AUGUST 27, 2020
You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.
— Oscar Wilde
I’M CERTAIN OSCAR WILDE never said this. On the most obvious level, it’s a fake quote because Oscar Wilde died in 1900, when cars were extremely rare (though as quoteinvestigator.com points out, Oscar Wilde did once get to see a friend’s automobile, remarking that “they, like all machines, are more wilful than animals — nervous, irritable, strange things”). But more than that, it’s a misattribution because if anyone was going to love someone for their looks or clothes, it would be Wilde. He would be the last person to articulate a philosophy of romantic love that disavowed beauty or style. Above all, it’s fake because it’s a cliché. Wilde’s whole epigram formula and raison d’être was to turn conventional wisdom on its head, especially with regard to love.
This counterfeit Wilde-ism is one of the countless quotable quotes that make up a high percentage of the word count of The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time by philosopher Aaron Ben-Ze’ev. Each of the many short, separately titled sections in each chapter (sample sections: “What Do Singles Really Want?” and “How Soon Should Widows Fall in Love Again?”) has at least one epigraph, sometimes two, and the text in each section often contains further eclectic quotations that are dropped in just for flavor or illustration. (A sample paragraph from “Being a Good-Enough Partner” juxtaposes contrasting sayings from Carrie Bradshaw and Confucius.) Amid the deluge of maxims by luminaries from Jane Austen to Rodney Dangerfield, certain names pop up repeatedly. In addition to four quotes attributed to Wilde, the book contains two from Joan Rivers, three from Marilyn Monroe, four from Zsa Zsa Gabor, and five from Mae West. There are also 34 epigraphs from a person or persons referred to as “A MARRIED WOMAN,” who opines on matters ranging from online relationships to orgasms. With the exception of the fake Wilde quote, all the quotes tend to be far livelier than the surrounding prose. (To better convey a sense of the reading experience of The Arc of Love, this review follows its short sub-sections-with-epigraphs style. Each of the epigraphs in this review is taken from the book.)
The Arc of Love is billed as a philosophical account of love with real-world relevance — a work of self-help for people who prefer their relationship advice to have gone through the peer review process at the University of Chicago Press. But it often feels less like a relationship guide or academic monograph and more like 278 pages of Wikiquote search results on love interrupted with occasional philosophical digressions. More than once I found myself wishing that Ben-Ze’ev had either just compiled the quotes and let them speak for themselves, or that he had done more to engage with the particularity, humor, and range of their various voices. Instead, he uses them as rainbow sprinkles on a fairly bland cake.
The thesis of the book is perhaps the most clichéd of all conventional wisdom on love — a convention that is shorthanded in the world of romance novels as “HEA” — the genre-defining “Happily Ever After” ending. Working in the somewhat different genre of academic philosophy, Ben-Ze’ev expresses HEA as a proposition, not a plot point: “Not only is enduring, profound love possible; it is also more common than most of us think.” Though occasionally he acknowledges that not everyone wants this particular happy ending, most of the time he takes for granted its supreme desirability, referring to “profound romantic love” as “the greatest prize of all.”
Though Ben-Ze’ev claims that “the idea that passion can last a lifetime has lost its luster in modern times,” implying that his argument is boldly going against the grain by returning to tradition, I’m skeptical. For one thing, the idea that passion can and should last a lifetime is itself a relatively recent and culturally specific invention (as he himself eventually admits), as is the idea that people’s primary relationship should be based on passion. In most times and places, passion and lifelong commitment have been seen as mostly or entirely separate, if not as incompatible opposites. Though Ben-Ze’ev briefly cites historians of marriage like Stephanie Coontz who debunk nostalgic marriage myths, and though he fleetingly alludes to relationship forms like arranged marriages, he never really reckons with their implications for his argument. Also: Has he ever been to a wedding? The idea that passion can last a lifetime is still pretty mainstream.
Ben-Ze’ev makes his not especially groundbreaking HEA argument via abstract generalizations and authoritatively asserted taxonomies. I will taxonomize some of his generalizations in the section that follows.
Toward a Taxonomy of Generalizations
All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.
— Ellen Glasgow
Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. […] You can’t have one without the other.
— Sammy Cahn (The Arc of Love ascribes these words to Frank Sinatra, who sang but did not write them)
Aside from quoting, The Arc of Love consists largely of sorting and generalizing. The book’s compulsion to sort is as extreme as it is arbitrary. A search of the ebook of The Arc of Love informs me that the word “type” is used 102 times. According to Ben-Ze’ev, there are three major types of emotional experiences (acute, extended, and enduring); three types of marriage throughout history (pragmatic, love-based, and self-fulfilling); three types of a lover’s attitude toward a beloved (a mere wish, a want or desire, or a full-fledged desire); two major forms of romantic compromises (giving up alluring alternatives and compromising on the choice of the partner); three types of “one-sided sex” (pity sex, charity sex, and peace-inducing sex); two major types of sexual generosity (taking part in undesired sexual interactions with one’s partner and passively allowing one’s partner to get sexual satisfaction with someone else); and the list goes on. I was particularly tickled by Ben-Ze’ev’s confident ranking of casual sexual relationships from least to most meaningful (one-night stands, booty calls, fuck buddies, and friends with benefits).
I found most of these categories to be more tautological than illuminating, but Ben-Ze’ev’s taxonomical impulse was contagious, and I couldn’t help classifying his generalizations as I read. I concluded that The Arc of Love contains two major types of generalizations: 1) shallow truisms, or what one might term Captain Obvious statements, and 2) dubious and outdated claims, or what one could call Get Off My Lawn statements.
Examples of “Captain Obvious” statements:
“[M]any human desires are doomed to remain unfulfilled, even though we try our best to fulfill them.”
“Our commitment to someone we have been with for ten years is far greater than to the one we are with for merely ten minutes.”
“[T]here should be good reasons to breach a romantic commitment.”
“‘[T]he more the merrier’ holds true up to a point, after which ‘one can have too much of a good thing.’”
“[L]ove is not like a library book; you cannot replace your partner every week.”
“Wine, love, and sex are natural bedfellows.”
“Being sexually generous is not the same as having sexual affairs.”
“Sexual interactions are important in enduring romantic love because they involve more than the momentary peak of an orgasm.”
“Sex seems essentially different from eating because of the intrinsic value of human beings.”
“I would guess that following the heart here would often be the way to go.”
“Alas, there is no formula for love.”
Examples of “Get Off My Lawn” statements:
“[S]ince Nat King Cole first sang this beautiful song, the romantic world has become much more restless. These days, romantic excitement often endures only until the morning after.”
“The many alluring possibilities currently available have made love in modern times a rather fluid concept. Accordingly, romantic bonds tend to be frailer than in the past. Such possibilities prevent us from enjoying long-term profound romantic experiences.”
“The internet and mobile applications present a serious threat to monogamous relationship in general and marriage in particular.”
“The attitude of many lovers (though less so these days) toward virginity (that is, women’s virginity) is positive; violating virginity before marriage carries a negative connotation. Virginity does not merely refer to a temporal order but to the pure normative state of a woman, who gives her virginity only to the one who loves her enough to marry her.”
(On flirting, which he calls “romantic window-shopping”): “It may be enjoyable or even advisable to engage in romantic window-shopping, but it is also prudent not to sell or buy cheap.”
I realize that taxonomies and generalizations are the substance of much of academic philosophy, and that part of my resistance to the book is doubtless the generic mismatch between essayists like me, who tend to dwell in particulars, and philosophers like Ben-Ze’ev, who tend to dwell in abstractions. Even making allowances for genre preference, however, I found Ben-Ze’ev’s philosophizing unpersuasive. Some of his statements are difficult, if not impossible, to disagree with. Others seem startlingly out of touch. The overall effect is of a nostalgic and patronizing person telling the reader what they already know, with occasional complaints about modern times and the internet. (Ben-Ze’ev wrote a book about emotions and the internet in 2004.)
I appreciate Ben-Ze’ev’s attempt to bring philosophy to bear on everyday life and vice versa, and to write about it for a general audience. He is trying to make philosophy both practical and accessible, and to give people new ways to think about their most intimate relationships. These are worthwhile goals — even noble ones. But for better and for worse (if I may), the results in this case don’t seem that earthshaking. The book is as comfortable and unsurprising as a marriage in the doldrums.
I love you — I am at rest with you — I have come home.
— Dorothy L. Sayers
Ultimately, Ben-Ze’ev’s not especially startling conclusion is that HEA is achieved through moderation and compromise. He makes a case for what he calls “Mild (Not Wild) Intensity,” and recommends searching for “a good-enough partner, who offers the chance of a moderately profound relationship, although this lover might not be the hottest.”
How compelling you find this conclusion depends on how much you value wild intensity and hot partners, as well as how much you accept a hierarchy of relationships in which romantic love is by definition a “more comprehensive and complex” relationship than friendship, the prize at the top of the heap.
I imagine that there are many people in the middle of long relationships who might find some affirmation and comfort in Ben-Ze’ev’s argument. But when I finished the book, I couldn’t help thinking about some words Oscar Wilde actually wrote that appear nowhere in The Arc of Love: “One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.”
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019), a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY.