Essays in love, Alain de Botton (1993)


See my comments to some striking excerpts:

  • p. 68-69: “There is usually a Marxist moment in most relationships [the moment when it becomes clear that love is reciprocated] and the way it is resolved depends on the balance between self-love and self-hatred. If self-hatred gains the upper hand, then the one who has received love will declare that the beloved [on some excuse or other] is not good enough for them [not good enough by virtue of association with no-goods]. But if self-love gains the upper hand, both partners may accept that seeing their love reciprocated is not proof of how low the beloved is, but of how lovable they have themselves turned out to be.”
  •  p. 99: “Beauty was to be found in the area of oscillation between ugliness and classical perfection. A face that launches a thousand ships is not always architecturally formal: it can be as unstable as an object that is spinning between two colours and that gives rise to a third shade so long as it is moving. There is a certain tyranny about perfection, a certain exhaustion about it even, something that denies the viewer a role in its creation and that asserts itself with all the dogmatism of an unambiguous statement. True beauty cannot be measured because it is fluctuating, it has only a few angles from which it may be seen, and then not in all lights and at all times. It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules of proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those areas that will also lend themselves to ugliness. Beauty may need to take a calculated risk with ugliness.”
  •  p. 152-154: “1. Language flatters our indecisions with its stability. It allows us to hide under an illusory permanence and fixity while the world changes minute by minute. ‘No man steps into the same river twice’, said Heraclitus, pointing to the inevitable flux yet ignoring the fact that if the word for river does not change, then in an important sense, it is the same river we appear to have stepped into. I was a man in love with a woman, but how much of the mobility and inconstancy of my emotions could such words hope to carry? Was there room in them for all the infidelity, boredom, irritation, and indifference that often found themselves knitted together with this love? Could any words hope to accurately reflect the degree of ambivalence to which my emotions seemed fated? 2. I call myself a name, and the name stays with me throughout my life – the ‘I’ that I see in a picture of myself at the age of six and that I will perhaps see in a picture of myself at sixty will both be framed by the same letters, though time will have altered me almost unrecognizably. I call a tree a tree, though throughout the year, the tree changes. To rename the tree at every season would be too confusing, so language settles on the continuity, forgetting that in one season there are leaves that in another will be absent. 3. We hence proceed by abbreviation, we take the dominant feature [of a tree, of an emotional state] and label as the whole something that is only a part. Similarly, the story we tell of an event remains a segment of the totality the moment comprised; as soon as the moment is narrated, it loses its multiplicity and ambivalence in the name of abstracted meaning and authorial intent. The story embodies the poverty of the remembered moment.

Ari: This is what Freud calls the ‘primary process’, or probably what Lacan calls the ‘Imaginary’. During a psychoanalytic session it is often an ‘easy’  (but nonetheless important) intervention of the analyst to pay attention to these moments when the analysand uses this kind of ellipses or labels and to invite him or her to deconstruct the ellipses ‘back’ to the complexity of the experiences.

  • Chloe and I lived a love story stretching over an expanse of time during which my feelings moved so far across the emotional scale that to talk of being simply in love seems a brutal foreshortening of events. Pressed for time and eager to simplify, we are forced to narrate and remember things by ellipsis, or we would be overwhelmed by both our ambivalence and our instability. The present becomes degraded, first into history, then into nostalgia. […]

Ari: ‘psychotics’ have another position in language, language functions differently in the total mental system, and indeed ‘they’ are more easily “overwhelmed by both ambivalence and instability”.

  • 5. Perhaps we can forgive language its hypocrisy because it enables us to recall a weekend in Bath with one word, pleasant, hence creating a manageable order and identity. Yet at times one is brought face to face with the flux beneath the word, the water flowing beneath Heraclitus’ river – and one longs for the simplicity things assume when letters are the only guardians of their borders. I loved Chloe – how easy it sounds, like someone saying they love apple juice or Marcel Proust. And yet how much more complex the reality was, so complex that I struggle against saying anything conclusive of any one moment, for to say one thing is automatically to miss out on another – every assertions symbolizing the repression of a thousand counter-assertions.

see Bazan, A. (2012). From sensorimotor inhibition to Freudian repression. Frontiers in Psychology.

  •  p. 161: [We could perhaps define maturity – that ever-elusive goal – as the ability to give everyone what they deserve when they deserve it, to separate the emotions that belong and should be restricted to oneself from those that should at once be expressed to their initiators, rather than passed on to later and more innocent arrivals.]
  •  p. 194: “At the basis of all sulks lies a wrong that might have been addressed and disappeared at once, but that instead is taken by the injured partner and stored for later and more painful detonation. Delays in explanation give grievances a weight that they would lack if the matter had been addressed as soon as it had arisen. To display anger shortly after an offense occurs is the most generous thing one may do, for it saves the sulked from the burgeoning of guilt and the need to talk the sulker down from his or her battlement.”

Ari: This is major point both in life and in analysis: the ability to display anger and finding ways (forms) to do so. And very rightly so, it is a token of respect, and even of love, to ‘give’ the ‘honor’ of one’s anger to the other: it signals the fact that the other one is considered having the ability to receive the anger and it gives him or her the chance to reply. It is often more violent, both for oneself and for the other, to keep the anger for oneself. In fact, it is not seldom a sign of a far greater aggressiveness than would be the anger displayed. Only displayed anger opens a way to something beyond anger. Now, of course, not all situations are the same and there are inherent situational limits to displaying anger which one has to take into account.

  • p. 174: ,”The strength of the accusations we made, their sheer implausibility, showed that we argued not because we hated one another, but because we loved one another too much – or, to risk confusing things, because we hated loving one another to the extent we did. Our accusations were loaded with a complicated subtext, I hate you, because I love you. It amounted to a fundamental protest, I hate having no choice but to risk loving you like this. The pleasures of depending on someone pale next to the paralysing fears that such dependence involves. Our occasionally fierce and somewhat inexplicable arguments during our trip through Valencia were nothing but a necessary release of tension that came from realizing that each one had placed all their eggs in the other’s basket – and was helpless to aim for more sound household management.”
  •  p. 213: “I was labouring under the curse of fate, not an external one, but a  psycho-face: a fate from within. 6. In an age of science, psychoanalysis provided names for my demons. Though itself a science, it retained the dynamic [if not the substance] of superstition, the belief that the majority of life unfolds without adherence to rational control. In the stories of manias and unconscious motivations, compulsions and visitations, I recognized the world of Zeus and his colleagues, the Mediterranean transported to late-nineteenth-century Vienna, a secularized, sanitized view of much of the same picture. Completing the revolution of Galileo and Darwin, Freud returned man to the initial humbleness of the Greek forefathers, the acted-upon rather than the actors. The Freudian world was made of double-sided coins one of whose sides we could never see, a world where hate could hide great love and great love hate, where a man might try to love a woman, but unconsciously be doing everything to drive her into another’s arms. From within a scientific field that had for so long made the case for free will, Freud presented a return to a form of psychic determinism. It was an ironic twist to the history of science, Freudians questioned the dominance of the thinking ‘I’ from within science itself. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ had metamorphosed into Lacan’s ‘I am not where I think, and I think where I am not.’.”
  •  p. 217: “11. The essence of a curse is that the person labouring under it cannot know of its existence. It is a secret code within the individual writing itself over a lifetime, but unable to find rational, preemptive articulation. Oedipus is warned by the Oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother – but conscious warnings serve no purpose, they alert only the thinking ‘I’, they cannot defuse the coded curse. Oedipus is cast out from home in order to avoid the Oracle’s prediction, but ends up marrying Jocasta nevertheless: his story is told form him, not by him. He knows the possible outcome, he knows the dangers, yet can change nothing: the curse defies the will. 12. But what curse did I labour under? Nothing other than an inability to form happy relationships, the greatest misfortune known in modern society. Exiled from the shaded grove of love, I would be compelled to wander the earth till the day of my death, unable to shake of my compulsion to make those I loved flee from me. I sought a name for this evil, and found it contained in the psychoanalytic description of repetition compulsion, defined as: ….an ungovernable process originating in the unconscious. As a result of its actions, the subject deliberately places himself in distressing situations, thereby repeating an old experience, but he does not recall this prototype; on the contrary, he has the strong impression that the situation is fully determine by the circumstances of the moment. (The Language of Psychoanalysis, J. Laplanche, J.B. Pontalis, Karnac Books, 1988). 13. The comforting aspect of psychoanalysis [if one can talk so optimistically] is the meaningful world it suggests we live in. No philosophy is further from the thought that it is all a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing [even to deny meaning is meaningful]. Yet the meaning is never light: the psycho-fatalist’s spell subtly replaced the words and then with the words In order that, thereby identifying a paralysing causal link. I did not simply love Chloe and then she left me. I loved Chloe in order that, she leave me. The painful tale of loving her appeared as a palimpsest, beneath which another story had been written. Buried deep in the unconscious, a pattern had been forged, in the early months ors years. The baby had driven away the mother, or the mother had left the baby, and now baby/man recreated the same scenario, different actors but the same plot, Chloe fitting into the clothes worn by another. Why had I even chosen her? It was not the shape of her smile or the liveliness of her mind. It was because the unconscious, the casting director of the inner drama, recognized in her a suitable character to fill the role in the mother/infant script, someone who would oblige the playwright by leaving the stage at just the right time with the requisite wreckage and pain. 14. Unlike the curses of the Greek gods, psycho-fatalism at least held out the promise it could be escaped. Where the id was, ego might be – if only ego had not been so crushed by pain, bruised, bleeding, punctured, unable to plan the day let alone the life.

 Ari: The compulsion to repeat is of course another major point of psychoanalysis. It is close to Lacan’s concept of ‘jouissance’. I will come back to it.

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