A few weeks back, I thought I should open some old boxes and check what books were there inside. One should never do this, because one is never sure what is going to come out of an old box. One can get lost in a different world for a long, long time. But unfortunately I didn’t follow my own advice and I took the first box and opened it. And out jumped dozens of books. All of them were unread and all of them were good. I didn’t know what to do then. If I take all the books out of the box and put them out, they will crowd my already bookishly crowded room. If I put them back in the box and banish the box to the place where it came from, I will always be thinking about the books in it. So, I thought I will take some of the books out of the box and keep them out. I thought that maybe I will read a little bit of each of them and then read one or more of them fully. Out of the books which I took out, the one which really grabbed my attention was ‘Essays in Love’ by Alain de Botton. I remember buying it in my favourite bookshop during the days when I used to spend my Saturday evenings in bookshops, before the guard at the bookshop chased me out 🙂 For some reason, I never got around to reading this book, at the time I bought it. I decided to read the first chapter and see how it went. I got hooked into the book by the time I had finished the first chapter. I read the book slowly and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘Essays in Love’ is about a young man and a woman falling in love. The book charts the course of their love from the time they meet accidentally on a flight from Paris to London till the time they fall out of love and part with tears. It covers all the events which are part of a modern day real-life romance – the first meeting, the mutual attraction, the first telephone call, the first dinner, the first time spending the night in the other person’s home, the realization that one is in love, the first declaration of love, the first meeting with each other’s parents, the highs and lows and the pleasure and the boredom of romantic lives, how sometimes the past comes hounding into a couple’s romantic life, the kindness and cruelty that lovers show each other, how love sometimes fades without any reason, how one of the lovers makes the speech and how it breaks hearts and how one learns to get up and start a new chapter in one’s life. During the course of this journey, Alain de Botton describes what philosophers, writers and artists say about love in all its complexity and he gives his own take on it.
I loved ‘Essays in Love’. It talks about love from a philosophical, mature, psychological perspective in addition to talking about how it from a romantic perspective. I liked the lines that de Botton quoted from philosophers, writers and artists and I liked his own insights on this fascinating topic. While reading the book, I saw the movie ‘500 Days of Summer’ in between, and I found both the movie and this book to be remarkably similar. Towards the end of the movie my heart ached and the ache refused to go away. The same thing happened when I reached the end of the book – my heart ached and it hurt so badly. ‘Essays is Love’ is one of my favourite reads of the year and I will keep coming back to it again and again.
If you have fallen in love, fallen out of love (oh, how I so hate that phrase!) and have had your heart broken, you will like this book. ‘Like’ is probably not the right word to describe it. When you read de Botton’s wise words, you will see yourself in those pages. I think that describes it better.
The American edition of this book has a different title – ‘On Love’. I still don’t understand why American and British publishers keep changing the titles of books published on the opposite sides of the Atlantic. Most of the time the original title is good and the new title is not. But in this case, the title of the American edition seems to be equally good. This is a rare exception though.
I will leave you with Linda’s wonderful review of this book and some of my favourite passages from the book.
When we look at someone (an angel) from a position of unrequited love and imagine the pleasures that being in heaven with them might bring us, we are prone to overlook a significant danger : how soon their attractions might pale if they began to love us back. We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as ideal as we are corrupt. But what if such a being were one day to turn around and love us back? We can only be shocked. How could they be divine as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like us? If in order to love, we must believe that the beloved surpasses us in some way, does not a cruel paradox emerge when we witness this love returned? ‘If s/he really is so wonderful, how could s/he love someone like me?’
A long, gloomy tradition in Western thought argues that love is in its essence an unreciprocated, Marxist emotion and that desire can only thrive on the impossibility of mutuality. According to this view, love is simply a direction, not a place, and burns itself out with the attainment of its goal, the possession (in bed or otherwise) of the loved one. The whole of troubadour poetry of twelfth-century Provence was based on coital delay, the poet repeating his plaints to a woman who repeatedly declined a desperate gentleman’s offers. Centuries later, Montaigne declared that, ‘In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us’ – an idea echoed by Anatole France’s maxim that, ‘It is not customary to love what one has.’ Stendhal believed that love could be brought about only on the basis of a fear of losing the loved one and Denis de Rougemont confirmed, ‘The most serious obstruction is the one preferred above all. It is the one most suited to intensifying passion.’ To listen to this view, lovers cannot do anything save oscillate between the twin poles of yearning for someone and longing to be rid of them.
The dismay that greater acquaintance with the beloved can bring is comparable to composing a symphony in one’s head and then hearing it played in a concert hall by a full orchestra. Though we are impressed to find so many of our ideas confirmed in performance, we cannot help but notice details that are not quite as we had intended them to be. Is one of the violinists not a little off key? Is the flute not a little late coming in? Is the percussion not a little loud? People we love at first sight are as free from conflicting tastes in shoes or literature as the unrehearsed symphony is free from off-key violins or late flutes. But as soon as the fantasy is played out, the angelic beings who floated through consciousness reveal themselves as material beings, laden with their own mental and physical history.
Yet whatever her enthusiasm for independence, with time Chloe nevertheless began leaving things behind. Not toothbrushes or pairs of shoes, but pieces of herself. It began with language, with Chloe leaving me her way of saying not ever instead of never, and of stressing the be of before, or of saying take care before hanging up the telephone. She in turn acquired use of my perfect and if you really think so. Habits began to leak between us : I acquired Chloe’s need for total darkness in the bedroom, she followed my way of folding the newspaper, I took to wandering in circles around the sofa to think a problem through, she acquired a taste for lying on the carpet.
Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved.
At the end of a relationship, it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches.
Then, inevitably, I began to forget. A few months after breaking up with her, I found myself in the area of London in which she had lived and noticed that the thought of her had lost much of the agony it had once held, I even noticed that I was not primarily thinking of her (though this was exactly her neighbourhood), but of the appointment that I had made with someone in a restaurant nearby. I realized that Chloe’s memory had neutralized itself and become a part of history. Yet guilt accompanied this forgetting. It was no longer her absence that wounded me, but my growing indifference to it. Forgetting, however calming, was also a reminder of infidelity to what I had at one time held so dear.
There was a gradual reconquering of the self, new habits were created and a Chloe-less identity built up. My identity had for so long been forged around ‘us’ that to return to the ‘I’ involved an almost complete reinvention of myself. It took a long time for the hundreds of associations that Chloe and I had accumulated together to fade. I had to live with my sofa for months before the image of her lying on it in her dressing-gown was replaced by another image, the image of a friend reading a book on it, or of my coat lying across it. I had to walk through Islington on numberless occasions before I could forget that Islington was not simply Chloe’s district, but a useful place to shop or have dinner. I had to revisit almost every physical location, rewrite over every topic of conversation, replay every song and every activity that she and I had shared in order to reconquer them for the present, in order to defuse their associations. But gradually I forgot.
My time with Chloe folded in on itself, like an accordion that contracts. My love story was like a block of ice gradually melting as I carried it through the present. The process was like a film camera which had taken a thousand frames a minute, but was now discarding most of them, selecting according to mysterious whims, landing on a certain frame because an emotional state had coalesced around it. Like a country that is reduced and symbolized by a certain pope or monarch or battle, my love affair refined itself to a few iconic elements (more random than those of historians but equally selective) : the look on Chloe’s face as we kissed for the first time, the light hairs on her arm, an image of her standing waiting for me in the entrance to Liverpool Street Station, her white pullover, her laugh when I told her my joke about the Russian in a train through France, her way of running her hand through her hair…
The camel became lighter and lighter as it walked through time, it kept shaking memories and photos off its back, scattering them over the desert floor and letting the wind bury them in the sand, and gradually the camel became so light that it could trot and even gallop in its own curious way – until one day, in a small oasis that called itself the present, the exhausted creature finally caught up with the rest of me.
Have you read ‘Essays in Love’ by Alain de Botton? What do you think about it?