Book Review: The Course of Love

Book Review: The Course of Love

Kicked off 2017 reading the The Course of Love, by Alain de Botton. 20 years after his novel Essays in Love, his first book, de Botton is back with his second love novel. I have enjoyed most of his work and he is my favorite living author because he has brought practical philosophy to the most important themes of our hectic, XXI century lives. He has made me wiser and better prepared to deal with the news industry, the elitism of the arts, the despair of living in our secular societies, the illusions of travel, and the loneliness of being a romantic, among other modern struggles.

Because of his courageous honesty and transparency, Alain de Botton is more than a writer; he is a teacher of life for those willing to listen. He speaks openly about everything society tells us is wrong to say in the open. Reading his work feels like someone finally knows what we think and deep inside crave to share.

In The Course of Love, de Botton tries to warn us about the risks of leading our romantic lives by the principles of Romanticism, and encourages us to look at the less glamorous, equally relevant, but eventually tragic elements of any healthy relationship. In a world that promotes intuition and feelings as the right compass of our love life, de Botton does a great job of reminding us how flawed our emotions can be when it comes to choosing a romantic partner.

The main takeaway, as dull and plain as it may sound for the adolescent mind, is that in love too we all need a little help.

Below are some of my favorite excerpts (emphasis mine):

The Romantic faith must always have existed, but only in the past few centuries has it been judged anything more than an illness; only recently has the search for a soul mate been allowed to take on the status of something close to the purpose of life.

Our understanding of love has been highjacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments. We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.

Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances; love is a search for completion.

Love reaches a pitch at those moments when our beloved turns out to understand, more clearly than others have ever been able to, and perhaps even better than we do ourselves, the chaotic, embarrassing, and shameful parts of us.

Rabih runs his fingers roughly through Kirsten’s hair. She indicates, by a movement of her head and a little sigh, that she would like rather more of that–and harder, too, please. She wants her lover to bunch her hair in his hand an pull it with some violence. For Rabih it’s a tricky development. He has been taught to treat women with great respect, to hold the two genders as equal, and to believe that neither person ins a relationship should ever wield power over the other. But right now his partner appears to have scant interest in equality nor much concern for the ordinary rules of gender balance, either.

She wonders if Rabih will prove to be a philanderer or a spendthrift, a weakling or a drunk, a bore or the sort to resolve an argument with little force–and she is curious because she knows, better than most, that there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.

The marriage of reason was not, from any sincere perspective, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish, exploitative, and abusive. Which is why what has replaced it–the marriage of feeling–has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct, and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age appears to have had enough of “reasons,” those catalysts of misery, those accountants’ demands. Indeed the more imprudent a marriage appears, the safer it may actually be deemed to be, for apparent “recklessness” is taken as a counterweight to all the errors and tragedies vouchsafed by the so-called sensible unions of old. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable “reason.”

To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: once the freewheeling days of school and university are over, company and warmth become dispiritingly hard to find; social life starts to revolve oppressively around couples; there’s no one left to call or hand out with. It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling. […] Spending fifty-two straight Sundays alone may play havoc with a person’s prudence. Loneliness can provoke an unhelpful rush and repression of doubt and ambivalence about a potential spouse.

Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.

Without patience for negotiation, there is bitterness: anger that forgot where it came from. There is a nagger who wants it done now and can’t be bothered to explain why. And there is a naggee who no longer has the heart to explain that his or her resistance is grounded in some sensible counterarguments or, alternatively, in some touching and perhaps even forgivable flaws of character. The two parties just hope the problems—so boring to them both—will simply go away.

However fashionable an openness around relationships might be, it remains not a little shameful to have to admit that one just may, despite so many opportunities for reflection and experiment, have gone ahead and married the wrong person.

At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken truth. It is one of the odder gifts of love.

Romanticism hasn’t only increased the prestige of monogamous sex; along the way it has also made any extraneous sexual interest seem unvaryingly foolish and unkind. It has powerfully redefined the meaning of the urge to sleep with someone other than one’s regular partner. It has turned every extramarital interest into a threat and, often, something close to an emotional catastrophe.

What makes people good communicators is, in essence, an ability not to be fazed by the more problematic or offbeat aspects of their own characters. They can contemplate their anger, their sexuality, and their unpopular, awkward, or unfashionable opinions without losing confidence or collapsing into self-disgust. They can speak clearly because they have managed to develop a priceless sense of their own acceptability. They like themselves well enough to believe that they are worthy of, and can win, the goodwill of others if only they have the wherewithal to present themselves with the right degree of patience and imagination.

As children, these good communicators must have been blessed with caregivers who knew how to love their charges without demanding that every last thing about them be agreeable and perfect. Such parents would have been able to live with the idea that their offspring might sometimes—for a while, at least—be odd, violent, angry, mean, peculiar, or sad, and yet still deserve a place within the circle of familial love.

Good listeners are no less rare or important than good communicators. Here, too, an unusual degree of confidence is the key—a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions. Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds; they’ve been there before and know that everything can eventually be set back in its place.

It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love.

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.

The accusations we make of our lovers make no particular sense. We would utter such unfair things to no one else on earth. But our wild charges are a peculiar proof of intimacy and trust, a symptom of love itself—and in their own way a perverted manifestation of commitment. Whereas we can say something sensible and polite to any stranger, it is only in the presence of the lover we wholeheartedly believe in that can we dare to be extravagantly and boundlessly unreasonable.

The very concept of trying to “teach” a lover things feels patronizing, incongruous, and plain sinister. If we truly loved someone, there could be no talk of wanting him or her to change. Romanticism is clear on this score: true love should involve an acceptance of a partner’s whole being.

We know that, when teaching students, only the utmost care and patience will ever work: we must never raise our voices, we have to use extraordinary tact, we must leave plenty of time for every lessons to sink in, and we need to ensure at least ten compliments for every one delicately inserted negative remark. Above all, we must remain calm. And yet the best guarantee of calm in a teacher is a relative indifference to the success or failure of his or her lesson. The serene teacher naturally wants for things to go well, but if an obdurate pupil flunks, say, trigonometry, it is—at base—the pupil’s problem. […] An ability not to care too much is a critical aspect of unruffled and successful pedagogy.

Calm is precisely what is absent from love’s classroom. There is simply too much on the line. The “student” isn’t merely a passing responsibility; he or she is a lifelong commitment. Failure will ruin existence.

Few of us ever grow more reasonable or more insightful about our own characters for having had our self-esteem taken down a notch, our pride wounded, and our ego subjected to a succession of pointed insults. We simply grow defensive and brittle in the face of suggestions which sound like mean-minded and senseless assaults on our nature rather than caring attempts to address troublesome aspects of our personality.

Sentimentally, we contrast the spousal negativity with the encouraging tone of our friends and family, on whom no remotely comparable set of demands has ever been made.

When lovers point out what might be unfortunate or uncomfortable about the other’s respective character, they shouldn’t be seen as giving up on the spirit of love. They should be congratulated for trying to do something very true to love’s essence: helping their partners to develop into better versions of themselves.

Maturity means acknowledging that Romantic love might only constitute a narrow and perhaps rather mean-minded aspect of emotional life, one principally focused on a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love.

Children may end up being the unexpected teachers of people many time their age, to whom they offer—through their exhaustive dependence, egoism, and vulnerability—an advanced education in a wholly new sort of love, one in which reciprocation is never jealousy demanded or fractiously regretted and in which the true goal is nothing less than the transcendence of oneself for the sake of another.

The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior. […] Parents are apt to proceed from the assumption that their children, though they may be troubled or in pain, are fundamentally good. As soon as the particular pin that is jabbing them is correctly identified, they will be restored to native innocence. When children cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. […] How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships—if here too we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognize the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.

As parents, we learn another thing about love: how much power we have over people who depend on us and, therefore, what responsibilities we have to tread carefully around those who have been placed at our mercy. We learn of an unexpected capacity to hurt without meaning to: to frighten through eccentricity or unpredictability, anxiety or momentary irritation. We must train ourselves to be as others need us to be rather than as our own first reflexes might dictate.

It’s not just children who are childlike. Adults, too, are—beneath the bluster—intermittently playful, silly, fanciful, vulnerable, hysterical, terrified, pitiful, and in search of consolation and forgiveness. […] It is a wonderful thing to live in a world where so many people are nice to children. It would be even better if we lived in one where we were a little nicer to the childlike sides of one another.

The role of being a good parent brings with it one large and very tricky requirement: to be the constant bearer of deeply unfortunate news. The good parent must be the defender of a range of the child’s long-term interests, which are by nature entirely impossible for him or her to envisage, let alone assent to cheerfully.

The dream is to save the child time; to pass on in one go insights that required arduous and lengthy experience to accumulate. But the progress of the human race is at every turn stymied by an ingrained resistance to being rushed to conclusions. We are held back by an inherent interest in reexploring entire chapters in the back catalogue of our species’ idiocies—and to wasting a good part of life finding out for ourselves what has already been extensively and painfully charted by others.

Rabih sees that he has given over a very substantial share of the best days of his life to a pair of human beings who, if they weren’t his own children, would almost surely strike him as being fundamentally unremarkable—so much so, in fact, that were he to meet them in a pub in thirty years’ time, he might prefer not even to talk to them.

What niggles Kirsten most of all is the sentimentality of Rabih’s performance. She knows at first hand that the kindness he displays with their daughter is available from him only in his role as a father, not as a husband. She has plenty of experience with his drastic change in tone once the two of them are out of earshot of the children. He is unwittingly planting an image in Esther’s mind of how a man might ideally behave with a woman—notwithstanding that the ideal in no way reflects the truth of who he, Rabih, really is. Thus Esther may, in later life, ask a man who is acting in a selfish, distracted, and severe manner why he can’t be more like her father, little realizing that he is actually remarkable like Rabih—just not the only version of him that she ever got to see.

If parental kindness were enough, the human race would stagnate and in time die off. The survival of the species hinges on children eventually getting fed up and heading off into the world armed with hopes of finding more satisfying sources of excitement.

We might imagine that the fear and insecurity of getting close to someone would happen only once, at the start of the relationship, and that anxieties couldn’t possibly continue after two people had made some explicit commitments to one another, like marrying, securing a joint mortgage, buying a house, having a few children, and naming each other in their wills. Yet conquering distance and gaining assurances that we are needed aren’t exercises to be performed only once; they have to be repeated every time there’s been a break—a day away, a busy period, an evening at work—for every interlude has the power once again to raise the question of whether or not we are still wanted.

The motif of a beloved taking second place to a random stranger in a masturbatory fantasy has no logical part in Romantic ideology. But in practice it is precisely the dispassionate separation of love and sex that may be needed to correct and relieve the burdens of intimacy. Using a stranger bypasses resentments, emotional vulnerability, and any obligation to worry about another’s needs.

From one perspective, it can seem pathetic to have to concoct fantasies rather than to try to build a life in which daydreams can reliably become realities. But fantasies are often the best thing we can make of our multiple and contradictory wishes: they allow us to inhabit one reality without destroying the other. Fantasizing spares those we care about from the full irresponsibility and scary strangeness of our urges. It is, in its own way, an achievement, an emblem of civilization—and an act of kindness.

The modern expectation is that there will be equality in all things in the couple—which means, at heart, an equality of suffering. But calibrating grief to ensure an equal dosage is no easy task: misery is experienced subjectively, and there is always a temptation for each party to form a sincere yet competitive conviction that, in truth, his or her life really is more cursed—in ways that the partner seems uninclined to acknowledge or atone for. It takes a superhuman wisdom to avoid the consoling conclusion that one has the harder life.

We seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the glory of our species may lie not only in the launching of satellites, the founding of companies, and the manufacturing of miraculously thin semiconductors but also in an ability—even if it is widely distributed among billions—to spoon yogurt into small mouths, find missing socks, clean toilets, deal with tantrums, and wipe congealed things off tables. Here, too, there are trials worthy not of condemnation or sarcastic ridicule but also of a degree of glamour, so that they may be endured with greater sympathy and fortitude.

The forthrightness of the middle-aged seducer is rarely a matter of confidence or arrogance; it is instead a species of impatient despair born of a pitiful awareness of the ever-increasing proximity of death.

What dangers are posed by those touchingly insecure men who, unsure of their own powers of attraction, need to keep finding out whether they are acceptable to others.

Rabih has presents for everyone (bought in a duty-free shop on the other side of passport control). He tells Kirsten he can take over with the children, prepare supper, and do bath time; he’s sure she must be exhausted. An impure conscience is a useful spur to being a bit nicer.

A fourth assumption: monogamy is the natural state of love. A sane person can only ever want to one another person. Monogamy is the bellwether of emotional health.

Being nice is not boring; it’s an enormous achievement, one that ninety-nine percent of humanity can’t manage from day to day. If “nice” is boring, then I love boring.

The stupidity of jealousy makes it a tempting target for those in a moralizing mood. They should spare their breath. However unedifying and plain silly attacks of jealousy may be, they cannot be skirted: we should accept that we simply cannot stay sane on hearing that the person we love and rely on has touched the lips, or even so much as the hand, of another party. This makes no sense, of course—and runs directly counter to the often quite sober and loyal thoughts we may have had when we happened to betray someone in the past. But we are not amenable to reason here. To be wise is to recognize when wisdom will simply not be an option.

Never having been betrayed sets up poor preconditions for remaining faithful. Evolving into genuinely more loyal people requires us to suffer through some properly inoculative episodes, in which we feel for a time limitlessly panicked, violated and on the edge of collapse.

Our romantic lives are fated to be sad and incomplete, because we are creatures driven by two essential desires which point powerfully in entirely opposing directions. Yet what is worse is our utopian refusal to countenance the divergence, our naive hope that a cost-free synchronization might somehow be found: that the libertine might live for adventure while avoiding loneliness and chaos. Or that the married Romantic might unite sex with tenderness, and passion with routine.

Infatuations aren’t delusions […] The error of infatuation is more subtle: a failure to keep in mind the central truth of human nature: that everyone—not merely our current partners, in whose multiple failings we are such experts—but everyone will have something substantially and maddeningly wrong with them when we spend more time around them, something so wrong as to make a mockery of those initially rapturous feelings. The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.

Melancholy isn’t always a disorder that needs to be cured. It can be a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face-to-face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.

We have not been singled out. Marrying anyone, even the most suitable of beings, comes down to a case of identifying which variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

An affair would be a betrayal not of intimate joy but of a reciprocal pledge to endure the disappointments of marriage with bravery and stoic reserve.

We are so impressed by honesty that we forget the virtues of politeness; a desire not always to confront people we care about with the full, hurtful aspects of our nature. Repression, a degree of restraint, and a little dedication to self-editing belong to love just as surely as a capacity for explicit confession. The person who can’t tolerate secrets, who in the name of “being honest” shares information so wounding to the other that it can never be forgotten—this person is no friend of love.

For Rabih, there is no alternative but to lie forever about what happened in Berlin. He has to because he knows that telling the truth would beget an even greater order of falsehood: the profoundly mistaken belief that he no longer loves Kirsten or else that he is a man who can no longer be trusted in any area of life. The truth risks distorting the relationship far more than the untruth.

The anxious person is prone to check up on their partner constantly, to have explosions of jealousy and to spend a lot of their life regretting that their relationships are not “closer.” The avoidant person for their part will speak of a need for “space,” will enjoy their own company, and will find requirements for sexual intimacy daunting at points. Up to 70 percent of patients seeking couples’ therapy will exhibit either the anxious or the avoidant mode of behavior.

So this is what it is to be a failure. The chief characteristic may be silence: the phone doesn’t ring, he isn’t asked out, nothing new happens. For most of his adult life he has conceived of failure in the form of a spectacular catastrophe, only to recognize at last that is has in fact crept up on him imperceptibly through cowardly inaction.

Nature embeds in us insistent dreams of success. For the species, there must be an evolutionary advantage in being hardwired for such striving; restlessness has given us cities, libraries, spaceships. But this impulse doesn’t leave much opportunity for individual equilibrium. The price of a few works of genius throughout history is a substantial portion of the human race being daily sickened by anxiety of disappointment.

Rabih used to assume that only the flawless version of anything was worth having. He was a perfectionist. If the car was scratched, he couldn’t enjoy driving it; if the room was untidy, he couldn’t rest; if his lover didn’t understand parts of him, the entire relationship was a charade. Now “good enough” is becoming good enough.

We start off in childhood believing parents might have access to a superior kind of knowledge and experience. They look, for a while, astonishingly competent. Our exaggerated esteem is touching but also intensely problematic, for it sets them up as the ultimate objects of blame when we gradually discover that they are flawed, sometimes unkind, in areas ignorant and utterly unable to save us from certain troubles. It can take a while, until the fourth decade or the final hospital scenes, for a more forgiving stance to emerge. Their new condition, frail and frightened, reveals in a compellingly physical way something which has always been true psychologically: that they are uncertain vulnerable creatures motivated more by anxiety, fear, a clumsy love, and unconscious compulsion than by godlike wisdom and moral clarity—and cannot, therefore, forever be held responsible for either their own shortcomings or our many disappointments.

They have been married for thirteen years and yet only now, a little late, does Rabih feel ready for marriage. It’s not the paradox it seems. Given that marriage yields its important lessons only to those who have enrolled in its curriculum, it’s normal that readiness should tend to follow rather than precede the ceremony itself, perhaps by a decade or two.

It’s profoundly counterintuitive for us to think of ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good—to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step… and yet, maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.

We speak of “love” as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural—and dangerous—fixation on the former.

We are ready for marriage when we accept that, in a number of significant areas, our partner will be wiser, more reasonable, and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed to us. And at other moments we should be ready to model ourselves on the best pedagogues and deliver our suggestions without shouting or expecting the other simply to know.

Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the “right” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its pre-condition.

The trick is perhaps not to start a new life but to learn to reconsider the old one with less jaded and habituated eyes.

He is unlikely ever to be called upon to serve his nation or to fight an enemy, but courage is required nevertheless within his circumscribed domains. The courage not to be vanquished by anxiety, not to hurt others out of frustration, not to grow too furious with the world for the perceived injuries it heedlessly inflicts, not to go crazy and somehow to manage to persevere in a more or less adequate way through the difficulties of married life—this is true courage; this is a heroism in a class all its own.

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