Tag Archives: Alain de Botton

Imperfect, But Trying

He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy.
—Alain De Botton, The Course of Love (42)


We’re all nuts and merely tolerating our beloved is the crux of love. At least according to Alain De Botton’s sweet and insightful novel The Course of Love. His novel takes off where most end: at the end of the beginning—the “happily ever after”—after the event of falling in love, where most novels, films, and love songs end.

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane (85).

Interpolated in the story is the narrator’s calm analysis explaining the effects of the certain disillusionment that comes from close contact with another person. In the case of this particular story the persons involved are Rabih and Kirsten, an Edinburgh couple who are disappointed to discover in each other flaws that exasperate their own shortcomings. These exasperations result in the sorts of fights in which, for example, the absurdity of railing against a wife who is competent and nice seems logical, at least to Rabih. Kristen’s of a differing opinion in regard to her character but is also paralyzed by her own reasonableness which stems solely from fear of the out-of-control situations she experienced in her formative years.

“He’s calm, he likes to go walking, he doesn’t seem to think it’s such a terrible flaw that I’m ‘reasonable.’ Anyway, to get back to the larger point: How can I make it any clearer? Being nice is not boring: it’s an enormous achievement, one that ninety-nine percent of humanity can’t manage from day to day. If ‘nice’ is boring, then I love boring (171).

De Botton succeeds in making the reader care about the individuals and about the couple, and yet, his talent lies in the way in which one also identifies with the characters—maybe one more than the other (am I anxiously attached like Rabih or is Kirsten’s avoidance attachment more me? Jesus, I think I’m both. Is it possible it be both? That probably bodes ill, right? Damnit.) —and in this way the novel gives the reader a perspicuity into their own pathos. It’s an enormously clever book.

That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood (64).

It is temping, of course, to hold out for a mind-reader, but barring that, this book offers to frame love very differently than the classic, (albeit deeply appealing) romantic fantasy, and it is in many ways a more daunting, mature, but satisfying kind of love—a love that trusts. As I wrote here, in regard to De Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I don’t particularly care for books that might be found on the self-help shelf, but I do rather like De Botton’s sly hand in delivering a penetrating look into where we misstep and why. His voice is at once forgiving and hopeful, and that is reassuring.

Fundamentally, De Botton advocates for the examined life. Empathy and caring can carry us through the landmines perpetually detonating as a result of our flawed childhoods. The glorious thing is, none of us are perfect. Not a one! There is no perfect one. There is just you and me. When we let go of the romanic ideal and let the beloved be imperfect, let ourselves be imperfect without hiding in either silence or acrimony, then we can all be ourselves—imperfect, but trying. That is the course of love.


Merci Beaucoup

“Griefs, at the moment when they changed into ideas, lose some of their power to injure the heart.” Proust, from How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

I am not really a fan of self help books. Most of them amount to exhortations to just think yourself right out of that ol’ problem of yours. Oh come on, I always want to say, I’ve actually got real problems, you know—house-over-the-head, gas-in-the-car, shoulder-to-cry-on sort of problems. Even still, I always say, it could be worse. Because it could.

So, feeling buoyed by the support of D.H. Lawrence, whom at least acknowledges that our emotional lives are what make us alive so that I don’t feel so bad for feeling it all, I read How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. Botton writes that Proust understood there to be:

“two methods by which a person can acquire wisdom, painlessly via a teacher or painfully via life.” 

Perhaps this is why I enjoy school so much, I’ve had enough of the “life learning” for now, thank you very much. Why I am not already a genius is beyond my comprehension, which may be why I’m not already a genius, but I digress…

“Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” –  Proust

mmmhmm. got it.
Proust is, of course, an extremely interesting man. I love that he himself was extremely kind, but also a complete weirdo of a wreck. In both his and my opinion, it makes him highly qualified to advise and instruct.

“It’s true that there are people who are superior to their books, but that’s because their books are not Books.” —Proust

The chapter entitled How To Be A Good Friend, was very illuminating. I share the proustian tendency towards effusive praise, I’m not a good liar, but if I can find a little thing- I run with it. Often this results in severe disappointment as regards the reality of…people. I had to write a “peer introduction” for an assigned partner in a class of mine last week, the speeches were to be in theme. We discovered a suitable theme to work off of and I wrote my half of the speech,  she missed the class that we were to spend reading each other’s and preparing for the presentation, I felt bad for her that she used her only “allowable” absence so early in the term. Never the less, I practiced and practiced and looked like a mad woman waiting in the car for my son later in the week, practicing some more.

The heart of what I wrote was all about her lovely qualities, wrapped up around our theme of a mutual loathing for the restaurant business and her obvious! impressive! determination! and display of scholastic skill! that would assuredly get her out of the restaurant someday in her glorious future! And then- she didn’t show up. To school. That’s probably number one on the official list of “scholastic skills,” but, oh never mind….
I was abandoned at the lectern, nonplussed and alone, trying not to choke on the unrestrained babble that my speech had become in light of her pointedly un-scholastic behavior and rather shabby treatment of me. All the while thinking— why  am I surprised? this is my life.  I’m not even mad at her, perhaps she had some good reason, perhaps not, it doesn’t matter. I can only look to Proust and say, see, he is worse than me. His excessive praise and self deprecation were truly epic. Maybe that’s why he was a genius and I am not.