Alain de Botton on How Heartbreak Dispels Our Hubris & Hurls Us into the Depths of Despair

The word “break up” evokes several stereotypical images: a hysterical, mascara-smudged on lovewoman gorging on pints of Ben & Jerry’s and hurling a heart-shaped box of chocolates at her TV set, a scorned lover playing out fantasies of revenge and tossing sentimental momentos like once cherished photos in the trash.  Though breakups are a universal human experience, so universal— in fact—  that we can readily recall any one of these cliched depictions, how we cope with the dissolution of a relationship varies from person to person.  For some, break ups are synonymous with an oblivion of gin and tonics and booze-fueled one night stands.  Speech slurred, sentences barely coherent, we— dazed and drunk— tell the tragic tale of our love’s demise to anyone who will listen.  If a perfect stranger finds themselves at a neighboring bar stool, they’ll hear every chapter in the saga of our doomed romance, from the magical days of first love to the later years of spiteful words and simmering resentment.  Others of us seek out distraction in steamy but ultimately unsatisfying sex.  Still others indulge in our depression, whimpering in bed to Dashboard Confessional and crying in inappropriate social contexts such as our local bar or at work beneath our desks.  For us, Friday nights are an agony of loneliness and sweatpants.  Weeping at sappy chick flicks like Sixteen Candles, we succumb to self-pity’s hackneyed dramatics: no, we tell ourselves, our love lives will never have the hazy, dreamy lighting of a John Hughes movie ever again.  We’ll never find a guy as hunky as Jake Ryan while wearing a gauzy pink dress.

When the person we trust dissolves a decade-long commitment with eight life-altering words (I don’t want to be with you anymore), we have to grapple with a greater philosophical conundrum: do we have any sort of command of our fate or are we— as the immortal Shakespeare once said— as flies to wanton boys are to the gods?  do they kill us for sport?

In his incomparable part-novel, part-dissertation On Love, the story of a nameless narrator’s ill-fated romance, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues breakups break our hearts because they dispel the long-standing belief that we’re in control.  Human beings have accomplished incredible feats of the imagination since time immemorial: we’ve built the Empire State Building and the Great Pyramid of Giza; we’ve sailed across seas and soared through skies to new worlds; we’ve constructed complex webs of interstate highways and the First Transcontinental Railroad; we’ve eliminated measles and small pox, discovered DNA and electricity, invented the internet and the wheel.  Yet we’re not omnipotent, we’re not the almighty rulers of the world.  We mere mortals are frail and fallible— but infinitesimal specks in the cosmos.

Though we imagine God gave us dominion over heaven and earth, much of life is outside our control: tomorrow we might lose our jobs or our homes, our husband might refuse the terms of our ultimatum or our wife might get kidnapped by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.  Catastrophe reminds us just how small we are.  No matter how large our brains are relative to our size, we’re powerless in the face of an earthquake or super volcano.  In the grammar of day-to-day life, we’re objects and subjects; we act but are also acted on. 

Nowhere is this more true than in love.  How often do we forget our beloved is an independent agent with their own free will, a subject of their own sentence rather than a mere object in our own?  Because they loved us at one time, we imagine their feelings will endure.  But the person we love can always leave, life can always change with the slam of a door.  “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing over night,” the Beatles sang on Rubber Soul.  What’s worse than knowing all things— even love— are subject to metamorphose?  Knowing no matter how desperate we are to stall the forward movement of time, all is inconstancy, all is unsteadiness, all is flux.  When his girlfriend Chloe leaves him for another man, our narrator realizes he is nothing but Cupid’s pawn:

“I was forced to abandon the techno-optimism of modernity, I slipped through the net designed to counteract primitive fears. I gave up reading daily papers or trusting the television, I gave up faith in weather forecasts and economic indicators.  My thoughts made way for millennial disasters— earthquakes, floods, devastation, plague.  I came closer to the world of the gods, the world of primitive forces guiding our lives.  I felt the transience of everything, the illusions upon which skyscrapers, bridges, theories, rocket launchers, elections, and fast-food restaurants were built.  I saw in happiness and repose a violent denial of reality.  I looked commuters in the face and wondered why they had not seen.  I imagined cosmic explosions, seas of lava flowing, pillage and destruction.  I understood the pain of history, a record of carnage enveloped in nauseous nostalgia.  I felt the arrogance of scientists and politicians, newscasters and petrol station attendants, the smugness of accountants and gardeners.  I linked myself to the great outcasts, I became a follower of Caliban and Dionysus and all who had been reviled for looking the pus-filled warts of truth in the face.

[…]

Chloe’s departure had rocked the belief that I was a master of my own house, it was a reminder of neuronal weakness, the conscious mind’s impotence and inadequacy.  I lost the pull of gravity, there was disintegration, and the curious lucidity that comes from total despair.  I felt I had not been able to tell my own story, but had witnessed a demon do it for me, a childish, petulant demon who enjoyed raising his characters, then letting them crash down onto the rocks below.  I felt like a puppet hooked on strings reaching up to the sky or deep into the psyche.  I was a character in a master narrative whose grander design I was helpless to alter.  I was the actor, not the playwright, blindly swallowing a script written in another’s hand, ascribed an ending that hurtled me toward an unknown but painful end.”

When a couple splits, both betrayer and betrayed become lawyers in the case of their relationship: who, they wonder, should be held responsible for their love’s bitter end?  Hoping to mount a strong defense, each party collects evidence and interviews witnesses.  In the courthouse of our heads, we weave these clues into a cohesive, cogent case for our own innocence (“Ladies and gentleman of the jury, as you can see, the defendant’s wandering eyes at that New Year’s Eve party eight years ago make him deserving of this punishment…”).

Yet no matter how much we fight for a guilty verdict for our ex, after hours of testimony and evidence, we usually realize we’re equally to blame for the demise of our relationship.  In fact, we come to think it is we who deserve a harsh sentence.  Maybe we had been neglectful, maybe we had been hurtful and abusive.  Obsessively, we play and replay the movie of our relationship: had we spent one too many nights late at the office?  had we hurt our beloved’s feelings when we flirted too eagerly with that attractive Parisian man?  or was there something irreparably wrong with us?  were we just fundamentally unlovable, simple as that?

After Chloe leaves him, our narrator finds himself the guilty culprit.  Heartsick and depressed, he tortures himself with memories of every romantic evening spoiled by stupid bickering, every childish sulk, every screaming match.  The end of a relationship is consumed by one defining emotion: regret.  We regret the grenades of nasty names and cruel, irrevocable words exchanged in the heat of an argument; we regret the way we exploited our lover’s insecurities for the sake of winning the war (even if the war was over something as petty as who should wash the dishes); we regret our offenses both large and small, the felonies of unfaithfulness and the mundane misdemeanors of ingratitude and inattention.  How many times had we asked “how’s your day?” out of obligation instead of genuine interest?  How many times had we only pretended to listen?  In a heartbreaking succession of short, impactful “I” statements, Botton captures the infernal torment of post-breakup self-condemnation: 

“I had meant love to live; I had killed it nevertheless.  I had suffered a crime without knowing I had committed it, now I looked for the offense and, unsure of what I had done, confessed to everything.  I tore myself apart looking for the weapon, every insolence returned to haunt me, acts of ordinary cruelty and thoughtlessness— none of these had been missed by the gods, who had now chosen to eke their terrible revenge on me.  I could not bear to look at my own face in the mirror, I tore my eyes out, waited for birds to peck out my liver, and carried the weight of sins up mountains.”

In the end, the narrator recognizes the downfall of his relationship wasn’t ordained by sadistic gods or inscribed in the firmament— it was driven by powerful forces below the threshold of his consciousness.  “I was laboring under the curse of fate, not an external one, but a psycho-fate: a fate from within,” he confesses.  Unlike in Homeric epics or Greek myths, we’re controlled not by divine deities but by our subconscious.  In childhood, our unconscious minds absorbed subliminal messages from our parents.  If they were neglectful or abusive, we calculated an equation: love = unreciprocated.  We associated love with hurt, with heartache, with abandonment.  Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes continue to seek that same dysfunction: if we had an abusive father, we’re drawn to men with volatile tempers; if we had an emotionally unavailable mother, we fall for distant women incapable of real intimacy or support.  Unless we heal our childhood wounds, we’re doomed to repeat the same patterns.

As natural storytellers and meaning makers, we long for our lives to follow a comprehensible narrative arc; we want each episode to fit tidily into a larger unified story, not devolve into a disjointed clutter of chaos.  “What does this mean?” we continually ask ourselves.  What does it mean when the person we love cheats/otherwise betrays us?  What does it mean when we time and time again choose men/women who break our hearts?

Hoping to better situate his chapter with Chloe into a broader history of his romantic relationships, our narrator psychoanalyzes himself:  why did Chloe leave?  for that matter, why did he fall in love with her at all?  is attraction really an enigma, a riddle that can never be resolved, or can its “mysteries” be explained by our childhoods?  Chloe, he realizes, was merely an actor hired to play a part, their relationship an excuse to restage the same dysfunctional mother/son plots:

“I did not simply love Chloe and then she left me.  I loved Chloe in order that she leave me.  The painful tale of loving her appeared as a palimpsest, beneath which another story had been written.  Buried deep in the unconscious, a pattern had been forged, in the early months or years.  The baby had driven away the mother, or the mother had left the baby, and now baby/man recreated the same scenario, different actors but the same plot, Chloe fitting into the clothes of another.  Why had I even chosen her?  It was not the shape of her smile or the liveness of her mind.  It was because the unconscious, the casting director of the inner drama, recognized in her a suitable character to fill the role in the mother/infant script, someone who would oblige the playwright by leaving the stage at just the right time with the requisite wreckage and pain.”

More than any book in recent memory, On Love descends into the devastating depths of post-breakup despair.  For more witty insights into this at times maddening aspect of the human experience, delight in de Botton on dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning 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 culturehow gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety and how expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment. 

Alain de Botton on Love as the Origin of Beauty

Why do we find one person irresistible and not another?  Why does one man prefer brunettes and another blondes?  Why does one woman daydream about the boyish good looks of a scrawny 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio while another only possesses libidinous lust for macho man body builders?  Why do traditionally handsome men with striking jaw lines and chiseled abs attract some but repel others?

Attraction is ultimately an enigma.  “Does beauty give birth to love, or does love give birth to beauty?” Alain de Botton’s nameless narrator asks in his incomparable part-novel, part-philosophical treatise On Love, “Surrounded by an infinite number of people, we may ask [staring at our lover while they talk on the phone or lie opposite us in the bath] why our desire has chosen to settle on this particular face, this particular mouth or nose or ear.”  What constitutes beauty has always puzzled poets and philosophers.  Is beauty universal, a principle shared across all time periods and cultures?  Is it a checklist of a few consistent characteristics, readily identifiable?  Or is beauty more mysterious?  Does it slip through semantic boxes of easily understood definition and depend— as the old saying goes— on the eye of the beholder?

With his philosophical acumen and trademark wit, de Botton outlines two opposing theories of beauty: the Platonic and the Kantian.  Fashion magazines promote a Platonic conception of beauty, the idea that in the realm of aesthetics, there’s only one universal standard.  To both the world’s magazine editors and the ancient Greek philosopher, beauty is a mathematical equation with a single indisputable answer: a glowing complexion; glossy coiffed hair; pouty, perfectly pink lips; a thin, perfectly-proportioned figure.  The fashion model is the consummate Platonic ideal, the embodiment of elegance, as architecturally awe-inspiring and symmetrical as a statue.

If, as Plato argues, there is an objective benchmark of beauty, the non-supermodels among us fall tragically short of the standard.  Our eyes are too far apart.  Our lips are too big.  Our noses are off-center.  In magazines, fur-coated models look effortlessly chic, their gazes subtly seductive as they hold themselves in eternal poses of aloof nonchalance.  In On Love, Chloe, the narrator’s beloved, uses these images as instruments of torture, finding herself repugnant next to the flawless models on the stylish pages of Vogue and Glamour.  When we compare ourselves, real life women, to these manipulated airbrushed Barbie dolls, we have no choice but to view ourselves as monstrously disfigured:

“According to Plato and the editor of Vogue, there exists such a thing as an ideal Form of beauty, made up of a balanced relation between parts, which earthly bodies will resemble to a greater or lesser degree.  Everything we consider beautiful, said Plato, partakes in the essential Form of beauty and must hence exhibit universal characteristics.  Take a beautiful woman and you will see there is a mathematical basis for this beauty, an inherent balance that is no less precise than that found in the construction of a classical temple…Plato had said that only when elements match is there a proper balance that gives an object a dynamic stillness and self-completeness… If Plato had said that only ‘the qualities of measure (metron) and proportion (symmetron) invariably constitute beauty and excellence,’ then Chloe’s face must have been lacking in both beauty and excellence.”

Though Chloe deviates from conventional notions of beauty, our narrator still finds her hopelessly attractive.  How, he wonders, can he be enticed by a lover who possesses so many perceived imperfections, so many unforgivable cracks when he could have a classical statue?  After all, she has a gap between her two front teeth and freckles.  The mainstream conception of winsomeness is as simple as 2 + 2 = 4: straight white teeth + freckle-less face = beautiful.  So how can he remain so mesmerized with Chloe when so many others would dismiss her as ugly, or worse, forgettable?

The answer, de Botton asserts, is that beauty is subjective rather than objective, irrational rather logical.  Just as it’s impossible for art historians to unanimously agree on what constitutes a “good” painting (is it originality of composition?  sharpness of lines?  playfulness of color?), it’s impossible to decide on a singular basis for beauty.  While one man might be drawn to the classic Audrey Hepburn aesthetics of a slim frame and pale skin, another might lust after a Marilyn Monroe bombshell with big hair and a voluptuous figure.  Though we all have physical “types,” one kind of woman or man isn’t objectively better than another: no matter how we try to justify our preferences or defend our tastes with reason, something about beauty always defies description:

“But clearly Plato…must have neglected to include something in his aesthetic theory, for I found Chloe devastatingly beautiful.  I hesitate to describe what exactly it was that I found so attractive.  Did I like her green eyes, her dark hair, her full mouth?  I stumble in answering because of the difficulty of ever explaining in words why one person is attractive and another is not.  I could talk of the freckles on her nose or the curve of her neck, but what would it do to convince someone who did not find her attractive?  Beauty is, after all, not something that one can ever convince someone else about.  It is not like a mathematical formula, through which one may lead someone and arrive at an incontestable conclusion.  Debates over the attractiveness of men and women are like the debates between art historians attempting to justify why one painting is superior to another.  A Van Gogh or Gauguin?  The only way to make a case for one or the other would be by an attempted re-description of the work in language [“The lyrical intelligence of Gauguin’s South skies…” next to the “Wagnerian depth of Van Gogh’s blues…”] or else by an elucidation of technique or materials [“The Expressionist feel of Van Gogh’s later years…”  “Gauguin’s Cezanne-like linearity…”].  But what distance would this go toward actually explaining why one painting works, affects us, grips us by the collar with its beauty?  And if painters have traditionally disdained art historians who come in their wake, it is perhaps not so much out of inverted snobbery as out of a sense that the language of paint [the language of beauty] could not be collapsed into the language of words.” 

Unlike the Platonic understanding of aesthetics, which insists beauty can be tallied and totaled using an established rubric, the Kantian school of thought maintains beauty is particular rather than universal:

“It was not beauty that I had hence hoped to describe, only my own subjective response to Chloe’s appearance.  I could not claim to be laying down an aesthetic theory of universal validity, I could simply point out where my desire had happened to settle while allowing the possibility that others would not locate the same perfections in the same body.  In so doing, I was forced to reject the Platonic idea of an objective criterion of beauty, siding instead with Kant’s view that aesthetic judgements were ones ‘whose determining grounds can be no other than subjective.'” 

When we fall in love, what draws us to our beloved?  Is it his brawny arms?  her long legs and ample chest?  No, we’re charmed by their idiosyncrasies, those endearing quirks that precariously flirt with weirdness.  Those attributes that are normally considered “desirable”— for men, a tall, muscular body, for women, a tiny waist and big breast— don’t mesmerize us as much as those features that are deemed unattractive: the mole on their right shoulder, the perfume of their particular scent.  For our narrator, Chloe’s crooked smile is adorable for the exact reason that it isn’t perfect:

“Yet what was distinctive about my attraction to Chloe was that it was based not on the obvious targets of desire as much on precisely those features that might have been imperfect by someone considering her from a Platonic perspective.  There was a certain pride in locating desire in the awkward features of her face, in precisely those areas where others would not look.  I did not for instance see the gap in between her two front teeth as an offensive deviation from an ideal arrangement, but as an original and most love-worthy redefinition of dental perfection.  I was not simply indifferent to the gap in between the teeth, I positively adored it.”

platonic vs. kantian

Though we understand beauty as the antithesis of ugliness, beauty most often contains a degree of the grotesque.  Beauty and ugliness are an interdependent marriage, not an estranged couple with irreconcilable differences:

“True beauty cannot be measured because it is fluctuating, it only has a few angles from which it may be seen, and then not in all lights and at all times.  It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those areas that will also lend themselves to ugliness.  Nothing can be beautiful that does not take a calculated risk with ugliness.”

To be conventional is to be based on or in accordance with what is generally done.  If in the Platonic worldview there is a conventional notion of attractiveness, then it must follow that Platonic beauty is formulaic and, thus, tediously unoriginal.  After all, it doesn’t take much artistic sensitivity to find beauty in the obvious; any one can appreciate the grandeur of exquisite surroundings, an exhibition of Cezanne paintings, a cobblestone street, a French cathedral.  In the realm of romance, most can recognize the enticing allure of a debonair man in an impeccably tailored suit or a full-figured vixen in a too-tight sweater.  It requires more imagination to locate beauty in what most disregard as ugly or unremarkable.  As Proust would say, the true artist knows beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.

Because our beloved has the capacity, like Wittgenstein’s duck rabbit, to be both hideous and beautiful, we the viewer become essential.  In a purely platonic relationship, a person’s crooked teeth or freckles remain limitations; in a romantic relationship, love transforms these supposed inadequacies into something lovable.  “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” the old philosophical conundrum goes.  If we were to reframe this question in terms of love, we might ask: “If a person has the potential to be beautiful but no one is around to witness it, is he/she still beautiful?”  For Alain de Botton, the answer is no: an object (the loved) depends on the subject (the lover) to exist.  Perhaps this is why we become so enthralled with the beloved— not because they are paragons of some unattainable Platonic ideal, but because their physical flaws, their too small eyes, their disproportionately large arms, render us, the observer, refreshingly indispensable:

“Because her face had evidence within it for both beauty and ugliness, my imagination was given a role in holding on to the precarious thread of beauty.  In its ambiguity, Chloe’s face could be compared to Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, where both a duck and a rabbit seem contained in the same image, much as there seemed to be two faces contained within Chloe’s features.

In Wittgenstein’s example, much depends on the attitude of the viewer: If the imagination is looking for a duck, it will find one; if it is looking for a rabbit, then it too will appear.  There is evidence for both, so what counts is the predisposition, the mental set, of the viewer.  What was of course providing me with a beautiful image of Chloe [rather than a duck] was love.  I felt that this love must have been more genuine because it had not settled on a face that was obviously, unambiguously proportioned.  The editor of Vogue might have had difficulty including photos of Chloe in an issue, but ironically, this only reinforced my desire, for it seemed confirmation of the uniqueness that I had managed to find in her.  How original is it to find a classically proportioned person “beautiful”?  It surely takes greater effort, greater Proustian imagination, to locate beauty in a gap between the teeth.  In finding Chloe beautiful, I had not settled on the obvious.  I could perhaps see in her features things that others could not see.  I had animated her face with her soul.” 

rabbit or duckIn the end, On Love suggests beauty is not something that can be computed and calculated according to an unambiguous scale— it’s manufactured by love.  For more penetrating insights into this at times maddening, mysterious human emotion, read de Botton on the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning, dating as a form of performative playacting, 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.