22 of 2011 ▪ On Love by Alain de Botton.
1. I first learned about this novel [philosophy tract cum novel?] after I finished my first reading of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. I wanted more of the wonder and beauty of Barthes, and my internet digs led me to de Botton’s first book. About a year later—and another reading of Barthes—I saw this book in a bookstore. For some inexplicable flash of idiocy, I put it back on the shelf. I have been pining for it ever since.
2. And then I found it, and immediately plonked it into my shopping basket. I read the first third of the book back in November. I was all-too-easily falling in love with the book, with our narrator, his particular neuroses, his words. I grew to loathe Chloe for being the object of our narrator’s longing and devotion. [I guess that’s self-explanatory.] And then, for some inexplicable flash of idiocy, I set the book aside almost as soon as I got home from the hospital, and then my mother borrowed it, and then she gave it back, and I still didn’t pick it up until a few days ago.
3. The oft-quote first paragraph of this book. I’ve copied it into notebooks, into this very blog. When my mother asked me what the novel was about, I said, “It’s weird. It’s a love story, but every ‘stage’ of the love story, almost every moment, the narrator’s philosophizing. Explaining. It’s like a rationalization of love.” And my mother said, “How else should you treat love?” And I let her read the first paragraph. And she smiled and took the book from me.
4. When I returned to the book a few days ago, I read it from the beginning. Went through their conversations in the airport, went through our narrator’s computations of his romantic destiny, past their awkward lunch, past the first time they made love.
The philosopher in the bedroom is as ludicrous a figure as the philosopher in the nightclub. In both arenas, because the body is predominant and vulnerable, the mind becomes an instrument of silent, uninvolved assessment. Thought’s infidelity lies in its privacy. “If there is something that you cannot say to me,” asks the lover, “things that you must think alone, then can you really be trusted?”
I wasn’t thinking anything cruel while I ran my hands and lips across Chloe’s body, it was simply that Chloe would probably have been disturbed by the news that I was thinking at all. Because thought implies judgment, and because we are all paranoid enough to take judgment to be negative, it is constitutionally suspect in the bedroom. Hence the sighing that drowns the sounds of lovers’ thoughts, sighing that confirms: I am too passionate to be thinking. I kiss, and therefore I do not think—such is the official myth under which lovemaking takes place, the bedroom a unique space in which partners tacitly agree not to remind one another of the awe-inspiring wonder of their nudity.
I made notes and stuck Post-It flags and sighed and swooned and shook my head and agreed, breathed, Yes, dammit. I read it during lunch breaks, on the train commute home, in a café packed with young’uns too not-in-need-of-coffee. I read, and I read.
5. Could I quote this entire book, this wonderful oddball beauty of a book? Sentences like, “One of love’s greatest drawbacks is that, for a while at least, it is in danger of making us seriously happy.” Or, “I was forced to acknowledge that love was a lonely pursuit.” Or, “If one is not wholly convinced of one’s own lovability, receiving affection can appear like being bestowed an honor for a feat one feels no connection with.” Or whole paragraphs, whole pages, whole chapters.
6. What a daunting undertaking, all these notes about love. Then again, haven’t we all done so? Analyzed, and belabored the point. To seek to define the other, to seek to measure their love, even as we struggle to subject ours to the same scrutiny?
7. Funny how one unfolds a love story through philosophy. I suppose it’s fitting, I suppose among the hundreds—thousands?—who have read this novel there are those who’ve thought, “Why did I not think of this first?” Then again, “Could I even do this?” It seems exhausting, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. To define love through a narrative, define it explicitly. To put on the philosopher’s hat at a jaunty angle. To love deeply, and think endlessly—needlessly?
8. Then again, have we embarked on complicated equations to formulate the probability of having met and loved someone? Have we ever tied Marxism to the first fight we ever had with the person we now love? Have we drawn comparisons between a sulk and political terrorism?
Though ordinary terrorists may occasionally force concessions from governments by blowing up buildings or schoolchildren, romantic terrorists are doomed to disappointment because of a fundamental inconsistency in their approach. You must love me, says the romantic terrorist; I will force you to love me by sulking at you or making you feel jealous. But then comes the paradox, for if love is returned, it is at once considered tainted, and the romantic terrorist must complain, If I have only forced you to love me, then I cannot accept this love, for it was not spontaneously given. Romantic terrorism is a demand that negates itself in the process of its resolution, and brings the terrorist up against an uncomfortable reality—that love’s death cannot be arrested.
Have we related the delusions inspired by love to the medical case of a man who, out of the blue, thought that he was a fried egg? Have we told our lovers, I marshmallow you, because we found the phrase “I love you” too exhausted, too emptied of meaning, and any other word would have done? [Show of hands, please.]
9. There’s something terribly cold about this entire process. Shouldn’t love be fluffy and mindless? But there’s something terribly sweet and earnest about all these rationalizations—This is my love, this is how I love you, and this is what it means, that is, it means the world to me. That is, it’s sweet and earnest because, well, there’s the attempt at coldness, at objectivity. But love draws you in. Love defeats the purpose. Love kicks philosophy’s ass even when the two pretend to be all happy-chummy.
10. “I realized that a more complex lesson needed to be drawn, one that could play with the incompatibilities of love, juggling the need for wisdom with its likely impotence, juggling the idiocy of infatuation with its inevitability. Love had to be appreciated without flight into dogmatic optimism or pessimism, without constructing a philosophy of one’s fears, or a morality of one’s disappointments. Love taught the analytic mind a certain humility, the lesson that however hard it struggled t reach immobile certainties (numbering its conclusions and embedding them in neat series), analysis could never be anything but flawed—and therefore never stray far from the ironic.”
11. I saw what you did there, Mr. de Botton.
12. Barthes said, “. . .the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.” Exhibit more of your sappiness, darling, and say, “But thank goodness for these books, once in a whle I need not feel lonely.”
13. Holy cheesecake, kids, I sound drunk.