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Authors: Alain de Botton

The Course of Love

BOOK: The Course of Love
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The Sacred Start

In Love

Sex and Love

The Proposal

Ever After

Silly Things


Sex and Censorship


Universal Blame

Teaching and Learning


Love Lessons


The Limits of Love

Sex and Parenthood

The Prestige of Laundry


Love Rat



Irreconcilable Desires


Beyond Romanticism

Attachment Theory


Ready for Marriage

The Future

About Alain de Botton

For John Armstrong,

Mentor, colleague, friend.


The hotel is on a rocky outcrop, half an hour east of Málaga. It has been designed for families and inadvertently reveals, especially at mealtimes, the challenges of being part of one. Rabih Khan is fifteen and on holiday with his father and stepmother. The atmosphere among them is somber and the conversation halting. It has been three years since Rabih's mother died. A buffet is laid out every day on a terrace overlooking the pool. Occasionally his stepmother remarks on the paella or the wind, which has been blowing intensely from the south. She is originally from Gloucestershire and likes to garden.

A marriage doesn't begin with a proposal, or even an initial meeting. It begins far earlier, when the idea of love is born, and more specifically the dream of a soul mate.

Rabih first sees the girl by the water slide. She is about a year younger than him, with chestnut hair cut
short like a boy's, olive skin, and slender limbs. She is wearing a striped sailor top, blue shorts, and a pair of lemon-yellow flip-flops. There's a thin leather band around her right wrist. She glances over at him, pulls what may be a halfhearted smile, and rearranges herself on her deck chair. For the next few hours she looks pensively out to sea, listening to her Walkman and, at intervals, biting her nails. Her parents are on either side of her, her mother paging through a copy of
and her father reading a Len Deighton novel in French. As Rabih will later find out from the guest book, she is from Clermont-Ferrand and is called Alice Saure.

He has never felt anything remotely like this before. The sensation overwhelms him from the first. It isn't dependent on words, which they will never exchange. It is as if he has in some way always known her, as if she holds out an answer to his very existence and, especially, to a zone of confused pain inside him. Over the coming days, he observes her from a distance around the hotel: at breakfast in a white dress with a floral hem, fetching a yogurt and a peach from the buffet; at the tennis court, apologizing to the coach for her backhand with touching politeness in heavily accented English; and on an (apparently) solitary walk around the perimeter of the golf course, stopping to look at cacti and hibiscus.

It may come very fast, this certainty that another human being is a soul mate. We needn't have spoken with them; we may not even know their name. Objective knowledge doesn't come into it. What matters instead is intuition, a spontaneous feeling that seems all the more accurate and worthy of respect because it bypasses the normal processes of reason.

The infatuation crystallizes around a range of elements: a flip-flop hanging nonchalantly off a foot; a paperback
of Hermann Hesse's
lying on a towel next to the sun cream; well-defined eyebrows; a distracted manner when answering her parents and a way of resting her cheek in her palm while taking small mouthfuls of chocolate mousse at the evening buffet.

Instinctively he teases out an entire personality from the details. Looking up at the revolving wooden blades of the ceiling fan in his room, in his mind Rabih writes the story of his life with her. She will be melancholy and street-smart. She will confide in him and laugh at the hypocrisy of others. She will sometimes be anxious about parties and around other girls at school, symptoms of a sensitive and profound personality. She'll have been lonely and will never until now have taken anyone else into her full confidence. They'll sit on her bed playfully enlacing their fingers. She, too, won't ever have imagined that such a bond could be possible between two people.

Then one morning, without warning, she is gone and a Dutch couple with two small boys are sitting at her table. She and her parents left the hotel at dawn to catch the Air France flight home, the manager explains.

The whole incident is negligible. They are never to meet again. He tells no one. She is wholly untouched by his ruminations. Yet, if the story begins here, it is because—although so much about Rabih will alter and mature over the years—his understanding of love will for decades retain precisely the structure it first assumed at the Hotel Casa Al Sur in the summer of his sixteenth year. He will continue to trust in the possibility of rapid, wholehearted understanding and empathy between two human beings and in the chance of a definitive end to loneliness.

He will experience similarly bittersweet longings for other lost soul mates spotted on buses, in the aisles of grocery stores, and in the reading rooms of libraries. He will have
precisely the same feeling at the age of twenty, during a semester of study in Manhattan, about a woman seated to his left on the northbound C train; and at twenty-five in the architectural office in Berlin where he is doing work experience; and at twenty-nine on a flight between Paris and London after a brief conversation over the English Channel with a woman named Chloe: the feeling of having happened upon a long-lost missing part of his own self.

For the Romantic, it is only the briefest of steps from a glimpse of a stranger to the formulation of a majestic and substantial conclusion: that he or she may constitute a comprehensive answer to the unspoken questions of existence.

The intensity may seem trivial—humorous, even—yet this reverence for instinct is not a minor planet within the cosmology of relationships. It is the underlying central sun around which contemporary ideals of love revolve.

The Romantic faith must always have existed, but only in the past few centuries has it been judged anything more than an illness; only recently has the search for a soul mate been allowed to take on the status of something close to the purpose of life. An idealism previously directed at gods and spirits has been rerouted towards human subjects—an ostensibly generous gesture nevertheless freighted with forbidding and brittle consequences, for it is no simple thing for any human being to honor over a lifetime the perfections he or she might have hinted at to an imaginative observer in the street, the office, or the adjoining airplane seat.

It will take Rabih many years and frequent essays in love to reach a few different conclusions, to recognize that the very things he once considered romantic—wordless intuitions, instantaneous longings, a trust in soul mates—are what stand in the way of learning how to
be with someone. He will surmise that love can endure only when one is unfaithful to its beguiling opening ambitions, and that, for his relationships to work, he will need to give up on the feelings that got him into them in the first place. He will need to learn that love is a skill rather than an enthusiasm.

The Sacred Start

In the early days of their marriage, and for many years thereafter, it is always the same question for Rabih and his wife: “How did you two meet?”—usually accompanied by an anticipatory air of playful, vicarious excitement. The couple then typically look at one another—sometimes a little shyly when the whole table has stopped to listen—to determine who should tell it this time. Depending on the audience, they may play it for wit or for tenderness. It can be condensed into a line or fill a chapter.

The start receives such disproportionate attention because it isn't deemed to be just one phase among many; for the Romantic, it contains in a concentrated form everything significant about love as a whole. Which is why, in so many love stories, there is simply nothing else for the narrator to do with a couple after they have triumphed over a range of initial obstacles other than to consign them to an ill-defined contented future—or kill them off. What we typically call love is only the start of love.

It is peculiar, Rabih and his wife observe, how seldom they are asked about what has happened to them since they met, as if the real story of their relationship didn't belong to an area of legitimate or fruitful curiosity. Never have they publicly fielded the one question that truly preoccupies them: “What is it like to have been married awhile?”

The stories of relationships, maintained over decades, without obvious calamity or bliss, remain—fascinatingly and worryingly—the exceptions among the narratives we dare to tell ourselves about love's progress.

It happens like this, the start that gets too much attention: Rabih is thirty-one and a resident in a city that he hardly knows or understands. He used to live in London but recently moved to Edinburgh for work. His former architectural practice shed half its staff after the unexpected loss of a contract, and redundancy forced him to cast his professional net wider than he would have liked—which eventually led him to accept a job with a Scottish urban-design studio specializing in plazas and road junctions.

He has been single for a few years, since the failure of a relationship with a graphic designer. He has joined a local health club and signed up with a dating Web site. He has been to the opening of a gallery exhibiting Celtic artifacts. He has attended a stream of events loosely connected to his work. All in vain. A few times he has felt an intellectual connection with a woman but no physical one—or the other way around. Or, worse still, a glimmer of hope and then the mention of a partner, usually standing on the other side of the room, wearing a prison warden's expression.

Still, Rabih doesn't give up. He is a Romantic. And eventually,
after many empty Sundays, it happens at last, almost as he has been taught—largely by art—to expect that it will.

The roundabout is on the A720 heading south from central Edinburgh, connecting the main road to a cul-de-sac of executive homes facing a golf course and a pond—a commission which Rabih takes on less out of interest than because of the obligations that come with his modest ranking in his company's pecking order.

On the client's side, the supervisory role is initially assigned to a senior member of the city council's surveying team; but the day before the project is due to start, the man suffers a bereavement, and a more junior colleague is moved across to take his place.

They shake hands at the construction site on an overcast morning in early June, a little after eleven. Kirsten McLelland is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a hard hat, and a pair of heavy rubber-soled boots. Rabih Khan can't hear anything much of what she is saying, not only because of the repetitive shudder of a nearby hydraulic compressor, but also because, as he will come to discover, Kirsten often talks rather softly, in the voice of her native Inverness that has a habit of trailing off before sentences are entirely complete, as though she has halfway through discovered some objection to what she has been saying or has simply moved on to other priorities.

BOOK: The Course of Love
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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