Book Review: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

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4.5/5 Stars

Contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton’s long awaited second novel follows the relationship between Rabih and Kirsten. De Botton’s thesis is essentially this: While most love stories tell us everything we need to know about how love begins, there isn’t enough focus in our society on how it continues.

Combining Rabih and Kirsten’s fictional story with his own insights and commentary on their relationship, De Botton proposes that “enlightened romantic pessimism” is a healthier and more realistic alternative to Romanticism, the latter of which gives us unrealistic expectations of relationships and sets us up for inevitable failure.

There’s no “right person,” suggests De Botton, and in each and every longterm relationship we are doomed to encounter a variety of suffering and unfulfillment; therefore, committing to another person is akin to saying, “I’ve surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is to you I am choosing to bind myself.” Whether readers find this depressing or comforting will likely vary. (For me, it was the latter.)

Much like De Botton’s first novel, many of the insights he provides in The Course of Love are accurate to the point of discomfort. It’s not easy to identify with his propositions, yet there is universal truth to them, and there’s something distinctly comforting in that. It’s always special to read a book — particularly a work of fiction — and feel as if the writer is communicating truths about yourself that you’ve never been able to adequately acknowledge, let alone convey.

As a fan of both philosophy and fiction, I find great satisfaction in De Botton’s ability to translate profound ideas and insights into accessible and entertaining prose. The Course of Love is a captivating read, but seems as if it would be especially meaningful for individuals in the beginning phases of longterm commitment.

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Synchronicity

I’ve always appreciated Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which suggests that there is such thing as “meaningful coincidences.” According to Jung, meaningful coincidences are events that have no causal relationship, yet appear to be meaningfully related. Essentially, he believed that it was possible for events to be connected by meaning rather than causality.

As one website further explains:

“Jung believed that many experiences perceived as coincidence were due not merely to chance, but instead potentially reflected the manifestation of coincidental events or circumstances consequent to the governing dynamic of the collective unconscious.”

Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that Jung believed in many paranormal notions, including telepathy, telekinesis and ESP. And it’s not surprising that his theory of synchronicity has more or less been rejected as unscientific, dismissed as an example of apophenia.

Now, I’m not 100% on board with Jung’s concept of synchronicity. I don’t, for example, believe that acausal events are connected materially in any way. In other words, I believe that when we experience events and identify them as synchronistic, it’s entirely subjective. These events are not connected outside of ourselves, which is to say that they’re only connected because we decide they are internally.

And I think that’s okay. I think there’s still value in that.

As someone who doesn’t believe in a higher power or fate or reincarnation or life after death or universal meaning, and yet who still desires to live a meaningful life, I value experiences like synchronicity that compel me to pay attention and further analyze the world that I inhabit.

It’s the same reason I like knowing my MBTI type (INFJ) and my astrological sign (Leo). I’m well aware of the arguments against both, and I take them with a grain of salt; but I still find value in them because they encourage me to self-reflect in new ways. I understand the potential danger in this: There’s the chance that some people, among examining their MBTI type or astrological sign, may feel less secure in their identities or even begin to subconsciously take on certain personality traits that have been assigned to them. In my case, I believe that I’m aware enough of these dangers to avoid them.

My personal philosophy is derived most extensively from existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche. I believe that the universe is indifferent, and that it is up to each of us as individuals to seek and create meaning for ourselves while we’re here. If an experience is only meaningful if I choose to assign meaning to it, then I don’t see the harm in acknowledging moments that feel like what Jung called synchronicity. Those moments are meaningless on a material level, yes, but if they make me think and feel and analyze in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise, then I welcome them.

On False Memories

(Preface: I’m currently reading a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr and it’s blowing my mind.)

Studies have shown that many of our memories are false. Furthermore, when individuals have been told briefly about completely made-up things that have happened in their past, they have then been able to generate real-seeming memories about those events that never happened, and even embellish upon them as if they did.

For example: As part of an assignment set by Professor Elizabeth Loftus, a student told his 14-year-old brother, Chris, to describe the day that he had gone missing at the mall when he was much younger. Chris then recalled a detailed memory of the day at the mall when he wandered off to the toy store and realized he was lost, only to be rescued by an elderly, balding man wearing glasses and a flannel shirt. The thing is, the man doesn’t exist. He had never been lost at that mall. He had never been rescued. Chris essentially made up this entire memory, but had no idea he was making it up.

Multiple studies have supported this.

How fucked up is this? Think, for a minute, about what this says about witnesses to crimes, or even the act of interrogating a suspect. Or the impact that the media can have on a case. Research shows that false memories can be implanted in us without us knowing it, that the power of suggestion can cause us to recall memories that never even happened.

So. Fucked. Up.

The Trouble with Being Born by E.M. Cioran

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4.5/5 Stars.

Strangely enough, this was a joy to read. Cioran balances his extreme nihilism and pessimism with wicked humor and irony. Kind of like if Rust Cohle had more self-doubt and a better sense of humor. To paraphrase an Amazon review I came across, there’s something oddly life-affirming about his gleefully pessimistic meditations on death, decay, nihilism, and Buddhism. Also worth mentioning: he writes beautifully.

Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre

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3.5/5 Stars.

Re-read this bad boy for the first time in about 10 years. There’s no question about it: Camus is the better philosophical novelist. Though there’s still a lot of value in being exposed to some of Sartre’s core beliefs in digestible novel form as opposed to the significant undertaking that is Being and Nothingness.