Briefly noted: The Course of Love — Alain de Botton

You don’t need to read The Course of Love: instead read Mating in Captivity or Neil Strauss’s book The Truth or even Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, despite its murder premise, is truer to modern relationships than The Course of Love. You may be tempted by The Course of Love because of de Botton’s charming, hilarious, earlier novels On Love and Kiss & Tell. You’ll recognize callbacks to On Love; the new novel mentions a Chloe who the narrator broke up with, and the love interest in On Love is conveniently named Chloe.

Still, those novels work because they’re funny and this one you will forget because it’s not. There is a lot of tedium in sentences like “At the center of Kisten’s love is a desire to heal the wound of Rabih’s long-buried, largely unmentioned loss.” The characters never stop saying things like, “Everything around here is deeply sensible, rational, worked out, policed—as if there were a timetable all laid out from now till the moment we die.”

Perhaps the point is that we never emerge from our adolescent philosophical stupor, when people complain about sensible, rational, worked out lives—the sorts of things that many modern Syrians would probably like.

The good news is that the last pages work. The bad news is that neurotic humor is missing, and so is a real understanding of male-female dynamics. There are some good inversions of conventional thinking, as when Kirsten seems to think, “she knows, better than most, that there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.” But most of it is closer to the banal sentences quoted previously. One hopes for Flaubert and gets this. Wasn’t it Flaubert who said that every writer should write with a hard-on? Or is that a spurious quotation? Regardless of its genesis, one senses few if any hard-ons inspired this novel, to the novel’s detriment given its subject matter.

Maybe it is not coincidence that in the first sentence of this post two of the better-than suggestions are nonfiction. If you’re militantly opposed to nonfiction, maybe The Course of Love is okay. For anyone not so militantly opposed, you can get similar subject matter that’s actually better written on a sentence by sentence level. Too much of the book feels like an amalgamation of nonfiction trend pieces and books rather than a novel. Here is one sample, chosen at random: “I Can’t Stop Bashing My Husband to Other Moms, and I’m Sorry.” Kirsten has problems bashing her husband to her friends and her husband’s response is basically to shrug. Perhaps the lesson is “Don’t get married” (or expect to grind it out if you do). That may be a valid reading of the novel. Rabih’s improbable affair may be the high point.

Unlike in, say, Michel Houellebecq, the sense of fiction never overwhelms the sense of outside reading in The Course of Love. Much of it feels ripped from time-wasting websites or New York Times trend pieces. I’ve followed de Botton for years and his books vary in quality from the sublime to the wasteful. His nonfiction, except for How to Think More About Sex, is fun and informative. One wishes for more of the good here.

There is too much good stuff for The Course of Love to matter.

If someone is angry you may be doing something right: Alain de Botton edition

Early negative reviews of his work [How Proust Can Change Your Life], by Proust professors and philosophy dons, devastated him, admitted de Botton. “It was very surprising and upsetting. Then my wife, who is very wise, said to me, ‘It’s obvious, this is a fight.’ This is a turf war, and the battle is about what culture should mean to us.”*

If you’re a) doing significant work and b) making people angry, then you may c) be doing something right. I think the first component is particularly important because it’s easy to needlessly or cruelly piss people off—through rude remarks or punching someone, for example. We’re taught that making other people angry is a bad thing and in most contexts it probably is, but in some it isn’t and may actually be a sign of importance.

Anger is a powerful response and a common one to someone who feels threatened: suggest to a public school teacher that teachers shouldn’t be granted de facto lifetime employment after three years, or that teachers’ unions are serious impediments to education, and you’re not likely to get a reasoned discussion about policy. You’re likely to be treated as someone who violates taboo. To most of us discussions about education policy are benign, but to teachers they’re often sacred (the “benign-violation theory” of humor is similar, as discussed in The Humor Code).

I’ve gotten weirdly vituperative responses from English professors about this blog. Usually those responses are couched in language about being unprofessional or low quality or a waste of time that could be better spent advancing my career. In that worldview, having anyone read your work doesn’t matter. At first I took those responses at face value, but now I’m not so sure: they might have been unhappy that I think most English journals bogus and, worse, treat them as such. It’s dangerous to have people work outside the system they’re highly invested in. If you don’t have the apparatus of peer review and journals and so forth, what separates paid professors from blogger rabble? Some answers to that question may be terrifying.

Philosophers probably guard their jewel basket carefully because there is nothing inside.

To return to de Botton, I also think he calibrates his work towards accessibility. It is easy for a normal person to understand what he says and to judge its truth value. Many philosophers seem to take pride in doing the opposite. In addition, de Botton reaches for a relatively low-knowledge audience; I found his book about architecture charming, for example, but How to Think More About Sex was inane, mostly because of it lacked any familiarity with evolutionary biology. Over the last couple decades, that’s been where the action is. Writing about sex without reading evolutionary biology is pointless, and I know enough to know that. Alternately, even compelling writers produce some bad books, and this could be de Botton’s off book.


* From “The empire of Alain de Botton.”

Lisa Levy, Alain de Botton and the meaning of intellectuals and their relationship to sex

Lisa Levy’s How to Be a Pseudo-Intellectual (actual title: “How To Think More (But Not Better): Alain de Botton’s School of Life”) isn’t really about de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex so much as it is about throwing rocks at de Botton’s intellectual middle road from the high road where most supposed scholars are unread, unloved, and unsexed.* It’s true that How To Think More About Sex is de Botton’s weakest book, to the point that I didn’t bother reviewing it because it’s so bad; any pop evolutionary psychology book from the last ten years offers more and better information, and sex is arguably the field least informed by the philosophy and philosophers most often in de Botton’s purview.

But his other books are fun and informative. Levy writes that “he often seems like a grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own.” Maybe “an original observation” is overrated in philosophy, especially compared to accessibility. Levy writes that “he tends to meander and summarize after a quotation rather than using it to drive his own argument forward,” but if de Botton meanders in an interesting way—which he usually does, in books like The Architecture of Happiness and his novel On Love, which is charming (a word that never appears among academics trying to prosecute dubiously original arguments)—then he’s at least doing one thing better than 90% of those allegedly being original. For one thing, he’s writing clearly enough to make a judgment about originality; how many doctoral dissertations and tenure books are written in impenetrable, deliberately misleading jargon, such that it’s difficult or impossible to tell whether an argument is original?

Most people trying to make “an original observation of [their] own” don’t seem to make actual original contributions but do bloviate quite a bit. If more people admitted to synthesizing and fewer had to pretend to originality, we’d probably live in a better original world. Levy says that “he’s not exactly Michel Foucault,” and I’d call that a very good thing.

That being said, however, Levy is right that “This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex.” Sex might also be the field that, of all that de Botton has addressed, philosophy is the least well-equipped to handle, especially compared to current psychology and biology.

Still, the funniest bits of The Consolations of Philosophy concern the number of aged philosophers in their twilight years who fall for vapid but hot teenage girls and adult women, which could arguably tell us more about the nature of life than all of their books combined; actions speak louder than words, as the cliché goes, and what one wants in the midst of composing a monumental manuscript may be different from what one wants when confronted with real people. De Botton describes how the 43-year-old Schopenhauer “turns his attentions to Flora Weiss, a spirited girl who has turned seventeen,” and feels “revolted” by his gift of white grapes. Nietzsche, similarly, faced rejection from “a twenty-three-year old, green-eyed blonde” named Mathilde Trampedach. From there, “a succession of similar rejections took their toll” in his marriage proposals, caused in part, perhaps, by “his extraordinarily large walrus mustache” and “his shyness.” Later still, he chased around a twenty-one-year-old hottie (my word), who “was more interested in Nietzsche as a philosopher than a husband.”

Perhaps we should consider philosophers’ work in light of their lives, and the lessons we should take are not necessarily those entombed in The World as Will and Representation or On the Genealogy of Morality. Alas, however, that de Botton might have instead worked to write original observations that go unread in a university library somewhere instead.


* Hannah Arendt and a few others famously excepted.

We lack perspective: notes from Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers to implementing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.

1) A lot of engineers like their jobs and look at them as solving a series of puzzles: “theses on the velocities of scanning machines” are only as banal as you make them. In addition, even if you do find them banal, if you can make a faster scanning machine and sell it for a lot of money, you may not care when you retire to paint water colors for the rest of your life.

2) Fights say more about the dumb fighters than about the human condition.

3) Humans might simply never be, as a group, overtly happy in whatever conditions we experience; realizing this might release us from unreasonable expectations. A cultural fixation on happiness might paradoxically prevent us from experiencing what we think or imagine we most want or desire.

4) Related to three, people who leave work to drink on the weekends are probably intentionally looking for fights: I doubt the behavior can be blamed solely on alcohol. Many people seem to undergo a two-step process: they consciously drink so they can unconsciously act out in the ways they’d actually like to. My question is simple: why not just go to step two and be intellectually honest with ourselves?

5) Stumbling on Happiness discusses how and why we feel unhappy when we compare ourselves to others. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to people in the “Middle Ages;” we compare ourselves to our wives’ sisters’ husbands, to paraphrase that famous aphorism (switch gender roles as appropriate to you, the reader, and your gender / sexual orientation).

6) We submit “at the altars of prudence and order” because the alternative is often worse. That being said, I think Western society underestimates the power and importance of trance, ecstasy, transcendence, atë—all things that, denied and repressed, seem to manifest themselves in unusual ways (see The Secret History for more on this. Still, if the alternative to prudence and order is chaos, no iPhone, longer commutes, and living a dicey part of town, prudence and order sound pretty good—as does self-imposed “incarceration.”

7) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is, like much of de Botton’s work, nicely balanced between readability and intellectual engagement, reasoned and learned without being pedantic. These are harder notes to strike than may be obvious at first.

We lack perspective: notes from Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Yet our world of abundance, with seas of wine and alps of bread, has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors in the famine-stricken years of the Middle Ages. The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. Engineers write theses on the velocities of scanning machines and consultants devote their careers to implementing minor economies in the movements of shelf-stackers and forklift operators. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface.

1) A lot of engineers like their jobs and look at them as solving a series of puzzles: “theses on the velocities of scanning machines” are only as banal as you make them. In addition, even if you do find them banal, if you can make a faster scanning machine and sell it for a lot of money, you may not care when you retire to paint water colors for the rest of your life.

2) Fights say more about the dumb fighters than about the human condition.

3) Humans might simply never be, as a group, overtly happy in whatever conditions we experience; realizing this might release us from unreasonable expectations. A cultural fixation on happiness might paradoxically prevent us from experiencing what we think or imagine we most want or desire.

4) Related to three, people who leave work to drink on the weekends are probably intentionally looking for fights: I doubt the behavior can be blamed solely on alcohol. Many people seem to undergo a two-step process: they consciously drink so they can unconsciously act out in the ways they’d actually like to. My question is simple: why not just go to step two and be intellectually honest with ourselves?

5) Stumbling on Happiness discusses how and why we feel unhappy when we compare ourselves to others. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to people in the “Middle Ages;” we compare ourselves to our wives’ sisters’ husbands, to paraphrase that famous aphorism (switch gender roles as appropriate to you, the reader, and your gender / sexual orientation).

6) We submit “at the altars of prudence and order” because the alternative is often worse. That being said, I think Western society underestimates the power and importance of trance, ecstasy, transcendence, atë—all things that, denied and repressed, seem to manifest themselves in unusual ways (see The Secret History for more on this. Still, if the alternative to prudence and order is chaos, no iPhone, longer commutes, and living a dicey part of town, prudence and order sound pretty good—as does self-imposed “incarceration.”

7) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is, like much of de Botton’s work, nicely balanced between readability and intellectual engagement, reasoned and learned without being pedantic. These are harder notes to strike than may be obvious at first.

Boredom in books according to Alain de Botton

There are, so Montaigne implied, no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied. Carefully used, boredom can be a valuable indicator of the merit of books. Though it can never be a sufficient judge (and in its more degenerate forms, slips into wilful [sic] indifference and impatience), taking our levels of boredom into account can temper an otherwise excessive tolerance for balderdash. THose who do not listen to their boredom when reading, like those who pay no attention to pain, may be increasing their suffering unnecessarily. Whatever the dangers of being wrongly bored, there are as many pitfalls in never allowing ourselves to lose patience with our reading matter.

—Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

(500) Days of Summer with, as a bonus, Alain de Botton's On Love

(500) Days of Summer is about the mating habits of angsty hipsters. Said hipsters are endlessly concerned with the nature of love in a deep, romantic fashion when they should be thinking more about the mechanics of how and why someone is actually attracted to another person. To heal the anxiety that hipsters feel about attraction and love, I would prescribe Belle de Jour, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which, taken together, remind one that the important thing about love is having enough game to get someone else to love you, not merely mooning over another person—which is more likely to drive them away than attract them.

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom does the mooning and Summer is indifferent and perhaps callous to his puppyish attention. Tom wants romance so bad that his 11-year-old sister says, “Easy Tom. Don’t be a pussy” at one point. We’re thinking the same thing, although perhaps not in those words, which are given to the sister chiefly, I assume, for getting a laugh out of the incongruity of hearing her say them. In the next scene, Tom asks Summer, “What are we doing?” The better question, at least for the audience, is, “Should we care?” If Tom doesn’t get with Summer—who manifests no special or particular interests, talents, abilities, thoughts, capability, or expertise—there are another thousand girls right behind her, exactly like her, who are also part of the quirk genre, as described in the linked Atlantic article:

As an aesthetic principle, quirk is an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions (on HBO’s recent indie-cred comedy Flight of the Conchords, the titular folk-rock duo have one fan), and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.

Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt.

Over time, quirk gets boring and reminds you why you like the real feeling of, say, King Lear, or the plot of The Usual Suspects. The mopey plight of undifferentiated office workers is less compelling, and, once sufficiently repeated, it feels like disposable culture: another story about two modern people with no serious threats to their existence save the self-imposed ones that arise chiefly from their minds.

Love stories about the relatively pampered can work: I watched (500) Days of Summer because a bunch of students mentioned it in relation to Alain de Botton’s On Love. But the novel is better: a philosophically minded and self-aware narrator is fascinating precisely because he is aware of the ridiculousness of his own predicament and the randomness of love. He has a therapist and a philosophy professor in his mind. The dichotomy between how he should feel (she’s just another girl) and how he does (transformed through love!) fuels much of the comedy, as does the narrator’s tendency toward self-sabotage thanks to Marxism as applied to love: he would never want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Tom would, apparently, sign up to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. His lack of interiority makes him boring. His lack of exteriority makes the movie boring.

Whoever wrote (500) Days of Summer must have read On Love (Tom is a wannabe architect and gives Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness as a gift) and wanted to do a film version, or at least steal from it. Stealing from On Love, by the way, is a brilliant idea: the novel still leaves much territory to be explored, and it’s probably impossible to draw a complete map to represent the problems that love provide. But the interior commentary that makes the novel special can’t be effectively represented on screen. So we’re stuck with two people whose averageness is painful and unleavened by any real sense of awareness of their own situation. One of my favorite passages from On Love goes:

But there wasn’t much adventure or struggle around to be had. The world that Chloe and I lived in had largely been stripped of possibilities for epic conflict. Our parents didn’t care, the jungle had been tamed, society its disapproval behind universal tolerance, restaurants stayed open late, credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, and sex was a duty, not a crime.

On Love is acknowledging that the stuff that makes good fiction has largely been evacuated from modern love stories. In doing so, I laughed with recognition and at the narrator’s neuroticism about his own love stories. Moments like this abound in On Love and make it such a wonderful novel. Moments like this are absent in (500) Days of Summer, which make it a tedious movie.

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