Depending on who you ask, Alain de Botton is a philosopher-therapist, a self-help guru, or a moron. The authors of this blog, for what it’s worth, like him. In the past two decades, de Botton has published over a dozen books, including The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), Status Anxiety (2005), and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2010). Here we consider a pair of his books in tandem, On Love: A Novel (2006), and How to Think More About Sex (2012), the latter released through “The School of Life,” a series of books dedicated to exploring life’s great questions.
I considered subtitling this post, “men talking about their feelings,” which, incidentally, is the same subtitle I have picked out for ESPN’s Sportscenter. There is this popular notion that most men don’t talk about their feelings, or can’t or won’t, and that this isolates them from women and from anyone else outside of a sort of unspoken, telekinetic manly intimacy – the type best given and received in a garage or a man-cave, during a sporting event, and over cold light beer.
This is dumb, of course, and one of the things that I appreciate about AdB is that he thinks about feelings, and then talks about his thoughts. Thinking about feeling is something of a higher order than simply talking about it, and I respect this even if people laugh at it from time to time.
This week we are considering two AdB titles, On Love and How to Think More About Sex, and I’m curious to hear what you have to say about them since I can think of no one (excepting, maybe, AdB) who thinks more carefully about feelings.
On Love is the account of a romantic relationship between an unnamed English architect (the first-person narrator) and Chloe, a young English woman he meets on a flight from Paris to London. Though the story is marketed as a novel, each chapter appears essay-style, as a series of enumerated points. The narrative follows the pair from their first meeting through the growth of their relationship, documenting and examining relative highs and lows along the way, before descending into a late period of insurmountable problems and their aftermath.
How to Think More About Sex, on the other hand, is explicitly essayistic and overtly self-helpy. The title plays on the popular notion that people (especially men) think about sex too much, replacing it with the more sober suggestion that they don’t think about sex so much as fantasize about it, and that these are two pretty dissimilar things. Because sex is a complicated and potentially anxious activity – or if not sex itself then certainly the interpersonal relations upon which it depends – there are many things to think about before you subject yourself to them.
Before we get into the specifics, maybe we can start with your take on AdB and his contributions – if any – to your thinking about love and its attendant emotions.
I went through a big AdB phase about six months ago, reading half his titles in a row. I think the thing that I appreciate most about him is his ambivalence. Take any domain of human life (work, philosophy, architecture, sex), and he’ll observe something subtly beautiful about it – but he’ll also talk about the ways that it doesn’t live up to its promise.
Out of that mix comes a pragmatic approach to things. His take on marriage at the end of …More About Sex is a perfect case in point. He talks about marriage the way Churchill talked about democracy. (“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”)
For AdB, there’s something irredeemably sad about marriage, because it means permanently giving up the freedoms and pleasures of single life. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s against marriage; he just thinks that given the kinds of beings many of us are – in particular, the ways we’re built for partnership – it’s the best available option. And he thinks people should go into marriage with exactly that attitude – openly acknowledging that they’re making an imperfect choice among a series of underwhelming options.
I don’t see my own marriage that way. I’m aware of what’s off the table now, of course, but I don’t spend much time worrying about it. Nor do I feel resigned. I like this life. If it’s compromised, it’s only compromised in the same way that everything is – which is to say that there are lots of great things in life, and you can’t have them all at the same time.
On one hand, then, I appreciate AdB’s honesty. He devotes a lot of energy to reassuring people that whatever they’re feeling is okay – including doubts about their partners or their jobs or their gods. And I like that – everyone deserves permission to feel what they really feel, and not just what’s been advertised. How else are we gonna get to know ourselves?
On the other hand, there’s no reason that a real engagement with our feelings will necessarily lead us to spend lots of time in a wistful, if-only state of mind. As best I can tell, though, AdB seems to.
Sure, but I think that’s part of his schtick. At the end of the day his product is assurance, and there’s a sense in which he does for western emotional states what the canon does for western culture – he provides you with a record of other people who have been here before you, and the assurance that they responded to these things in very similar – if wiser – ways.
In fact, reading AdB on relationships does for me now what reading On the Road did for me when I was eighteen – it describes my feelings before or aside from my feeling them, which creates this weird illusion of prescience. How did he know?
It also reminds me that, for all of our complexity, human beings have a relatively limited emotional register. We tend to experience the same handful of emotions over and over again, and to respond to them in predictable ways.
I think AdB is stronger as an essayist than a novelist, which is probably why he has worked almost exclusively in essays since writing an essay-novel. On Love rings true on most of its important points, but not without a few uncompelling scenes.
There is one in the beginning, for instance, in which the narrator and Chloe get into a fight over breakfast because she doesn’t have any strawberry jam and he reacts as though this is some sort of character flaw. Later, they fight again about her (he thinks) ugly shoes. Toward the end, there’s a scene in which an embittered Chloe praises the narrator’s colleague up and down in front of him, then leaves with the guy and doesn’t return home that night. The narrator is then left to agonize over whether she is cheating on him, which, of course, she is.
Though I suppose many relationships go through these sorts of highly dramatic moments, they seem inartfully rendered here.
For all that, though, I relate to a lot of the considerations the narrator makes. In the beginning, he calculates the probability that he should ever meet Chloe (1 in 989.7) and wonders about the miracle and/or inevitability of love or of loving a particular person. In the “seduction” phase he reads and analyzes the signs that precede openness, scrutinizing every smile, offhand comment, or brush of the hand to see if it’s nothing or something, and what, in either case, it means.
He thinks about the pace at which intimacy moves, figuring the speed it would take for the seducer to feel ungrateful versus the slowness that will leave him frustrated or bored. Then there is the idealization of partners that gives way gradually to humanization, and the metrics we use to determine whether flaws can be tolerated.
He thinks about arguments and what underlies them, the risk we assume in reciprocation – not just that we will be hurt, but that we will hurt the other as well. Then there is the desire to control a partner and its uneasy relationship with the desire to liberate her, the desire to conquer versus the new restlessness that may follow the conquest.
He thinks about the role of humor in relationships, how laughing together is often a means of relieving tension, and what it means when you lose the ability to do so. He cites philosophers on the nature of beauty and attraction, truth and delusion, the utility of sharing in something illusory for the good of the pair, the shattering of those illusions, and the irrationality of resenting someone for not – or for no longer – loving you, when love is not really a choice. (Or is it?)
He thinks about the stress that sometimes accompanies introducing a partner to friends and family, and wondering if they will see what you “see in her.” Also the discontent that some people feel as a relationship progresses, and the nostalgia they feel for that first falling.
He thinks finally about breakdowns in trust, betrayals, moving from your identity as an individual to half of a couple, and then maybe back again. The anxiety that comes with searching for someone, and that of worrying that you will lose someone that you’ve found. Hurt, vindictiveness, revenge – what he calls “romantic terrorism.” Attachment, loss, despair, guilt, grief, and very gradual healing. It’s all there with insights along the way.
I’m not really drawn to romance writing of any sort, but this captured my attention and prompted me to think about some pretty important relational questions. That’s why I think AdB has done us a public service.
Interesting – I’ve seen his approach more as a natural function of his character. I’m already wondering wistfully, so why not write it down?
Like you, I relate to a lot of the stuff he talks about. This seems natural; we’re all human. As long as you do a reasonably accurate job describing your feelings, at least a chunk of readers are going to pick up what you’re putting down. But in the case of On Love, that didn’t feel like enough. (I started it, but I’m not super-interested in finishing it.)
For me, there are a couple major ways to write compellingly about psychological states. One is to write about stuff that most people won’t admit or don’t know how to talk about, and the other is to write really well (with precision, beauty, or imaginative/creative power). Ideally, a writer would do both, but you can’t always have everything.
Based on what I read of On Love, though, I didn’t get the sense that AdB was going to deliver a ton of either. The narrator struck me as effete and a little un-self-aware – like he was about to get himself caught up in a bunch of problems that I don’t think of as particularly complicated or interesting. Or maybe I just didn’t like him, didn’t have much patience for his semi-pompous musings. There’s something weak and undignified about his approach.
(It’s weird, though, the narrators who do and don’t earn our patience. Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens kept me moving through their memoirs, because they write with power, wit, and bang-on smarts (even if they’re also dickish sometimes). Ignatius J. Reilly, too – because he’s funny (even if he’s also insufferable).
Effete and unaware? Dude’s British! (We should talk sometime about what makes pompous writers insufferable or loveable – I love Hitchens and Julian Barnes and Susan Sontag precisely because they’re so snooty, and I hate Paul Theroux for the same reason. If pressed, I think I could explain why.)
Maybe On Love doesn’t work for you simply because you’re a married man now, with all the stability of home and family. Me, I’m still out here in the jungle. It’s the state of nature. You have to be sensitive to the sounds and the smells, the predators and prey, the things that are edible and the ones that are poison.
Without getting too personal, I think I can say that, for a long time, I have assumed that relationships just shouldn’t require a lot of effort. I took for granted that, when it’s right, all you have to do is show up and let nature do what it do. This would also be true of friendships, family-ships, among colleagues and acquaintances, and in your more notable interactions with strangers.
If a relationship wasn’t easy, I would cite the problem (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) as grounds for distancing myself. It has never been entirely clear to me which problems are routine and surmountable, and which will be looked back upon later as canaries in the mine – warnings that, hindsight 20/20, I should have recognized. When faced with a judgment call like that, I’ve always played it safe.
I like to think I’m thoughtful, and that I make a really good partner much of the time. But I’m also driven by a sort of risk-aversion that makes me dangerous in the end. It’s not fear of commitment in the stereotypical sense so much as an (over?)abundance of caution.
Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with my life the way it is, and I see the rewards of relationship balanced and often overcome by the accompanying risks. In recognizing this, I’m not quite pleased with it. But that’s why AdB is good medicine. He interrogates the feelings that I am more inclined to trust.
My best friend in college dated a grad student for a while. They got serious and started thinking about the future, but there was a rockiness to things, too. I asked him about his ambivalence – how he felt able to contend with the difficulties and keep going. “I want to be in it more than I don’t,” he said.
That felt like triple-distilled wisdom, and it still does. You’re talking about relationship problems and whether they’re surmountable, but part of me suspects that that’s a secondary question. Maybe the primary question is – do you want to solve the problem? If not – or if you don’t more than you do – then maybe nothing else really matters.
I once had a breakup that bore this out, I think. I think each of us saw that better, more mature versions of ourselves might have been able to make the relationship work, but the versions of ourselves that we were right then just didn’t want to (or weren’t ready to). And that was it – there wasn’t any fighting it. She said, “I don’t think we’re gonna make it.” It was like she was saying that it was out of our hands – which it was.
Anyway – is this relevant to you?
It’s absolutely relevant, but I’m not sure it’s true, and that’s one of my central questions about relationships. I have often approached breakups in this way, suggesting that it was out of our hands and so nobody’s fault. It’s sad no matter what you do, but this way you can try to dodge some of the guilt, regret, and resentment. You can’t actually dodge them, in my experience, but you can try.
I think that question is central to AdB’s project – is love something that just happens, and that you navigate as best you can, or is it something that you do, and therefore can do either well or poorly?
Erich Fromm confronts this directly in his The Art of Loving, which pairs well with AdB. Noting that “hardly anyone thinks that there is anything that needs to be learned about love,” Fromm observes:
There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love. If this were the case with any other activity, people would be eager to know the reasons for the failure, and to learn how one could do it better – or they would give up the activity. Since the latter is impossible in the case of love, there seems to be only one adequate way to overcome the failure of love – to examine the reasons for this failure, and to proceed to study the meaning of love.
Love is not some amorphous, imposing thing, according to Fromm. It’s an art, like playing the violin.
When it comes to music or sports or foreign languages, people understand that they need to develop certain skills, and that their commitment to doing so (or not) will have a direct impact on how skillful they become. Both AdB and Fromm argue that love is no different in this respect, and that often our frustrations and failures stem from our routinized indifference to practice – sort of like how I feel when I step onto a golf course once a year, and get smoked by the guys who play regularly. Why do I suck? Because I am unwilling to put in the time and attention requisite for improvement. It’s my fault.
There’s one very famous passage in Walden where Thoreau talks about going into the woods to “live deliberately.” It’s a very citable phrase, but up until recently I don’t think I really understood what it means. In the past six months or so I have tried to make some large-scale life changes that have taken me away from a relatively self-sustaining routine – what we might call “living carelessly” – and have replaced it with a more conscious approach that slows down, analyzes, and performs daily functions (or not) based on my desired outcomes.
It may be time to approach relationships in this way, asking not “how they are going” on their own volition, but what I am consciously doing to help them grow.
I like a lot of this, but let me focus on the bit that I’m less sure about: the analogy between love and other skills. In golf, the goal is a low score. In foreign language learning, the goal is confident, fluent communication. What’s the goal in love?
That’s a question that I’m probably not capable of answering yet. Fromm says that love, in all of its forms, represents the desire to overcome our alienation from other people and to create human unions. But I think I prefer John Williams’ take from Stoner, a book that, incidentally, I love:
In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.
I like that, too – love as a process. My favorite definition of love is “taking joy in another’s being.” When I take real joy in someone’s existence, I tend to want to know them better – and getting to know them better can be joyful, too. It’s a deepening whirl, and one of the best things I’ve ever felt.