de Botton, Alain. The Course of Love. Simon and Schuster (original) 2016. F & NF; 3/19.
I love this guy. This is the second of his books I have read, and like Religion for Atheists, when (as we are told we always do) we go looking for the author as we read, we find someone both relentlessly realistic and profoundly kind-hearted. An unusual and generous stretch.
Is it a novel? It contains a love and family story, but the narrative is interspersed with our author’s comments on how the characters’ actions illustrate important realities about people – selves – involved in what we call romantic love. De Botton deals with marriage, sex, parents and parenthood, therapy, the self, and what it takes to be “ready for marriage”.
Rabih Khan, an architect, meets Kirsten McClelland, a designer and surveyor, on a job. They are mutually attracted, date, and eventually marry and have two kids. Although they are meant to represent a typical couple, they are quite different from one another in background and personality, and their relationship features disagreement (sometimes verging on violent), reconciliation, an affair, and growth on both sides. Some of de Botton’s insights are part of the narrative, but most are delivered as straight statements in the commentary.
On marriage in general:
… a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.
… she knows, better than most, that there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.
Neither he nor she has to be perfect, he reflects; they only need to give each other the odd sign they know they can sometimes be quite hard to live with.
The most superficially irrational, immature, lamentable … presumption of love is that the person to whom we have pledged ourselves is not just the centre of our emotional existence, but also, as a result and yet in a very strange, objectively insane and profoundly unjust way, responsible for everything that happens to us, for good or ill. Therein lies the peculiar and sick privilege of love.
A person has to feel rather safe around someone else in order to (really lose their temper). Before a child can throw a tantrum, the background atmosphere needs to be profoundly benevolent.
…one person can’t be everything to another. We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a ‘good enough’ marriage.
On sex and fidelity in marriage:
In the wake of the affair, Rabih … now understands that (marriage) is … an institution, one which is meant to stand fast from year to year without reference to every passing change in the emotions of its participants. It has its justification (not entirely) in feelings, but in an original act of commitment impervious to later revisions and, more notably, in children, a class of beings constitutionally uninterested in the daily satisfactions of those who created them.
Pronouncing a lover ‘perfect’ can only be a sign that we have failed to understand them. We can claim to have begun to know someone only when they have substantially disappointed us.
On parenting and children:
We start off in childhood believing parents might have access to a superior kind of knowledge and experience … Our exaggerated esteem is touching, but also intensely problematic, for it sets them up as the ultimate objects of blame when we gradually discover that they are flawed.
(Our parents) are uncertain vulnerable creatures motivated more by anxiety, fear, a clumsy love and unconscious compulsions than by godlike wisdom and moral clarity – and cannot, therefore, forever be held responsible for either their own shortcomings or our many disappointments.
On Marriage Therapy:
(The therapist) is the champion of a truth … prone to get lost in the surrounding noise: that love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm.
On the self, what we are:
…cynics are merely idealists with unusually high standards.
We are so impressed by honesty that we forget the virtues of politeness; a desire not always to confront people we care about with the full, hurtful aspects of our nature.
If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.
On being ready for marriage:
Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.
We are ready for marriage when we accept that in a number of significant areas our partner will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are.
Rabih feels ready for marriage because he has despaired of being fully understood.
I’m afraid with these quotes I’ve left an impression of something much less than this book really is. Again and again our worst behaviour and failures are dissected, examined, and turned on their heads. They are signs that we are facing reality and growing, painful stumbles to be recovered from, left behind, and taken to mean we are possibly on the right path. It has the stark insistence on personal responsibility of Jordan Peterson, but softened without losing authority by humility and kindness. And although the little love story isn’t Lawrence’s Rainbow, it shows a realistic picture of a relationship I can identify with. Shallow, duplicitous, lazy, selfish, just plain bad as I am, I’m still trying in practical ways to do my best. And that just might be good enough.
For what this is it has my highest recommendation. 9.6/9.2
Thanks, John. I’d forgotten how much I loved this book (read with a lot of rueful laughs and recognition). Johanna