A Point of View: Why books do not prepare us for real love
- 11 February 2011
- From the section Magazine
Literature's lust for unrequited love leaves us ill prepared for the reality of what love really is, says Alain de Botton in his weekly column.
From my early adolescence through to my early 30s, my most intense feelings of love were towards people who had little or no interest in loving me back.
Women who already had boyfriends, who meant to return my calls but had a habit of losing numbers, who gently explained they needed a little more time on their own, or preferred not to let sex spoil a valuable friendship.
Far from deserving pity for my fate I was in fact strangely blessed, for my apparent misfortune put me in touch with the most intense of all varieties of love - the unrequited kind.
Anyone who reads even a few novels about love will swiftly recognise that love in literature is almost always impeded in some way. What we call a love story is nothing of the sort, it is merely a story of love's interruption and delay. It is the record of a gradual victory over a range of obstacles to a happy union (parents, society, shyness, cowardice). With the consummation of love, there tends to be only one thing left for an author to do - end the story.
This focus on unrequitedness is of course a great solace for the lovelorn. It means that their feelings are continually heightened and confirmed by what they read. They are trained to dwell on, and even celebrate, the bitter-sweet sensations of waiting for a phone call and microwaving meals-for-one.
My immersion in literature made it natural that I should have been left somewhat unprepared for a most surprising event that befell me in my early 30s. Surprising, that is, for someone whose favourite novels had long included Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (an unhappy quest for love followed by suicide) and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (ditto).
I met someone, she didn't fail to call back, she didn't prefer to leave it at friendship, she didn't have to get home for work the next day. We fell in love and got married.
Suddenly, literature ceased to be any useful guide to what to expect. All that my books had prepared me for was an image of continuous perfection, a "happy love" that was essentially without any movement or action. It was a static image, like the sort we might have of a faraway holiday destination, and in a host of ways as unrelated to the reality of love as a postcard is to the reality of travel.
Literature and philosophy often dwell on the way that, soon after meeting our loved one, we may be filled with the curious sense that we know them already. It seems as though we've met them somewhere before, in a previous life perhaps, or in our dreams.
In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes explains this feeling of familiarity with the claim that the loved one was our long lost "other half" whose body we had originally been stuck to. All human beings used to be hermaphrodites, recounts Aristophanes, creatures with four hands and four legs and two faces turned in opposite directions on the same head. But these hermaphrodites were so powerful and their pride so overweening that Zeus was forced to cut them in two - into a male and female half - and from that day, each man and each woman has yearned to rejoin the half from which he or she has been severed.
I date the realisation that, despite all that united us, my wife was perhaps not the person from whom Zeus's cruel stroke had severed me, to a moment shortly after our move in together when she introduced me to a kettle she'd bought for the house. It was practical, efficient, but exactly the kind of kettle I hated. If we were actually in love, how was she able to declare a household item beautiful which I found ugly?
It took me only a few moments to shake myself free of that most pervasive and unhelpful of all literary romantic myths: the idea that happy love must mean conflict-free love. Differences between my wife and I gathered over a host of small matters of taste and opinion.
Why did I insist on leaving the pasta to boil for those fatal extra minutes? Why was I so attached to my ragged winter coat? Why did she always park the car with one of its wheels squashed against the kerb? Why was I such a light sleeper? Why did she have to own so many clothes if she wore so few?
It is surely not coincidental that most great lovers in literature are devoid of a sense of humour. It is as hard to imagine cracking a joke with Romeo as it is with Young Werther, both of them seem differently but desperately intense. And with the inability to laugh comes an inability to acknowledge the messiness and complexity of all things human, the contradictions inherent in any union, the need to accept that your partner will never learn to park the car or cook the pasta - but that you love them nevertheless.
Humour renders direct confrontation unnecessary, you can glide over an irritant, winking at it obliquely, making a criticism without actually needing to speak it ("By this joke I let you know that I dislike X without needing to tell you so, your laughter acknowledges the criticism").
It is a sign that two people have stopped loving one another (or at least stopped wishing to make the effort that constitutes an astonishing degree of what true, mature love appears to be), when they are no longer able to spin differences into jokes. Humour lines the walls of irritation between our ideals and reality. Behind each joke, there can be a hint of difference, of disappointment even, but it is a difference that has been defused and can therefore be passed over without the need for melodrama.
We are taught to imagine that romantic love might be akin to Christian love, a universal emotion that would allow us to declare: "I will love you for everything that you are." A love without conditions or boundaries, a love that is the embodiment of acceptance.
But the arguments that even the closest couples experience are a reminder that Christian love does not well survive the transition into the bedroom. Its message seems more suited to the universal than the particular, to the love of all men for all women, to the love of two companions who will not hear each other clipping their toe-nails.
Married love teaches us that we bring all of ourselves into a marriage - anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and alarm. I continue sometimes to feel unhappy about my work, to worry about my future and to be disappointed with myself and with my friends. Except that now, rather than sharing my sorrows, I tend to blame the person who lives beside me for them. My wife isn't just a witness to my problems, on a bad day, she can sadly end up being held responsible for them.
Unrequited love may be painful, but it is safely painful, because it does not involve inflicting damage on anyone but oneself. It's a private pain that is as bitter-sweet as it is self-induced. But as soon as love is reciprocated, you have to be prepared to give up the passivity of simply being hurt and take on the responsibility of perpetrating hurt yourself.
There have been other surprising things about marriage and the experience of requited love. One of the most challenging is the intense dependence it brings. Proust tells the story of Mohammed II who, sensing that he was falling in love with one of his wives in his harem, at once had her killed because he did not wish to live in spiritual bondage to another.
However far fetched a response, the story nevertheless captures something about the dangers of true love. A marriage is scary in part because it involves putting oneself almost wholly in someone else's hands. If my wife and I have an argument, we can no longer, as we might have done in the past, go off back to our own flats. There is now only one marital home. But though this constricted space may often be an imposition, in reality, it is also the best medium I have ever encountered for understanding the word compromise.
Most of Western literature seems committed to the idea that love cannot last, it is based on absence and lack and is killed by routine and stability. "When you come to live with a woman, you will soon cease to see anything of what made you love her," writes Proust, unhelpfully, but representatively. According to this view, love is simply a direction, not a place and burns itself out with marriage.
Montaigne declared that: "In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us." A view echoed by Anatole France's maxim that: "It is not customary to love what one has."
But under the guise of worldly cynicism, this approach in fact betrays a quasi-adolescent blindness, for it attributes all the excitement and heroism of love to its unrequited part, while implicitly suggesting that there must be something at once easy and unheroic about the quest for everyday happiness.
As I now recognise, marriage is rarely in danger of being dull, and never in danger of being simple. The word marriage, suburban and colourless in its connotations, in fact hides a welter of intensity and depth that puts to shame the most passionate works of literature.