Alain de Botton on the Four Criteria of Emotional Health

young alain de bottonWe as a society are deeply committed to education.  In the U.S. alone, students spend 1,000 hours in school every year.  There they are taught lessons in the laws of thermodynamics and Mendel’s Punnett squares.  From eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, they study the disciplines that form the foundation of human culture: history, literature, mathematics, the sciences, art.  Contrary to popular belief, we’re actually getting smarter.  Over the last century, in every nation in the developing world where intelligence test results are on record, IQ test scores have climbed upward.  As Malcolm Gladwell explained in a 2007 New Yorker article, “The typical teenager of today, with an IQ of 100, would have grandparents with average IQs of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school…if we go back even farther…the average IQs of the schoolchildren of 1900 was around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.”

Despite the enormous gains we’re made in terms of traditional intelligence, the kinds of linguistic and mathematical reasoning measured on IQ tests, we have failed to instruct our children in an even more important form of intelligence— emotional intelligence, or the ability to navigate the at times rocky terrain of our inner worlds and interpersonal relationships.  Common core standards revolve around discipline-specific skills and foundational knowledge: how to factor a quadratic, say, or how to determine the meaning of words based on context.  But little time is devoted to teaching our children how to set boundaries or how to treat ourselves or others with love and kindness.

Beloved British philosopher Alain de Botton founded the School of Life in hopes of instructing us in the too often neglected art of living itself.  His underlying philosophy?  Love and empathy, trust and vulnerability are skills just like anything else.  If we can teach a 5th grader how to perform long division, we can certainly teach ourselves how to communicate our needs openly and honestly and how to be gentle with ourselves.  In de Botton’s ideal world, education would mean exploring the uncharted territory of our own psyches— not dutifully absorbing useless facts from textbooks.

In his latest book The School of Life: An Emotional Education, de Botton aims to help the emotionally ill-equipped among us live more meaningful lives.  Written with at times breathtaking poetry and charming, if cynical, British wit, An Emotional Education maps the journey to emotional maturity, covering such vital skills as how to be kind, how to be polite, and how to use art and books as a balm for loneliness.  Because of his classical education and profound insight into the human condition, de Botton is able to redeem the much disdained genre of self-help— a genre we’ve come to associate with shameless platitudes and blockbuster bestsellers.  But despite the modern distaste for the genre, de Botton wonders: what is the aim of all literature, of all philosophy, of all culture if not to teach us how to live and how to live well?  Why read novels or marvel at paintings if not to better ourselves?  Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  The works of Socrates and Aristotle.  For de Botton, the aim of the most monumental human achievements has been to help us improve ourselves.

How can we be happy and genuinely love who we are?  How can we find meaningful work?  the right partner?  How can we stop engaging in petty squabbles about dirty dishes and what we’re going to have for dinner?  If you’re on a never-ending quest to seek answers to such questions, if you want to be a happier, more fulfilled, more functional person, you absolutely must read An Emotional Education.

De Botton begins our emotional education by outlining what he considers to be the four markers of emotional health:

1. self-love 

self-love

Sadly, romanticism has perpetuated the myth that love has to come from outside ourselves.  In our era of gushy love songs and the prepackaged cliches of hackneyed Hallmark cards, we’re programmed to believe we need another person to complete our fragmentary selves.  Women are especially taught that we require romantic love to redeem our souls.  The result?  We seek love and adoration from men— selfish, self-absorbed, immature, emotionally incapable, occasionally abusive men— instead of validate ourselves.  As Rumi reminds us, “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, yet you go door to door asking for crusts.”

But de Botton believes there’s a better way.  Rather than equate our worth to our relationship status or allow our self-respect to be shattered when a boyfriend leaves us or a potential paramour doesn’t call, we can give ourselves the tender affection we so long for.

What, exactly, does it mean to love yourself?  De Botton defines self-love as the “quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves.”  Instead of treat ourselves with the stern severity of a school master, loving ourselves means forgiving our frailties and foibles.  If your friend’s long-term boyfriend suddenly left her, would you demand she stop crying and simply “suck it up”?  Of course not.  You’d hand her a box of tissues and be there for her.  Or what if her presentation at work didn’t go quite as smoothly as she had hoped?  Would you ruthlessly reprimand her because she didn’t make enough copies and her voice shook?  Or would you reassure her that she is in fact a capable, compelling speaker and she did the best she could?

The key to a contented life is treating ourselves like a friend: with thoughtfulness, generosity and warmth.  If we ever want to have success in the romantic arena, if we ever want to love someone else, we first have to love ourselves.  The truth of this observation is reflected in the sentence structure of the phrase “I love you” itself.  “I” must always precede “you”: you can’t truly extend compassion and understanding to another human being until you extend such kindheartedness to yourself.

2. candor

candor

The second hallmark of emotional health is candor.  Yet we often lie to ourselves.  Why?  Because if we were honest, truly honest, we’d have to change our lives— a task that is too daunting for the majority of us.  If we admitted we no longer loved our husbands, we’d have to leave and essentially start over.  If we admitted the man we were “madly” in love with was just a rebound, we’d have to come to face-to-face with a not-so-flattering fact about ourselves: we seek solace in the flesh instead of deal with the grief and sorrow of terrible break ups.

Man is a master of self-deception.  To maintain the illusion that we are, indeed, still satisfied with our loveless marriage or are deeply invested in our sexually explosive but ultimately dull rebound relationship, we devise all kinds of distractions: booze, cigarettes, obsessive news/social media checking, pornography, sex.  “But if we could stop, for a time, looking at naked people, or drinking or checking the news, and face up to what we need to do, we might– gradually– end up in so much better a place,” de Botton reassures us.

Lesson?  If you want to be happy, be forthright about who you are and what you want not only with friends and lovers but with yourself.

3. communication

communication

Communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship.  In the early stages of courtship, communication is absolutely essential: are we looking for something serious or more casual?  do we want marriage?  the idyllic white picket fence and 2.5 baths?  a gaggle of youngsters and a kitchen overrun by pacifiers and baby bottles?  

Once we agree on the terms of our union, we have to explicitly express ourselves if we want to sustain love over the long-haul.  Yet many of us have a deep aversion to translating our feelings into words.  Rather than tell our husband he hurt our feelings when he called our choice of presidential candidate “dumb” in front of our dinner party guests, we spend the rest of the evening angrily sipping champagne and exasperatingly rolling our eyes at everything he says.  Or what if the man we’re casually dating reaches out reliably everyday and suddenly– for three unbearable, excruciating days– doesn’t text or call?  Do we behave like rational, mature adults and ask for an explanation?  Do we confess that his mysterious silence– though insignificant– upset us?  No, most often we retreat into bitter silence and sulk: we only give curt one-word replies to his texts, we reject his attempts at affection, we look away when he tries to kiss us.

Why is it so hard to utter what is in our hearts?  Why do we refuse to just say what’s bothering us?  De Botton suggests we’re uncommunicative in love because we believe the prevailing Platonic myth that our lover is our “other half” and, therefore, should naturally understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers can see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, if two people are truly destined for each other, they shouldn’t have to say how they feel– their partner should just know.  Our husband should know such an off-hand remark about our political preferences would hurt our feelings; the man we’re dating should know we’d descend into a torture chamber of abandonment and insecurity if he didn’t call.  If we have to communicate directly, our relationship must be doomed.  After all, it’s tragically unromantic to have to spell things out.

But de Botton argues we’d be better off if we took a more realistic, perhaps even more cynical, view of love.  Rather than buy into the lovely but fanciful notion that our significant other should understand us without our saying a word, we should realize relationships require us to speak up.  Love isn’t beyond language: we need to state our needs if we want them met.  If we expect our partner to read our minds, our relationship will be defined by mutual incomprehension and disappointment.

The reality is sometimes our husbands won’t be able to decipher the strange hieroglyphics of our gestures and facial expressions: he’ll misread our yawn to mean we’re simply tired from a long day when we’re actually bored of his dull conversation; when he asks if we want Thai food for dinner, he’ll understand our reluctant “um hm” as tacit compliance.  And why wouldn’t he?  How is he supposed to know we were really hankering for Chinese?  The result?  a) We don’t get what we want (wor wanton and chicken chow mein) and b) we likely spoil our evening.

So how do we spare ourselves all this heartache and frustration?  Simple: have a conversation.

4. trust

after the storm

The final pillar of de Botton’s philosophy of emotional health is trust.  “How risky is the world?  How readily might we survive a challenge in the form of a speech we must give, a romantic rejection, a bout of financial trouble, a journey to another country or a common cold?” he asks us.  Those who are emotionally healthy have faith not only in life, but in themselves: they believe in their capacity to overcome any obstacle– no matter how seemingly insurmountable.  Lose your job?  The emotionally intelligent person will of course worry (“Will I find something as fulfilling?”  “How will I pay my bills?”) but unlike the emotionally-maladjusted person, they won’t indulge their anxiety.  Rather than buy into their fear-based stories that there “aren’t any [insert industry] jobs in this economy,” they’ll remind themselves a) they are captains of their fate and b) much of their life is within their own control.  While the melancholic will pity themselves and lament the cruelty and unfairness of the world, the emotionally mature person will be practical: this is the time– not to draw the blinds and retreat under the covers– but to diligently search job postings and polish cover letters.

Should We Relinquish Love? An Impassioned “No” From Alain de Botton

“But what does wisdom say about love?” the analytically-minded narrator of Alain dealain de botton Botton’s debut novel On Love asks after his girlfriend Chloe dumps him, “Is it something that should be given up completely, like coffee or cigarettes, or is it allowed on occasions, like a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate?  Is love directly opposed to everything that wisdom stands for?  Do sages lose their heads or only overgrown children?”

In many ways, love diametrically opposes reason.  After all, how many times have we fallen victim to the manic madness of first love?  of infatuation?  How many times has the desire to love rendered us as deranged and deluded as a mental patient?  How many times have we let the fervid frenzy of passion rob us of our basic common sense?  “Love is blind” poets and philosophers have always said.  Why?  Because love laughs in the face of logic.  Even when we know on an intellectual level that our marriage is toxic and our partner is abusive, we stay.  “We love him,” we rationalize as if this single emotion undermines the validity of any cogent argument.  Or think of dating.  Even when we know a potential partner isn’t right for us, we can’t suddenly stop being attracted to them.  Even when we tally their pros and cons, even when we calculate the probability of building a lasting relationship with the exactness of an accountant and conclude we’re just too different, our love persists.  Now matter how doggedly we attempt to logically assess a love interest, love cares little for compatibility quotients and left-brained lists. 

In the depths of suicidal despair after the demise of his relationship, Botton’s narrator wonders if love can ever be a soul-sustaining rather than soul-shattering experience.  According to the romantic positivists, the answer is yes.

Who are the romantic positivists?  Romantic positivists are the self-help gurus, therapists and psychoanalysts who believe that with enough rigorous self-examination, we can arrive at the necessary self-knowledge to break the dysfunctional patterns that keep us from forming healthy relationships.  Unlike angsty emo kids and melancholy poets, who are more fascinated with love’s distressing aspects— the torture of unrequited love, say, or the irrecoverable loss of betrayal— the positivists are pragmatists: they concern themselves not with problems but with solutions.  Always find yourself attracted to men who call you names and otherwise belittle you?  The romantic positivist would explain your dating history in terms of your upbringing.  Perhaps you seek partners who are withholding and hyper-critical because your perfectionistic father was impossible to please and spent most of your childhood finding fault with you.  You recreate this childhood dynamic in adulthood because— though dysfunctional— it’s familiar to you.  However, romantic positivism assures us we’re not doomed to repeat these same patterns if we don’t want to.  Through therapy, we can stop reenacting the same scripts with different actors.

While browsing through a London bookstore, our heartbroken narrator finds hope in Dr. Peggy Nearly’s The Bleeding Heart, a bible of romantic positivism:

“It told the unfortunate yet optimistic story of men and women who fell in love with unsuitable partners, those who would treat them cruelly or leave them emotionally unfulfilled, or take to drink and become violent.  These people made an unconscious connection between love and suffering and could not stop hoping that the unsuitable types they had chosen to adore would change and love them properly.  Their lives would be ruined by the delusion that they could reform people who were by nature incapable of answering their emotional needs.  By the third chapter, Dr. Nearly had identified the roots of the problem as lying in deficient parents, who had given these unfortunate romantics a warped understanding of the affective process.  If they never loved people who were nice to them, it was because their earliest emotional attachments had taught them that love should be unreciprocated and cruel.  But by entering therapy and being able to work through their childhood, they might understand the roots of their masochism and learn that their desire to change unsuitable partners was only the relic of a more infantile fantasy to convert their parents into proper care givers.”

“I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do,” Cheryl Strayed wrote with equal parts humor and wisdom in her heart-expanding advice column Dear Sugar, “Even when I justified it to myself—as I did every damn time—the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing.  Always.”  This illustrates the problem of knowledge vs. action— what Alain de Botton would call the at times unbridgeable gap between wisdom and the wise life.  Though we can know something intellectually, acting on that knowledge is another matter.  Think of a smoker.  He knows cigarettes blacken his lungs and poison his body; he knows a single cigarette can shorten his life by eleven minutes; he knows smoking indisputably causes cancer yet he continues to light his Lucky Strike.  Why?  Because knowledge doesn’t necessarily equate to action, especially when it involves deeply ingrained behaviors like subconscious childhood programming and addiction. 

This is a major limitation of romantic positivist philosophy.  Even if, as Peggy Nearly would argue, we can gain insight into our psyches through therapy, even if we can recognize our tendency to pursue alcoholic/abusive/otherwise emotionally unavailable partners, even if we know someone is unhealthy for us, we don’t always act on that knowledge.  As our narrator so articulately states:

“…there is a great difference between identifying a problem and solving it, between wisdom and the wise life.  We are all more intelligent than we are capable, and awareness of the insanity of love has never saved anyone from the disease.  Perhaps the concept of wise or wholly painless love is as much a contradiction as a bloodless battle— Geneva convention aside, it simply cannot exist.  The confrontation between Madame Bovary and Peggy Nearly is the confrontation between romantic tragedy and romantic positivism.  It is the confrontation between wisdom and wisdom’s opposite, which is not the ignorance of wisdom [that is easy to put right], but the inability to act on the knowledge of what one knows is right.  Knowing the unreality of our affair had proved to be no help to Chloe and me; knowing we might be fools had not turned us into sages.”

vintage romance #1

So if years in a therapist’s office still can’t spare us the sorrow of heartbreak, what are the rejected and lovelorn among us supposed to do?  The only thing left, the narrator decides, is to renounce love altogether, what he terms a kind of stoicism.  Rather than leave himself defenseless and risk getting hurt, he erects an impregnable fortress around his heart, retreating to a cloistered life of study, silence, and solitude.  After Chloe leaves him, he imagines himself a devout monk who relinquishes the agony and disappointment of mortal relationships to dedicate himself to more enlightened pursuits:

“Rendered pessimistic by the intractable pains of love, I decided to turn away from it altogether.  If romantic positivism could be of no help, then the only valid wisdom was the stoic advice never to fall in love again.  I would henceforth retreat into a symbolic monastery, see no one, live frugally, and throw myself into austere study.  I read with admiration stories of men and women who had escaped earthly distractions, made vows of chastity, and spent their lives in monasteries and nunneries.  There were stories of hermits who had endured life in caves in the desert for forty or fifty years, living off only roots and berries, never talking or seeing other human beings.”

But our narrator soon realizes there are limitations to the stoic approach as well.  In some ways, the stoics were correct to be cynical— when we fall in love with someone new, the odds have it ending badly.  Indeed, the chance that our next fling will be the “one” is— statistically speaking— less likely than winning the lottery.  More probable is our next relationship will end much like the one preceding it: in spiteful words, in broken promises, in disappointment.  Chances are the next person we date will not be the one we prance off in the sunset with.  Instead of culminate in undying devotions of love and a white wedding dress, our next affair might reach its climax in a heart-shattering confession of infidelity before exploding into an acrimonious split.  Or it might come to a less dramatic conclusion and simply peter out after years of domestic dissatisfaction and stifled resentment.  But is the solution really to reject romance altogether?  After all, our next lover might break our hearts, but they might not.  If we follow the stoic path and sequester ourselves in the woods of romantic skepticism and spinsterhood, we’ll never get hurt but we’ll never find love either:

“Though love might never be painless and was certainly not wise, neither could it be forgotten.  It was inevitable as it was unreasonable— and its unreason was unfortunately no argument against it.  Was it not absurd to retreat into the Judean hills in order to eat roots and shoots?  If I wanted to be courageous, were there not greater opportunities for heroism in love?  Moreover, for all the sacrifices demanded by the stoic life, was there not something cowardly within it?  At the heart of stoicism lay the desire to disappoint oneself before someone else had the chance to do so.  Stoicism was a crude defense against the dangers of the affections of others, a danger that it would take more endurance than a life in the desert to be able to face.  In calling for a monastic existence free of emotional turmoil, stoicism was simply trying to deny the legitimacy of certain potentially painful yet fundamental human needs.  However brave, the stoic was in the end a coward at the point of perhaps the highest reality, at the moment of love. 

We can always blind ourselves to the complexities of a problem by suggesting solutions that reduce the issue to a lower common denominator.  Both romantic positivism and stoicism were inadequate answers to the problems raised by the agonies of love, because both of them collapsed the pain and irrationality of love into a conclusive argument against it— thereby failing to balance the undoubted trauma of our desires with the intractability of emotional needs.”

In the end, On Love proposes a third, more nuanced approach to love.  Hours of sane self-reflection on a therapist’s couch will never cure us of the insanity of love just as refraining from relationships will never rid us of our fundamental yearning to love and be loved.  So rather than forget the crucial difference between possessing wisdom and behaving wisely (romantic positivism) or sink into a pit of pessimism and despairing despondency (stoicism), de Botton asserts we should learn to “juggle the idiocy of infatuation with its inevitability.” 

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.

Alain de Botton on Dating as a Sort of 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.  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 your short-lived saga.  In love, text messages become cryptic codes to decipher, incomprehensible foreign languages in need of translation.  Why, we wonder, did he use a period instead of his usual lack of punctuation?  What is the significance of a strategically placed smiley face?  What do all his conventional expressions of endearment (“honey”/”cutie”/”babe”) really mean?  Does he only address us in these affectionate terms because he’s performing his socially defined role as masculine courter?  Is all love a stage and are we merely players?  Or do his adoring words contain hints of genuine feeling?  When we’re besotted with a beloved, anything and everything has meaning:

“As soon as one begins looking for signs of mutual attraction, then everything that the beloved says or does can be taken to mean almost anything.  And the more I looked for signs, the more there were of them to read.  In every movement of Chloe’s body, there seemed to be potential evidence of desire— in the way she straightened her skirt [as we crossed into Early Northern Painting], or coughed by van Eyck’s The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, or handed me the catalogue in order to rest her head on her hand.  And when I listened closely to her conversation, it too revealed itself as a minefield of clues— was I wrong to read a degree of flirtation in her remark that she was tired, or her suggestion we look for a bench?”

Ultimately, love is a maddening form of reading, the lover, an enigmatic text.  Romance operates by hints and implication— little is directly said.  After all, when we’re lovesick for someone, do we confess our infatuation?  When someone is smitten with us, do we expect them to simply state, in no uncertain terms, the depths of their devotion?  Of course not: the language of love consists not of easily understandable modes of expression, but a series of strange symbols as inscrutable as ancient hieroglyphics.  To solve the puzzle of our paramour, we have to read between the lines of what is done and said.

The result?  We become romantic schizophrenics and drive ourselves mad with over-analysis.  Desire behaves like a drug, injecting an intoxicating, addictive surge of dopamine straight to our brains and impairing our intellect.  Soon the most trivial things take on colossal significance: a tender kiss over coffee and breakfast is an indication our connection is not purely physical but also romantic, an invitation to the family dinner of our sort-of-boyfriend is a sure sign things are getting serious.

Struck by Cupid’s bow, we begin to read less and less critically.  Because we so hopelessly yearn for our lover to love us, we can no longer distinguish what we see from what we want to see.  Rather than use rationality to interpret the raw data of our experience, we have a tendency toward confirmation bias, a systematic (and tragic) error of reasoning:

“It was desire that had turned me into this detective, a relentless hunter for clues that would have been ignored had I been less afflicted.  It was desire that made me into a romantic paranoiac, reading meaning into everything.  Desire had transformed me into a decoder of symbols, an interpreter of the landscape [and therefore a potential victim of the pathetic fallacy].

[…]

“Nothing of what she said could I take at face value.  I clung instead to the underbelly of her words, sure the meaning lay there rather than its obvious location, interpreting instead of listening.  We were talking of love, my Venus idly stirring her now-cold tea, but what did this conversation mean for us.  Who were these “most people” she spoke of?  Was 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

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.”

alain de botton

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. 

Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy to the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst.  Books are friends and teachers, lamps and life rafts.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, tasteless profanity, and disturbing portrayals of violence, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a frost-bitten December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?”  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-doubt and self-hatred.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such groundbreaking novels and essays as Orlando and A Room of One’s Own.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”  Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!” 

Proust on How to Be Happy in Love

lovers“Who, being loved, is poor?” witty master of aphorisms Oscar Wilde once wondered.  Though it might be an overstatement to say “all you need is love,” ancient philosophers and contemporary science agree that satisfying relationships are a crucial component, if not the crucial component, of human happiness.  In one of the longest studies of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 724 men in hopes of discovering the secrets to a good life.  Over the course of nearly 80 years, they observed their defeats and triumphs, their careers and love lives.  What they found was astonishing: more than IQ, social class, or genetics, quality relationships, particularly marriages, were the number one determiner of a fulfilling existence.  Not only did a harmonious matrimony dictate their overall life satisfaction— it had a far-reaching impact on their health.  Those in loving marriages, not those who had achieved wealth or prestige or our societal ideal of social status, were found to live longer than both their unmarried and unhappily married counterparts.  In fact, those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age fifty were the healthiest group at eighty.  Marital contentment was even a better predictor of later health than cholesterol.

Because meaningful relationships are so critical to our emotional and physical health, we should be alarmed by the current state of romantic love.  In the U.S. alone, nearly half of marriages end in divorce.  My generation is more reluctant to get married and often postpones, if not completely forgoes, tying the knot.  Though the rise of casual hookup apps like Tinder give the impression that millennials at least have red-hot sex lives, they’re actually having less sex than young people a generation ago.  Experts attribute the “sex recession” to everything from the widespread availability of porn to increasing psychological fragility and fear of intimacy (after all, masturbating to a cold blue computer screen requires a lot less vulnerability than being intimate with someone).  Still others argue the advent of online dating has made approaching the opposite sex in public socially awkward, even taboo.  The result? 20% of Americans report they’re dissatisfied with their lives because they don’t have close confidantes.  

To say we in the modern era are suffering a crisis of love would be a gross understatement.  If nothing is more essential to human happiness than having a partner who can act as a lifeboat amid the sea of life’s misfortunes, it’s vital we learn how to sustain gratifying long-term relationships.  Based on our staggering divorce rates and dwindling number of sex partners, we clearly need a teacher to instruct us.  In his ever-enlightening self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues we can find no better mentor than Marcel Proust, the fine French novelist who also taught us how to suffer successfully, reawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, remember the benefits and limitations of reading, and avoid the lure of platitudes and cliches.  

At the beginning of the chapter “How to Be Happy in Love,” the example of the telephone illustrates the difficulty of keeping a long-term relationship alive.  When first invented, we stood before the telephone astounded at its ability to allow us to communicate across once unsurpassable distances.  Now, with just the dial of a few numbers, we could speak to someone over seven thousand miles away in Mumbai from the comfort of our studio apartment in New York.  But within a span of only a few decades, this technological wonder became just another staple of the average household, as commonplace as cutlery and cutting boards:

“Take the unemotive example of the telephone.  Bell invented it in 1876.  By 1900, there were thirty thousand phones in France.  Proust acquired one and particularly liked a service called the “theater-phone,” which allowed him to listen to live opera and theater in Paris venues.  

He might have appreciated his phone, but he noted how quickly everyone else began taking theirs for granted.  As early as 1907, he wrote that the machine was

a supernatural instrument whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.

Moreover, if the confiserie had a busy line or the connection to the tailor a hum, instead of admiring the technological advances that had frustrated our sophisticated desires, we tended to act with childish ingratitude.  

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone “convenient,” or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that “it isn’t convenient,” we fill Le Figaro with our complaints. 

A mere thirty-one years separated Bell’s invention from Proust’s sad observations on the state of  French telephone-appreciation.  It had taken little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolate.”

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Just as we take even the most miraculous technological innovations for granted once they become part of our day-to-day, we ungrateful mortals struggle to appreciate our significant others once we’ve committed to lifelong monogamy.  Recalling the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Botton suggests our capacity for appreciation diminishes as something becomes more familiar:

“As a boy, Proust’s narrator longs to befriend the beautiful, vivacious Gilberte, whom he has met playing in the Champs-Elysees.  Eventually, his wish comes true.  Gilberte becomes his friend, and invites him regularly to tea at her house.  There she cuts him slices of cake, ministers to his needs, and treats him with great affection.  

He is happy, but, soon enough, not as happy as he should be.  For so long, the idea of having tea at Gilberte’s house was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after quarter of an hour in her drawing room, it is the time before he knew her, before she was cutting him cake and showering him with affection, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.  

The outcome can only be a certain blindness to the favors he is enjoying.  He will soon forget what there is to be grateful for because the memory of a Gilberte-less life will fade, and with it, evidence of what there is to savor.  The smile on Gilberte’s face, the luxury of her tea, and the warmth of her manners will eventually become such a familiar part of his life that there will be as much incentive to notice them as there is to notice omnipresent elements like trees, clouds, and telephones.” 

At the cornerstone of both Botton and Proust’s conception of a fulfilling life is the ability to see clearly— and not just in the literal sense of visually discerning an object in physical reality, but in the deeper sense of seeing the world in all its miraculous grandeur and beauty.  While artists are experts at looking closely, we in regular life often fail to exercise our perceptive faculties.  We might “see” a night sky but never notice the way charcoal clouds blot out an erie moon, the way the silhouettes of bare branches form a sinister backdrop to a still autumn night.  We might “see” our husband or wife but never notice, truly notice, their rare ability to listen or the sweetness of their dimples or the innocence of their eyes.  It is a tragic irony that the more we see an object, the more we become blind:

“Though we usually assume that seeing an object requires us to have visual contact with it, and that seeing a mountain involves visiting the Alps and opening our eyes, this may only be the first and in a sense the inferior part of seeing, for appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.  

After looking at a mountain, if we shut our lids and dwell on the scene internally, we are led to seize on its important details.  The mass of visual information is interpreted and the mountain’s salient features identified: its granite peaks, its glacial indentations, the mist hovering above the tree linedetails that we would previously have seen but not for that matter noticed.

 […]

Having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it.  Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact.” 

In the Proustian worldview, the key to marital bliss, in fact any bliss, is looking anew: in other words, noticing, not just seeingour partners.  Because the institution of marriage requires we live with the same person day after day, we begin to think we’ve charted the entire map of our lover’s heart; after all, after so much time together, how could any territory of his nature possibly remain unplumbed?  But this sense of familiarity is a mirage: though physical proximity ensures we literally see our partners, we rarely notice the many facets that comprise who they are.  As Mary Gaitskill observes, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  The routine nature of matrimony convinces us there’s no land of our lover left to explore when in actuality there’s still many new worlds and many new shores.

So how, exactly, can we apply these insights to be happier in love?  Rather than regard our husbands with the blasé indifference that extinguishes the flames of millions of marriages (“How was your day?” we ask more out of obligation than genuine interest), we can reignite passion by pretending we’re first getting to know each other:

“Deprivation quickly drives us into the process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.

If long acquaintance with a lover so often breeds boredom, breeds a sense of knowing the person too well, the problem may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough.  Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters.”

It is a rule of human nature that desire begins with denial, infatuation with inaccessibility.  After all, who consumes us with the most ardent longing: our husbands whom we’ve managed to acquire or the sharply-dressed guy in the break room we barely converse with but see once in awhile?  In high school, who was our helpless obsession: our sweetest, most considerate guy friend or the hot punk we only observed from afar?  What lies just beyond our grasp is what most tantalizes us.  Proust was well aware of this fact.  “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.

Why is it that the rebuff of a dinner invitation makes a love interest all the more attractive?  For Proust, the answer once again rests in this idea of seeing vs. noticing: because our capacity for appreciation is gradually dulled by the habitual nature of domesticity, we merely see our long-term partners instead of notice them.  If couples don’t make a conscious and consistent effort to stoke the flames of romance, the intensity of desire they once felt will most certainly wane until what was once a lustful blaze will be smothered by the monotony of routine.  Our lovers will no longer hold interest for us because we know them too intimately (or, that is, we think we know them too intimately).

The man in the break room, on the other hand, will continue to allure us because he carries an aura of mystery.  Because our desire for him has not been fulfilled, he remains enticing.  The fact that he’s a distant crush and not a husband explains why he’s a source of fascination: the moment a lust is gratified, the moment when what we desperately yearn for is finally possessed is almost always unsatisfying— at least, not as satisfying as we imagined.  Attainment is ultimately disenchanting.  It is the delay of gratification, it is the not having that makes everything from a potential lover to a pair of shoes appealing.  In Search for Lost Time demonstrates this lesson through the characters of the Duchess and Albertine: 

“Both Albertine and the Duchess de Guermantes are interested in fashion.  However, Albertine has very little money and the Duchess owns half of France.  The Duchesse’s wardrobes are therefore overflowing; as soon as she sees something she wants, she can send for her dressmaker and her desire is fulfilled as rapidly as hands can sew.  Albertine, on the other hand, can hardly buy anything, and has to think at length before she does so.  She spends hours studying clothes, dreaming of a particular coat or hat or dressing gown.  The result is that though Albertine has far fewer clothes than the Duchesse, her understanding, appreciation, and love of them is far greater.

[…]

Proust compares Albertine to a student who visits Dresden after cultivating a desire to see a particular painting, whereas the Duchesse is likely a wealthy tourist who travels without any desire or knowledge, and experiences nothing but bewilderment, boredom and exhaustion when she arrives.  

Which emphasizes the extent to which physical possession is only one component of appreciation.  If the rich are fortunate in being able to travel to Dresden as soon as the desire to do so arises, or buy a dress after they have just seen it in a catalog, they are cursed because the speed with which their wealth fulfills their desires.  No sooner have they thought of Dresden than they can be on a train there; no sooner have they seen a dress than it can be in their wardrobe.  They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn’t free that evening.”

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Now let’s turn to a more controversial topic: sex.  What did the legendary French author have to say about getting busy between the sheets?  Throughout time, women were told chastity was a requisite for finding a husband.  Even after the feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s, our mothers still clung to the conservative belief that we should wait as long as possible before engaging in the ultimate act of intimacy.  “Why would a man buy the whole ice cream truck if you’re giving away the popsicles for free?” they cautioned.  In other words, why would a man ever exchange vows to remain faithful in “sickness and health” if he already achieved his ultimate aim?  

Though as a culture we no longer hold the outdated belief that a woman needs to remain “pure” to be attractive, Proust might say our mothers— for all their antiquated ideas of gender roles and offensive double standards— were in some ways correct.  “Women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, whom one does not even know at first whether one will ever possess are the only interesting ones,” he once wrote.  Now, before we condemn Proust as an unforgivable misogynist, he believed this principle equally applied to men.  If love is three quarters curiosity as quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, love wilts as familiarity grows.

Compare your attitude toward where you live to an exotic locale.  What do you look at with more longing: the cobblestone streets and sparkling waters of Venice or the well-trotted roads of your daily route?  Obviously, the former.  However, if you could too easily secure the object of your desire, if because of an overflowing bank account or an abundance of frequent flier miles, you could fly halfway across the world at whim to gaze upon St. Mark’s Basilica, the experience would be less satisfying.  Within an hour of suffering the impossibly long lines of an Italian summer, you’d be dreaming of yet another faraway destination: the idyllic English countryside, perhaps, or a breathtaking beach in the Caribbean.

This elucidates the basis of Proust’s theory of desire: we are incapable of appreciating what can be obtained with little effort.  If we sleep with someone on the first date (or even the second or third), there’s no more mystery, curiosity: the once exciting possibility of traversing the societal boundaries of clothes and exploring the forbidden territory of another’s body becomes as boring and predictable as our well-trodden route to work.  For Proust, this was the fundamental problem with the prostitute: “because she both wishes to entice a man and yet is commercially prevented from doing what is most likely to encourage love— namely, tell him that she is not free tonight…the outcome is clear, and therefore real, lasting desire unlikely.”  So if we want to captivate our lovers, we must maintain the mystery.