Alibis (Essays on Elsewhere) by Andre Aciman

  • It wasn’t Rome itself that I was seeing; it was the film, the filter I’d placed on the old city that finally made me love it, the film I went to seek each time I’d go to a bookstore and would come out late in the evening to stroll down my Nevsky Prospekt in search of vague smiles and fellowship in a city I wasn’t even sure existed on the sidewalks. It is the film I can no longer lift off the many books I read back then, the film that reverberates over time and continues to make Rome mine long after I’ve lost it. And perhaps it is the film I go in search of each time I’m back in Rome – not Rome. We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us. It is the film we see, the film that breathes essence into otherwise lifeless objects, the film we crave to share with others. What we reach for and what ultimately touches us is the radiance we’ve projected onto things, not the things themselves – the envelope, not the letter, the wrapping, not the gift.

    Lucretius says that all objects release films, or ‘peeled skins’ of themselves. These imitations travel from the objects and beings around us and eventually reach our senses. But the opposite is also true: we radiate films of what we have within us and project them onto everything we see – which is how we become aware of the world and, ultimately, why we come to love it. Without these films, these fictions, which are both our alibis and the archives of our innermost life, we have no way to connect to or touch anything.

  • It never occurred to me then that insight and intuition, which are the essence, the genius, of all criticism, are born from this intimate fusion of self with something or someone else. To everything – books, places, people – I brought a desire to steal into and intuit something undisclosed, perhaps because I mistrusted all appearances, or because I was so withdrawn that I needed to believe others were as dissembled and withdrawn as I feared I was. Perhaps I loved prying. Perhaps insight was like touching – but without asking, without risk. Perhaps spying was my way of reaching out to the Roman life that was all around me. In the words of Emmanuele Tesauro: ‘We enjoy seeing our own thoughts blossom in someone’s mind, while that someone is equally pleased to spy what our own mind furtively conceals’. I was a cipher. But, like me, everyone else was a cipher as well. Ultimately, I wanted to peer into books, places, and people because wherever I looked I was always looking for myself, or for traces of myself, or better yet, for a world out there filled with people and characters who could be made to be like me, because being like me and being me and liking the things I liked was nothing more than their roundabout way of being as close to, as open to, and as bound to me as I wished to be to them. The world in my image. All I cared for were streets that bore my name and the trace of my passage there; and all I wanted were novels in which everyone’s soul was laid bare and anatomized, because nothing interested me more than the nether, undisclosed aspects of people and things that were identical to mine. Exposed, everyone would turn out to be just like me. They understood me, I understood them, we were no longer strangers. I dissembled, they dissembled. The more they were like me, the more I’d learn to accept and perhaps grow to like who I was. My hunches, my insights were nothing more than furtive ways of bridging the insuperable distance between me and the world. (Intimacy)

Andre Aciman, Alibis – Essays on Elsewhere, 2011, Picador USA


A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt

  • … the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and the art object. The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer. We are not the passive recipients of some factual external reality but rather actively creating what we see through the established patterns of the past, learned patterns so automatic they have become unconscious. In other  words, we bring ourselves with our pasts to artworks, selves and pasts, which include not just our sensitivity and brilliance but our biases and blind spots as well. (My Louise Bourgeois, pp. 25)


  • Emotion, then, is no guarantee that a book is good. If the reader is left in exactly the same place she was when she began reading, why read? A person who weeps over the death of Anna Karenina may also shed tears over a sentimental television commercial. To argue that the tears shed for one are superior to the tears shed for the other is silly. Nevertheless, judgment of a work of art cannot be decided exclusively by tears or laughs or sexual arousal or any other feeling. As Sontag maintained, knowledge is dependent on the consciousness that receives it. I have repeatedly argued that the reader and the text act in collaboration. Your past reading affects your present reading. If you live on a diet od best-selling thrillers, will you be able to feel the suspense in Henry James? (Sontag on Smut: Fifty Years Later, pp. 76)


  • …writing from the inside out, not the outside in. Many books are written from the outside in. Most books, built of external rules and regulations, are far more conventional that Sontag’s first novel. Some of them are extolled and sell hundreds and thousands of copies. This fact, however, does not make them any better.

    There is an irony, of course. The outside becomes the inside. Every book that changes me becomes me. Its foreign music, rhythms, thoughts, and story settles into my body and may reappear in my own writing, but then I no longer know they are there.  (Sontag on Smut: Fifty Years Later, pp. 78)


  • Whether one thinks of our continually revised autobiographical memories as produced through Freud’s ‘deferred action’ or through the neurobiological term ‘reconsolidating’ doesn’t matter. What has not been well studied, but which should be, is the role that language plays in conscious memory over time, how once it is retrieved, a memory is reconfigured through both emotion and the words one uses to retell it aloud to others or to one’s self.  (The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient, pp. 112)


  • Ideas and solutions rise from interactions and dialogues. The outside moves inside, so the inside can move outside.

    When I look at you, I see something like myself. Your face supplants mine while we are talking. I cannot see my own face.

    The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas points out that our faces are naked. He calls it ‘a decent nudity’. He is right that we do not clothe our  faces the way we cover other parts of our bodies. Face-to-face, we are exposed to each other. (The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient, pp. 126)


  • In his introduction to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn asserted that group of scientists could work without ‘some set of received beliefs’ about what the world is like. He argued that before any research can be done, every scientific community must have agreed on the answers to a number of fundamental questions about the world and that these answers are embedded in the institutions that train scientists for their work. Kuhn, who began his career as a physicist, continues to distress his fellow scientists because the notion that the foundations of scientific work may be shaky remains a subversive position.

    Like Whitehead, Kuhn understood that science rests on a foundation that is assumed and does not begin at the beginning. If every graduate student in biology were printed with Descartes’s first question and asked to confirm her own existence of the world beyond her, she would be stopped in her tracks. ‘normal science’, for Kuhn, consisted of a ‘strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education’. He went on to wonder ‘whether research could proceed without such boxes, whatever the element of arbitrariness in their historic origins and, occasionally, in their subsequent development’. Whitehead, Goethe, and Kuhn agree that there are received beliefs in science. Whitehead challenges the received truths about materials reality established in the seventeenth century and the tendency in science for misplaced concreteness, mistaking the mathematical abstraction for the actuality it represents. The danger for Goethe is that an enduring hypothesis become truth and therefore goes unquestioned. For Kuhn, normal science floats along the consensual, often unexamined beliefs he called paradigms until some discovery, some intractable problem, explodes those same foundational convictions. He sees paradigm change as the upheaval that causes scientific revolutions. (The Delusions of Certainty, pp. 160)


  • Husserl’s intersubjectivity: our knowing and relating to other people in the world, our being with and understanding them, one subject or person to another, and how we make a shared world through these relations. Involves empathy, which Husserl believed was an avenue into another person.


  • Nagel is right that subjective conscious experience, the mine-ness or ipseity of being, remains a problem in much scientific thought. Even if we could explicate every aspect of the physical brain in all its complexity, the first-person point of view, the experience of being awake and aware and thinking or asleep and dreaming, will be missing from that account. Consciousness has become a philosophical and scientific monster.


  • Dreyfus: ‘the common sense knowledge problem’ in AI,the seemingly intractable problems researcher had in trying to get machines to be more like human beings, was not a problem of representing common sense symbolically, but rather a problem of what Dreyfus calls human ‘know-how’, a know-how that does not lend itself to being computed because it involves an implicit bodily relation to our environments.

    ‘The problem precisely was that this know-how, along with all the interests, feelings, motivations, and bodily capacities that of to make a human being, would have had to be conveyed to the computer as knowledge – as a huge and complex belief system – and making our inarticulate, pre-conceptual background understanding of what it is like to be a human being explicit in a symbolic representation seemed to me a hopeless task’.


  • Is the eagerness for transcendent man a horror or fear of universal early dependence on someone else’s body, a mother’s bodkin term and a subsequent need for that body’s milk or the body of someone else for food and comfort? isn’t it true that without another body, all of us mammals would be dead? Is Moravec also indulging in a fantasy of the eternal grown-up, the wish never to have been subservient to big people, perhaps especially big women? Won’t his machine kids throw infancy away forever once they become smart enough to avoid it, even though at the moment he is acting as proud father to his supernatural offspring? Moravec’s optimism is untouched by time. In 2009, while acknowledging the failures of AI’s early predictions, he makes another one himself: ‘By 2040, I believe, we will finally achieve the original goal of robotics and a thematic mainstay of science fiction: a freely moving machine with the intellectual capabilities of a human being’.


  • Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in Autopoiesis and Cognition; An autopoietic system is dynamic and self-organising and continually adjusts itself in order to maintain its physiological equilibrium or homeostasis. An organism’s interaction with and perception of its environment is determined by its own autonomous structure. Autopoiesis draws on cybernetics and its emphasis on dynamic interacting systems that are not reducible to its parts. The authors also maintain that any autopoietic system, whatever it is made of (it could theoretically be metal, wires, and plastic) is sufficient for life. Further the two argue, ‘No description of an absolute reality is possible’. Although this is hardly a shocking thought in the history of philosophy, it still makes many contemporary scientists uneasy. Despite the fact that autopoiesis remains outside mainstream science, the theory has generate a huge literature of commentary, inside and outside biology.

    Maturana and Varela’s biology directly addressed epistemology – the study of how we know what we know – which shaped their views of scientific research and the nature of perception, but Varela developed and expanded these ideas. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch state plainly in their book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, that their work is a continuation and elaboration of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. For them, ‘organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself’. Varela called these interactions ‘couplings’ with the environment. Commenting on Varela’s work after his death, a group of scientists note , ‘If …the environment doesn’t contain predefined information that is independent of the ‘domain of coupling’ the the autonomous system defines, it literally in-forms the system’s coping’. There is no objective independent information out there in the world, but what is out there affects the closed internal systems.

    So what is the mind for Varela? It is not just in our heads. ‘The mind’, Varela argued, ‘cannot be separated from the entire organism. We tend to think that the mind is in the brain, in the head but the fact is that the environment also includes the rest of the organism; the brain is intimately connected to all of the muscles, the skeletal system, the guts, and the immune system, the hormonal balances and so on and so on… In other words, the organism as a meshwork of entirely co-determining elements makes it so that our minds are, literally, inseparable – not only from the external environment but also from what Claude Bernard already called the milieu interieur, the fact that we have not only a brain by an entire body. For Varela, the mind and consciousness are an embodied reality of interdependent systems that cannot simply by reduced to neural correlates.

    I have to say my reading in autopoietic theory has often left me with a claustrophobic feeling. Despite an organism’s couplings with the environment, it seems to be largely trapped in its own inescapable circling reality. I think interactions are more open, that the internal and the external are in a kind of continual, mutual, rhythmic engagement, which can also be disrupted and irregular. Although human embryology is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these writings, there is no question that a mother’s heartbeat, respiration, voice, bodily movements establish a rhythmic relation with the developing fetes, which lies inside the amniotic sac, attached the umbilical cord to the placenta, with in turn is attached to the uterine wall. But when does a self appear in the story of development?

  • George Layoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors we Live By (1980) became an important work for many people inside and outside of science for thinking about the role of the body in thought. They took the corporeal turn but were not influenced, as far as I can tell, by phenomenology. Their first paragraph is worth quoting: ‘Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language.  Forever, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.’
  • Metaphor is more than a mental dance; it emerges from embodied experience, which is at one biological and cultural. Looking at a paining, reading a poem or novel, listening to music requires a natural loosening of sense boundaries, a blur that invigorates artistic experience. A character is round or flat. A musical passage can burn, an d a line may taste bitter. These transpositions open avenues into the otherness of the artistic work, which is more than a thing; it is always also the traces of a life.


Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, 2016, Simon & Schuster 

The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco

  • …it’s bodies that dictate life: the rest is a result. I couldn’t believe it, at that moment, because, like every young person, I expected something more complex, or sophisticated. But now I don’t know any story, mine or anyone else’s, that did not begin in the animal movement of a body – an inclination, a wound, an obliqueness, at times a brilliant move, often obscene instincts that came from far away. It’s all written there already. The thoughts come afterwards, and are always a belated map, to which, out of convention and weariness, we attribute to some precision.
  • We have an incredible force with which we give meaning to things, to places, to everything: and yet we can’t secure anything, it all go back to neutral right away – borrowed objects, fleeting ideas, feelings as fragile as crystals. Even bodies, the desire of bodies: unpredictable. We can bombard the world with all the intensity we’re capable of and, an hour later, it’s newly reborn. You can understand something, know it thoroughly, an it has already shifted, it knows nothing of you, it has its own mysterious life, which takes no account of what you’ve made of it. Those who love us betray us, and we betray those we love. We can’ secure anything, believe me.

Alessandro Baricco, The Young Bride, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, 2016, Europa Editions

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

  • Sexiness might appear to be a merely physiological phenomenon, the result of awakened hormones and simulated nerve endings. But in truth it is not so much about sensations as it is about ideas – foremost among them, the idea of acceptance, and the promise of an end to loneliness and shame.
  • For all the talk of sexual liberation, the truth is that secrecy and a degree of embarrassment around sex continue as much as they have always done. We still can’t generally say what we want to do and with whom. Shame and repression of impulse aren’t just things that our ancestors and certain buttoned-up religions latched on to for obscure and unnecessary reasons: they are fated to be constants in all eras – which is what lends such power to those rare moments (there might only be a few in a lifetime) when a stranger invites us to drop our guard and admits to wanting pretty much exactly what we had once privately and guiltily craved.
  • He proposes because he wants to preserve, to ‘freeze’, what he and Kirsten feel for each other. He hopes through the act of marrying to make an ecstatic sensation perpetual.

    There is one memory he’ll return to again and again in recalling the fervour he wants to hold on to. They are at a rooftop club on George Street. It is a Saturday night. They are on the dance floor, bathed in rapid orbits of purple and yellow lights, with a hip-hop bass alternating with the rousing choruses of stadium anthems. She’s wearing trainers, black velvet shorts and a black chiffon top. He wants to lick the sweat off her temples and swing her around in his arms. The music and the fellowship among the dancers promise a permanent end to all pain and division.

    They go out on to a terrace illuminated only by a series of large candles distributed around the railings. It’s a clear night and the universe has come down to meet them. She points out Andromeda. A plane banks over Edinburgh Castle, then straightens up for the descent to the airport. In the moment he feels beyond doubt that this is the woman he wants to grow old with.

    There are, of course, quite a few aspects of this occasion which marriage could not enable him to ‘freeze’ or preserve: the serenity of the vast, star-filled night; the generous hedonism of the Dionysian club; the absence of responsibility; the indolent Sunday that lies before them (they will sleep till midday); her buoyant mood and his sense of gratitude. Rabih is not marrying – and therefore fixing forever – a feeling. He is marrying a person with whom, under a very particular, privileged and fugitive set of circumstances, he has been fortunate enough to share a feeling.

    The proposal is at one level about what he’s running towards but also, and perhaps every bit as much, about what he’s running away from. A few months before he met Kirsten, he had dinner with a couple – old friends from his days at university in Salamanca. They had a lively meal, catching up on news. As the three of them were leaving the restaurant in Victoria Street, Marta smoothed down the collar of Juan’s camel-coloured coat and wrapped his burgundy scarf carefully around his neck, a gesture of such natural and tender care that it had the incidental effect of making Rabih appreciate – like a punch in the stomach – how entirely alone he was in a world wholly indifferent to his existence and fate.

    Life on his own had become, he realised then, untenable. He had had enough of solitary walks home at the end of desultory parties, of entire Sundays passed without speaking a word to another human, of holidays spent tagging along with harassed couples whose children left them no energy for conversation, of the knowledge that he occupied no important place in anyone’s heart.

    He loved Kirsten deeply, but he hates the idea of being on his own with almost equal force.

    To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: once the freewheeling days of school and university are over, company and warmth become dispiritingly hard to find; social life starts to revolve oppressively around couples; there is no one left to call or hang out with. It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling.

    In the old days, when people could (in theory) only have sex after they were married, wise observers knew that some might be tempted to marry for the wrong reasons – and so argued that the taboos around premarital sex should be lifted to help the young make calmer, less impulse-driven choices.

    But if that particular impediment to good judgement has been removed, another hunger seems to have taken its place. The longing for company may be no less powerful or irresponsible in its effects than the sexual motive once was. Spending fifty-two straight Sundays alone may play havoc with a person’s prudence. Loneliness can provoke an unhelpful rush and repression of doubt and ambivalence about a potential spouse. The success of any relationship should be determined not by just how happy a couple are to be together, but by how worried each partner would be about not being in a relationship at all.

  • Marriage: 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.
  • At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add that it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk: it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
  • We should ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We should recognise the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: ‘Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you to correctly guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.’

    We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favour when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronising to be thought of as younger than we are, we forget that it also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond their adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.

    [The sulker gets even more furious and uncommunicative if the other person responds to him or her like how he would to a sulking child, and in a further strop, rejects the giver and develops frustration that he or she is being recognised as having a sulk and feeling unable to admit that he or she is, in fact, childish.

    One has less and less sulks and stops altogether at some point, after one has children of their own.]

  • Although it often struggles to be heard in respectable circles, there is an alternative to the Christian-Romantic tenet that sex and love should always be inseparable. The libertine position denies any inherent or logical link between loving someone and needing to be unfailingly sexually loyal to them. It proposes that it can be entirely natural and even healthy for partners in a couple occasionally to have sex with strangers for whom they have little feeling but to whom they nonetheless feel strongly attracted. Sex doesn’t always have to be bound up with love. It can sometimes – and the philosophy holds – be a purely physical, aerobic activity engaged in without substantive emotional meaning. It is, so its adherents conclude, just as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together.

    This remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin.

  • Romanticism hasn’t only increased the prestige of monogamous sex; along the way it has also made any extraneous sexual interest seem unvaryingly foolish and unkind. It has powerfully redefined the meaning of the urge to sleep with someone other than one’s regular partner. It has turned every extramarital interest into a threat and, often, something close to an emotional catastrophe.

    In fantasy in Rabih’s mind, it could have been such a tender and easy transaction. He and Kirsten would have chatted with Antonella in the café, all three of them would have recognised the tension and the appeal and then in short order they would have ended up back at Merchiston Avenue. Antonella and Kirsten would have made out for awhile as he looked on from an armchair, then he would have taken Kirsten’s place and had sex with Antonella. It would have felt warm, exciting and wholly meaningless in terms of the marriage and of Rabih’s essential love for Kirsten. Afterwards he would have walked Antonella back to the café, and none of them would have mentioned the interlude again. There would have been no melodrama, no possessiveness, no guilt. At Christmas they might have bought her a panettone and a card by way of thanks for the orgy.

    Despite the liberal atmosphere of our time, it would be naïve to assume that the distinction between ‘weird’ and ‘normal’ has disappeared. It stands as secure as ever, waiting to intimidate and herd back into line those who would question the normative limits of love and sex. It may now be deemed ‘normal’ to wear cut-off shorts, expose bellybuttons, marry someone of either gender and watch a little porn for fun, but it also remains indispensably ‘normal’ to believe that true love should be monogamous and that one’s desire should be focused exclusively on one person. To be in dispute with this founding principle is to risk being dismissed, in public or in private, with that most dispiriting, caustic and shameful of all epithets: pervert.

  • It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love. It may mean, that despite ourselves, shut our ears to information that fails to conform to our hopes, hopes which will thereby be endangered all the more.

    Rabih resigns himself to being partially misunderstood – and, unconsciously, to blaming his wife for not accepting those sides of his nature that he lacks courage to explain to her. Kirsten, for her part, settles for never daring to ask her husband what is really going on in his sexual mind outside of her role in it, and chooses not to look very hard at why it is that she feels so afraid to find out more.

  • The very concept of trying to ‘teach’ a lover things feels patronising, incongruous and plain sinister. If we truly loved someone, then there could be no talk of wanting him or her to change. Romanticism is clear on this score: true love should involve an acceptance of a partner’s whole being. It is this fundamental commitment to benevolence that makes the early months of love so moving. Within the new relationship, our vulnerabilities are treated with generosity. Our shyness, our awkwardness and confusion endear (as they did when we were children) rather than generate sarcasm or complaint; the trickier sides of us are interpreted solely through the filter of compassion.

    From these moments, a beautiful yet challenging, and even reckless, conviction develops: that to be properly loved must always mean being endorsed for all that one is.

  • It isn’t surprising if, as adults, when we first start to form relationships, we should devotedly go off in search of someone who can give us the all-encompassing, selfless love that we may once have known childhood. Nor would it be surprising if we were to feel frustrated and in the end extremely bitter at how difficult it seems to be to find; at how seldom people know how to help us as they should. We may rage and blame others for their inability to intuit out needs, we may fitfully move from one relationship to another, we may blame an entire sex for its shallowness – until the day we end our quixotic searches and reach a semblance of mature detachment, realising that the only release from our longing may be to stop demanding a perfect love and noting its many absences at every turn, and instead start of give love away (perhaps to a small person) with oblivious abandon without jealously calculating the chances of it ever returning.
  • It’s not just children who are childlike. Adults, too, are – beneath the bluster – intermittently playful, silly, fanciful, vulnerable, hysterical, terrified, pitiful and in search of consolation and forgiveness.

    We’re well versed at seeing the sweet and the fragile in children and offering them help and comfort accordingly. Around them, we know how to put aside the worst of our compulsions, vindictiveness and fury. We can recalibrate our expectations and demand a little less than we normally do; we’re slower to anger and a bit more aware of unrealised potential. We readily treat children with a degree of kindness that we are oddly and woefully reluctant to show to our peers.

    It is a wonderful thing to live in a world where so many people are nice to children. It would be even better if we lived in one where we were a little nicer to the childlike sides of one another.

  • At times the protective veil of paternal sentimentality slips and Rabih sees that he has given over a very substantial share of the best days of his life to a pair of human beings who, if they weren’t his own children, would almost surely strike him as being fundamentally unremarkable – so much so, in fact, that were he to meet them in a pub in thirty years’ time, he might prefer not even to talk to them. The insight is unendurable.

    Whatever modest denials parents may offer, however much they may downplay their ambitions in front of strangers, to have a child is – at the outset, at least – to make an assault on perfection, to attempt to create not just another average human being but an exemplar of distinctive perfection. Mediocrity, albeit the statistical norm, can never be the initial goal; the sacrifices required to get a child to adulthood are simply too great.

  • Arousal, it seems, in the end, to have very little to do with a state of undress; it draws its energy from the possibility of being granted permission to possess a deeply desirable, once forbidden yet now miraculously available and accessible other. It is an expression of grateful wonder, verging on disbelief, that in a world of isolation and disconnection, the wrists, thighs, earlobes and napes of necks are all there, finally, for us to behold: an extraordinary concept that we want to keep checking up on, perhaps as often as every few hours, once more joyfully touching, inserting, revealing and unclothing, so lonely have we been, so independent and remote have our lovers seemed. Sexual desire is driven by a wish to establish closeness – and is hence contingent on a pre-existing sense of distance, which it is a perpetually distinctive pleasure and relief to try to bridge.

    There is very little distance left between Rabih and Kirsten. Their legal status defines them as partners for life; they share a three-by-four metre bedroom to which they repair every evening; they talk on the phone constantly when they are apart; they are each other’s automatically assumed companions every weekend; they know ahead of time, and at most moments of the day and night, exactly what the other is doing. There is no longer very much in their conjoined existence that qualifies as distinctively ‘other’ – and there is therefore little for the erotic to try to bridge.

    At the close of many a day, Kirsten is reluctant even to be touched by Rabih, not because she no longer cares for him, but because she doesn’t feel as if there is enough of her left to risk giving more away to another person. One needs a degree of autonomy before being undressed by someone else can feel like a treat. But she has answered too many questions, forced too many small feet into too many shoes, pleaded and cajoled too many times… Rabih’s touch feels like another hurdle in the way of a long-delayed communion with her neglected interior. She wants to cleave tightly and quietly to herself rather than have her identity be further dispersed across yet more demands. Any advance threatens to destroy the gossamer-thin shell of her private being. Until she has had sufficient chance to reacquaint herself with her own thoughts, she can’t even begin to take pleasure in gifting herself to another.

    We may, in addition, feel embarrassed and almost intolerably exposed when asking for sex of a partner on whom we are already so deeply dependent in a variety of ways. It can be an intimacy too far, against a backdrop of tense discussions around what to do with the finances and the school drop-off, where to go on holiday and what kind of chair to buy, also to ask that a partner look indulgently upon our sexual needs: that they put on a certain article of clothing, or take part in a dark scenario we crave or lie down in a particular pose on the bed. We may not want to be relegated to the supplicant’s role, or to burn up precious emotional capital in the name of a certain fetish. We may prefer not to entrust fantasies which we know can make us look ludicrous or depraved to someone before whom we otherwise have to maintain poise and authority, as required by the daily negotiations and stand-offs of conjugal life. We might find it a lot safer to think about a complete stranger instead.

  • The forthrightness of the middle-aged seducer is rarely a matter of confidence or arrogance; it is instead a species of impatient despair born of pitiful awareness of the ever-increasing proximity of death.
  • It is rare to embark on an affair out of indifference to a spouse. One generally has to care quite a lot about a partner to bother to betray them.
  • Through the lens of Romanticism there can be, quite simply, no greater betrayal. Even for those willing to countenance almost every other kind of behaviour, adultery remains the one seismic transgression, appalling in its violation of a series of the most sacred assumptions of love.

    The first of these is that one person can’t possibly claim to love another – and by implication in any way value their life together – and then slip off and have sex with someone else. If such a disaster were to happen, it could only be that there had been no love to begin with.

  • Is there not, wonders Rabih, an infantile idealism in our wish to find everything in one other being – someone who will simultaneously be a best friend, a love, a co-parent, a co-chauffeur and a business partner? What a recipe for disappointment and resentment in this notion, upon which millions of otherwise perfectly good marriages regularly founder.

    What could be more natural than to feel an occasional desire for another person? How can anyone be expected to grow up in a hedonistic, liberated circles, experience the sweat and excitement of nightclubs and summer parks, listen to music full of longing and lust and then, immediately upon signing a piece of paper, renounce all outside sexual interest, not in the name of any particular god or higher commandment but merely from an unexplored supposition that it must be very wrong? Is there not instead something inhuman, indeed ‘wrong’, in failing to be tempted, in failing to realise just how short of time we all are and therefore with what urgent curiosity should we want to explore the unique fleshy individuality of more than one of our contemporaries? To moralise against adultery is to deny the legitimacy of a range of sensory high points – Rabih thinks of Lauren’s shoulder blades – in their own way just as worthy of reverence as more acceptable attractions such as the last moments of ‘Hey Jude’ or the ceilings of the Alhambra Palace. Isn’t the rejection of adulterous possibilities tantamount to an infidelity towards the richness of life itself? To turn the equation on its head: would it be rational to trust anyone who wasn’t, under certain circumstances, really pretty interested in being unfaithful?

  • Melancholy isn’t, of course a disorder that needs to be cured. It’s a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face to face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.

    We have not been singled out. Marrying anyone, even the most suitable of beings, comes down to a case of identifying which variety of suffering we most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

    In an ideal world, marriage vows would be entirely rewritten. At the altar, a couple would speak thus: ‘we accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives. Yet we promise not to look around, either, for we accept that there cannot be better opinions out there. Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species.’

    After the solemn repetition of the last sentence be the congregation, the couple would continue: “we will endeavour to be faithful. At the same time, we are certain that never being allowed to sleep with anyone else is one of the greatest tragedies of existence. We apologise that our jealousies have made this peculiar but sound and non-negotiable restriction very necessary. We promise to make each other the sole repository of our regrets, rather than distribute them through a life of sexual Don Juanism. We have surveyed the different options for unhappiness and it is to each other we have chosen to bind ourselves.’

    Spouses who have been cheated on would no longer be at liberty furiously to complain that they had expected their partner to be content with them alone. Instead they could be more poignant and just cry, ‘I was relying on you to be loyal to the specific variety of compromise and unhappiness which our hard-won marriage represents.’

    Thereafter, an affair would be a betrayal not of intimate joy, but of a reciprocal pledge to endure the disappointments of marriage with bravery and stoic reserve.

  • In the wake of the affair, Rabih adopts a different view of the purpose of marriage. As a younger man he thought of it as a consecration of a special set of feelings: tenderness, desire, enthusiasm, longing. However, he now understands that it is also, and just as importantly, an institution, one which is meant to stand fast from year to year without reference to every passing change in the emotions of the participants. It has its justification in more stable and enduring phenomena than feelings: 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.

    The more Rabih appreciates how chaotic and directionless his feelings are, the more sympathetic he grows to the idea of marriage as an institution. At a conference, he migh spy an attractive woman and want to throw everything for her sake, only to recognise two days later that he would prefer to be dead than to be without Kirsten. Or, during protracted rainy weekends, he might wish that his children would grow up and leave him alone until the end of time so he could read his magazine in peace – and then a day later, at the office, his heart would tighten with grief because a meeting threatened to overrun and get him home an hour too late to put the kids to bed.

    Against such a quicksilver backdrop, he recognises the significance of the art of diplomacy, the discipline of not necessarily always saying what one thinks and not doing what one wants, in the service of greater, more strategic ends.

  • He is on track to die with the largest part of his talents still unexploited, registering as mere flashes of inspiration that he occasionally perceives out of the corner of his mind’s eye while he’s in the shower or driving alone down the motorway.

    At this point, he is beyond self-pity, the shallow belief that what has happened to him is rare and undeserved. He has lost faith in his own innocence and uniqueness. This isn’t a midlife crisis; it’s more that he is finally, some thirty years later, leaving adolescence behind.

    He sees he is a man with an exaggerated longing for the Romantic love who nevertheless understands little about kindness and even less about communication. He is someone afraid of openly striving for happiness who takes shelter in a stance of pre-emptive disappointment and cynicism.

    So this is what it is to be a failure. The chief characteristic may be silence: the phone doesn’t ring, he isn’t asked out, nothing new happens. For most of his adult life he has conceived of failure in the form of a spectacular catastrophe, only to recognise, at last, that it has in fact crept up on him imperceptibly, through cowardly inaction.

    Yet, surprisingly, it’s OK. One gets used to everything, even humiliation. The apparently unendurable has a habit of coming to seem, eventually, not so bad.

    He has already sucked too much of life’s bounty, without particular profit and to no good effect. He has been on the earth for too many decades; he has never had to till the soil or go to bed hungry, yet he has left his privileges largely untouched, like a spoilt child.

    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 when they have substantially disappointed us.

    However, the problems aren’t theirs alone. Whoever we could meet would be radically imperfect: the new friend online… Each of these, too, would be guaranteed to let us down. The facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. We were all (necessarily) less than ideally parented. We fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analysing our worries, we lie and scatter blame where it doesn’t belong.

    The chances of a perfect human emerging from the perilous gauntlet are non-existent. We don’t have to know a stranger very well before knowing this about them. Their particular way of being maddening won’t be immediately apparent (it could take as long as a couple of years), but its existence can be theoretically assumed from the start.

    Choosing a person to marry is hence just another matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure, rather than of imagining we have found a way to skirt round the rules of emotional existence. We will all by definition end up with that stock character of our nightmares, ‘the wrong person’.

    This needn’t be a disaster, however. Enlightened Romantic pessimism simply assumes that 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.

    For this realisation to sink in, it helps to have had a few lovers before settling down, not in order to have had a chance to locate ‘the right person’, but in order to have had an ample opportunity to discover at first hand, and in many different contexts, the truth that there isn’t any such person; and that everyone really is a bit wrong when considered from close up.

    Rabih feels ready for marriage because he has despaired of being fully understood.

    Love begins with the experience of being understood in highly supportive and uncommon ways. They grasp the lonely parts of us; we don’t have to explain why we find a particular joke so funny; we hate the same people; we both want to try that rather specialised sexual scenario.

    It cannot continue. When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacities for understanding; we mustn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were – and we could do no better. Which is normal. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathise with, anyone else.

    Rabih feels ready for marriage because he realises he is crazy.

    It’s profoundly counter-intuitive for us to think ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good – to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step…And yet maturity begins with the capacity to sense, and in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.

    Rabih is ready for marriage because he has understood that it isn’t Kirsten who is difficult.

    They seem ‘difficult’, of course, within the cage of marriage; when they lose their tempers over such petty things: logistics, in-laws, cleaning rotas, parties, the groceries…But it’s not the other person’s fault, it’s what we are trying to do with them. It’s the institution of marriage that is principally impossible, not the individuals involved.

    Rabih is ready for marriage because he is prepared to love rather than be loved.

    We speak of ‘love’ as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural and dangerous fixation on the former.

    We start out knowing only about ‘being loved’. It comes to seem – quite wrongly – the norm. to the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed and clear up, while remaining almost constantly warm and cheerful.

    We take this idea of love into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and make everything better. It sounds ‘romantic’; yet it is a blueprint for disaster.

    Rabih is ready for marriage because he understands that sex will always cohabit uneasily with love.

    The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.

    We must concede that adultery cannot be a workable answer, for no one can be its victim and not feel forever cut to the core. A single meaningless adventure truly does have a recurring habit of ending everything. It’s impossible for the victims of adultery to appreciate what might actually have been going through a partner’s mind during the ‘betrayal’, when they lay entwined with a stranger for a few hours. We can hear their defence as often as we like, but we’ll be sure of one thing in our hearts: that they were hell-bent on humiliating us and that every ounce of their love has evaporated, along with their status as trustworthy humans. To insist on any other conclusion is like arguing against the tide.

    He is ready for marriage because (on a good day) he is happy to be taught and calm about teaching.

    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. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. And at other moments we should be ready to model ourselves on the best pedagogues and deliver our suggestions without shouting or expecting the other simply to know. Only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.

    Rabih and Kirsten are ready to be married because they are aware, deep down, that they are not compatible.

    The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the ‘right’ person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and particular. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste, but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace.

    Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the ‘right’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.

    Rabih is ready for marriage because he is fed up with most love stories; and because the versions of love presented in films and novels so seldom match what he now knows from lived experience.

    By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than spilt up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show is a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.

[Alain de Botton, The Course of Love, 2016, Penguin Random House UK]

Mr Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco

‘ How did Mr. Gwyn write portraits?’

Rebecca has heard that question dozens of times. She began to laugh. But the old man remained serious.

‘I mean, what the devil did he write in those portraits?’

Rebecca had an answer that she has practised using for years, every time someone asked her that question, to cut it off. She as about to utter it when she felt that soft, weary light around her. So she said something else.

‘He wrote stories,’ she said.


‘Yes. He wrote a piece of story, a scene, as if it were a fragment of a book.’

The old man shook his head.

‘Stories aren’t portraits.’

‘Jasper Gwyn thought so. One day, when we were sitting in a park, he explained to me that we all have a certain idea of ourselves, maybe crude, confused, but in the end we are pushed to have a certain idea of ourselves, and the truth is that often we make that idea coincide with some imaginary character in whom we recognise ourselves.’


Rebecca thought for a moment.

‘Like someone who wants to go home but can’t find the way. Or someone who always sees things a moment before others do. Things like that. It’s what we are able to intuit ourselves.’

‘But it’s idiotic.’

‘No. It’s imprecise.’

The old man stared at her. It was clear he wanted to understand.

‘Jasper Gwyn taught me that we aren’t characters, we’re stories,’ said Rebecca. ‘We stop at the idea of being a character engaged in who knows what adventure, even a very simple one, but what we have to understand is that we are the whole story, not just the character. We are the wood where he walks, the bad guy who cheats him, the mess around him, all the people who pass, the colours of things, the sounds. Do you understand?’


‘You make light bulbs, has it ever happened that you saw a light in which you recognised yourself? That was really you?’

The old man recalled a Chinese lantern above the door of a cottage, years before.

‘Once,’ he said.

‘Then you can understand. A light is just a segment of a sotry. If there is a light that is like you, there will also be a sound, a street corner, a man who walks, many men, or a single woman, things like that. Don’t stop at the light, think of all the rest, think of a story. Can you understand that it exists, somewhere, and if you find it, that would be your portrait?’

The old man made one of his gestures. It resembled a vague yes. Rebecca smiled.

‘Jasper Gwyn said that we are all a few pages of a book, but of a book that no one has ever written and that we search for in vain in the bookshelves of our mind. He told me that what he tried to do was write that book for the people that came to him. The right pages. He was sure he could do it.’

The eyes of the old man smiled.

‘And did he?’


‘How did he do it?’

‘He looked at them. For a long time. Until he saw in them the story they were.’

‘He looked at them and that’s all.’

‘Yes. He talked a little, but not much, and only once. More than anything he let time pass over them, carrying off a lot of things, then he found the story.’

‘What kind of stories?’

‘There was everything. A woman who tries to save her son from a death sentence. Five astronomers who live only at night. Things like that. But just a fragment, a scene. It was enough.’

‘And people in the end recognised themselves.’

‘They recognised themselves in the things that happened, in the objects, the colours, the tone, in a certain slowness, in the light, and also in the characters, of course, but in all of them, not one, all of them simultaneously – you know, we are a lot of things, and all at the same time.’

The old man sniggered, but in a nice way, politely.

‘It’s hard to believe you,’ he said.

‘I know. But I assure you it’s so.’

She hesitated a moment. Then she added something that she seemed to understand just at that moment.

‘When he did my portrait, I read it, at the end, and there was a landscape, at one point, four lines of a landscape, and I am that landscape, believe me, I am that whole story. I am the sound of that story, the pace and the atmosphere, and every character of that story, but with a disconcerting precision I am even that landscape, I have always been, and will be forever.’

The old man smiled at her.

‘I’m sure it was a very beautiful landscape.’

‘It was,’ said Rebecca.

The old man, finally, moved toward her, to say goodbye. Rebecca shook his hand and realised she was doing it cautiously, as years before she had been accustomed to do with Jasper Gwyn. (pp. 172-175)


Alessandro Baricco, Mr Gwyn & Three Times at Dawn, 2014, Michigan, McSweeney’s

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

  • On a lake, they float, but they do not see the lake. They only see what’s above, and only in the day, and only when the sun is not too bright. (pp.105)
  • Let’s not talk for a while, she said.

    We sat there for awhile. Through the floor, I could hear the sound of the apartment below. The sun set on some other part of the building. In Joo’s apartment it became steadily darker until she was finally forced to turn on the light or leave us sitting together in darkness.

    I watched her face in the light and tried to see the girl who has visited Sotatsu, who had lived with Kakuzo. After a time, I felt I could see her. She looked at me and said:

    I don’t think anyone has looked at me for that long in many years. This is a thing that regular people don’t understand. Because they live in families or groups, because they do not live alone. Months can go by without anyone looking at you, years, without anyone so much as touching your hand or shoulder. One becomes almost like a deer, impatient to be touched, terrified of it. A momentary contact in a supermarket, or on a train, becomes bewildering. However often such contact comes it is always bewildering, because it isn’t meant. And then there comes the day when no one so much as looks at you, unless it is by accident. (pp. 175-176)

  • …the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable. (pp.227)


Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun, 2014, United States, Pantheon Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies

Not a Chance

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