I came across Alain de Botton at Onbeing.org. [Side Bar: I have decided listening to Krista Tippett interviews is healthier and more helpful — not just for my sanity but for thoughtful engagement with the world — than seeking out news. It is not that I want to remain ignorant or live in my own little world; quite the opposite, in fact. The top News sites do not do thoughtful, and I cannot keep up with their frantic pace; while there are some sites trying to be thoughtful, which I do appreciate their effort, they present a world of dread and horror as their antidote to our current hyper-news. In some ways it is too much; yet it is not enough.]
Alain de Botton has a lovely British accent, although I believe he was born in Switzerland, which makes him most likely a great mix of German, Italian, French and others — for this reason he is not prone to excess of emotion or withdrawal. He is also a philosopher by academic trade, which is refreshing. I thought philosophers were either nearly extinct or had abandoned their place on the tree of life to literary theory, which made a bit of a mess of reading literature. It is nice to have them back.
I believe The Course of Loveis his latest book (copyright 2016). I’m sure he has done much since then. Before getting into the book I must say he has a website, or he is partly responsible for a website, most likely in collaboration with other like minded people, called The School of Life, which I highly recommend. This website is now the second one (the first being Onbeing) that I will visit. It has wonderful videos on art and architecture, books, tools, workshops, etc… . It is a meant, at least it appears to me, as a web community for those who choose positive engagement with oneself and with others.
Back to the novel…
Alain de Botton’s larger project is to tell us how Romanticism has screwed up our lives, given us false notions of love and will continue to create confused and unhappy people if we do not come to understand some fundamental things about life. In order to explore love outside of the typical inherited assumptions of how it works, de Botton has created a novel of fictional characters, the main ones being two young lovers, Rabih and Kirsten, who are fictional in essence but not in archetypical interactions. So far that is a great start for a novel. But he is not a novelist and he has not written this novel to exercise his genius in any genre. He explores relationship and how it begins with a rush of emotion, but does not stop when a couple become coupled to each other through marriage. It is at the point when they declare themselves legally together that the real work of love begins, explains de Botton.
Novel-wise, this is not Anna Karenina, but in some ways it is even better, especially if you read novels, which many of us do, to learn something about life. De Botton takes time out to explain what is going on when all of a sudden the honeymoon is over and you think your partner is dull or you have children and you are overwhelmed. He covers the beginning, the middle and the end — without ever suggesting you throw yourself in front of a train– the end, de Botton gently reveals, is when you finally wake up to maturity and realize you cannot expect your partner to fulfill your every need, wish, desire — essentially, the one to make the loneliness which is a part of life, vanish.
What is love? My ten year old recently asked me. She said to me that she did not understand what it actually meant to say “I love you.” Great question. I wanted to give her Alain de Botton’s novel, but I thought that she was not ready yet for all the details. So I told her it was a lot of hard work; probably the hardest work you will ever have to do in your life. I know, though, simply telling her it is hard work is not sufficient, especially since for her hard work is practicing violin for 30 minutes a night. She will have to learn on her own. But at least I know, my daughter’s generation will know more about love than all the previous generations that have come before them. Truly, we have evolved. And good riddance to Romanticism!
Knowing that love is big, and not easy is something we have known for a long time. But, what I think is important here is on top of that abstraction we have loneliness. We all assumed love would rid us of loneliness. So, just when you think you have found someone to take away all the loneliness, because love conquers all, you find loneliness is part of being human and therefore unconquerable. Ay! It is all about your expectations. But, this is not about simply lowering your expectations on who your lover is or should be; although that might be helpful. It is really about widening your understanding of what it is to be human or to be a living sentient being. These days, and in the “good ol’ days” there is and was no religion helping out on this point. Not even the Buddhists, who come close, do a good job clarifying some finer points of relationship. It is not enough to say detachment is essential. It is not enough to say rid yourself of your ego. It is not enough to say, as the Christians do, you will suffer, but you will rise in the end. We need to know — not that we have sinned or fallen, that is way to abstract and scary, or even that we have basic goodness, less scary, but still too abstract — the how and why from a more earthly position. Here is where Alain de Botton helps, because he tells us we all are mad, none of us are as sane as we want to believe and so we sabotage relationships because we do not understand our own ways of relating to the world. He introduces attachment theory, which is wonderful because for a theory it is oddly tangible and we can work with it.
As a mom of an adopted child I have become aware of the essentiality of healthy attachment, but mostly from its severe disorder. I have noticed when speaking of attachment to my non-adoptive friends they seem to think attachment does not have anything to do with them. So, for me, it was great to see attachment laid out as our first relationship, which is with our parents, and thus becoming the pattern by which we enter into all forms of relationship thereafter. You do not have to have a severe disorder to have an anxious attachment or an avoidant attachment. If you are not interested in reading the entire novel, then I would suggest reading the end to gain a better understanding of how you attach to people. Knowing how you attach does not mean you can change what happened in childhood, but it does mean you can pull back a bit; allow your partner some room to breathe and not be so critical of yourself.
Once you get an understanding of how you attach and how your partner attaches you both can begin the process of detaching yourselves from your ego. I think the problem with religion is it never explains in any fundamentally helpful way how we got here in the first place; whether it is Christ on the cross, or Buddha under the Bodhi tree, we do not see them as suffering the way we do, Christ’s suffering is too big to think of as ours or their enlightenment tied to a loneliness that is inescapable; or that suffering and loneliness are the same thing.