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]

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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.

‘Stories?’

‘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.’

‘Like?’

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?’

‘No.’

‘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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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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Dracula by Bram Stoker

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R.M. Renfield, acetate 59. – Sanguine temperament; great physical strength; morbidly excitable; periods of gloom ending in some fixed idea which I cannot make out. I presume that the sanguine temperament itself and the disturbing influence end in a mentally-accomplished finish; a possibly dangerous man, probably dangerous if unselfish. In selfish men caution is as secure as an armour for their foes as for themselves. What I think of on this point is, when self is the fixed point the centripetal force is balanced with the centrifugal; when duty, a cause, etc. is the fixed point, the latter force is paramount, and only the accident or a series of accidents can balance it.  – pp. 75, Dracula by Bram Stoker

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

  • ‘Where lies your landmark, seamark, or soul’s star?’ – Gerard Manley Hopkins (1886)
  • ‘The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.’ – A. Baker, The Peregrine (1997)

  • The substitutions made in the [Oxford Junior] dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being replaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. For blackberry, read BlackBerry.

    The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

  • Ammil: A Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw
  • ‘Language is fossil poetry,’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, ‘[a]s the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceases to remind us of their poetic origin.’ Emerson, as essayist, sought to reverse this petrification and restore the ‘poetic origin’ of words, thereby revealing the ordinary role of ‘nature’ in language. Considering the verb to consider, he reminds us that it comes from the Latin con-siderare, and thus carries a meaning of ‘to study or see with the stars’.
  • Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible – tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly, these marks are temporary: we close a book, and for the next hour or two the world seems oddly brighter at its edges; or we are moved to a kindness or a meanness that would otherwise have gone unexpressed. Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.
  • ‘I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see,’ – Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountains
  • Wolfsnow: dangerously heavy and wind-driven snow; a sea blizzard – Gerard Manley Hopkins

  • ‘Raptor’ comes from the Latin rapere, meaning ‘to seize or take by force’.
  • Hummadruz: a noise in the air that is unidentifiable, or a sound in the landscape whose source is unlocatable. The white noise of a place, an ambient murmur that lacked referent or source.
  • ‘A little stone jetty in still water: water like pewter, extraordinary water.’ – Peter Davidson

  • It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising, in homage to the great Wunderkammern or ‘wonder-rooms’ of the Renaissance and the Baroque, jn which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

    He reached into the cabinet and retrieved object after object, explaining to me the skein of stories that each drew behind it. For the individual compartments of the cabinet held remarkable things, among them a little dog modelled in unfired clay, Babylonian in origin; a sixteenth-century armourer’s trial piece of a long face framed by a helmet in the form of a wolf’s head with open jaws; an engraved brass box of seventeenth-century Low Countries manufacture, which once held one of the straws which fell drops of the blood of the Jesuit Henry Garnet, executed in London on 3 May 1606, bloodstains which were said to have formed a likeness of his face; a slice of marble from a quarry near Bristol, in which the veinery had, by geological chance, formed into a perfect facsimile of a sad Victorian landscape of misty ploughlands at evening; and the oval case of an original Claude glass, the small, blackened pocket mirror designed to reproduce in its reflection of any landscape the softened tones and single focal point characteristic of the art of Claude Lorrain.

    [This reminds me of Aunt W.’s cabinet of curiosities – little bourgeois objets d’art she would purchase in every country that she visited – animal figurines fashioned out of glass swirling with aquamarines and yellow and vermillion, frozen to represent the 12 Chinese zodiacs; ornately patterned and bejewelled sterling or pewter Turkish jewellery boxes that opened to reveal stones of undeterminable origin, folded pieces of paper with nothing scribbled on it; Japanese good-luck pouches that were red or pink and fastened with little tinkling bells; a huge jar of key chains with many different countries’ names on every one of them, sometimes two or three of the same ones; little vials of unopened liquor embellished with French or Russian names we were too young then, to pronounce; magnets propped along the back of the cabinet with the decorative plates depicting green landscapes dotted with the odd sheep and cottage; a plastic Sphinx that lit up and changed colours; a wooden Dutch shoe; a paper umbrella like those you find in tropical cocktails – touristy knickknacks that we loved to pore over and wonder at, if more to while away the boring hours that my parents would spend at her place discussing nothing at all, than sheer curiosity, for it always appeared like a showcase, when all the lights were on inside, something that you can only gaze at through the dusty glass, as if all my aunt’s travel memories were too precious to be handled and marvelled at with the discovery of touch. I remember how my sisters and I would point and she would lift each item out and give a short recount of where she had gotten it and what it meant in its native country, and we would be thrilled at the rare times when she handed to us a memorabilia to hold and feel – the treasure box, the colourful cloth Indian elephant, the Tibetan hat.]

  • Atmospheric duct:
    In telecommunication, an atmospheric duct is a horizontal layer in the lower atmosphere in which the vertical refractive index gradients are such that radio signals (and light rays) are guided or ducted, tend to follow the curvature of the Earth, and experience less attenuation in the ducts than they would if the ducts were not present. The duct acts as an atmospheric dielectric waveguide and limits the spread of the wavefront to only the horizontal dimension.

    Atmospheric ducting is a mode of propagation of electromagnetic radiation, usually in the lower layers of Earth’s atmosphere, where the waves are bent by atmosphericrefraction.[2] In over-the-horizon radar, ducting causes part of the radiated and target-reflection energy of a radar system to be guided over distances far greater than the normal radar range. It also causes long distance propagation of radio signals in bands that would normally be limited to line of sight.

    Normally radio “ground waves” propagate along the surface as creeping waves. That is, they are only diffracted around the curvature of the earth. This is one reason that early long distance radio communication used long wavelengths. The best known exception is that HF (3–30 MHz.) waves are reflected by the ionosphere.

    The reduced refractive index due to lower densities at the higher altitudes in the Earth’s atmosphere bends the signals back toward the Earth. Signals in a higher refractive index layer, i.e., duct, tend to remain in that layer because of the reflection and refraction encountered at the boundary with a lower refractive index material. In some weather conditions, such as inversion layers, density changes so rapidly that waves are guided around the curvature of the earth at constant altitude.

    Phenomena of atmospheric optics related to atmospheric ducting include the green flash, Fata Morgana, superior mirage, mock mirage of astronomical objects and the Novaya Zemlya effect.

  • John Muir epigrams:
    ‘The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
    ‘Writing…is like the life of a glacier; one eternal grind.’

Mountains of the Mind by Robert Mcfarlane

  • James Hutton, Theory of the Earth: ‘The result therefore of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’
  • Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called ‘deep time’ – the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years – crushes the human instant; flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures to extensive to envisage. And it is a physical as well as a cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body.
  • …the calligraphy, the majuscule of the valleys and peaks, the intricate engravings of streams and rivulets, and the splendid serifs of ridge top and valley bottom.
  • ‘If there be a precipice, a cataract, a mountain of snow, etc. in one part of the scene, the nascent ideas of fear and horror magnify and enliven all other ideas, and by degrees pass into pleasures by suggesting the security from pain.’ – David Hartley, 1749.
  • Then, unexpectedly, it began to rain: plump raindrops which splashed upon the pale grey of the rocks we were sitting on. The rain partitioned the air, bruised the stone, and plucked the lake up into a field of fleur-de-lys.
  • How strange is this wild urge for rapid locomotion seizing people of all nations at the same instant. ‘The dead go swiftly,’ says the ballad. Are we dead then? Or could this be some presentiment of the approaching doom of our planet, possessing us to multiply the means of communication so we may travel over its entire surface in the little time left to us?
  • Galleons of cloud were at full sail, racing slowly over the blueness. The sunshine was hard and bright, the snow turning the light to its own white frequency.
  • Cairngorm mountains, the empty wilderness of the Monadhliaths, the Grey Hills, the great peaks of the Rough Bounds of Knoydart-Ladhar Bheinn, the Hill of the Claw; Meall Buidhe, the Yellow Hill; and Luinne Bheinn, the Hill of Anger.
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