Culture //

On [Alain de Botton’s Flawed Conception of] Love

Courtney Thompson doesn’t think she would get on with Alain de Botton.

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I want to start this review by doing something the Opera House failed to do on Saturday night. That is, acknowledge that the lecture took place on the land of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. It was, is, and always will be Aboriginal land. At a time when the Opera House finds it appropriate to program festivals like Dangerous Ideas with racist bigots such as Andrew Bolt – and during NAIDOC Week, no less – it is imperative that we continue to remind audiences and ourselves that this land was never ceded and that the processes of colonisation continue on around us. We can take these small practices for granted at university, but their importance cannot be understated.

I’m someone who is fascinated by love. I love often and I love hard. I even self-identify as a “Serial Crusher”, whereby I develop crushes on people quickly, rather than physically crushing those around me sporadically. After hearing him speak ‘On Love’ at the Opera House on Saturday night, I don’t think Alain de Botton and I would get along.

Unlike the crowds of people that I went in with, I was not a worshipper of church Alain de Botton. Over the course of the 90-minute lecture, which he delivered with trademark warmth and wit, de Botton mapped out the way in which our modern-day conception of love is still very much placed within a socio-historical context and is, in essence, detrimentally a mirror of Romanticism’s ideas of love. As such, central ideas of Soul Mates, crushes, love being intuitive, and the consecration of sex as the ultimate expression of one’s feelings for another must be abolished. They persist simply due to a capitalist structure that feeds on that which is commercially viable.

According to de Botton, love is a skill to be learnt, rather than an intuition to be felt. In order to cultivate long-lasting romantic relationships, we must foster the idea of a romantic partnership constituting a “process of mutual education”, in which partners rotate between being teacher and pupil. In his (Platonic) ideal world, lectures given to, or by, us are an act of love and compatibility is to be viewed as an achievement of love, rather that its precondition.

This education is necessary because we lack any true self-knowledge or awareness of our severe distortion. A fundamental issue with the way love is conceived of by Romanticism is that it takes people as inherently good, rather than seeing them for what they are: batshit crazy.

Apparently, this lack of imperfection manifests because our friends don’t care about us enough to illuminate us to the ways of our inadequacy, and our ex-partners, who would have a similarly extensive understanding of our personal flaws, certainly aren’t about to waste their time on the improvement of a person they are no-longer with. Thus, we are clueless and remain broken, and left for our next partner to try and figure out. And so, the process of mutual education begins.

At this point, the questions I had for Alain de Botton started multiplying. While I can understand that this particular philosophy may have been born in reaction to Free Love movements, I think it lacks proper acknowledgement of the specific complexities that make themselves apparent within personal relationships.

While it is fine for a white cis man of reasonable wealth to say it is as simple as becoming comfortable with the banality of life and having a handle of your own imperfections in order to find true success in romantic relationship, what about those not afforded such privileges?

Perhaps I’ve inhaled too many of the fumes from identity politics, but throughout I couldn’t help but feel de Botton was ignoring the nuanced power dynamics that can manifest in relationships where there are intersecting factors at play (race, class, gender, ability etc you know the drill.) These things inherently complicate the simple (and very appealing) picture de Botton paints.

I’m sure this lecture would have been enlightening to many heterosexual couples, particularly those who are married, but I felt my own thirst unquenched. I don’t begrudge those people the right to learn how to love better, but why – in a society that already prioritises these narratives – do we continue to believe more attention must be paid them?

While brushing off polyamory as simply a solution to navigating the desire to have both excitement and safety within one’s sexual life, de Botton failed to touch on a lot of the meaningful arguments that the philosophy raises. If we start conceptualising our platonic relationships in similar ways to our romantic ones, surely we can begin to minimise the obligation of our romantic partners to deal with our imperfections? Why must these practices – viewing the romantic relationship as one of mutual education, forgiving their invisible broken parts and accepting the banality of practical life – be restricted to only the relationships that are romantic?

Perhaps this is a larger critique of the entire premise of the lecture itself, but I believe we need to radically re-consider how we measure the worth of relationships, particularly beyond heteronormative and monogamous realms. By this, I don’t mean to suggest everyone adopt a polyamorous philosophy of love. Instead, we should simply think critically about how we think of how we love in order to realise the potential that may lie within.

I genuinely believe it is a skill to be able to communicate simply the concepts we often over-complicate, such as the importance of legitimate communication, mutual education and empathy. I had hoped to be wrong in my skepticism about listening to a white man talk on love. However, I remain unconvinced in its necessity. Next time, I know to stay home with bell hooks or Adrienne Rich and leave the white male philosophers to the bros I swore off crushing on long ago.