Monday, February 22, 2010

Speaking of Love by Alison Ross (Book Review)

Speaking of Love
by Alison Ross

I learned a new word while doing a bit of research about Alain de Botton's excruciatingly insightful novel, "On Love." The word is "disquisition." I like to think of myself as quite capable with regard to diction and vocabulary, but clearly some words and their usage elude my firm linguistic grasp. Which makes me think my linguistic grasp is really not so firm after all. Like a mattress, it sags and becomes soft over time. Okay, so that's a bad analogy. Maybe I'm just a dumbass after all, linguisitically, and generally.

But back to de Botton's novel, which does, indeed, read like a disquisition.

To my dismay, some reviewers have lambasted "On Love," implying that it is too consciously unconventional, even pretentious. But its obvious unorthodox style and (for me, ironic) loftiness are precisely what is so bewitching about it. It is not a novel in the typical sense of deep character development and meticulous plot construction; rather, those elements are diminished in favor of showcasing de Botton's delicious philosophical digressions, which strike to the very complex crux of what romantic love is all about.

True, we get a good enough idea as to the narrator's relationship with his girlfriend, and there is a plot in terms of action, conflict, and so on. But those aspects merely serve as launching points for de Botton's scintillating and at times hilarious aphorisms. It is far more interesting to get inside the mind of one caught the throes of love as opposed to simply reading some blandly straightforward love story. For love, it seems, is almost a psychological condition, bouyed by the sexual impulse. Indeed, one could say that sexual desire is what induces us to create a romantic universe around the object of our carnal affections. Perhaps love is just an idyllic illusion of our own crafting, after all.

I am not conjecturing that this is what de Botton's novel is saying, or even implicitly hinting. But his philosophical cogitations are so staggeringly incisive that it begs the question: is love all in the mind? If his obsessive observations resonate so precisely with my own, and, by extrapolation, with others', then cannot we posit the idea that maybe romantic love is just a dreamy rationalization for our salacious need to get it on?

Of course, I am achingly aware of the converse as well: That our libidinous longings are what give way to our emotional ecstacies. In other words, love is what happens when sexual desire intesects with our craving for both chimerical and mundane intimacy. We are, after all, creatures of the fantastical: we long to give quixotic subtext to our prosaic routine.

As noted earlier, "On Love" reads more like a disquisition than it does an actual novel. And this is what gives the book its "novelty," and why the title reads like a philosophical treatise. The book is positively packed with metaphysical meanderings that touch on everything from the awkward subtleties of a first date, to the fits and starts of falling in love, to romantic conflicts, to romantic guilt, to the politics of romance, and on and on. de Botton delves into just about every nagging nuance of passionate involvement, rendering his novel indeed, a scholarly dissertation on love.

One of my favorite aphoristic intuitions in the novel regards the narrator's insights into what he terms "romantic nostalgia." This situation occurs when a romantically attached person pines for another, but because of his or her monogamous committment, declines to physically pursue the yearning. Instead, the person afflicted invests him or herself in "nostalgic" reveries about a life never to be lived. Such situations can be psycholgically and emotionally exhausting, because they are so devastatingly fantastical.

Those who dislike de Botton's novel based on its subjugation of plot to philosophy entirely miss the point, in my estimation. They want a book that conventionally adheres to the unspoken tenets of what makes a novel. But how boring would that be about an already overtrodden topic? A much more interesting and engaging approach is to ruminate about romance in furiously obsessive-compulsive fashion, dissecting
and deconstructing it and endowing it with a more Cubist countenance than it is typically given. For love is messily convoluted and to give it a maudlin, orthodox treatment (ala the worst love songs) is to cheapen its true nature.

de Botton is on target with "On Love."

No comments: