Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why The Romantic Movement will make you feel less alone

The Romantic Movement by Alain de Botton (1994)

When I started reading this book, my first thought was, haven't I read this before? It turns out I had, only instead of The Romantic Movement it was called On Love, and instead of Alice and Eric it was Chloe and the unnamed narrator. In both cases, de Botton writes with exquisite detail and insight describing the rise and fall of a relationship. The genius of de Botton is his accessibility; in both books the reader is sure to recognize himself or herself in the characters, again and again. The interesting thing about The Romantic Movement is that it is told from the woman's point of view, which leads me to wonder how exactly de Botton manages to be so spot on in his description of a quirkily neurotic, cultured and intelligent yet insecure, and loveable yet mostly unlucky in love woman. How could de Botton, as a man, possibly understand what it's like to be a woman waiting for a man to call her back, or how it feels to have one's attentions rebuffed by a distracted and remote control-wielding boyfriend? And yet he does, somehow, delving so adeptly into the female psyche that it leads me to wonder if men have been playing the bumbling male card for centuries now, when actually they know exactly what they're doing. Perhaps, and this is just a theory, but perhaps they are not the clueless apes they are sometimes made out to be. Perhaps they know exactly how it makes us feel when they don't call, or when they cancel plans at the last minute to hang out with the guys, or when they flirt with the waitress. Perhaps they know, and they do it anyway. Or maybe de Botton is possessed with writerly insights and male intuition above and beyond those of the average man. The world may never know.

De Botton peppers his prose with insights from philosophers, artists and writers from throughout the ages, mostly French (bien sûr), with names dropping off of every page: from Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol, Plato to Proust, and Rousseau to Rimbaud, with a smattering of Descartes and a healthy helping of Flaubert for good measure. You don't have to be an expert on Greek mythology, German philosophy, pop art or 19th century French literature to enjoy this book. But having at least a passing knowledge does help. If, like me, you've spent the last two years in a grad school literature program, spending day after day in lectures where it's all "Hegel this" and "Schopenhauer that," then de Botton's style will sound completely normal to you. If not, then he may come off as a bit, and I'm just guessing here, but possibly maybe a bit pretentious. In fact, I'm imagining what it would be like to go on a date with him, and I'm thinking it would go a little something like this: "Mmm...this burrito is so good, it's like Plato's perfect ideal of a burrito. It's's like Proust's madeleines, I'm suddenly overwhelmed with childhood memories of sitting in our local burrito shop and eating burritos with my mother. And yet for Emma Bovary, this burrito would represent the exoticism and romance of the cosmopolitan existence that she always yearned for and was ultimately never able to attain." And I would smile and nod politely, thinking, "Just eat the damn burrito so I can go home and blog about you, you cheapskate. Burritos indeed." On the plus side, de Botton's is a sort of philosophy lite, mostly accessible to the lay person, and punctuated with bursts of irreverance, like in this gem where he refers to Hegel as "ultimately only a most average thinker possessed of two or three good ideas and an atrocious inability to express himself." Which gives us a point of reference for this book: de Botton borrows the good ideas of great thinkers and rewrites them with an eloquence that creates an impression of ingenuity. The themes unearthed in this book are nothing new, but the way de Botton writes about them is.

In addition to the exstasies and agonies of relationships, there is also an entire chapter dedicated to travel, hinting at his 2002 book The Art of Travel (packed in my carry-on as we speak), and perhaps lending weight to the impression that if you've read one Alain de Botton book you've read 'em all. I suspect that this may be an injustice, but as it stands I haven't read enough of his works to decide. I plan to fix that, though, working my way through The Art of Travel and following that with How Proust Can Change Your Life. While I run the risk of it being more of the same, I hope and suspect I'll be pleasantly surprised. I've got de Botton in my veins and I'm craving more.

You should read The Romantic Movement if you've ever been in a relationship that failed. (And if you haven't, I don't even want to talk to you. What are you doing here, anyway?) You should read it if you've ever mentally picked someone apart and are fascinated by what makes people tick. You should read it if you've ever sat around wondering why he or she didn't call. This book may not answer your questions, but it will make you feel less alone, knowing that other people are wondering about exactly the same things.

So how about you? Does this sound like something you would read, or would you not touch it with a 10-foot pole?


  1. I think most men probably know exactly what they're doing. Well, scratch that, it sounds too depressing. Maybe de Botton was a woman in a previous life. Or watched a lot of Sex and the City. Or something.

    Since I do indeed have a passing knowledge of 19th century French literature (I passed the class, at least) I will have to check out 'The Romantic Movement.' It sounds interesting.

  2. It sounds too high-brow for me. Not that I read chick-lit or anything trashy like that, but this sounds like too much of a hard read. And I think that I probably like your review more than I'd like the book. Not that you're not high-brow, Rachel. (If that came out wrong, I meant it in a flattering way.)

  3. It's actually a ridiculously easy read. There's diagrams and pictures and everything! I think I'm perhaps giving the wrong impression of it. I mean, there is the name dropping part of it, but I'd say at least 75% of it is really banal conversation between the main characters. Granted it may not be everyone's taste, which I totally get, but it's not a hard read, I promise you. :)

  4. Not even with a 20-foot pole, I'm afraid.

    As to your theory about men, you have missed a key point: we really are clueless--at least in the sense that we are not terribly interested in what women think on most points, with the possible exception of the "was-that-the-best-you-ever-had" category. And a few beers with the guys while discussing whether Josh Beckett has a better curve ball is more devotly to be desired than an hour with any woman you can name. Men (at least most young American men before 40) are terribly solipsistic animals. It is due in part to an American culture that actually thinks perpetual male adolescence is a positive attribute. Men in this country are infantalized to an inordinate degree. Mix that with four million years of lousy evolutionary tendencies that no longer serve us very well and there you are. (Yes, of course there are exceptions.) Anyway, I think women can take one consolation from this: it really, truly is not your fault.

    So was that good for you? :)

  5. don't forget who got it all started for you! ME! your sis. i gave you the on love book, or you stole it or something. remember? aww i feel like i helped :)