Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

He writes on Love, he runs a School of Life where the world exchanges emotional intelligence, and he’s throwing open the world’s best architecture for everyone to experience through Living Architecture. Alain de Botton, philosopher and changemaker, isn’t an ordinary man. His latest book, The Course of Love, makes you find again the beauty of marriage when you’re too beaten and broken by the mundane, and gives an insight almost obvious and yet oblivious to us in the way we go about our lives. Here’s getting to the Botton-line.

What made you write The Course of Love—it seems like a natural next to the Essays in Love [1993], but comes after long.
Many of our ideas on love are generated by the films we see and the novels we read. I also feel that a lot of the reason why we find relationships difficult is that the fictional representations of love with which we are surrounded don't accurately reflect the reality of relationships— leaving many of us puzzled and disturbed by what goes in our love lives. So I wanted to write a novel that would normalise some of our troubles and illuminate the sources of trouble between couples. Ultimately, I wanted my book to be useful to the reader in negotiating the challenges of relationships.

It seems like your analytical observations from life were ready before the story itself. Did your protagonists Rabih and Kirsten come later, to put your studies in relatable perspective? Why did you choose fiction?
We humans are a mixture of the emotional and the rational; and I chose to write my book as a novel in order to engage with the emotional dimension. I wanted to produce a book that would make the reader think, but also feel. I wanted—at points—that the reader would cry and also laugh; all with the overall purpose of learning and understanding more about relationships.

How much of you is in the book?
It is all me, but that doesn't mean that the events described are those I have necessarily gone through. I like to say that the book is emotionally autobiographical but not practically so. The beauty of fiction is that it allows you to stretch possibilities beyond those that you actually lived through. How boring if you could only write about what actually happened to you!
You write about the course of a marriage that started out in conventional courtship. What about one that has its seed in circumstance or impulse?
I wanted to write a novel about a couple who get married before they've quite understood what marriage involves. Their ability to navigate a marriage comes way after—a good decade after—the date of the actual wedding. This seems to me to be often the case. We get the hang of life long after the time when it would have been useful to master this tricky exercise.

Do we always need a castle, a hotel or a couple of drinks—as in your book—to realise the best in a relationship after all? Do you then agree that the drudge of domesticity, by its nature, is dreadful? 
We don’t go into relationships ready to perceive domestic issues as important potential flashpoints to look out for and pay attention to. We don’t acknowledge how much it may end up mattering whether we can maturely resolve issues around the eating of toast in the bed or the conundrum of whether it is stylish, or a touch pretentious, to give a cocktail party.

When a problem has high prestige, we are ready to expend energy and time trying to resolve it. This has often happened around large scientific questions. It was entirely understood that mapping the human genome would be enormously difficult— as well as hugely beneficial. It is taken for granted that developing a commercially viable driverless car is a monstrously difficult puzzle, but one worth devoting great resources to. This respect leads to an unexpected but crucial consequence. We don’t panic around the challenges, because we understand the difficulty of what we are attempting to do. We are a lot calmer around prestigious problems. It’s problems that feel trivial or silly and yet that nevertheless take up sections of our lives that drive us to heightened states of agitation. Such agitation is precisely what the Romantic neglect of domestic life has unwittingly encouraged: its legacy is over-hasty conversations about the temperature of the bedroom and curt remarks about the right channel to watch, matters which can—over years—spell an end to love. 

We come into relationships with a host of ideas about what is normal. Without much thinking about it, you’ve maybe always just assumed that when having a meal, serving dishes should be placed on the table, so that you can help yourself. Then you get together with someone who’s great in so many ways, but it turns out that they think it’s really strange and annoying to put serving dishes on the table. To them it seems obvious that you should really load up your plates at the stove and then sit down to eat. Like so many painful areas of conflict, it seems ridiculously minor when described coldly on a page. It’s almost impossible to believe a couple could get frantic on a matter of this kind —like, whether it’s time to invest in a high-end new fridge or whether it is OK for one person to check up on the other’s consumption of fruit and vegetables. Yet this is, in truth, the stuff of which all of our relationships are made.

What if a couple does not [want to] have a child? Would it make their marriage more vulnerable then? Can you resee the way their lives would unfold in this context?
I think children create enormous stresses on the couple; they often kill the love that brought them into the world. The happiness of couple tends to decline markedly once children come on the scene. Childless couples are not the only ones to be pitied: both the childless and the child-rich deserve different kinds of sympathy for their particular burdens.

The said course of events would perhaps repeat itself a zillion times in the lives of Rabih and Kirsten, till one of them dies. Do you believe that marriage as an institution is worth the relentless replay?  
The death of marriage keeps being announced. It’s tempting to think of marriage as old fashioned. Why not just live with someone and be done with it? What need for a public ceremony? Why the weird traditions that people normally keep away from: all those churches, temples, hymns, vows and prayers? Marriage must be a silly relic from the religious childhood of humankind, not designed for the more logical modern world.

And yet it survives. The essence of marriage is to tie our hands, to frustrate our wills, to put high and costly obstacles in the way of splitting up. Why do we do this?
Originally, we told ourselves that God wanted us to stay married. But even now, when God is not invoked, we keeping making sure that marriage is rather hard to undo. For one thing, you carefully invite everyone you know to watch you say you’ll stick together. You willingly create a huge layer of embarrassment were you ever to turn round and admit it might have been a mistake. Furthermore, even though you could keep things separate, marriage tends to mean deep economic and legal entanglements. You know it is going to take the work of a phalanx of accountants and lawyers to prise you apart. It can be done, of course, but it will be ruinous.

It is as if we somewhere recognise that there might, rather strangely, be some quite good, though uncomfortable, reasons why making it difficult to split up a union can be an advantage for its members. Over time, the argument for marriage has shifted. It’s no longer about external forces having power over us: churches, the state, the legal idea of legitimacy, the social idea of being respectable…

What we are correctly now focused on is the psychological point of making it hard to throw it all in. It turns out that we benefit greatly (though at a price) from having to stick with certain commitments, because some of our key needs have a long-term structure. For the last fifty years, the burden of intelligent effort has been on attempting to make separation easier. The challenge now lies in another direction: in trying to remind ourselves why immediate flight doesn’t always make sense.

Reflection, the book seems to suggest, is more important than Argument. Your thoughts.
Self-knowledge and reflection is integral to a good marriage. Knowing yourself sounds like a good idea, but it can be hard to see quite why it should matter so much. There are some clues in an old story about a lion with a sore paw, a traditional folk tale known as Androcles and the lion. The earliest version of the story comes from the ancient Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius—and has been adapted and retold ever since. One version goes like this: once, long ago, there was a Barbary Lion—nine feet long with a splendid dark mane—who lived in the forested foothills of the Atlas mountains (in what is today Algeria). Usually he kept far from human settlements. But one year, in spring, he started approaching the villages at night, roaring and snarling menacingly in the dark. The villagers were terrified. They put extra guards on the gates and sent out heavily armed hunting parties to try to kill him. 

It happened around this time that a shepherd-boy named Androcles followed his sheep far into the high mountain pastures. One cold evening, he sought shelter in a cave. He had just lit a candle and was setting his blanket on the ground when to his horror he saw the ferocious beast staring at him. At first he was terrified. The lion looked as if it might be about to pounce on him and rip him to pieces. But Androcles noticed something: there was a thorn deeply embedded in one of the lion’s front paws and a huge tear was running down his noble face. 

Many years later, Androcles got into trouble with the authorities; he was shipped to Rome, taken to the Colosseum and thrown before a lion, to be devoured in public for the pleasure of the people and the emperor. But when the lion saw Androcles he became quiet and went forward and lowered his head in a bow. It was the same Barbary lion Androcles had taken pity on as a boy. The Emperor pardoned Androcles and he and his lion lived together in Rome, and they used to go for walks together through the streets—with the lion peaceable and contented, led only on a slender leash.

The fable can usefully be read as an allegory about self-knowledge. The lion is in terrible pain, but has no capacity to understand what is hurting him exactly and how he might put it right. In his blind distress, he acts in horrifically aggressive and threatening ways, he makes blood-curdling noises and frightens everyone. The lion is all of us when we lack insight into our own distress. The thorn is a troubling, maddening element of our inner lives—a fear, a biting worry, a regret, a sense of guilt, a feeling of humiliation, a strained hope or agonised disappointment that rumbles away powerfully but just out of range of our standard view of ourselves. It’s there, but we can’t give it the care and understanding it needs.

Does scrutinising Love so meticulously ever take you away from fully feeling it?
No, this is a dangerous illusion. Our feelings are not ruined by our capacities for reason. They are elevated and refined—we must always submit our choices and impulses to a process of reflection.

What is next?
I am working hard on my project, Expect more films, writing and initiatives from there.

Text Soumya Mukerji