05 September 2011

Against romantic love

If I must name one writer who has had a life-changing impact on me, it would be Alain de Botton. He was my First Philosopher, since his books introduced me to a lot of the more famous philosophers who preceded him. The name and nature of this blog have their ultimate origins in de Botton – although they were inspired by Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, or ‘Attempts’, it was de Botton, in his Consolations of Philosophy (2000), who brought about my fateful encounter with the 16th century French writer and inventor of the essay.

I read de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) when it first came out, and followed his column in Standpoint until it was dropped from the magazine last year. Since then I haven’t read any more of his writing, mostly because I discovered other writers who then proceeded to consume a greater and greater portion of my reading attention. So it was a pleasant surprise when a few days ago I found a de Botton piece in the very first issue of Australian men’s magazine Smith Journal (published by the same folks behind Frankie). It was like bumping into an old friend you hadn’t seen in years. In my case, a friend who had played a large part in making me the person I am today.

De Botton’s Smith Journal article (Ten Things I Believe) is a collection of ‘wisdom nuggets’ that distils much of the practical philosophy he has espoused in his books. Topically, he ranges from education to happiness to travel to money, but it’s de Botton’s take on love, specifically romantic love, that resonated with me. He writes:

If there is a conclusive argument against romantic love, it is that it draws sentimentally upon an idealised childhood template of love, failing to acknowledge that no adult can ever give another the sense of security that they tasted when young, and should not be expected to shield quite so much of their own fragility, need and anxiety.

Adult love shouldn’t be about remembering what it was like to be loved as a child, but imagining what it took for a parent to love us.

I should stress that neither de Botton nor myself am repudiating things like affection, trust, intimacy and other good, tender values that constitute that many-splendoured thing called love. We simply agree that rose-tinted glasses are unnecessary, and can even be counterproductive, when it comes to the great love project engaged in by our species.

On relationships and marriage, de Botton continues:

None of the emotions that we expect to find inside a good modern marriage are unusual in themselves. We find them well described in art and literature across all cultures and eras. What makes modern marriage extraordinary in its ambitions is the expectation that these emotions should reliably be entertained over a lifetime with the very same person. We want marriage to be a fusion of love, family and sex. I believe in all three, but I do doubt whether they can be enjoyed at the same time with the same person. That’s the craziness of modern romanticism.

Lest you think that these are the sentiments of a bitter, envious, sexually repressed and socially inept virgin, de Botton is (presumably happily) married with two (presumably adorable) children.

I broadly agree with what has been expressed above, but I would add that pop culture – as manifested in love songs, romantic films and novels, relationship advice columns – has exerted a muscular influence on social norms and expectations regarding sexual love. Several years ago I scribbled down in a notebook the following thoughts on this very idea of pop culture ‘infecting’ our conception of sexual love.

Love, as an ideal, is contaminated by all the popular depictions of it in literature, music, art, film and all the many storytelling media ever conceived by a fertile imagination. A person’s conception of romantic, erotic, passionate love is unavoidably informed, coloured, by her mental bank of images, experiences, expectations, representations, taboos, stigmas, affirmations, vindications and various memetic paraphernalia gleaned from some form of media for the purpose of identity construction. Her romantic hopes, fears, desires and biases are in a sense not purely hers. Their origins lie elsewhere, outside of her.

When it comes to romantic love, we imagine ourselves playing a certain role in a specific context, and likewise cast the object of our love in a compatible role (rarely do we imagine them to be incompatible; we are not so masochistic). The common ‘poor fit’ between two actors in the love story owes largely to our miscasting of our co-star. The girl you saw as that sassy yet sweet protagonist from your favourite Korean television series turns out to have a bit too much sass for your liking; meanwhile you are not quite the strong, sensitive, talented character she conjures from a mix-bag of funk-soul band frontman, Left Bank cafĂ© intellectual and rugged, boot-cut denimed cowboy.

We see the object of our longing through other eyes apart from our own. We approach love along paths pioneered by the professional storytellers and corporate mythmakers. And the compass you carry to navigate your way through love’s labyrinthine complexities is likely to be aligned to that bold, sexy yet vulnerable figure who haunts your heart from the monochromatic pages of a critically acclaimed, bestselling manga.

I’d love to know what the die-hard romantics reading this think of de Botton’s and my arguments against romanticism. Can you persuade me of its merits?


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