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 on loveand 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 arithmetic in elementary school: 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, 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 and magnified 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.

Alain de Botton on Dating as Performative Playacting

When I was young, I was deeply committed to a life of love: my twenties were a string of on loveintense 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, the most mysterious of human emotions.  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.

Seduction as Subtext: Alain de Botton on the Lover as a Detective Obsessed with Decoding Symbols and Discerning Significance

What is the secret to seduction?  For Marcel Proust, the answer is two words: denial and delay. on love “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 the saga of your short-lived romance.  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 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 culturehow expectation causes anxiety, malaise and discontentment, and how gazing upon once great ruins can cure us of our status anxiety

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Alain de Botton on the Two Stages of Love: Idealization & Disillusionment

Has any other emotion inspired more philosophical inquiry or tormentedon love heartsick sonnets than love and its loss?  Love is the organizing principle of our lives: we do everything we do in hopes of attaining love.  As exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton once said, every adult life is defined by two great love stories: the story of our quest for sexual love and the story of our quest for love from the world. The fulfillment of the former, we believe, will finally make us whole.  But if that’s the case, why is love so often disenchanting?  How can love so unexpectedly mutate into hate?  How can the flames of desire so cruelly cool?  Why can our lover begin as an object of adoration but end as an object of ridicule?  And why when a distant crush becomes a long-term partner does the thrill of longing transform into passionless boredom?

Mathematically speaking, almost all love culminates in heartbreak, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.  So if love is such a fundamental human yearning, if we all supposedly want to love and be loved, why can’t we sustain love over the long haul? 

These are the questions the brilliant De Botton ponders in his marvelous masterpiece On Love, his best-selling part-novel, part-philosophical inquiry into the mysterious and maddening nature of romantic love.  The story opens when our nameless narrator first meets Chloe on a Paris to London flight and immediately falls head-over-heels.  On Love follows their affair from the ecstatic excitement of initial attraction to the torment of helpless obsession, from the bliss of reciprocation to the despair of rejection, from the hope of love’s beginning to the despondency of love’s inevitable demise weeks, months, sometimes years later.

On Love begins with romance’s first stage: idealization.  Swept up by the giddiness of infatuation, we worship the beloved as if they were God, the alpha and omega, the beginning and ending of our existence.  In our eyes, they are just as faultless.  What would be an inexcusable flaw in someone else is somehow permissible in the beloved: the tendency to tell long, meandering stories is a charming quirk, not unforgivably eccentric, the gap between their two front teeth is attractive rather than repulsive.  In the early stages of a relationship, our affection for a potential paramour is directly proportional to our ability (or, rather, inability) to see their flaws.  This is certainly true in On Love.  As the narrator’s interest in Chloe increases, his endearment for her grows exponentially:

“Chloe’s holiday story was dull, but it’s dullness was no longer a criterion for judgement.  I had ceased to consider it according to the secular logic of ordinary conversations.  I was no longer concerned to locate within its syntax either intellectual insight or poetic truth; what mattered was not so much what she was saying as the fact that she was saying it and that I had decided to find perfection in everything she might choose to utter.  I felt ready to follow her every anecdote, I was ready to love every one of her jokes that missed it punchline, every reflection that had lost its thread.  I felt ready to abandon self-absorption for the sake of total empathy, to follow Chloe into each of her possible selves, to catalogue every one of her memories, to become a historian of her childhood, to learn all her loves, fear and hatreds— everything that could possibly have played itself out within her mind and body had suddenly grown fascinating.” 

We’ve all known incurable romantics who are in love with being in love.  From the time they hit puberty, they’ve always had a significant other.  They’ve almost never had to suffer the existential loneliness of being single.  Why do some people always seem to be one half of a couple?  Do they possess some mysterious magnetism that eludes the perpetually single?  Are they simply more irresistible?

Botton posits that the chronically in love are searching for something they perceive to be lacking in themselves.  Embedded in the Platonic myth of our other half is the conviction that we are incomplete— we need someone else to make us whole.  We are so quick to fall in love because we have so little love in our lives.  It’s hard to love anything, most of all ourselves.  Biologically, we’re hardwired to focus on the negative; culturally, we’re encouraged to endlessly criticize.  Too often we regard ourselves with a dislike that borders on disgust; though we can readily forgive other’s faults, we find it impossible to forgive our own.  Our relationship with ourselves is founded on the belief that we are fundamentally flawed.  But intoxicated on the heady liqueur of love, we become drunk with delusion, convinced we’ve finally found a Platonic ideal instead of just another pitiful mortal with foibles and frailties of their own.  As Botton’s analytically-minded narrator notes:

“I must have realized Chloe was human [with all the implications carried by the word] but could I not be forgiven— with all the stress of travel and existence— for my desire to suspend such a thought?  Every love involves [to adapt Oscar Wilde] the triumph of hope over self-knowledge.  We fall in love hoping we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves— all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and brute stupidity.  We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything that lies within it will somehow be free of our faults and hence lovable.  We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves.” 

And so we arrive at the age-old question: when we fall head over heels, are we really in love with the person themselves or just the experience of being in love?  For many, the answer is the latter.  Often times in love, the object of adoration is irrelevant.  We’re not in love with the qualities of their character, the depths of their psyche, the particulars of their personality nor are we in love with the geography of their specific face or their specific body: we’re in love because we want to love.  The longing to love precedes the beloved: because we want love, we find it.  Why do you think love is so often equated to madness, to blindness, to intoxication?  Because it robs us of our rationality and good judgement.  In the heady days of first love, we cannot see the object of our obsession: our longing to love makes gods of men; our desire to love transforms their flaws and imperfections.  If we’re interested in a man who is objectively only average looking, our love will render him as attractive and irresistible as Brad Pitt.  And if we’re charmed by a woman who most would find loud and obnoxious, our love will paint only a flattering portrait, conveniently airbrushing her less than desirable characteristics:

“If the fall into love happens so rapidly, it is perhaps because the wish to love has preceded the beloved— the need has invented its solution.  The appearance of the beloved is only the second stage of a prior [but largely unconscious] need to love someone— our hunger for love molding their features, our desire crystallizing around them.  [But the honest side of us will never let the deception go unchallenged.  There will always be moments when we will doubt whether our lover exists in reality as we imagine them in our mind— or whether the beloved is not just a hallucination we have invented.”

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But after idealization must come love’s second, more disheartening stage: disillusionment.  To some degree, attainment is always disenchanting.  In the same way that Gatsby fabricates a grand, romanticized image of Daisy only to finally attain her and be disappointed, our fantasies of our lovers rarely coincide with their reality.  The crush who at first showered us with compliments becomes mysteriously inattentive once he sweet talks us into bed.  The debonair guy who was so irresistible at the beginning of our relationship eventually exchanges his impeccably tailored suits and Armani sunglasses for an unkempt beard and sweatpants.  Like Daisy, our beloved was more attractive as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its inaccessibility.  As De Botton so eloquently writes:

“There is a long and gloomy tradition in Western thought arguing that love can ultimately only be thought of an unreciprocated, admiring, Marxist exercise, where desire thrives on the impossibility of ever seeing love returned.  According to this view, love is simply a direction, not a place, and burns itself out with the attainment of its goal, the possession [in bed or otherwise] of the loved one…Montaigne had the same idea of what made love grow when he declared that, ‘In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us—’ a view echoed by Anatole France’s maxim ‘It is not customary to love what one has.’

[…]

According to this view, lovers cannot do anything save the oscillation between the twin poles of yearning for and annoyance with.  Love has no middle ground.  It is simply a direction, what it desires it cannot desire beyond its capture.  Love should therefore burn itself out with its fulfillment, possession of the desired extinguishing desire.” 

At first, love is the profound relief of discovering we are not alone.  Our lover belongs to the same country as us: they find the same stupid things funny, they have the same preoccupations and predilections, they hold the same political views.  Reflecting on him and Chloe’s first days of flirtation, the narrator recalls:

“When philosophers imagine Utopian societies, they rarely envisage melting pots of difference; rather these societies are based around like-mindedness and unity, similarity and homogeneity, a set of common goals and assumptions.  It was precisely this congruence that made life with Chloe so attractive, the fact that after endless irreconcilable differences in matters of the heart, I had at last found someone whose jokes I understood without the need of a dictionary, whose views seemed miraculously close to mine, whose loves and hates kept tandem with my own and with whom I repeatedly found myself saying, ‘It’s amazing, I was about to say/think/do/tell you the same thing…’” 

However, if love is enchanting, it’s just as often disillusioning.  The trouble with romance is inherent in its very definition is a denial of reality.  When we fantasize about a lover from afar, we can imagine they are who we want them to be.  In the giddy first days of getting to know someone, we conceive we’re infinitely compatible, two indistinguishable circles of congruent circumference and length.  But when a distant crush becomes a committed partner who unpacks their emotional baggage with the intent to move into our lives and stay, we realize relationships are more like Venn diagrams, a union of separate individuals who are similar but ultimately distinct.  Tragically, the one we love is their own person with their own beliefs, their own philosophies, their own tastes— some of which will not correspond to our own.  Botton handles this law of love comically.  When Chloe buys a hideous pair of shoes, our narrator begins to question their compatibility:

“Chloe’s choice of shoe was an uncomfortable reminder that she existed in her own right [beyond fusional fantasies]…and however compatible we might be over certain things, compatibility did not extend indefinitely.  It was a reminder that getting to know someone is not always the pleasant process that common sense makes it out to be, for just as one might strike on delightful similarities, one may also encounter threatening differences.”

A dazzling cartography of the human heart, On Love will console those who’ve been dopamine-drunk/devastated/otherwise driven mad by love.  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-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on success and status, revisit De Botton 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. 

Rebecca Solnit on the Impotence of Anger

screamingwoman - Version 2The internet is a hotbed of outrage.  If someone expresses an unpopular opinion or tweets something provocative or controversial, the net erupts in vehement vitriol.  In our era of social media, angry mobs don’t attack with torches and pitchforks; they disgrace your name on the blogosphere or accuse you being a “racist” or a “bigot” on Twitter and Facebook.  Rather than physically punish offenders, we shame and humiliate.  Much like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, we march transgressors of political correctness through the streets, hurling tomatoes of ad hominem attacks along the way.  In our age of rage, red-faced screaming has replaced dialogue. 

On one hand, the fact that we get angry at those who use hurtful speech represents a giant leap for basic kindness and human decency.  In many ways, today we have a deeper respect for words, both for what they mean and how they can potentially wound people.  We’re more sensitive and thoughtful.

But have we swung too far to the opposite extreme?  Are we too sensitive?  too willing to label something “offensive”— not because it’s actually derogatory or hurtful— but because it challenges our opinions?  threatens our long-standing beliefs?  Are we too angry?  Why as a culture have we exchanged the sober-mindedness of civil discourse for the intoxicating righteousness of outrage?  Is anger only a destructive force, an inextinguishable inferno that annihilates everything in its wake?  Or can anger be harnessed for light and heat? 

These questions are what Rebecca Solnit ponders in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, the importance of using language clearly and accurately, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  In one of the collection’s most timely essays “Facing the Furies,” Solnit explains anger is a spectrum ranging from minor irritation on the one end to indignation on the other.  Though we often pathologize anger, anger is a useful alarm system that alerts us to a breach of our moral code.  When we want to shriek and slam doors, Solnit explains, we feel we’ve been done wrong:

“At its mildest, the emotion is no more than annoyance, an aversion to mild unpleasantness.  Annoyance with an ethical character becomes indignation: not only do I dislike that, but it also should not have happened.  Indeed, anger generally arises from a sense of being wronged.  In this respect, my conviction that you should not have eaten the last slice resembles my conviction that we should not have bombed Iraq: in each case, I see an injustice and wish it to be righted.  Anger that is motivated by more than a mammalian instinct for self-protection operates by an ethic, a sense of how things ought or ought not to be.” 

We’ve all heard the old adage “love is blind.”  When we’re head-over-heels in love, in the throes of infatuation, it’s impossible to objectively assess our partners: one sip of passion’s intoxicating liqueur and we become dizzy with delusion.  In the glorious beginnings of a budding romance, we can rationalize our lover’s every flaw: he can’t split the check because he’s in-between jobs, we explain when our friends ask why he never pays; he never comes around because he’s not a big drinker and doesn’t like the bright lights and loud music at nightclubs.

If love is blind, so is anger.  While it can signal our boundaries have been crossed, it can also interfere with our ability to think rationally.  As Solnit writes:

“Anger is hostile to understanding.  At its most implacable or extreme, it prevents comprehension of a situation, of the people you oppose, of your own role and responsibilities.  It’s not for nothing that we call rages ‘blind.'”

In the public sphere, anger can either incite riots or spark revolution, fan the flames of chaos or fuel positive social change.  Cesar Chavez.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Martin Luther King.  By framing their fights in terms of right and wrong, these activists were able to use feelings of outrage and injustice to rally support for their cause.  In each case, anger galvanized a movement and built a better world.

But though anger can be channeled to reform unjust systems and rectify wrongs, it can also be exploited by those in power to advance their own agendas.  No other public figure has stoked the flames of our anger more furiously than Donald Trump.  In our era of unprecedented division, animosity seems to be the state of political discourse: we’re angry at those across the party divide, we’re angry at those who disagree with us.  Those who have historically been at the top of the social ladder— white menare angry to find themselves thrust to the bottom rungs.  The result?  Resentments that have been simmering beneath the surface are finally boiling over.  White supremacists have moved from the margins to the mainstream; anti-immigrant rhetoric and cries of “America first” dominate news cycles.  By inflaming our anger and redirecting it toward a common enemy, whether that be immigrants or Muslims, Trump protects his own power.  After all, if citizens are pitted against each another, if they’re divided rather than united, they’ll never band together and revolt against their actual enemy, those in power:

“Is anyone more possessed by this kind of obliterating anger than Donald Trump?  Our nation is currently led by a petty, vindictive, histrionic man whose exceptional privilege has robbed him of even the most rudimentary training in dealing with setbacks and slights.  He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets, domestic and foreign, successfully clouding their judgement as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy. 

Yet Trump’s furious ascent is only the culmination of fury’s long journey toward enshrinement in this country.  Our legal system, for example, has been lurching backward for some time from the ideal of impartial justice toward a model based on retaliation.  The prison system still employs a plethora of terms that suggest otherwise—  “rehabilitation,” “reform,” “correction,” and the penitence implicit in penitentiaries— but its current rhetoric and practices are often purely punitive. 

[…]

Governments regularly manufacture or exaggerate threats to suggest that violence is necessary and restraint would constitute weakness: during World War II, the United States condemned citizens of Japanese heritage; during the post-war period, it targeted leftists.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it scrambled to find new adversaries, and has since settled on Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.  The provocation of anger is essential to government by manipulation, and the angriest people are often the most credulous, willing to snatch up without scrutiny whatever feeds their fire.”

Just like any powerful emotion, anger must either be channeled or controlled and contained.  If we allow a flame of anger to transform into a full-blown wildfire of rage, we can become violent or do something stupid we later regret.  Another possibility is we simply waste time being mad.  The last time she faced her own furies, Solnit recalls she squandered thirty-six irretrievable hours indulging in fantasizes of revenge:

“We speak of blind rages; I know the last thing that made me angry—  an anti-Semitic comment— got me stuck replaying the details of the interaction, buttressing my arguments as though I would fight the charges in court, and generally simmering for thirty-six hours or so that might have been spent more profitably and pleasantly on almost anything else.  The slur took place in the course of a conversation about the uses of left-wing violence.  The comment, you could say, called a whole ethic group on a whole continent the cowards of the country: ‘And didn’t 6 million die because they didn’t resist the Nazi regime?’  After I questioned the remark, the speaker eventually apologized and admitted the factual inanity of the statement, but I was nevertheless stuck. 

The anger crowded out other thoughts, got me mired in a resentment that didn’t threaten me directly (though anti-Semitic slurs, and the beliefs behind them, underlie anti-Semitic acts, which are having a resurgence right now).  It was as though something weighty and hard-edged had slammed shut in my chest, and a fire simmered inside.  It was as though my mind was on a treadmill revisiting the Polish partisans, the French resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Primo Levi in the Italian Resistance, and so forth.  But this rumination was not, overall, pleasant or productive, and when I finally exited the treadmill I vowed to self-regulate better.”

So how do we regulate this volatile emotion?  Do we suppress it?  Or do we express our ire freely and lash out at whatever and whomever provokes our rage?  Solnit suggests we adopt the Buddhist’s approach to anger management.  Rather than repress our anger— which is extremely unhealthy, not to mention ineffective— or weaponize it to wound others, we can feel it and simply let it go: 

“Fury is a renewable source; though the initial anger may be fleeting, it can be revived and strengthened by telling and retelling yourself the story of the insult or injustice, even over a lifetime.  Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it the only variable.  They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it.  Those are discussed elsewhere, in spiritual and psychological literature and in anthropological texts. 

In Christianity, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; patience, a cardinal virtue, is its opposite.  Buddhist theology regards anger as one of the three poisons, an affliction to be overcome through self-discipline and self-awareness.  ‘The tradition ethical precept about anger is sometimes translated as not to get angry,’ Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and translator of Buddhist texts, explained to me.  ‘But in modern Soto Zen Buddhism, we say not to harbor ill will.’  The Buddhist writer Thanissara put it thus: ‘Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom.  When not projected outward toward others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.’

We will all feel anger at one time or another, but it doesn’t need to become animosity or be renewed or retained.  Buddhism offers an elegant model of anger management.  Harness the emotion.  Feel it without inflicting it.”

Solnit concludes by correcting a popular misconception.  Though we imagine anger is a sort of gasoline that drives the engine of social change, anger— at least blood-boiling red-faced rage—  isn’t sustainable over the long-term.  The most effective activists may first get involved because they’re dissatisfied with some aspect of society, but to make real, lasting change, they must remain committed to their cause, to action, not their own rage:

“In my experience, those dedicated to practical change over the long term are often the least involved in the dramas of rage, which wear on both the self and others.  After reading or listening to, say, hundreds of detailed accounts of rape, you may remain deeply motivated to engage in political action but find it difficult to get indignant about the newest offense.  The most committed organizers I know are often not incensed.  Their first obligation is to changing how things are— to action, not self-expression.”

Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Rebecca Solnit on Our Responsibility to Call Things By Their True Names

 

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Language is a distinctly human ability; our language is made up of words— not growls and grunts.  But though our capacity to communicate is what separates us from beasts, we rarely stop to marvel.  We can write!  We can talk!  We utter hundreds, if not thousands, of words a day, most often to relay the humdrum information of the mundane: the frivolous pleasantries of superficial small talk, the obligatory “hello, how are you?” in the grocery store check out.  We’re careless with our words, only approximating— rather than exactly— expressing our thoughts.  We allow words to slip from our mouths, forgetting they have a current of implied meanings and historical connotations that surge beneath the surface of their definitions in Merriam Webster.  We use offensive, derogatory language to revolt against political correctness, thinking we’re provocative defenders of free speech when we’re really just insensitive morons. 

Throughout history, those in power have intentionally manipulated language to conceal, rather than reveal, truth.  The ruling class weaponizes words to pit the marginalized against each other.  Political parties mobilize hate speech to advance their agendas and dehumanize entire groups.  Tragically, in our 1984 dystopia of “alternative facts,” language continues to be abused.

Though we take words for granted, nothing is more powerful.  “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” Emily Dickinson once wrote.  Indeed, the Bible attests, “In the beginning was the Word.”  Words catch the elusive and inexpressible.  When we take care to choose words that precisely convey our meaning, we can articulate what was once inarticulable.  Before anything can exist in the physical, material plane, it must first exist as an idea.  The theory of relativity, the notion of civil disobedience, the foundational democratic belief that “all men are created equal”: all began as ideas.  They only revolutionized our lives once they were expressed in words.  Language is the vehicle through which we can transport our innermost thoughts; it’s how we spread ideas.  Words launch movements and ignite revolutions, overthrow oppressive governments and spark meaningful discourse.  In other words, they remake the world.

Because we’ve been bestowed with the miraculous gift of language, we must be responsible with our words.  This pressing responsibility is what Rebecca Solnit explores in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  As the title suggests, Ms. Solnit’s latest collection is a passionate plea to name things precisely.  Our ancestors knew there was tremendous power in naming things as they are.  As Solnit says, it’s only after we diagnose a disease that we can find a cure:

“One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how ‘a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.’  In the deep past, people knew names had power.  Some still do.  Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness.  It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis.  Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it.  Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step.  Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one.  And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”

It’s crucial that we call things by their true names because language determines our reality.  When we say “a woman was raped” instead of “a man raped a woman,” the passive construction essentially erases him from the equation and absolves the perpetrator of responsibility.  The result?  Because passive voice transforms the grammatical object (the woman) into the subject, we begin to view rape as a “women’s issue.”  In our discussions of sexual assault, we focus on the victim (“She shouldn’t have drank so much…”/”She shouldn’t have been walking down a dark alleyway alone…”) instead of the perpetrator.  Rather than teach men to treat women with dignity and respect, we teach women it’s their responsibility to protect themselves against men’s violence.  Ultimately, how we discuss rape dictates how we understand it.  Or, as British philosopher Alain de Botton so astutely observed, “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.” 

At the heart of Call Them By Their True Names is the assertion that words can either clarify or mystify, inform or mislead.  They can liberate or oppress, promote tolerance and understanding or spread hate.  In the end, we can only fix what we acknowledge is broken.  When we call things by their true names, we can see the world as it is— and begin to change.