Who is Alain de Botton? Anyone? – A philosopher? Some kind of author…… isn’t he? …. That guy who did all the stairs going up and down?….Or was that Escher?……he wrote that book, didn’t he?…what was it called….
I know the name Alain de Botton but I have no idea why. Probably he’s been mentioned in the media so many times in relation to something or other that I’m interested in that his name is now embedded in my consciousness but I can’t recall anything he said or did. So, when City Books announced that he’d be speaking at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham, I decided to go along.
The venue was packed and as Mr. Botton took the stage his head was strangely illuminated in electric blue and bright red like a poorly received television signal an effect not helped by his throat mic rendering his voice from speakers located elsewhere. For the first few minutes I had the imrpession of some kind of ventriloquist telepresence…..or was that just me?
For some reason I had expected a sort of puzzle solving psychological/philosophical slant to the evening. Tricks, techniques and lots of rhetroical questions. But Mr. Botton was having none of that. Like a comedian on a panel show, he was whimsical and insightful. I’m tempted to say that his style was that of a machine gun but it was not so aggressive or fast. Perhaps a child’s pop gun made from soft wood with plastic bullets chugging out digestible dollops of wisdom, thunk, thunk,. thunk.
His topic was love and how we go about it all wrong. How it takes us well into our forties to learn and accept failures in ourselves which can be spotted by complete strangers after talking to us for just five minutes. Our friends know of course but never tell us……. until it’s too late.
He blames Romanticism which, against thousands of years of tradition and all rational thought, presupposes that, for everyone alive, there is another perfect match if only we can find them. That, when we find this special someone, we shall know immediately that we have met the love of our life and that person will fulfil our every need.
In the 21st century we accept that education and training are required for every aspect of our lives from getting a job, to learning to drive to public speaking. We are obsessed with this idea and now even embrace the concept of “lifelong learning“. Only one area of life is excempt from learning and that is love. Romanticism rejects the idea that marriages should be founded on family ties and practicalities and dictates that we should choose our partners based on instinct. We should “just know”.
In truth we all have types that we are attracted to and these types are imprinted on us in our childhood. When we seek a romantic partner we are instinctively seeking someone who will love us in the same weird way that we were loved as children. And since, most of us are, in many ways, psychologically damaged by our childhood, we are really seeking someone who will torture us in the same was as our parents did. A remote father or an alcoholic mother translate into similar spousal choices.
Once we find this person we expect perfection. Again, this is the only area of life where this is applicable. We fool ourselves that our partner is perfect. We expect them to know what we’re thinking. There is no need to finish sentences, words are for the little people. We are in love.
We ignore their flaws…but we can only ignore them for so long and then one day we burst out: “Stop chewing so bloody loudly, you always do that and you sound like a cow!” – our partner us mortified. Or we sulk because they have done something that they SHOULD HAVE KNOWN annoyed us. But we wont tell them. We expect telepathy.
Mr. Botton’s style is conversational and chatty but he drops bombshells of well formed prose: “Catastrophic outbreaks of sulking”, “I may have married an idiot”.
We are expected to love EVERYTHING about our partners even the odd and grotesque imperfections. Mr. Botton, rarely pauses, he presses on with more and more examples of the idiocy of modern romance. The aversion we have to being changed. Again, contrary to every other aspect of our lives where we constantly seek improvement, if our beloved tries to change us, that’s it! Break up is imminent.
One of the most interesting ideas emerged during the question and answer session when Mr. Botton was asked if smartphone dating apps would assist in the pursuance of love. He pointed out that modern computer dating is a mere continuation of the romantic ideal as it places all the emphasis on search and selection. It assumes that there is a perfect partner out there just waiting for us to find them and then supplies the miracle of computing to attempt to identify the correct partner. It has no more hope of success than meeting random strangers at a party.
Mr. Botton seems to accept that our partners may change us and that we should allow relationships to grow. In previous centuries, when our 2 year old daughter threw her breakfast on the floor we may have punished her but in these enlightened days we know that we must try to understand her and teach her how to behave. Yet we would never dream of extending the same love and care to our romantic partners. He sugests that we need to nurture our partners. I guess his thesis can be summed up in his statement: “We need to learn how to love”.