On Love by Alain de Botton
Anybody can write a love story. But to write a love story incorporating such disparate figures as Groucho Marx, Wittgenstein and Freud (and a litany of cameos by other great thinkers) -- that’s ingenuity. And to write such artfully clever sentences about the mechanics of love, and to illustrate them with whimsical diagrams -- now that’s an achievement.
Relayed in the first-person, On Love charts a love affair between the narrator and Chloe, a woman he meets on a British Airways carrier from Paris to England. After “an exchange of biography,” the usual digression begins: romance, intimacy, heartbreak and rebirth (or progression, depending on which way you look at it). The plot may seem as scant as consommé soup, but de Botton’s verve and insight is wholly absorbing. And, it should be noted, in 1993 when On Love was written, the author was only 24.
But let’s forget his youthful vigour for a minute, and consider his sentences. Sharp and witty, de Botton is the kind of person you hope to be seated next to at a dinner party. While in the throes of love’s grip, watching his beloved in a grocery store, he tells us: “For a moment, I fantasized I might transform myself into a carton of yogurt so as to undergo the same process of being gently and thoughtfully accommodated by her into a shopping bag between a tin of tuna and a bottle of olive oil.” Since, however, so much relies on a clever object/subject retelling of events, smirking, he follows this reverie announcing: “It was only the incongruously unsentimental atmosphere of the supermarket [‘Liver Promotion Week’] that alerted me to how far I might have been sliding into romantic pathology.”
“Romantic pathology,” or the way Love, in its Cyclops-singularity, gains dominion over our every minute, is given ample deconstruction in On Love. Oh, but doesn’t Love shred our reason, destabilize our confidence, sucker-punch our gut and invade our sleep? Its sorcery turns the rational, irrational; the meek, bold; the good-natured, envious; the tranquil, vociferous. While reading On Love, I winced at the familiarity of the love game. How the self is adapted to woo the lover. How, as de Botton deduces, “Seduction is a form of acting, a move from spontaneous behaviour to behaviour shaped by an audience.” How flaws we would normally perceive in others, is disregarded. “How hard it [is] to keep a level head, when Cupid [is] such a biased interpreter?” And how heartbreaking then, that when love dissolves, or is “translated,” the lover stands as aloof as a stranger before us. And isn’t it sort of bittersweet funny -- after time has elapsed, of course -- when you think back to the complicit charade?
The high jinks begin with the initial mating ritual, the first date or movie, when the couple is at its Hollywood finest, suggests de Botton. In this act, everything the lover says or does is “akin to a wartime code,” a signal where “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 does s/he not, desire me?"
And if the answer is yes (oh there is a God) the first intimate encounter, despite our surety of the lover, is tinged with the vulgarity of real limbs embracing. As de Botton candidly puts it: “the myth of passionate love making suggests it should be free of minor impediments such as getting bracelets caught, or cramps in one’s leg… The business of untangling hair or limbs forces an embarrassing degree of reason where only appetite should dwell.” Indeed. But rarely does desire abut desire when you’re trying to impress someone in the sack. Clouded with the business of thinking, “The philosopher in the bedroom is as ludicrous a figure as the philosopher in the nightclub,” announces the post-coital narrator wryly. In this instance, and throughout the book, one gets the feeling de Botton is a theatre actor transmitting stage-asides to a rapt audience. These coy snippets of truth make On Love an incredibly pleasurable read. We laugh with him because we recognize ourselves in the often frustrating, awkward and gut-wrenching business of loving another.
However, de Botton does not overlook the very real angst of love. In “Romantic Terrorism,” a chapter so perfectly titled it brings glee to my heart, the end of his and Chloe’s relationship is near. On what will be the couple’s last trip together (Paris: city of Love and now heartache) they make plans to celebrate their anniversary, even though the narrator tells us it feels “more like a funeral.” As in the end of most relationships, when one party (Chloe) decides it’s over, there is nothing to do but watch the impending train wreck: the stilted conversation, the bad sex, and most notably, the refusal to acknowledge that the end has come. “Love may be born at first sight, but it does not die with corresponding rapidity,” says the narrator in “Romantic Terrorism.” You can probably guess where he’s going with this. We’re about to witness his imminent psychosis in the remaining well-titled chapters: “Beyond Good and Evil,” “Psycho-Fatalism,” “Suicide,” “The Jesus Complex,” “Ellipsis,” and “Love Lessons.”
Speaking of lessons, I learned plenty after reading On Love. We may not want to admit it but relationships and people carry a certain homogeny about them. We’re not as unique as we’d like to think, which I think is a very good thing. It means our “true love” or “soul mate” or whatever you call the ex-love you pine after, is actually still out there. As de Botton recognizes: "Wisdom teaches us that our first impulses may not always be true, and that our appetites will lead us astray if we do not train reason to separate vain from genuine needs.” Think about it.