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Alain De Botton: There are few more shameful confessions to make than that we are lonely
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Alain De Botton: There are few more shameful confessions to make than that we are lonely

After more than two decades, a Swiss-born, British-based author/philosopher Alain De Botton is back on novel writing: “The Course of Love” De Botton reveals the ugly truth of marriage, loneliness, and romanticism.

There is a common belief that romantic relationships and marriage are a thing of the past, and that women should give up on seeking them. Do you agree?

– It’s tempting to think of marriage as old-fashioned. Why not just live with someone and be done with it? What need for a public ceremony? Why the weird traditions that people normally keep away from: all those churches, temples, hymns, vows and prayers? Marriage must be a silly relic from the religious childhood of humankind, not designed for the more logical modern world. And yet it survives. The essence of marriage is to tie our hands, to frustrate our wills, to put high and costly obstacles in the way of splitting up. Why do we do this? Originally, we told ourselves that God wanted us to stay married. But even now, when God is not invoked, we keep making sure that marriage is rather hard to undo. For one thing, you carefully invite everyone you know to watch you say you’ll stick together. You willingly create a huge layer of embarrassment were you ever to turn round and admit it might have been a mistake. Furthermore, even though you could keep things separate, marriage tends to mean deep economic and legal entanglements. You know it is going to take the work of a phalanx of accountants and lawyers to prise you apart. It can be done, of course, but it will be ruinous. It is as if we somewhere recognise that there might, rather strangely, be some quite good, though uncomfortable, reasons why making it difficult to split up a union can be an advantage for its members.

Why does falling in love seem the easy part whereas keep the relationship healthy seem the hardest?

– Modern ideas of love are strongly associated with admiration. To fall in love with someone is typically assumed to involve awe at a person’s physical and psychological virtues. We may speak of having fallen in love with particular wit or intelligence, bravery or beauty. We think of ourselves as in love when we reflect on a rare creature that seems in a myriad of ways stronger and more accomplished than we are; our love seems founded on admiration. But there is another view of love that deserves to be explored if we are to improve upon our often marked inability to sustain long-term relationships – a philosophy of love that hinges upon a quality rarely mentioned in the context of couples, namely, generosity. In this view, to love someone means not just or primarily to experience admiration in the face of perfection, but a capacity to be uncommonly generous towards a fellow human especially at moments when they may be less than straightforwardly appealing. Love is here taken to be not a thrill in the face of accomplishment but a distinctive skill founded on the ability to see beyond a partner’s often off-putting outer dimensions, an energy to enter imaginatively into their experiences and bestow an ongoing degree of forgiveness and kindness in spite of trickiness and confusion. To love is, in this uncommon sense, above all else, to know how to be generous.

Der Schriftsteller, Bestseller-Autor und Philosoph, Alain de Botton, waehrend eines Interviews am 14.5.2013 im Hotel Greulich in Zuerich.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alain De Botton

Is there really such a thing as a soulmate?

– No, there is no such thing a soulmate. No one can understand us totally. We will always be lonely! There are few more shameful confessions to make than that we are lonely. The basic assumption is that no respectable person could ever feel isolated – unless they had just moved country or been widowed. Yet in truth, a high degree of loneliness is an inexorable part of being a sensitive, intelligent human. It’s a built-in feature of a complex existence. We will almost certainly never meet the people best qualified to understand us, but they do exist. Probably they once walked past us in the street, though neither of us had the slightest idea of the potential for connection. Or maybe they died in Sydney two weeks ago or won’t be born until the 22nd century. It isn’t a conspiracy. We would just have needed a lot more luck.

It sounds a little bit pessimistic!

– There are several big reasons for this: Much of what we need recognised and confirmed by others – a lot of what it would be extremely comforting to share – is going to be disturbing to society at large. Many of the ideas in the recesses of our minds are too odd, contrary, subtle or alarming to be safely revealed to anyone else. We face a choice between honesty and acceptability and – understandably – mostly choose the latter.

Why does everyone, even couples, grouching about feeling lonely?

– It is okay to feel lonely in this world because we are all lonely. We must all die alone, which really means, that our pain is for us alone to endure. Others can throw us words of encouragement, but in every life, we are out on the ocean drowning in the swell and others, even the nice ones, are standing on the shore, waving cheerily.

Isn’t it scary?

– We should not be frightened or discomfited by our pervasive loneliness. At an exasperated moment, near the end of his life, the German writer Goethe, who appeared to have had a lot of friends, exploded bitterly: ‘No one has ever properly understood me, I have never fully understood anyone; and no one understands anyone else.’

As you accept loneliness, you start having healthier relationships. It heightens the conversation we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.

What can we learn from loneliness?

– Once we accept loneliness, we can get creative: we can start to send out messages in a bottle: we can sing, write poetry, produce books and blogs, activities stemming from the realisation that people around us won’t ever fully get us but that others – separated across time and space – might just. Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy and true love if ever better opportunities do come along. As you accept loneliness, you start having healthier relationships. It heightens the conversation we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate. It seems like no one appreciate the loneliness, though.

Everyone thinks loneliness is depressing, and “being single” is the worst thing that could happen to anyone.

– That’s true. However, when we admit our loneliness, we are signing up to a club that includes the people we know from the paintings of Edward Hopper, the poems of Baudelaire and the songs of Leonard Cohen. Lonely, we enter a long and grand tradition; we find ourselves (surprisingly) in great company. Enduring loneliness is almost invariably better than suffering the compromises of false community. Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.

“Marrying the wrong person” is one hot topic in your latest novel, ‘The Curse of Love’. Why do people marrying the wrong person?

– All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet); it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities. The very idea that we might not be too difficult as people should set off alarm bells in any prospective partner. The question is just where the problems will lie: perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us, or we can only relax when we are working, or we’re a bit tricky around intimacy after sex, or we’ve never been so good at explaining what’s going on when we’re worried. It’s these sort of issues that – over decades – create catastrophes and that we therefore need to know about way ahead of time, in order to look out for people who are optimally designed to withstand them. A standard question on any early dinner date should be quite simply: ‘And how are you mad?’

Der Schriftsteller, Bestseller-Autor und Philosoph, Alain de Botton, waehrend eines Interviews am 14.5.2013 im Hotel Greulich in Zuerich.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alain De Botton

Do you think great expectations ruins great marriage?

– Unfortunately, our expectations are never higher, and therefore more troubling, than they are in love. Our expectations might go like this: a decent partner should easily, intuitively understand what I’m concerned about. I shouldn’t have to explain things at length to them. If I’ve had a difficult day, I shouldn’t have to say that I’m worn out and need a bit of space. They should be able to tell how I’m feeling. They shouldn’t oppose me: if I point out that one of our acquaintances is a bit stuck up, they shouldn’t start defending them. They’re meant to be constantly supportive. When I feel bad about myself, they should shore me up, and reminded me of my strengths. A decent partner won’t make too many demands. They won’t be constantly requesting that I do things to help them out, or dragging me off to do something I don’t like. We’ll always like the same things. I tend to have pretty good taste in films, food and household routines: they’ll understand and sympathise with them at once. Then of course, the problems start… A solution to our distress and agitation lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. It’s an odd and unappealing thought. Pessimism sounds very unattractive. It’s associated with failure; it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to relationships, expectations are the enemies of love.

What usually goes wrong?

– The desire to undress someone is for a long time far more urgent than the desire for good conversation – and so we end up locked in relationships with certain people we don’t have much to say to, because we were once fatefully interested in the shape of their nose and the colour of their remarkable eyes. Actually, good conversation matters than good sex. Sadly, no one can see this.

What’s the future of marriage?

– I look forward to a time when we reinvent the business of marriage vows. Vows are promises we make on behalf of people who don’t yet exist about circumstances that we can’t yet fully imagine. Still, they serve an important function in at least attempting to guide our responses to the tensions of the future. The problem with current vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment. Vows should accurately anticipate what will make us want to get divorced – and confirm to us that our subsequent sadness will not be an unusual or personal curse.

What is the honest, actual marriage vows that should be used?

– Here is a selection of vows that would be made by a couple in the utopia:

I accept that I am – in countless ways I don’t yet know – very hard to live with.

We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives. When you are mean, when you call me a c*** and a fucking bastard, I will strive to remember that at heart, it is because you are hurt – not that you are fundamentally nasty. Everyone has some very significant things wrong with them. We promise not to look around. There isn’t anyone better out there really.  Once you get to know them, everyone is impossible. We accept to witness the slow death of our sexuality. We realize we won’t be doing it that often from now on. I won’t have affairs, not because you’re so perfect, but because I’ve decided to be disappointed by you, and you alone, and you’ll be disappointed by me, and me alone, rather than both of us foisting our troubled selves on innocent members of the community, who would be deeply annoying too once one got to know them. [In unison with the audience] Many days we’ll be unhappy; many days, we’ll suffer, many days we’ll regret we ever did this crazy thing. It’s not congratulations we need. It’s the commiserations we actually need. Thank you.

You believe “romanticism has been unhelpful to us; it is a harsh philosophy.” Why?

– Since around 1750, we have been living in a highly distinctive era in the history of love that we can call Romanticism. Romanticism emerged as an ideology in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century in the minds of poets, artists and philosophers, and it has now conquered the world. No single relationship ever follows the Romantic template exactly, but its broad outlines are frequently present nevertheless. This template of love is a historical creation. It’s a hugely beautiful and often enjoyable one. But we can state boldly: Romanticism has been a disaster for relationships. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement, which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism.

How can we deal with romanticism?

– We need to replace the Romantic template with a psychologically-mature vision of love we might call Classical, and which encourages in us a range of unfamiliar but hopefully effective attitudes:

That it is normal that love and sex may not always belong together;

That discussing money early on, up-front, in a serious way is not a betrayal of love;

That realising that we are rather flawed, and our partner is too, is of huge benefit to a couple because it increases the amount of tolerance and generosity in circulation;

That we will never find everything in one other person, or they in us, not because of some unique flaw, but because of the way human nature works;

That we need to make immense and often rather artificial-sounding efforts to understand one another; that intuition can’t get us where we need to go;

That spending two hours discussing whether bathroom towels should be hung up or can be left on the floor is neither trivial nor unserious; that there is special dignity around laundry and time keeping.

All these attitudes and more belong to a new, more hopeful, post-Romantic future for love.

How are you able to keep everything together – being productive and busy all the time while still having a happily marriage?

– Let me explain this way: Many of our greatest hopes center around Love and Work. Yet the complaints against work from within love are notorious: that we are never around, that we are always tired, that we never give our partner our wholehearted attention, that we are obsessive about the office. It can seem as if our private lives and capitalism were locked in perpetual and scratchy conflict. Modern ideas of love were invented mainly in the late eighteenth century, according to the ideology of Romanticism. This emphasized monogamy, good communication, love marriages, candor, the communion of souls and, not least, the importance of spending a lot of time together chatting in a relaxed spirit.

Romanticism has been a disaster for relationships. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement, which has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. The salvation of love lies in overcoming a succession of errors within Romanticism.

Do you think everlasting love & a long marriage makes people less creative or motivated at work? What prevents most people from reaching their full potential the most?

– Romanticism and Capitalism are the two dominant ideas of our time, guiding the way we think and feel about the two things that usually matter most in our lives: relationships and work. But combining Romanticism and Modern Capitalism together, as we are expected to do, can be arduous in the extreme. It’s a hugely unfortunate historical clash. We live under two very powerful, but oddly incompatible systems. The impressive philosophy of Romantic love – with its emphasis on intimacy and openness – sits very badly with the requirements of working routines that fill our heads with complex demands, keep us away from home for long stretches and render us insecure about our positions in a competitive environment.

What’s the happy secret to better work and better relationships?

– According to the Romantic ideal, a lover can be kind and good only when they readily communicate their feelings. But the level of openness this assumes is wholly at odds with the realities of modern work. After a tricky day (or week), one’s mind is likely to be numb with worries and duties. We may not feel like doing much besides sitting in silence, staring at the kitchen appliances, running through a series of dramas and crises. Such preoccupation is not pleasant to witness: it risks expressing itself in a range of not very endearing symptoms: grunting, sighing, brooding silence and a short-fused temper.

The most innocuous sounding question about how the day might have gone can elicit a growl – then, if it is repeated, an explosion. We find it hard to explain to another person what we’re going through – and hence win a degree of understanding for our volatile state – because the nature of so much work is so tricky to convey. In the pre-Modern age, the basic character of most jobs was well understood by everyone. If you were a shepherd, a blacksmith, a miner or a housemaid, you were doing work that would have been familiar to everyone in the community over many generations. Today’s jobs are weirder and more specialised. Explaining properly the reasons why one day was more enervating than another, why a particular project has become so stress inducing would help a lot! – [Revised, and re-edited from an interview by Ali Tufan Koc]

Cover Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alain De Botton 


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