On Love / The Course of Love / Essays on Love
© 2006 Alain de Botton
“The philosopher in the bedroom is as ludicrous a figure as the philosopher in the nightclub,” Alain de Botton offers in On Love, a novel in memoir form chronicling the course of a love affair over several months. The memoir is less a story about two people falling in love, and more a prolonged reflection on what stirs love in the first place, what people look for in the experience, and how such emotionally powerful affairs can come to an end. As the course of love proceeds, we witness the pair meet, bond over an airline flight, and hasten into a full relationship that grows for a few months before suddenly peaking and withering. De Botton’s main character is both intensely thoughtful and introspective, but often self-defeatingly irrational. Insecurity marks him, from his desperate inflation of subtle clues in his object d’amor’s behavior or mannerisms, to his suspicion that if she likes him, there must be something wrong with her. Given that the reader is hardly introduced to the lead before he falls in love, though, it’s hard to say if the insecurity was present before or if the sudden infatuation just “un-bloody-hinged” him, to borrow from Chasing Liberty. Two observations of de Botton’s stood out for me, though – first, that we often admire and ‘love’ others for the qualities we see or imagine in them, but that we don’t ourselves possess in sufficient measure (something true in friendship and romance, I’ve found), and that every relationship (again, true in love and romance) brings out different qualities in the observed parties. Lewis remarked in his The Four Loves that every friendship has a unique effect on the members involved: if Tollers, Jack, and Warnie are friends, Tollers brings out aspects of Jack that Warnie would have never otherwise seen, and ditto for qualities within Warnie brought out by Jack that Tollers would have been blind to. (Names mentioned in this example are purely fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. I pinky-swear.) Personally, though the main character is both pompous and insecure, and his love affair seemed to be more mutual infatuation than anything substantial, I couldn’t help but enjoy the book. I’m always magnetized by de Botton’s writing, and recognized in his lead’s foibles my own and other’s frailties.
Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of our faults. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.
[…] if you asked most people whether they believed in love or not, they’d probably say they didn’t. Yet that’s not necessarily what they truly think. It’s just the way they defend themselves against what they want. They believe in it, but pretend they don’t until they’re allowed to. Most people would throw away all their cynicism if they could. The majority just never get the chance.
Perhaps because the origins of a certain kind of love lie in an impulse to escape ourselves and our weaknesses by an alliance with the beautiful and noble. But if the loved ones love us back, we are forced to return to ourselves, and are hence reminded of the things that had driven us into love in the first place. Perhaps it was not love we wanted after all, perhaps it was simply someone in whom to believe—but how can we continue to believe in the beloved now that they believe in us?
“Is it really her I love,” I thought as I looked again at Chloe reading on the sofa across the room, “or simply an idea that collects itself around her mouth, her eyes, her face?” In using her face as a guide to her soul, was I not perhaps guilty of mistaken metonymy, whereby an attribute of an entity is substituted for the entity itself (the crown for the monarchy, the wheel for the car, the White House for the U.S. government, Chloe’s angelic expression for Chloe . . .)?