, as bare as the stark outlines of a spaceship in a coloring book. It is only with time that we can color in the lines and a clearer, more three-dimensional picture of who they are can emerge. Because they’ve only just met, the narrator sets out to get to know Chloe better. In a painfully relatable scene, he fumbles clumsily through first date conversation, asking canned questions with the stiff formality of a job interviewer:
“Over the first course, I blundered with heavy-handed, interview-like questions: What do you like to read?[“Joyce, Henry James, Cosmo if there’s time”], Do you like your job? [“All jobs are pretty crappy, don’t you think?”], What country would you live in if you could live anywhere? [“I’m fine here, anywhere where I don’t have to change the plug for my hairdryer”], What do you like to do on weekends? [“Go to the movies on Saturday, on Sunday stock up on chocolate for getting depressed with in the evening.”].”
What I love about De Botton is his ability to extract weighty philosophical significance from the seemingly mundane. For him, a first date isn’t just friendly chit chat at a cafe: it’s an occasion for in-depth examination of human mating. Much like the peacock displays his magnificent iridescent feathers to attract a mate, we homo sapiens put on countless poses to impress a potential partner. A man on a first date, for example, might boast about his six figure salary or make it a point to pick up his paramour in his brand new Tesla. A woman, on the other hand, might entice a lover with a tantalizingly low neckline or a spritz of her most mesmerizing perfume from Dolce & Gabbana. Ultimately, dating is a spectacle where we wear innumerable costumes. And what is a costume but a kind of impersonation? a means of convincing our audience that we are someone infinitely more interesting than ourselves?
Though an elaborate ensemble might dazzle with its embellishment, it will always be uncomfortable compared to our workaday clothes. The contraptions of a costume, the zippers and clasps and buttons, are far more confining than our usual uniform of jeans and a tee shirt. Dating is exhausting because we can’t fuss with a too tight blouse or a sexy but too revealing short skirt— we have to keep up a charade. But just as an actor must eventually take off his stage attire and return to real life, we can’t maintain a facade forever: in time, if we are to truly love and be loved, we have to unveil who we are. In an analogy that aptly captures the laborious difficulty and overall uneasiness of pretending to be someone we’re not, Botton parallels his authentic self to a corpulent man and what he imagines Chloe wants to a too small suit:
“The evening was a process resembling a fat man’s trying to fit into a suit that is too small for him. There was a desperate attempt to repress the bulges that did not fit the cut of the fabric, to shrink my waist and hold my breath so that the material would not tear. It was not surprising if my posture was not as spontaneous as I might have liked. How can a fat man in a suit too small for him feel spontaneous? He is so frightened the suit will split, he is forced to sit in complete stillness, holding his breath and praying he can get through the evening without disaster.”
On Love penetrates the complexities of the human heart and is brilliant from start to finish (as is always the case with Alain De Botton). For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, read De Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, 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 him on status as the construction of culture, how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety, and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment.