Alain de Botton, Essays in Love (a novel)
You see him (her) in a crowded room, on a plane, at a meeting, in a restaurant--someplace you weren't prepared to see anyone, all of your paltry defenses down, a neutral or even a meaningless encounter, a simple hello, a brushing of hands--nothing weighty, no ulterior motive at all. You went on a plane ride and sat next to (in this case) a woman. It was her.
Alain de Botton has the sort of talent I most admire--he can be brilliant anyplace, with any topic, and not only brilliant, but original--he thinks about things that you and I have thought about but never understood--he explains what we are reading or seeing or feeling. Architecture or Proust or, here, love. Not "explains" exactly: teases, probes, uncovers. You've thought about something one way and then, blissfully, you realize that you weren't wrong, just not paying sufficient attention.
In Chicago this summer, browsing in Powell's (yes, the Portland Powell's began in the City With Big Shoulders), I came upon a strange Picador paperback: Essays in Love by Alain de Botton, thick newsprint paper, the cover depicting a woman sitting on the floor in a library, seemingly in the ranges holding tedious government reports, reading a book.
De Botton once wrote this: "Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn't find anyone to talk to."
The narrator of Essays in Love--a novel that is a work of philosophy, a work of philosophy that is, ostensibly, a fiction--feels to me like a lonely man, someone who falls in love by accident and falls out by design. I didn't understand until the last page the meaning of the cover photograph or the structure of the novel. Everything in the book is simple on the surface, yet studded with mystery. Like love itself.
De Botton has read Proust and written brilliantly about the experience. My feeling is that the inspiration for Essays in Love is the story of Swann and Odette in volume one of Proust's masterpiece. De Botton, playing both roles, analyses the coming into love that is always so surprising and uplifting, and meditates in painful detail on the unraveling of feeling, the loss of love and the unbearable aftermath of that loss. But de Botton's book isn't Proustian--it's something else, something entirely new.
"By accident," the narrator sits with Chloe on a flight from Paris to London. "Chloe later told me that she had intended to take the ten thirty Air France flight, but a bottle of shampoo in her bag had happened to leak as she was checking out of her room, which had meant repacking her bag and wasting a valuable ten minutes." I wondered if she had said "wasted" in narrating the bit of happenstance that put her on a British Airways flight instead of her Air France plane, in the seat next to our (I can't help but think) lonely narrator? She might have. Chloe is an honest woman, and one of the marvels of Essays on Love is the truth telling--the strangers, then lovers, speak plainly with one another. Often this hurts. In matters of the heart, truth, I think, might be overrated.
The chapter headings are those of a philosophical work rather than of a novel. "Romantic Fatalism," "Authenticity," "False Notes," "Love or Liberalism," "Intermittences of the Heart" (my special favorite), and so forth. The style is mixed--not unlike Menippian satire, though in this case the satire is directed at all of the conventions of romantic love rather than at politics. De Botton imitates Wittgenstein in the scrupulousness of his dissection of his own and his beloved's feelings. From the courtship ("Subtexts of Seduction"): "We talked abstractly of love, ignoring that lying on the table was not the nature of love per se but the burning question of who we were and would be to one another. Or was there in fact nothing on the table other than a half-eaten carrot cake and two cups of tea? Was Chloe being as abstract as she wished, meaning precisely what she said, the diametrical opposite of the first rule of flirtation, where what is said is never what is meant?" A little shuffle here: the narrator semi-accuses Chloe of precisely his own inclination--to cover up his feelings with abstractions and small talk. De Botton gets this perfectly: we ascribe to the beloved exactly the feelings and motives that we have and convince ourselves of our own objectivity. See Swann's Way.
It's a funny book, especially if you've ever been in love. Early on our hero, an architect, provokes a fight over the sorts of jam that Chloe has to offer at breakfast. It's their first sleep-over, and the idea that one would be put off, angered even, by a lack of strawberry jam ("I hate having breakfast without any decent jam") is farcical. But then this scene appears in the "Marxism" chapter, and the point is clear enough: "...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 the noble. But if the loved one loves us back, we are forced to return to ourselves, and are hence reminded of the things that have 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 [she] believes in us."? So, it isn't Karl but Groucho Marx at play here--if she loves me, who am so unworthy, there must be some mistake. How could she?
I won't spoil the ending, but it isn't happy. But a happy ending would have precluded any philosophical meditation on loss. Our hero is cerebral, an over-thinker: "Few things are as antithetical to sex as thought." It is his brooding propensity to over-think every conversation, every act of his beloved that drives her away. In some things instinct should prevail. The road from intellect to instinct is impossible to traverse--better to start with the heart and inch toward the head then to make the futile attempt to move in the other direction.
I was left not only admiring the deft way in which de Botton had alternately skewered and caressed his love affair (it has to be his story), but I was left wondering what, exactly, love might be. One line of Essays in Love travels along the road traversed by Plato's Symposium--love is not a single thing but an individual's journey toward self-knowledge and, eventually, transcendence of this world. Physical love and human desire are self-negating and, like Wittgenstein's famous ladder out of the Tractatus, lead the lovers to a realm of being in which love no longer has meaning; love leads, in this view, to Love. But this isn't what de Botton was up to--I couldn't quite grasp what he wanted me to see until the final pages.
Love is sadness: in de Botton's account infatuation and desire provide the charm of attraction, but habit and familiarity lead a couple to weariness and even disgust. What must endure isn't "love" but friendship and trust. Our narrator and Chloe tire of one another quickly, not because of a lack of desire or a failure to share themselves with the other, but because their love as we see it (through the narrator's eyes) was never about them, it was only about him: "I did not simply love Chloe and then she left me. I loved Chloe in order that she would leave me." Chloe is "merely" an instrument designed to inflict punishment on the narrator for his naive faith in the existence of love. I chaffed a bit at what seemed to me a cheapened psychoanalytic resolution of the plot--after all, it is more difficult to understand the end of love then its beginning. And who believes, really, in love as self-flagellation? No, what I was reading, I thought, was a rationalization: Chloe fell out of love with the narrator because of his egotism and her capriciousness. Very tidy, and if the author weren't de Botton, a plausible enough plot (despite the philosophical asides) to render the book worthy of the Times best-seller list.
But on second reading it seemed to me that I needed above all to take the philosophical nature of Essays in Love seriously--the meditations on love aren't ancillary to the plot, they are the plot. De Botton has written a novel about love that recapitulates the history of philosophy, from Plato to Freud, with chapters that subtly invoke Aristotle, Descartes (on the mind-body problem), Hume, Rousseau (a section on pastoral romance in the spirit of his Nouvelle Heloise), Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, and ending with ideas taken right out of The Ego and the Id. Yes, this was it--a love story that is actually a work of philosophy, or, perhaps, a work of philosophy imbued with the idea that the truth resides in loving. Loving a person, yes, but also, more so, loving knowledge. Our hero doesn't live happily ever after but--just barely--he lives. Sadder, as they say, but wiser.
Published by Picador, Essays in Love was de Botton's first book.
George Ovitt 8/25/2015