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. 

A Shattered Marriage: Trauma & Heartbreak in “The Squid and the Whale”

divorce

The governing philosophy of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt, sharp-witted The Squid and the Whale is nicely summed up by the unsparing words of one of his central protagonists Barnard: “people can be very stupid.”  A tender, exquisitely painful look at the aftermath of a messy divorce, The Squid and the Whale is also a portrait of the manifold ways people can be petty and foolish when heartbroken.

Barnard (Jeff Daniels) is perhaps the stupidest of all Baumbach’s characters.  A once acclaimed novelist whose stardom has dimmed, Barnard is an insufferable bastard for most of the film. Haughtily pompous, he speaks with an obnoxious pretension, assuredly telling his teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) not to bother with A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “minor Dickens.”  So self-important is he that at one point he calls Kafka “one of his predecessors.”  When he’s not bragging about an alluring woman he could’ve slept with at a George Plimpton party, he’s subtly boasting that one of his scenes was a favorite of Norman Mailer’s.  One gets the sense that Barnard drops the names of impressive people and touts sophisticated-sounding opinions to conceal a deep-seated insecurity: though he was once a novelist of some renown, now he can’t get an agent or a book published.  Every time Barnard uttered yet another one of his overblown opinions or self-mythologizing stories, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  Needless to say, my eyes were rarely straight ahead for the brief 80 minutes of the film…is it any wonder his wife Joan (Laura Linney) leaves him?  

A literary talent on the rise, Joan is also a writer but-unlike her has-been husband- she actually writes.  In a revealing scene, Barnard is setting up his bed on the coach, a tattered copy of Saul Bellow’s The Victim daring us to analyze its significance on the night stand, when he hears the clatter of typewriter keys in the kitchen. Curious, he follows the sound to find his wife visited by the muses who’ve so long forsaken him.

What are you writing?” he asks obviously jealous, “Did you take my note about the ending?”

Yeah, some of it….” she nods evasively, clearly not wanting to quarrel.

Does he still die?” Barnard presses.

Yes,” she finally admits like a child who’s forced to concede to a bully at school.

Then you didn’t take my note.”

What follows is a sad scene all too familiar to those who grew up in a turbulent home.  As Barnard and Joan holler and shriek, their two sons find their own ways to cope: 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) tries to ignore their fighting and hide under the covers; older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his room to check the commotion, looking painfully vulnerable as he sprawls out on the stairs in his underwear.  Baumbach’s directorial touch here is beautifully subtle: though he never states it outright, it’s undeniable envy plays a central role in their breakup.

unhappy couple

When Barnard and Joan finally break the news of their split, both are startlingly distant; rather than console their sons with loving assurances, all they discuss are the logistics of joint custody.  Yes, after some time Joan hugs a tearful Frank but what should be a heartfelt exchange still seems oddly devoid of emotion.  

Divorce is traumatic.  We hear this over and over.  But never before has a movie so faithfully limned the pain and grief that follows marital dissolution.  After the disintegration of his 17-year marriage, Barnard becomes more angry and bitter, constantly bad-mouthing Joan to his sons, even tactlessly revealing to Walt that his mother had an affair.  Little thought is given as to how such a divulgence will affect the teenager- all Barnard cares about is enlisting recruits on his side of the war.  

Joan isn’t entirely innocent either: unhappy in her loveless marriage to a self-absorbed writer, she finds solace in passionate affairs with several men, including her youngest son’s tennis instructor.  Rather than divorce Barnard, she remains unfaithful for many years.  Much like her ex-husband, in the immediate aftermath of their divorce she behaves selfishly and insensitively, telling Frank when he shows up unexpectedly for a visit that she needs a “break” from him and his brother once in awhile.  

While Joan is romping with a sexy tennis instructor and Barnard is lambasting Joan, their sons are finding their own ways of coping with the devastation of a broken home.  A masterful storyteller (he was once a novelist, after all), Barnard fashions a narrative in which he’s the irreproachable victim.  Walt, who idolizes his father, whole-heartedly believes his versions of events and channels his rage at Joan, at one point accusing her of “running a brothel.”  Outraged by her infidelities, he blames his mother for the divorce and relentlessly defends Barnard.  Yes, Joan was unfaithful but- as more impartial viewers witnessing these events-we possess the context to understand her affairs were most likely a symptom of an already strained marriage, not their cause.

walt & barnard

The stupidest thing Walt does, I think, is side with Barnard.  Not only does he unfairly hold his mother responsible for the divorce, he worships an uppity, self-satisfied snob.  In the cult of novelist Barnard, Walt is his most devoted follower: he reveres his father’s judgement so much that he trusts his assessments of literature without question, often passing over books simply because his father dismisses them.  So ardent is his adoration that he develops the off-putting habit of imitating his father’s elitist opinions, though he’s never actually read the books he so confidently critiques himself.  In a hilarious scene, he tells his love interest that Metamorphosis is very “Kafkaesque,” a bookish adjective he’s undoubtedly heard his father spout around the house.  “Uh, yeah,” Sophie (Halley Feiffer) replies, “it would have to be. It’s by Franz Kafka.”

In the wake of his parents’ acrimonious break up, the most despicable habit Walt adopts from his father is his misogyny.  It is from Barnard that Walt learns women are but a prop for man’s colossal ego- nothing but pretty play things to be assessed by their exteriors alone.  Throughout the film, Walt treats Sophie not as a first love to be courted and wooed but as a placeholder until he finds someone better.  “What do you mean, better?” his mother asks in disbelief, knowing “better” is code for more attractive.  Barnard encourages this detestable attitude toward women, at one point telling him to have sex with Sophie once to see if he “likes” it and on several occasions urging him to “play the field” and “not get tied down.”  After Walt wins the school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own, Barnard is more adamant in his recommendation to sidestep commitment: “Things are going to change for you after tonight,” he assures him, hinting Walt will attract more tantalizing, desirable prospects after the evening’s show.  

Despite their (many) failings, film critic Nick Schager has said, The Squid and the Whale “dares not harshly judge its all-too-human characters.”  I would have to agree.  Barnard, Walt, Joan: all are but frail, flawed people trying to navigate heartbreak on their own.