A face-to-face interview with Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton’s new novel, The Course of Love, came out on September 8, published by the Editor Guanda.
It is a clever and well written work in which the author humorously illustrates the paradoxes of the romantic love, points out how psychotherapy for couples represents an important way for loving each other and then proposes a series of touching thoughts regarding the regenerating power of mature love.
I had the chance to meet Alain de Botton in Milan recently.
In your new novel, a young couple, Rabih and Kirsten, fall in love. They get married and they have children.Then, the couple is forced to face everyday marriage problems encountering a lot of frustration along the way. As a result they eventually drift away from each other. Is there any way to build a long lasting relationship that includes children and that somehow does not trap them in a cruel cage?
No, we can not have relationships without problems, because we are trying to do something very complicated, so a lot of problems is normal, but this doesn’t mean that everything is a potential disaster, it’s just that it is inevitably extremely difficult. In the same way, if you tried to build an aeroplane you wouldn’t expect to not encounter problems: it’s a very difficult enterprise.
So in a long term relationship with children you’re going to have a whole set of issues. The question is how you respond to those issues and I suppose my approach is based – broadly speaking – on psychotherapy which thinks that the solution is understanding the emotional dynamics that exist between mothers and fathers, children and lovers. These things can be understood. I’m not saying there’s always a happy ending, but we can perhaps create a happier ending.
The novel describes two people’s search for love and it sounds extremely strange because we don’t think we have to learn how to love because ultimately love is something that needs to be learned; it is a skill and our society doesn’t tell us this, but it is absolutely true.
Not many couples have partner relationships where there is a safe kind of attachment, so couple psychotherapy should be something that every couple should learn to do. Don’t you think? Yet still today there are misconceptions concerning this approach.
Yes, it is very sad how we live and we still don’t understand the importance of self knowledge and self understanding.
Take this hotel here. It thinks it is a luxury hotel so it wants to give you things that are truly special and wants to treat you. It doesn’t offer anything special to the brain or the mind. In fact it doesn’t believe that the client possesses a soul or a psyche. So if you go to the spa all they will offer you is treatment for your nails, your feet, maybe your muscles, but it doesn’t ask you about your feelings or your emotions: there is no help. And this is not just in this one hotel but around the world.
So if you go into psychotherapy for couples today, people will say that you’re crazy or you’re a bit spoilt – you are wasting your money – meanwhile the same people will buy a BMW and go on expensive holidays. So we are very strange.
And I think that everyone should have a safe space where they can explore their feelings and understand themselves better. Maybe you want to call it psychotherapy, maybe you want to call it something else, I don’t care, I’m not a psychotherapist myself, it’s just an area where you can understand yourself. Even today if you say: “I’m not going on holiday, I’m just going to sit at home and try to understand my childhood”, this would sound so weird, but it is probably much better than a week in the Alps because you will actually learn more.
How did you conceive the protagonists, Rabih and Kirsten?
Well, I wanted to find a couple that we could like – I wanted the reader to like them – but also to see that they were very ordinary, not very mature, but not very immature. They were average people with an average selection of neurosis, misunderstandings, immaturities, but also strengths.
Rabih and Kirsten just came to me. I imagined Kirsten while I was travelling in Scotland. I was in a coffee shop once and I watched a woman and just imagined that she was Kirsten.
That was the story: you know, sometimes novelists just have these ideas.
Loneliness, is it a counterpart that can damage somebody who is looking for a safe kind of love? How can we be protected from this enemy?
Well, we have to expect that loneliness will happen to us and I think it is a dream that we have that somebody else we meet will understand everything about us and that person will always be on our side. I think this is a dangerous myth: no one can be expected to understand everything about us; if somebody understands sixty percent of who we are, this is already a extremely good level. To expect that another person understands everything about us is just not possible. It’s like wanting to go back to early childhood, when it seemed like maybe our mothers or fathers could understand everything about us, but even they couldn’t. We had that illusion.
We must all die alone and in many ways there is just a permanently lonely side of life. Again it has to do with expectations: don’t be angry with your lover for not understanding everything about who you are, you don’t understand everything about who they are and that’s ok.
At the end of his life, the great poet and writer Goethe said: “No one has ever understood me” and he said this as an exclamation, so it shows that understanding is extremely difficult.
We should be brave, and stoic, and heroic about the fact that we are all alone on this earth.
Towards the end of the novel, Rabih learns that beauty is often trapped in small things. For example, there are some significant remarks about the beauty of flowers. Can married love teach us some kink of wisdom through personal suffering?
Yes, I think sometimes we expect – especially young people expect – that happiness will come in a year or in decade-long blocks; that there will be almost a permanent happiness.
I think with time you realize that really this is extremely difficult, because everyone is so complicated and our emotions are so complicated and then we become more modest.
You utilize your time well when you think: “I really like this flower”. Now the flower will die quite soon, it’s not a big thing, it’s not going to change my life, but it’s really significant. So, you become in a way more capable of a certain kind of happiness, especially about small things. It’s something we often notice in elderly people; they say things like “I spent a really nice evening, I watered the flowers and there was a lovely sunset”. And you think: “What? Do you like the flowers and the sunset? It is depressing. I want to be Napoleon, I want to invent a new piece of technology or start a business, etc.”.
With time you realize that sometimes we have to just accept the really small things. And, particularly with love, after you’ve been through many relationships, maybe you discover somebody and you think: “Well, he’s not the most exciting person in the world, but we get on well, sometimes we are happy – not everyday – and this is great”. We didn’t think this at the age of seventeen, but now we have a different vision, a more modest vision, but still intense. And I should say that sometimes, if you have suffered and been hurt and known real pain you will gain more satisfaction from a flower than someone who has never known suffering at all.
A background of suffering in love and in life is a wonderful catalyst for coming to a more intense appreciation of the little things when they go well.
One of the objectives of your project The school of life teaches things that are neglected in everyday education: love, for example. How can I try to teach my students the ability to love?
There are definitely things that you can teach people about love. For example, a very obvious thing to start people thinking is: “What did you learn about love inside your family? What was love when you were small? What was love in your family?” And then, ask somebody: “Well, what is love for you now? By contrasting the past with the present you can lead into a very interesting group conversation, even with a group of students. Another thing to say is: “How did your mother and father love you? What is your dream of a lover now? How do you imagine that someone you love would be like?”
It’s not really psychotherapy but it’s just trying to show teenagers the way they are now is really connected up to things that happened in their childhood. Just start to encourage them to examine the relationships between past and present. I think this can be quite useful. It could also be useful to say: “What do you do when someone frustrates you? What is your response when something you care about does not happen?”. And to show people how different reactions can be. For example, some people shout, some people say nothing – go quiet, others explain, etc.
At The school of life, we offer a lot of material: we have a blog, we have the books of life, with a lot of essays, we have a Youtube channel with many many films. Please show your students some of the materials!
Can literature teach us something about love or is it misleading?
I think we have to use it carefully.
I’ve read enough of the great philosophers and the great thinkers to know that very often they don’t write very clearly.
I don’t think you can say to somebody: “Look! Go and read those books and your life will be fine”. I think a book is defined by the relationship that one has with the book and you need to have good relationships. There are some people who should read less and some people who should read more; there are some people who should read more of the book inside themselves rather then the books in the outside world.
So, like Proust, I’m a little bit suspicious: Proust loved literature – of course – he devoted his life to literature, but he was also intelligent enough to realize that sometimes there were dangers to always think what other people would think. We need to be creative ourselves – whether we are writers or not – to understand ourselves and not to always follow what Plato said, what Aristotle said.
We need to be creative ourselves.
Which book is the most honest and true when we talk about love?
I don’t know. I think that if we read a lot we would find passages, sections which can speak to us. I don’t think there is one book that is like our ideal lover and that will tell us everything and finding a book that speaks to us is as hard as finding friends. Maybe it will happen four times in a life. So we need to be modest about how many books will really be the one.
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