“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough,” Cheryl Strayed reassures her younger self in the concluding letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her much-beloved Dear Sugar advice column. In a “rash and romantic impulse,” Strayed married her husband when she was one month short of twenty. Though she loved him deeply, devotedly— he was gentle and tender and caring, he was an artist and political and outdoorsy— she didn’t love him “absolutely.” She resented that he had all the privilege of an upper-middle class upbringing while she grew up in a house without running water and was orphaned when her mom died suddenly from cancer in her early twenties. She still lusted for scandalous sex with strangers in bathrooms scrawled with graffiti; she was too young to commit to lifelong monogamy.
There was nothing wrong with her husband— he didn’t go out drinking and disappear for days, he didn’t lie or cheat; there was nothing wrong with their relationship per se— they didn’t scream or slam doors or shout obscenities, they didn’t hurl grenades of nasty names or launch bitter campaigns against each other as if they were enemies— yet she still wanted to leave. “There was in me an awful thing from almost the very beginning, a tiny clear voice that would not, no matter what I did, stop saying go,” she writes with heart-breaking poignancy.
In what are perhaps the most gut-wrenching letters in all of Tiny Beautiful Things, five women write the always sympathetic Strayed with a similar dilemma: they love their significant others but want to leave. Each woman cites a different reason: while Standing Still is miserably depressed and feels misunderstood by her devoutly religious husband, Claustrophobic— like too many women in their late twenties/early thirties— feels pressured to marry her long-term boyfriend though the thought of tying the knot makes her “claustrophobic and panicky.” Playing It Safe adores her husband whom she calls “terribly romantic” but worries she was too young to get married. Secretly, she longs for a life of adventure and daring: she wants to date other people, gallivant around the globe, join the Peace Corps. Similarly, Leaving a Marriage describes herself as “living in limbo”: on one hand, she loves her husband and feels it’s her duty to honor the binds of marriage; on the other, she feels “distant and remote” in their passionless union and is “repulsed at the idea of having sex with him.”
Though their circumstances differ, each woman is essentially saying the same thing: “I love him but…” I love him but he doesn’t think depression is a real thing. I love him but he doesn’t inspire/challenge me. I love him but we don’t have any chemistry.
And isn’t that what makes the decision to end a relationship so excruciating? You’re confronted with multiple truths. There is the truth that you love your boyfriend/husband but there’s also the competing, contradictory truth that— for whatever reason— you no longer want to be with him. How can you know which truth is the most true?
If you approach your decision with hard, rational logic, you might make a pro and con list. On the pro side, the reasons to stay are endless: we stay because marriage is a commitment (as Leaving a Marriage writes, “marriage isn’t all puppies and rainbows, it requires hard work and endurance.”); we stay because our husbands have been faithful to us; we stay because we’re afraid to start over; we stay because we have a house and children. We stay because it is familiar, because it would be inconvenient to sell our family home and find our own apartment. We stay because custody battles are ugly and a good lawyer is expensive. Mostly, we stay because we know leaving will devastate our husbands.
On the con side, we might have some compelling reasons to go: maybe our husband is petty and always puts us down; maybe he has outmoded ideas about gender roles and believes it’s our duty as a woman to give up our career and stay home; maybe we’re just incompatible on a fundamental level.
So what should we do? In a passage of distressing beauty, Strayed stirs her letter writers to go and follow their truest truth:
“Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.”
But if we do finally make the courageous choice to “go,” how do we cope with the crushing guilt that comes with hurting someone we love? Rather than mire ourselves in a pit of self-punishment and self-hatred, we should treat ourselves with compassion and gentleness. We made a tough decision. Will leaving break our husband’s heart? Yes, but it’s actually the kindest thing we could do. It may seem cruel to utter the words “it’s over” and simply walk out the door, but it would be even more cruel to stay when we wanted to go. After all, what’s worse: weeping inconsolably on the floor for a few days/weeks/months after your wife leaves you or tossing and turning in bed for years tormented by the terrible, inescapable sense that the person you love no longer loves you? As Strayed writes with equal doses no-bullshit tough love and large-hearted encouragement, your partner deserves “the love of a woman who doesn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost.”
Half a century ago, porn was limited to your dad’s Playboys and a few rare home videos; today porn is mass produced by a multi-billion dollar industry, as easy and convenient as french fries from the McDonald’s dollar menu. The internet is a portal to a pixelated play land where your filthiest fantasies can come true.
Despite the prevalence of porn and the widespread acceptance of casual sex, today our sex lives are less satisfying— not more. By giving men unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies, porn extinguishes male libido and can even hinder their ability to perform. In the words of groundbreaking feminist Naomi Wolf, “real naked women are just bad porn.” Not only does porn ruin real sex, it causes women to loathe themselves. After all, how can a flesh-and-blood woman begin to compete with a submissive sex slave whose only purpose is to fulfill her male viewer’s every fantasy and whose vocabulary is limited to seductive moans and exaggerated exclamations of “yes! more!”?
Though pornography had yet to completely spoil sex in her lifetime, dedicated diarist Anais Nin understood sex is a matter— not of the body— but of the mind. Along with her lifelong friend, lover and fellow writer Henry Miller, Nin wrote erotica for an anonymous client at a rate of $1 a page. “Leave out the poetry and concentrate on sex!” the collector demanded. In this passionate and prophetic letter, featured both in the indispensable Letters of Note and the exquisite The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3, the always articulate Nin responded:
We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships which change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.
You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of others, which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional. This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements. You are shrinking your world of sensations. You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.
If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world. The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion. You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation. Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all of the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.
How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of discrete and never-repeated wonders? Not two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; not two odors, but if we expand on this, you cry “Cut the poetry.” Not two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore. What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art, natural and graceful animals.
We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up. There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”
A writer of erotica and a notorious seductress herself, Nin had the prescience to know porn would pose serious problems. Pornography is provocative in the most predictable ways: lewd profanities, unimaginative dirty talk, obscenely large breasts, huge cocks. Its purpose? To immediately satisfy our most depraved desires.
Seduction, however, depends on delaying— not gratifying— desire. After all, who is more alluring: the belligerently drunk bro who instantly agrees to come home with us or the mysterious man who only longingly looks at us across the bar? It’s the tease that’s most tantalizing. If you want to make yourself irresistible, you should conceal, not reveal: the curve of a hip, the graceful arch of a back, the neckline that reveals just a bit of your decolletage, the entrancing scent of perfume on the wind, the forbidden, flirtatious glance across the table that lasts a little too long seduce us in a way the most x-rated porn cannot. As Proust so wittily observed over a century ago, we most want what is denied us.
The great tragedy of our time is we have porn, but no passion; we have sex but have forgotten how to make love. For sensualist Nin, sex can only enrapture if it involves all the senses, if it’s connected— not divorced— from head and heart. Hungry for more of Nin’s intriguing insights and luminous prose? Read her on the mystery of memory and the bliss and hell of New York. Need more advice on sex and love? Revisit Alain de Botton on how to be charming and Proust on how to be happy in love.
Relationships cannot complete us nor can they rescue or redeem. We might imagine love— to borrow the lovely words of Edna St. Vincent Millay— can “clean the blood” and “set the fractured bone”— but love cannot mend the broken soul. Despite prevailing myth, prince charming will never gallop in on a white horse and save us; we have to save ourselves.
And though we romanticize love as champagne and chocolate and roses, love is difficult, at times, unbearably so. For every romantic proposal of marriage, there’s a heart-wrenching divorce; for every declaration of undying devotion, a broken promise; for every tender kiss and affectionate nickname, a spiteful word and slammed door. Love demands we let down our defenses and allow another to penetrate the usually impenetrable fortress of our hearts. When we love someone, we’re essentially lowering a drawbridge so they can sidestep our moats. If we let them infiltrate our castle, we risk being heartbroken when they leave or otherwise betray us. Ultimately, to open ourselves to love is to open ourselves to loss. As the great Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
The inherent difficulty of loving is what poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran explores in his breathtaking masterpiece The Prophet, a trove of wisdom on such timeless topics as joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and work. In one of his most beloved passages, Gibran implores us to obey love, though it always has the capacity to hurt:
“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he
crucify you. Even as he is for your growth
so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and
caresses your tenderest branches that quiver
in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and
shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred
fire, that you may become sacred bread for
God’s sacred feast.”
Since biblical times, man has imagined himself the almighty ruler of the universe. God, we believed, made us in his likeness and gave us dominion over sea and earth. Unlike the beasts and babes, he endowed us with disproportionately large brains. Over the course of our history, we’ve accomplished extraordinary feats from painting the Sistine Chapel to cloning sheep. Yet despite our impressive artistic and scientific achievements, we’re not all-powerful or all-knowing. No matter how hard we try to unravel the mighty mysteries of love, certain things will always lie beyond our control or understanding: we can never command passion or know why, exactly, we prefer brunettes to blondes. As Gibran reminds us, we’re not at the helm of our own hearts:
“And think not you can direct the course
of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.”
Gibran concludes with a list of commandments meant to embolden us to love despite its inseparability from loss. In matters of the heart, he argues, we should resolve:
Since the shattering dissolution of my ten-year relationship, I’ve been preoccupied with what constitutes “love.” What, exactly, is this emotion that has endlessly puzzled philosophers? Is it carnal passion? physical chemistry? Does it burn and blaze through our hearts until it’s extinguished by domesticity? Or is true love as stable as a 30-year mortgage and 2.5 kids? Is it dirty dishes and morning coffee?
Can love take many forms? Can it be romantic and platonic? ruled by the mind, body and heart? Can you have a sexual soul mate and an intellectual one?
After so much misfortune in the romantic arena, I wanted to learn how to distinguish infatuation from idealization, real intimacy from rushed intimacy, commitment from codependence, charm from manipulation, love from love-bombing. I became a lexicographer dedicated to reducing love to an accessible definition and understanding its many meanings. If I possessed the linguistic tools to name love, I would be better able— I hoped— to recognize it.
In many ways, our culture’s definition of love is unhealthy. From a young age, girls are bombarded with toxic messages, usually in the form of damsels-in-distress and Prince Charming bedtime stories. These fairytales teach us we’re Snow White: breathtaking but helpless creatures who require a handsome prince to awaken us from our spell-induced slumber. The result? When we grow up, we believe we need a knight-in-shining armor.
This idea that we need another person originates in the ancient world. According to Greek mythology, human beings were inseparably intwined with their soul mates until Zeus split us in two, dooming us to eternally wander the Earth in search of our other half, our “one.”
Today the belief in soul mates persists in sappy chick flicks and the prepackaged cliches of sentimental Hallmark cards. Though we swoon over the Platonic myth of our “other half,” at its base is the rather unhealthy conviction that we’re fundamentally incomplete and need someone else to make us whole. The uncoupled among us are seen as missing a vital piece of our soul. Women are especially taught to equate their worth to their relationship status. If we reach a certain age and still haven’t walked down the aisle, we’re pitied as lonely spinsters. “Poor Sheila, still single…and after all these years!” our relatives mercilessly gossip over cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner.
In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece of introspection worshipped as the first feminist bible and hailed as a genuine literary event, dedicated diarist and prolific poet Sylvia Plath challenges us to rethink our definition of a healthy relationship. During her 1950s era of shiny chrome appliances and the picture-perfect Beaver to Cleaver white picket fence, women only had one option: housewifery. Finding a husband was the end-all and be-all of her existence; she didn’t have an identity outside her marriage and mothering responsibilities. While her husband commuted on the morning train to his job where he practiced medicine, transacted business, administered justice, and delivered impassioned sermons, she tied an apron around her waist and cooked casseroles in quiet desperation. She might bake brownies for her son’s bake sale or attend the occasional PTA meeting, but her life was in large part circumscribed by his.
Though we’ve come a long way since the conventional gender roles of the 1950s, we still possess many of the same outdated ideas about relationships. “Real” love— we believe— is losing yourself in your partner; a “real” relationship is two lost and lonely “I’s” merging and melding to become a single unit. However, ancient philosophers and contemporary psychologists agree that the healthiest relationships strike a balance between distance and intimacy, independence and togetherness. A marriage should be a union of equals: one partner’s passions and preoccupations should never dominate the other’s. Ideally, a relationship is a reciprocal exchange—not a crusade for control or battle for power. To be satisfied with our significant others, we must have a shared life but also a life outside each other.
In a May 15, 1952 journal entry, Plath fashions the elegant metaphor of a Venn digram to illustrate that the happiest marriages are composed of two people with overlapping but independent identities:
“I plan not to step into a part on marrying— but to go on living as an intelligent mature human being, growing and learning as I always have. No shift, no radical change in life habits. Never will there be a circle, signifying me and my operations, confined solely to home, other womenfolk, and community service, enclosed in the larger worldly circle of my mate, who brings home from his periphery of contact with the world the tales only vicarious to me…No rather there will be two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, but both with separate arcs jutting out in the world. A balanced tension; adaptable to circumstances, in which there is an elasticity of pull, tension, yet firm unity. Two stars, polarized…in moments of communication that is complete…almost fusing into one. But fusion is an undesirable impossibility— and quite non-durable.”
“But what does wisdom say about love?” the analytically-minded narrator of Alain de Botton’s debut novel On Loveasks 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.”
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.”
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.”
The word “break up” evokes several stereotypical images: a hysterical, mascara-smudged woman 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.”
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.”
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.”
When I was young, I was deeply committed to a life of love: my twenties were a string of intense affairs and serious long-term relationships interrupted only by brief periods of singledom. I loved to love, to be loved: the tender kisses, the holding hands, the constant person to lean on. I loathe to admit it but I’ve always devoured sappy romantic comedies and weepy chick flicks: my earliest memories are singing along with Roy Orbison during the ending credits of Pretty Woman (a movie, I now realize, for a four year old was wildly inappropriate). These movies all seemed to say one thing: love is an integration of two inadequate, incomplete halves to make a perfect whole; to be happy, you had to have someone. I blame these enduring myths of modern knights in shining armor for my deep-seated terror of being alone.
Because I thought love was a need rather than a want, I leaped from relationship to relationship, becoming a sort of serial monogamist. The result? I lost who I was (after all, isn’t that, to some extent, what a relationship is: a steady dissolution of self?). Perhaps love is always a kind of osmosis, a process by which our personality passes through a semipermeable membrane and intermingles with that of someone else. In a relationship, two independent, autonomous “I’s” merge into an indivisible “we”: we adopt their preferences, we trade tastes in books and movies. In an ideal relationship, this would be an equal exchange between partners. But in a lopsided union, only one partner is assimilated into the culture of the other, absorbing their viewpoints, their philosophies, their beliefs, their ideas.
This subsumption of self begins with the very first date. During the initial stages of infatuation, we long for one thing: our beloved. In order to allure our lover, we’ll do almost anything from pretend to be obsessed with their favorite band to overstate our admiration for Jack Kerouac. Dating is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self behind many masks. Existing at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, the idea-orientation of an essay and the narrative-orientation of a novel, Alain de Botton’sOn 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.”
What is the secret to seduction? For Marcel Proust, the answer is two words: denial and delay. “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 I 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.”
Has any other emotion inspired more philosophical inquiry or tormented 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.”
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.”