Thursday, April 28, 2016

Alain de Botton - How fiction ruined love

To fall in love feels like such a personal and spontaneous process, it is strange — and a bit insulting — to suggest that we’re only copying what the novels and the movies tell us to do. However, the differences in how people have loved throughout history suggest that our style of loving is to a significant extent determined by what the prevailing environment dictates. In certain eras, we’ll swoon at the sight of the beloved’s ankle; in others, we’ll coldly put romanticism aside for the sake of dynastic or practical concerns. We learn how to love by copying a range of more or less subtle cues emitted by our culture. Or, as that brilliant observer of human foibles, François de La Rochefoucauld, wickedly put it: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.”

Crucially, over the centuries, the most important factor to have shaped how we love is art. It is through novels, poems, songs and, latterly, films that we have acquired our ideas about what aspects of our feelings we should value and where our emotional emphases should fall.

This is unfortunate. It’s not that the art has been bad; indeed a lot of it has reached the highest aesthetic pitch. It’s simply that representations of love in culture have frequently been profoundly misleading at the psychological level. That we are quite so bad at loving — and the statistics on relationship breakdowns suggest we really are — is a problem that can at least in part be laid at the door of culture. The primary impediment to having better relationships may be the quality of our art.

To call for “better” art doesn’t mean art that is more moving or colourful or impassioned. The art that deals with love is already all those things and more. What it is lacking are crucial elements of wisdom, realism and maturity. Our love stories excite us to expect things of love that are neither very possible nor very practical. The narrative arts of the romantic tradition — everything from the poetry of Keats to films such as Before Sunrise (1995) and Lost in Translation (2003) — have unwittingly constructed a devilish template of expectations of what relationships are supposed to be like, in the light of which our own love lives often look grievously unsatisfying. We may break up with our partners or feel romantically cursed because we have been systematically exposed to the wrong sorts of love stories.

In western literary culture, the book that has most generously and deeply explored the issue of how love stories affect our relationships is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856). Early on in the novel, we learn that Emma Bovary spent her childhood in a convent immersed in heady Romantic fiction. As a result, she’s expecting that her husband will be a transcendent being, someone who understands her soul perfectly, a constantly thrilling intellectual and sexual presence… read more: