Essays in Love- Alain De Botton

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Quick feelings
Quick read after a heartbreak for consolation

The wish to replace the butcher-butchered relationship with a newsagent–customer one has long dominated political thinking. Why could rulers not act politely towards their citizens, tolerating sandals, dissent, and divergence? The answer from liberal thinkers is that cordiality can arise only once rulers give up talk of governing for the love of their citizens, and concentrate instead on ensuring sensible, minimal governance. Liberal politics finds its greatest apologist in John Stuart Mill, who in 1859 published a classic defence of loveless liberalism, On Liberty, a ringing plea that citizens should be left alone by governments, however well meaning they were, and not be told how to lead their personal lives, what gods to worship or books to read. Mill argued that though kingdoms and tyrannies felt themselves entitled to hold 'a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens', the modern state should as far as possible stand back and let people govern themselves. Like a harassed partner in a relationship who begs simply to be given space, Mill ventured:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized society against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.*

The wisdom of Mill's thesis is such that one might want to see it applied to relationships as much as to governments. However, on reflection, applied to the former, it seems to lose much of its appeal. It evokes certain marriages, where love has evaporated long ago, where couples sleep in separate bedrooms, exchanging the occasional word when they meet in the kitchen before work, where both partners have long ago given up hope of mutual understanding, settling instead for a tepid friendship based on controlled misunderstanding, politeness while they get through the evening's shepherd's pie, 3 a.m. bitterness at the emotional failure that surrounds them.

It seems significant that revolutionaries share with lovers a tendency towards terrifying earnestness. It is as hard to imagine cracking a joke with Stalin as with Young Werther. Both of them seem desperately, though differently, intense. With the inability to laugh comes an inability to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in every society and relationship, the multiplicity and clash of desires, the need to accept that one's partner will never learn how to park a car, or wash out a bath or give up a taste for Joni Mitchell - but that one cares for them rather a lot nevertheless.

Late one Sunday in the middle of July, we were sitting in a cafe at the unkempt end of the Portobello Road. It had been a beautiful day, spent largely in Hyde Park, tanning and reading books. But since around five o'clock, I had been sliding into depression. I felt like going home to hide under the bedclothes. Sunday evenings had long saddened me, reminders of death, unfinished business, guilt, and loss. We had been sitting in silence, Chloe reading the papers, I gazing through the window at the traffic and people outside. Suddenly she leaned over, gave me a kiss, and whispered, 'You're wearing your lost orphan boy look again.' No one had ever ascribed such an expression to me before, though when Chloe mentioned it, it at once accorded with and alleviated the confused sadness I happened to be feeling at the time. I felt an intense (and perhaps disproportionate) love for her on account of that remark, because of her awareness of what I had been feeling but had been unable to formulate myself, for her willingness to enter my world and objectify it for me - a gratefulness for reminding the orphan that he is an orphan, and hence returning him home.

The reasons behind such arguments were never the surface ones: whatever Chloe's deficiencies with the Guide Michelin, or my intolerance to driving around in large circles through the Spanish countryside, what was at stake were far deeper anxieties. The strength of the accusations we made, their sheer implausibility, showed that we argued not because we hated one another, but because we loved one another too much – or, to risk confusing things, because we hated loving one another to the extent we did. Our accusations were loaded with a complicated subtext, I hate you, because I love you. It amounted to a fundamental protest, I hate having no choice but to risk loving you like this. The pleasures of depending on someone pale next to the paralysing fears that such dependence involves. Our occasionally fierce and somewhat inexplicable arguments during our trip through Valencia were nothing but a necessary release of tension that came from realizing that each one had placed all their eggs in the other's basket – and was helpless to aim for more sound household management. Our arguments sometimes had an almost theatrical quality to them, a joy and exuberance would manifest itself as we set about destroying the bookshelf, smashing the crockery, or slamming doors: 'It's nice being able to feel I can hate you like this,' Chloe once said to me. 'It reassures me that you can take it, that I can tell you to fuck off and you'll throw something at me but stay put.' We needed to shout at one another partly to see whether or not we could tolerate each other's shouting. We wanted to test each other's capacity for survival: only if we had tried in vain to destroy one another would we know we were safe.

Once a partner has begun to lose interest, there is apparently little the other can do to arrest the process. Like seduction, withdrawal suffers under a blanket of reticence. The very breakdown of communication is hard to discuss, unless both parties have a desire to see it restored. This leaves he lover in a desperate situation. Honest dialogue seems to produce only irritation and smothers love in the attempt to revive it. Desperate to woo the partner back at any cost, the lover might at this point be tempted to turn to romantic terrorism, the product of irredeemable situations, a gamut of tricks (sulking, jealousy, guilt) that attempt to force the partner to return love, by blowing up (in fits of tears, rage or otherwise) in front of the loved one. The terroristic partner knows he cannot realistically hope to see his love reciprocated, but the futility of something is not always (in love or in politics) a sufficient argument against it. Certain things are said not because they will be heard, but because it is important to speak.

When political dialogue has failed to resolve a grievance, the injured party may also in desperation resort to terrorist activity, extracting by force the concession it has been unable to seduce peacefully from its opposite number. Political terrorism is born out of deadlocked situations, behaviour that combines a party's need to act with an awareness (conscious or semi- conscious) that action will not go any way towards achieving the desired end – and will if anything only alienate the other party further. The negativity of terrorism betrays all the signs of childish rage, a rage at one's own impotence in the face of a more powerful adversary.

In May 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army, who had been armed, briefed and financed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), landed on a scheduled flight at Lod Airport, near Tel Aviv. They disembarked, followed the other passengers into the terminal building, and once inside, pulled machine-guns and grenades out of their hand luggage. They began firing on the crowd indiscriminately, slaughtering twenty-four people and injuring a further seven before they were themselves killed by the security forces. What relation did such butchery have with the cause of Palestinian autonomy? The murders did not accelerate the peace process, they only hardened Israeli public opinion against the Palestinian cause, and in a final irony for the terrorists, it turned out the majority of their victims were not even Israelis, but belonged to a party of Puerto Rican Christians who had been on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Yet the action found its justification elsewhere, in the need to vent frustration in a cause where dialogue had ceased to produce results.

A structurally successful terroristic sulk must be sparked by some wrong-doing, however small, on the part of the sulked, and yet is marked by a disproportion between insult inflicted and sulk elicited, drawing a punishment bearing little relation to the severity of the original offence - and one that cannot easily be resolved through normal channels. I had been waiting to sulk Chloe for a long time, but to begin sulking when one has not been wronged in any definite way is counter- productive, for there is a danger the partner will not notice and guilt not flourish.

The key point about terrorism is that it is primarily designed to attract attention, a form of psychological warfare with goals (for instance, the creation of a Palestinian state) unrelated to military techniques (opening fire in the arrival lounge of Lod Airport). There is a discrepancy between means and ends, a sulk being used to make a point relatively unconnected to the sulk itself –I am angry at you for accusing me of losing the key symbolizing the wider (but unspeakable) message I am angry at you for no longer loving me.

With the naive common sense that complex problems may elicit, I would sometimes ask (as though the answer could fit on the back of an envelope), 'Why can't we just all love one another?' Surrounded on every side by the agonies of love, by the complaints of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and soap-opera stars, I would hold out the hope that simply because everyone was inflicting and suffering from much the same pain, a common answer could be found – a metaphysical solution to the world's romantic problems on the grandiose scale of the Communists' answer to the inequities of international capital.

I was not alone in my utopian daydream, joined there by a group of people, let me call them romantic positivists, who believed that with enough thought and therapy, love could be made into a less painful, indeed almost healthy, experience. This assortment of analysts, preachers, gurus, therapists, and writers, while acknowledging that love was full of problems, supposed that genuine problems must have equally genuine solutions. Faced with the misery of most emotional lives, romantic positivists would try to identify causes – a self-esteem complex, a father complex, a mother complex, a complex complex – and suggest remedies (regression therapy, a reading of the City of God, gardening, meditation). Hamlet's fate could have been avoided with the help of a good Jungian analyst, Othello could have got his aggression out on a therapeutic cushion, Romeo might have met someone more suitable through a dating agency, Oedipus could have shared his problems in family therapy.

Whereas art has a morbid obsession with the problems that attend love, romantic positivists throw the focus on the very practical steps that can be taken to prevent the most common causes of anguish and heartache. Next to the pessimistic views of much of Western romantic literature, romantic positivists appear as brave champions of a more enlightened and confident approach in an area of human experience traditionally left to the melancholy imagination of degenerate artists and psychotic poets.