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.

Thoughts on James Cameron's Avatar and Neal Stephenson's "Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out"

Despite reading Greg Egan’s brilliant review of Avatar, I saw the movie. The strangest thing about Avatar is its anti-corporate, anti-technological argument. Let me elaborate: there are wonderful anti-corporate, anti-technological arguments to be made, but it seems contrived for them to be made in a movie that is, for the time being, apparently the most expensive ever made; virtually all mainstream movies are now approved solely on their profit-generating potential. So a vaguely anti-corporate movie is being made by… a profit-driven corporation.

The movie is among the most technically sophisticated ever made: it uses a crazy 2D and 3D camera, harnesses the most advanced computer animation techniques imaginable, and has advanced the cinematic state-of-the-art. But Avatar’s story is anti-technological: humans destroyed their home world through environmental disaster and use military might to annihilate the locals and steal their resources. Presumably, if Avatar’s creators genuinely believed that technology is bad, the movie itself would never have been made, leading to a paradox not dissimilar for those found in time travel movies.

Avatar also has a bunch of vaguely mythical elements, including some scenes that look like the world’s biggest yoga class. The Na’avi, an oppressed people modeled on American Indians, or at least American Indians as portrayed in 20th Century American movies, fight against an interstellar military using bows, arrows, horses, and flying lizards. They live in harmony with the world to an extent that most Westerners can probably barely conceive of, given that more people probably visit McDonald’s than national parks in a given year.

So why are we fascinated with the idea of returning to nature, as though we’re going to dance with wolves, when few of us actually do so? Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness may offer a clue: he cites Wilhelm Worringer’s essay, “Abstraction and Empathy,” which posits that art emphasizes, in de Botton’s words, “[…] those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply with in itself.” We live (presumably) happy lives coddled in buildings that have passed inspection, with takeout Chinese readily available, and therefore we fantasize about being mauled by wild beasts and being taken off the omnipresent grid, with its iPhones and wireless Internet access. We live in suburban anomie and therefore fantasize about group yoga. We make incredibly sophisticated movies about the pleasures of a world with no movies at all, where people still go through puberty rituals that don’t involve Bar Mitzvahs, and mate for life, like Mormons.

Neal Stephenson wrote a perceptive essay called “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” which examines the underlying cultural values in the older and newer Star Wars films. I would’ve linked to it earlier but frankly can’t imagine anyone returning here afterwards. Therefore I’ll quote an important piece of Stephenson:

Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents – not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology – and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work – as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

The tedious particulars of modern technological life are both embraced and avoided in Avatar too. The villain, rather than being political chaos, organized oppression, ignorance, entropy, or weak/ineffective institutions, to name a few of the real but abstract contemporary bad guys, is instead replaced by an army / mercenary commander who might be at home in Xe Services / Blackwater USA. The military villainy and disdain for superior firepower in Avatar is especially odd, given that the United States has held the technological advantage in major wars for at least a century; the people watching Avatar are probably also the ones who support our troops. The studio that made Avatar probably cares more about quarterly statements than about the environment. The movie villains, however, apparently aren’t being restrained by an intergalactic EPA.

Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples, which seems like a probable development for a race nursed on Star Trek and post-colonialism and that is advanced enough to travel the stars. In the contemporary United States, a bewildering array of regulations govern activities that might have an environmental impact on communities; the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example, requires that federal agencies to monitor and report on their activities. Such regulations are growing, rather than shrinking. They’re a staple bogeyman of right-wing radio.

But in Avatar, decisions aren’t made at the future equivalent of the Copenhagen summit. Instead, they’re fought in battles reminiscent of World War I, or the Civil War, leavened with some personal combat. The battles are jarring but anachronistic, although maybe Iraq War II: The Sequel would’ve turned out better if George Bush and Saddam Hussein had dueled with swords, but that’s not how wars are fought any more. And when one side has machine guns and the other side doesn’t, you get something as nasty as World War I, where all the élan, spirit, and meditation in the world didn’t stop millions of people from dying.

My implicit argument isn’t perfect: Avatar does criticize our reliance on oil through the parable of the cleverly named “unobtainium,” but the thrust of the movie is unambiguous. We want to fantasize that solutions are as simple as putting a hole in the right guy, which will make things right again. That’s probably a comforting notion, and an easy one to fit into a two- to three- hour movie with a three-part arc, but it’s also a wrong one, and one that ignores or abstracts the world’s complexity. The people who tend to rule the world are the ones who pay attention to how the world really is, rather than how it was, or how they would like it to be. The real question is whether we are still people who see how the world is.

Why de Botton (and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work)

Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work has two wonderful passages on page 27: the first, concerning ship spotters—or those who watch and log ships coming in and out of a harbor:

They behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade.

The ship spotters focus on statistics in large part because statistics can be found more readily than, say, aesthetic theories, or meta ideas about why we like spotting, or statistics, or fountain pens. Why do some of our activities, like ship spotting, dwell in the countable, while others, like love, tend to dwell in most people’s minds in the land of emotion? I say “most people’s mind” because some writers, like Tim Harford in The Logic of Life, have brought game theory to bear on love in the group sense in order to see what one might see.

De Botton has a partial answer:

It seems easier to respond to our enthusiasms by trading in facts than by investigating the more naive question of how and why we have been moved.

He’s right, and I think this is why many book blogs tend pay disproportionate attention to, for example, the publishing industry or a writer’s habit than the works that the industry publishes or that the writer writes. It’s simply easier, to steal de Botton’s accurate word, to deal with systematic issues than to analyze why de Botton’s simile of the lover works so well, which at bottom might be simply “because it does,” or an unattractive analysis of how something is both like and unlike something else. Like explaining a joke, such an analysis might render the subject being analyzed dead, and thus no longer worthy of analysis.

%d bloggers like this: