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The Course of Love

Sometimes I read something, and I’m like: “dang, that’s so true”, or “dang, that’s totally me.” For example, if a novel started with the line: “He rolled out of bed and ate special k with strawberries for the 50th day in a row,” I would think those things. This book is like that the entire way through, except it’s about love, not the best breakfast cereal in the world. Alain de Botton expresses common feelings and phenomenons in ways that are clever, funny, and resonant. Sometimes he talks about things that I’ve never really put into words before, with words that describe that thing to a T. It’s like that Proust quote (which I actually read in A Tale for the Time Being) which goes like this:

“In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.”

This book has a lot of these moments, the “he would perhaps never have perceived in himself” moments. Almost every other page (slight exaggeration) I thought to myself: “yes, that is exactly right.” Or maybe: “hm I’d never thought of that, but it is exactly right.” Or perhaps: “woah I’ve never tried describing that in words before but if I were to do so I would just copy these words right here on the page.”

These moments are delivered though the tale of a couple, Rabih and Kirsten. These are specific people, with careers and characteristics and backgrounds that are touched upon again and again. That being said, these specifics don’t really matter. You could fill in their personalities Mad Libs style and the story would still work. What’s important is that these two characters, different from you and I, share and express a set of ubiquitous feelings and emotions; they are both a unique couple and every couple that’s ever been. As de Botton tells the story, he interjects his own thoughts in the form of italicized paragraphs. For example, the narrative might be at the beginning of the relationship, and de Botton will insert a paragraph that says:

The start receives such disproportionate attention because it isn’t deemed to be just one phase among many; for the Romantic, it contains in a concentrated form everything significant about love as a whole (8).”

Speaking of the narrative, the story starts with how the two first meet, and ends with the couple being married for thirteen years. The main focus is on the marriage, not the start, and it’s fascinating to see how their relationship changes over the years, as kids are born and jobs change and feelings wax and wane. It’s kind of like looking into a crystal ball... oh, that’s what marriage is like. Wow, having kids is pretty hard. Et cetera. Anyways, that’s enough summary/observation. This book was great, and I highly recommend it. Here are a large number of quotes (italics are the book's).

The Romantic faith 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 closer to the purpose of life. An idealism previously directed at gods and spirits has been rerouted towards human subjects - an ostensibly generous gesture nevertheless freighted with forbidding and brittle consequences, for it is no simple thing for any human being to honor over a lifetime the perfections he or she might have hinted at to an imaginative observer in the street, the office, or the adjoining airplane seat. (6)

A skill He will surmise that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions, and that, for his relationships to work, he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place. He will need to learn that love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm. (7)

Fantasizing and Idealizing He could restrict himself to thinking that Kirsten is rather a nice person with whom to spend a morning solving some vexing issues of municipal administration. He could curtail his judgement as to what depths of character could plausibly lie behind her reflections on office life and Scottish politics. He could accept that her soul is unlikely to be casually discernible in her pallor and the slope of her neck. He could be satisfied to say that she seems interesting enough and that he will need another twenty-five years to know much more.

Instead of which, Rabhi feels certain that he has discovered someone endowed with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities: intelligence and kindness, humor and beauty, sincerity and courage; someone whom he would miss if she left the room even though she had been entirely unknown to him but two hours ago; someone whose fingers - currently drawing faint lines with a toothpick across the tablecloth - he longs to caress and squeeze between his own; someone with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life. (12)

Analysis of the relative braking speeds of tires on wet and dry surfaces So frightened is he of saying the wrong thing, he can't find anything to talk about - but because silence seems like proof of dullness, neither can he allow the pauses to go on. He ends up offering a lengthy description of how bridges distribute their loads across their piers, then follows up with an analysis of the relative braking speeds of tires on wet and dry surfaces. His clumsiness is at least an incidental sign of his sincerity: we tend not to get very anxious when seducing people we don't care much about. (13)

Love Story (critique of Love Actually, except maybe the Alan Rickman story) And yet, we should insist, none of this has anything much yet to do with a love story. Love stories begin not when we fear someone may be unwilling to see us again but when they decide that they would have no objection to seeing us all the time; not when they have every opportunity to run away but when they have exchanged solemn vows promising to hold us, and be held captive by us, for life.

Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distractingly moving moments. We have allowed our love stories to end way to early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue. (15)

Local Apogee 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, embarrasing, and shameful parts of us. That someone else gets who we are and both sympathizes with us and forgives us for what they see underpins our whole capacity to trust and to give. Love is a dividend of gratitude for our lover's insight into our own confused and troubled psyche. (22)

Sexiness? Sexiness might at first appear to be a merely phsiological phenomenon, the result of awakened hormones and stimulated nerve endings. But in truth it is not so much about sensations as it is about ideas - foremost among them the idea of acceptance and the promise of an end to loneliness and shame. (27)

Will you marry me? He asks her to marry him because it feels like an extremely dangerous thing to do: if the marriages were to fail, it would ruin both their lives. Those voices which hint that marriage is no longer necessary, that it is far safer simply to cohabit, are right from a practical point of view, concedes Rabih; but they miss the emotional appeal of danger, of putting oneself and one's beloved through an experience which could, with only a few twists of the plotline, result in mutual destruction. Rabih takes his very willingness to be ruined in love's name as proof of his commitment. That it is "unnecessary" in the practical sense to marry serves only to render the idea more compelling emotionally. Being married may be associated with caution, conservatism, and timidity, but getting married is an altogether different, more reckless, and therefore more appealingly Romantic proposition. (30)

Are you mad? A few centuries from now, the level of self-knowledge that our own age judges necessary to get married might be thought puzzling if not outright barbaric. By then, a standard, wholly nonjudgemental line of inquiry - appropriate even on a first date - to which everyone would be expected to have a tolerant, good-natured and nondefensive answer, would simply be: "So, in what ways are you mad?" (42-43)

Marriage 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. (45)

Ideal or Terrible Romanticism is a philosophy of intuitive agreement. In real love, there is no need tiresomely to articulate or spell things out. When two people belong together, there is simply - at long last - a wondrous reciprocal feeling that both parties see the world in precisely the same way. (51)

Are we alone out here But too often a realistic sense of what an endurable relationship is ends up weakened by silence, societal or artistic. We hence imagine that things are far worse for us than they are for other couples. Not only are we unhappy, we misunderstand how freakish and rare our particular form of unhappiness might be. We end up believing that our struggles are indications of having made some unusual and fundamental error, rather than evidence that our marriages are essentially going entirely according to plan. (58)

A sulk 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 hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love. (63)

Good communicators 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. (73)

Parent <3 Child 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.

The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief, or the anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation - and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship - is its charity. 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 of self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. When they bite, we know they must be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are alive to the insidious effects that hunger, a tricky digestive tract, or a lack of sleep may have on mood.

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. (112-113).

The perfect child Whatever modest denials parents may offer - however much they may downplay their ambitions in front of strangers - to have a child is, at the outset, at least, to make an assault on perfection, to attempt to create not just another average human being but an exemplar of distinctive perfection. Mediocrity, albeit the statistical norm, can never be the initial goal; the sacrifices required to get a child to adulthood are simply too great. (129)

Fear and Insecurity We might imagine that the fear and insecurity of getting close to someone would happen only once, at the start of a 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. (136)

Lack of distance There is very little distance left between Rabih and Kirsten. Their legal status defines them as partners for life; they share a three-by-four-meter bedroom to which they repair every evening; they talk on the phone constantly when they are apart; they are each other's automatically assumed companions every weekend; they know ahead of time, and at most moments of the day and night, exactly what the other is doing. There is no longer very much in their conjoined existence that qualifies as distinctively "other" - and there is therefore little for the erotic to try to bridge. (139)

Fantasies 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. (142-143)

No future They will never have to be resentful; they can continue to appreciate each other as only those without a future can. (158)

Infatuations Infatuations aren't delusions. That way they have of holding their head may truly indicate someone confident, wry, and sensitive; they really may have the humor and intelligence implied by their eyes and the tenderness suggested by their mouth. The error of the 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. (179)

"Stupid script" 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 certainity 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. (181-182)

You chose...alright Choosing a person to marry is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure rather than of assuming we have found a way to skirt the rules of emotional existence. We will all by definition end up with that stock character of our nightmares, "the wrong person."

This needn't be a disaster, however. Enlightened romantic pessimism simply assumes that one person can't be everything to another. We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a "good enough" marriage. (214)

Reconsider The trick is perhaps not to start a new life but to learn to reconsider the old one with less jaded and habituated eyes. (220)

A shared creation They feel a giddy loyalty towards what they have built up together: their disputations, fractious, laughter-filled, silly, beautiful marriage that they love because it is so distinctly and painfully their own. They feel proud to have come this far, to have kept at it, trying again and again to understand the spectres in each other's minds, hammering out one peace accord after another. There could have been so many reasons not to be together still. Breaking up would have been the natural, almost inevitable thing to do. It's the sticking around that is the weird and exotic achievement - and they feel a loyalty to their battle-hardened, scarred version of love. (222-223)