On Love is a first novel by a young writer living in London who has had the bright idea of tracing the course of an “ordinary” love affair—initial conflagration, ecstasies, domesticities, break-up, suicide attempt, beginning of new cycle, with new lover—breaking it up into numbered paragraphs (as in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) and enclosing it in a dense network of cultural allusions. Dante, Flaubert, and Proust are at hand, but more pervasively the currently fashionable literary theorists and postmodernists: Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtin, Lacan, and Heidegger.
The restaurant was of no help, for its romantic setting made love too conspicuous, hence insincere. The romantic weakened the bond between authorial intent and language, the signifieds kept threatening infidelity.
Intimacy did not destroy the self/other slash.
Is it really her I love, I thought to myself as I looked again at Chloe reading on the sofa across the room, or simply an idea that collects itself around her mouth, her eyes, her face? In extending her expression to her whole character, was I not perhaps guilty of mistaken metonymy?
The “ordinary” couple are young, professional class, semi-affluent—she is a graphic designer on a fashion magazine and he, the narrator, is an architect—and, the “I” character contends, it is difficult for them to have a story.
Chloe and I were moderns, innermonologuers rather than adventurers. The world had been largely stripped of capacities for romantic struggle. The parents didn’t care, the jungle had been tamed, society hid its disapproval behind universal tolerance, restaurants stayed open late, credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, and sex was a duty, not a crime.
Indeed they do not achieve much of a story. Their self-doubts and quarrels, and even their intimacies, are made deliberately to run to type, and all the life and adventure is reserved for the mock-philosophic commentary. The rigidity of the author’s Cartesian or Wittgensteinian form invites some neat deadpan devices, like the reemployment of the same sentences, with a few changed epithets, to render both the scene where love dawns and where it gloomily grinds to its end.
I was [Chloe and I were] sitting in the economy section of a British Airways jet making its way [our way back] from Paris to London. We had recently crossed the Normandy coast, where a blanket of winter cloud had given way to an uninterrupted view of brilliant blue waters [dark waters below]…. There was something comforting [threatening] about the flight, the dull background throb of the engines, the hushed gray interior, the candy smiles of the airline employees. A trolley carrying a selection of drinks and snacks was making its way down the aisle and, though I was neither [both] hungry nor [and] thirsty, it filled me with the vague anticipation [nausea] that meals may elicit in aircraft.
How shall one classify this novel? One is tempted at first to suppose its genre is philistinism: the vindictive philistinism of the campus novel (a tiresome genre) or of “Tom-Stoppardism”—a matter of getting your own back on culture “knowingly” (much as Gilbert and Sullivan, so “knowingly,” got their own back on grand opera).
But actually, I think what may be involved is something else altogether. One has always vaguely puzzled over the habit of Augustan authors, Addison and Steele and their contemporaries, of bedecking their writing with quotations from Virgil and Horace and Lucan and Ovid. What puzzles is that more analysis has not been made of this all-important socio-cultural sign. For the most part, Spectator– and Tatler-type quotations serve no intellectual use at all, proving no more than (if they prove so much) that the classical world also had views on a given subject. Their function is wholly social and “connotative,” in Barthes’s sense, and they are, for a writer of this period, as indispensable as a wig. Both the educational system and the promotion system are geared to this feature of the printed book or essay. In how many anecdotes does a poor boy rise from the plough to become bishop or prime minister because some benevolent clergyman or squire overhears him repeat a Latin tag. Even the gender system is supported by it. (When Fielding’s Amelia recites a line from Virgil, her landlady faints from terror.)
This, I think, is the model for de Botton’s dealings with Heidegger, Lacan, and the deconstructionists. He is making a genial unspoken joke to the effect that these, their theories and the tags from them, now constitute a social orthodoxy as Horace and Virgil did for the Augustans. They are a shibboleth for a now very large “quality” paper-reading, university-educated educated club or in-group, the cultured many. He knows these thinkers well enough to quote them accurately and appositely, but he is not pretending, any more than Addison and Steele really pretended, to put them to more than ornamental use. When he gives us a diagram, in the Barthesian or Lacanian style, he is careful to make it quite childish (for instance a row of regular teeth, and another row with a gap in them, like Chloe’s, to illustrate the difference between the Platonic and the Kantian aesthetic). Fun with the structuralists and poststructuralists, and the actual look of their books, keeps him going in a sustained, rather engaging, and certainly wonderfully slick exercise in facetiousness. It is one in which he is depending, like other facetious writers in the past, on making the reader exclaim, enjoyably, “How true!”
In a way, the best chapter in the book is the one entitled “Marxism,” the Marx in question being not Karl but Groucho. It turns on Groucho’s brilliant though well-worn joke that he wouldn’t want to join a club that would have him as a member. The narrator’s first visit to Chloe’s flat turns out miraculously successful. They sleep together (though he had been planning no more than a polite social kiss and exit), and next morning he finds prepared for him a complete feast of a breakfast. It seems to him, causing him panic, that he not only loves but is loved. Upon which he instantly picks a perfectly outrageous quarrel over there being no strawberry jam. There are five other kinds of jam on the table, but no decent jam, no strawberry, and he oafishly leaves the breakfast to get cold while he goes out to buy some.
The (Marxist) principle is clear:
We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as beautiful, intelligent, and witty as we are ugly, stupid, and dull. But what if such a perfect being should one day turn around and decide they will love us back? We can only be somewhat shocked—how can they be as wonderful as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like us?
The thought leads the narrator to a survey of the whole theory and tradition of romantic love. Is there something in Albert Camus’s theory that we fall in love with people because they look, from the outside, so “whole,” as against our own incoherence and dispersedness? Was Denis de Rougemont right in saying that the most serious obstruction to our passion is the one to be preferred above all others? Or Anatole France, that “it is not customary to love what one has.” “Marxist” logic seems at first sight undefeatable, and the Marxist moment in relations, when it becomes clear that love is reciprocated, ought to be fatal; but in fact, in the short run at least, the novel asserts, self-love can sometimes get the better of selfhatred. “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.”
This chapter is the key to the book, in more ways than one. The book’s theme throughout is the utterly cliché nature, in these days, of the concept “love.” In one of its best scenes, the narrator and Chloe, wanting to say they love each other and desperately racking their brains for some way that is not pure cliché, at last hit on a solution: noticing the complimentary sweet the waiter has left beside their plate, they agree that they “marshmallow” each other. “And from then on, love was, for Chloe and me at least, no longer simply love. It was a sugary, puffy object a few millimeters in diameter that melts deliciously in the mouth.”
It is for something of the same reason, however, that the book does not get very far as a story or novel, if indeed it intends to. For automatic Groucho-esque self-hatred, mechanical irony, is an awkward piece of equipment for a novelist. We read that, after the narrator and Chloe, with “apologies, insults, laughter, and tears,” have got over their breakfast row, “Romeo and Juliet were to be seen together later that afternoon, mushily holding hands in the dark at a four-thirty screening of Love and Death at the National Film Theatre.” Now the tone of that does not seem quite right. Some basic sense of decorum tells us that, at this point, a novelist ought to render the lovers’ feelings straight and as they felt them, not translate them into clichés (“Romeo and Juliet,” “mushily holding hands”)—otherwise we are not reading a story. Again, when, after a failed effort at suicide (by mistake he grabs not sleeping pills but effervescent vitamin C tablets), the narrator restores his selflove by defecting from Marx to Jesus, it would be funnier if the tone for a moment became Jesus-like and not Groucho-like. Illusions have to be rendered before there is much point in puncturing them.
De Botton’s novel is itself dedicated to a cliché, of the “How true!” type, about how little we know ourselves, despite Freud, La Rochefoucauld, Roland Barthes, and Heidegger; but he has worked it up into all sorts of bright jokes and nice silly-clever ploys. This is not the last we shall hear of him.
January 13, 1994