Essays in Love by Alain de Botton (Part III)

  • There is usually a Marxist moment in most relationships [the moment when it become clear that love is reciprocated] and the way it is resolved depends on the balance between self-love and self-hatred. If self-hatred gains the upper hand, then the one who has received love will declare that the beloved [on some excuse or other] is not good enough for them [not good enough by virtue of association with no-goods]. But if  self-love gains the upper hand, both partners may accept that seeing their love reciprocated is not proof of how low the beloved is, but of how lovable they have themselves turned out to be.
  • Critics of love have been rightly suspicious of fusion, the belief that differences between people can be so erased that two blend into one. Suspicion stems from the sense that it is easier to assume similarity than difference [what is familiar does not have to be invented], and that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will always invent what we know, rather than what we don’t and fear.  We base our fall into love upon insufficient material, and supplement our ignorance with desire. But, as the critics point out, time will show us that the skin separating our bodies is not just a physical boundary, but representative of deeper, psychological contradictions one would be foolish to try to transcend.
  • Therefore, in the mature account of love, one does not fall at first sight. Falling comes only when one knows how deep the waters are into which to plunge. Only after much exchange of early history, opinions on politics, art, science and what they like to have for dinner should two people decide they are ready to love one another, a decision taken on the basis of mutual understanding and confirmed rather than imagined affinity. In the mature account of love, it is only when one truly knows one’s partner that love is given a chance to grow. And yet in the perverse reality of love [love that is born precisely before we know] increased knowledge may be as much a hurdle as an inducement – for it may bring Utopia into dangerous conflict with reality.
  • It was a reminder that getting to know someone is not always the pleasant process that common sense makes it out to be, for just as one may strike on delightful similarities, one may also encounter threatening differences.
  • Perhaps it is true that the easiest people to fall in love with are those who tell us very little about themselves beyond what we can read from their face or voice. In fantasy, a person is endlessly, love-ably malleable.
  • In our more idealistic moments, we imagine romantic love to be akin to Christian love, a universal emotion that declares I will love you for everything that you are, a love that has no conditions, that draws no boundaries, that adores every last shoe, that is the embodiment of acceptance.
  • Romantic love cannot be virginal, it talks the language of a specific body, it is concerned with uniqueness, not generality…Jesus side-stepped this thorny issue by refusing to index love to criteria, avoiding much of the cruelty of love in the process. For it is with criteria that love becomes painful…
  • A protective sheath separates friends, constructed out of a code of propriety and civility, a sheath of biological unfamiliarity that prevents the passage of hostile drives.
  • And with the inability to laugh, comes an inability to acknowledge the relativity of things human, the contradictions inherent in a society or relationship, the multiplicity and clash of desires, the need to accept that one’s partner will never learn how to park a car, or wash out a bath, or give up a taste for Joni Mitchell – but that one loves them nevertheless.
  • It is a sign that two people have stopped loving one another [or at least stopped wishing to make the effort that constitutes ninety per cent of love] when they are no longer able to spin differences into jokes. Humour lined the walls of irritation between our ideals and the reality: behind each joke, there was a warning of difference, of disappointment even, but it was a difference that had to be diffused – and could therefore be passed over without the need for a pogrom.
  • Does beauty give birth to love or does love give birth to beauty?
  • True beauty cannot be measured because it is fluctuating, it has only a few angles from which it may be seen, and then not in all lights and at all times. It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not slide comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those areas that will also lend themselves to ugliness.
  • In Wittgenstein’s example, much depends on the attitude of the viewer: if the imagination is looking for a duck, it will find one, if it is looking for a a rabbit, then it too will appear.
  • It was as though the core of our relationship, configured around the word love, was somehow unmentionable, either not worthy of mention, or too significant to have yet had time for formulation.
  • ‘One can talk problems into existence,’…and just as problems could be fashioned out of language, so love could be destroyed by it.
  • The thought was a lonely one: of the error one may find over a single word, an argument not for pedants, but of desperate importance to lovers who are sick of talking through interpreters. We could both speak of being in love, and yet this love might mean wholly different things within each of us.
  • Love is not self-explanatory, it is always interpreted by the culture in which we celebrate our birthday.
  • Some people would have never fallen in love if they had never heard of love, ‘ aphorized La Rochefoucauld, and does not history prove him right?
  • Love reveals its insanity by its refusal to acknowledge the inherent normality of the loved one.
  • Only a thin line separates love from fantasy, from a belief holding no connection with outer reality, an essentially private, narcissistic obsession.
  • Because only the body is open to the eye, the hope of the infatuated lover is the soul’s fidelity to its casing, the hope that the body owns an appropriate soul, that what the skin represents turns out to be what it is.
  • Lovers cannot remain philosophers for long, they should give to the religious impulse, which is to believe and have faith, as opposed to the philosophic impulse, which is to doubt and enquire. They should prefer the risk of being wrong and in love to being in doubt and without love.
  • It merely shows that though one may be living under a delusion, if one finds the complementary part of it, then all may be well. Delusions are not harmful in themselves, they only hurt when one is alone in believing in them, when one cannot create an environment in which they can be sustained.
  • Love interpreted the tentative, what lay on the border between the said and unsaid, the expressible and inexpressible [love as the will to extend understanding to the half-formulated thoughts of the other].
  • Intimacy did not destroy the self/other slash. It merely moved outside the couple…love nourished itself by identifying common dislikes, We both hate X translated into We like one another. Lovers, hence criminals, our proof of loyalty became the extent to which we communicated our disloyalties towards others.
  • Love may have been conspiratorial, but it was at least authentic.
  • With its roots in the epic tradition, love is necessarily tied to the tale [ to speak of love always involves narrative], and more particularly, to adventure, structured by clear beginnings, endings, goals, reversals, and triumphs.


Philip Pullman on saving libraries

In Britain, a new austerity budget has threatened massive library closures across the country, with some communities in danger of ending up with no public library at all. Philip Pullman’s local chief counsellor accused authors of defending libraries because they like the royalties they earn from the books libraries buy. In response, Pullman has given this stirring speech about the value of libraries to their communities and to civilization:

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for…

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?