I’m enjoying Alain de Botton’s latest novel, The Course of Love. He tells the story of love, wanting to tell the whole story – instead of the happy ending, where most leave off. His narrative is intertwined with bits of philosophical wonderings and notes of genius. He pokes fun at Romantic notions with playful compassion, allowing us to see more clearly into our actions.
For the Romantic, it is only the briefest of steps from a glimpse of a stranger to the formulations of a majestic and substantial conclusion: that he or she may constitute a comprehensive answer to the unspoken questions of existence.
The intensity may seem trivial – humorous, even – yet this reverence for instinct is not a minor planet within the cosmology of relationships. It is the underlying central sun around which contemporary ideals of love revolve.
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 close to the purpose of life.
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. Which is why, in so many love stories, there is simply nothing else fro the narrator to do with the couple after they have triumphed over a range of initial obstacles other than to consign them to an ill-defined contented future – or kill them off. What we typically call love is only the start of love.
The stories of relationships, maintained over decades, without obvious calamity or bliss, remain – fascinatingly and worryingly – the exception among the narratives we dare to tell ourselves about love.
Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distracting moving moments. We have allowed our love stories to end way too early. We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.
What Love Means
Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances; love is a search for completion.
Love is also, and equally, about weakness, about being touched by another’s fragilities and sorrow, especially when – as happens in the early days – we ourselves are in no danger of being held responsible for them. Seeing our lover despondent and in crisis, in tears and unable to cope, can reassure us that, for all their virtues, they are not alienatingly invincible. They, too, are at points confused and at sea, a realization which lends us a new supportive role, reduces our sense of shame about our own inadequacies, and draws us closer to them around a shared experience of pain.
Excerpts from Alain de Bottom’s book The Course on Love: