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How fiction ruined love - FT.


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April 22, 2016 11:40 am

How fiction ruined love

Alain de Botton

Have representations of romance from Madame Bovary to Four

Weddings and a Funeral ruined the real thing?


Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklaters Before Sunrise (1995)

To fall in love feels like such a personal and spontaneous process, it is strange and a bit insulting
to suggest that were 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, well
swoon at the sight of the beloveds ankle; in others, well 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, Franois de La

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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. Its not that the art has been bad; indeed a lot of
it has reached the highest aesthetic pitch. Its 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 doesnt 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 Flauberts 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, shes expecting that her husband will be a transcendent being, someone who
understands her soul perfectly, a constantly thrilling intellectual and sexual presence.
When she eventually does get married to the kind, thoughtful but in the end human (and therefore
often humdrum) Charles, she is set up for a fall. She is quickly bored by the routines of married life.
She has no interest in domestic chores, she hates having to prepare dinner, organise the linen
cupboard and have quiet nights in with her spouse. Her dissatisfaction gets even worse when her
first child arrives on the scene. She is convinced that her life has gone profoundly wrong for one
central reason: because its so different from what the novels she knows told her it would be.
In a clumsy search to bring her reality in line with art, she embarks on a series of misguided affairs
with louche figures, spends too much money, neglects her child and eventually commits suicide
bankrupt and in disgrace. Flaubert lays the blame squarely at the door of literature: a certain kind
of Romantic novel is responsible for Emma Bovarys death. He is writing the novel that she should
have read in order to tolerate the reality of marriage though sadly, she is the only one not to be
able to benefit from Flauberts wry, realistic wisdom.

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We are all, at points, as deluded as Emma Bovary, for our art is full of omissions. For example, in
so many romantic tales, the whole business of work is rarely viewed as relevant to the enduring of a
relationship. Yet of course, in reality, part of the rationale of any relationship is to enable two
people to function as a stable joint economic unit for the education of the next generation. This is
in no way banal. There are opportunities for genuine heroism here. Especially around laundry. We
dont hear much about this in art.
There are
opportunities for
genuine heroism in
everyday relationships
especially around
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One of the central manuals of Romanticism the book that more than
any other taught people how to love in a new way was The Sorrows of
Young Werther, written by the German poet and philosopher Goethe in
1774, when he was in his mid-twenties. The book was an instant
bestseller in Germany, England and France; Napoleon read it seven
times. The novel tells the story of a student, Werther, and his doomed
love for a young (betrothed) woman, Charlotte. The tone is intense and
ardent. Yet, crucially, as his love for Charlotte grows, Werther is not
distracted by the demands of an occupation. Romantic love is a leisured

Romanticism and capitalism are the two dominant ideas of our time, guiding the way we think and
feel about the two things that usually matter most in our lives: relationships and work. But
combining romanticism and capitalism, as we are actually expected to do, can be arduous in the
extreme. Its an unhappy historical clash. We live under two very powerful but oddly incompatible
systems and art doesnt help us here. The impressive philosophy of romantic love in art with
its emphasis on intimacy and openness and spending lengthy, carefree days together (often in
nature, sometimes next to cliffs or waterfalls) sits very badly with the requirements of working
routines that fill our heads with complex demands, keep us away from home for long stretches and
render us insecure about our positions in a competitive environment.
In Richard Linklaters irresistible film, Before Sunrise, two young lovers meet on a train, fall in love
and spend hours talking about their feelings while walking the streets of Vienna at night. Like so
many romantic works of art, the film suggests that love involves very close communication about
pretty much everything. But the level of openness this assumes is wholly at odds with the realities
of day-to-day life.
After a tricky day (or week), ones mind is likely to be numb with worries and duties. We may not
feel like doing much besides sitting in silence, staring at the kitchen appliances, or running through
a series of dramas and crises at work. Such preoccupation is not pleasant to witness, and it risks
expressing itself in a range of not very endearing symptoms: grunting, brooding silence and a
short-fused temper. The most innocuous-sounding question about how the day might have gone
can elicit a growl then, if it is repeated, an explosion. None of this well be prepared for if we stick
to the romantic script.
When romantic writers have explored the troubles of relationships in their works, they have tended

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to draw attention to important, but notably limited, issues. The great Russian poet Alexander
Pushkin depicted the challenges faced by rational, self-possessed people in revealing their true
desires in Eugene Onegin (1825-32). Jane Austen was acutely attentive to how differences in social
status could pose obstacles to a couples chances of contentment. In Italy, the most widely read
novel of the 19th century The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni discussed how political
corruption could overwhelm love. All these great writers were in different ways deeply
interested in what might make it hard for a relationship to go well.

Nigel Shafrans Ruth on the Phone (2001-02) is part of an ongoing series the artist began in the early 1990s in which he
photographs his partner in various domestic situations. His latest book is Dark Rooms,

And yet there has tended to be something major missing from their list. There has never been very
much interest in any of the challenges that fall within the realm of what we can call the domestic,
a term that captures all the practicalities of living together and extends across a range of small but
crucial issues, including whom one should visit on the weekend, what time to go to bed, and
whether or not towels should be hung up in the bathroom.
From the romantic point of view, these things cannot be serious or important. Relationships are
made or broken over grand, dramatic matters: fidelity and betrayal, the courage to face society on
ones own terms, the tragedy of being ground down by political opposition. The day-to-day
minutiae of the domestic sphere seem entirely unimpressive and humiliatingly insignificant by
In Haruki Murakamis outstanding 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, we are taken through every
nuance in the emotions of unrequited or doomed love. What is ignored, as it almost always is in

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art, is the business of sharing a life with someone who isnt married to someone else, distant, dying
or out of reach. What we have come to think of as a love story tends ultimately frequently to
comprise only the obstacles that lie in the way of a love story starting. But once a relationship
properly begins, the film or novel ends.
The good-enough ordinary love stories that do exist are therefore all the more remarkable. Karl
Ove Knausgaards cataloguing of his daily life comes to mind, or, to pick a mid-20th century
example, Evan Connells Mrs Bridge, which looked at the everyday unhappiness of married life. In
cinema, we have the films of Eric Rohmer in France or those of Joanna Hogg in the UK, as well as
American indie movies such as Richard Linklaters Before Midnight (2013), which catches up with
the lovers from Before Sunrise in discontented middle age, and acts as a brilliant corrective to his
earlier romanticism. These havent fundamentally changed our views of love, but they offer a
welcome counterpoint to our more starry-eyed predilections.
Until our art changes more completely, we wont go into relationships ready to perceive domestic
issues as important potential flashpoints to look out for and pay attention to. We wont
acknowledge how much it may end up mattering whether we can maturely resolve issues around
the eating of toast in bed or the conundrum of whether it is stylish, or a touch pretentious, to give a
cocktail party.
Films like When Harry Met Sally... (1989) and Four Weddings and a
For most of us, our
Funeral (1994) are typical in centring the action entirely on the run-up
lifes problem isnt
to the start of a relationship. But for most of us, our lifes problem isnt
finding a partner, but
finding a partner (thats just one very important and at points thrilling
tolerating the candidate
phase), it is tolerating the candidate one eventually finds, and being
one finds
tolerated by them, over time. A wiser culture than ours would recognise
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that the start of a relationship is not the high point that romantic art
assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent and
yet quietly audacious journey on which we should direct our intelligence and scrutiny.
Theres another thing missing from a lot of art about love: children. In films such as Amlie (2001),
children are incidental, sweet symbols of mutual love, or naughty in an endearing way. They rarely
cry, take up little time, and are generally wise, exhibiting an unschooled intelligence. But in life, we
come to see that relationships are often fundamentally oriented towards the having and raising of
children and, at the same time, that children tend to place the couple under unbearable strain.
They may kill the passion that made them possible. Life moves from the sublime to the quotidian.
There are toys in the living room, pieces of chicken under the table, years of rebellion and no time
to talk. Everyone is always tired. This, too unlike what Shelley or Baudelaire tell us is love.
Our culture is full of skilful depictions of love. But at the same time, many of these tales are very
unhelpful. We learn to judge ourselves by the hopes and expectations fostered by a misleading
artistic medium. By its standards, our own relationships are almost all damaged and
unsatisfactory. No wonder separation or divorce so often appear to be inevitable. They shouldnt

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be. We merely need to tell ourselves more accurate stories about the progress of relationships,
stories that normalise troubles and show us an intelligent, helpful path through them.
Alain de Botton has written an un-Romantic love novel, The Course of Love, out now from
Penguin. He gives a talk on the book on May 4 in London,

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