The Paradox of Love, by Pascal Bruckner, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95, 272 pages
It’s the stuff of most novels, many films, an awful lot of poetry (and a lot of awful poetry). It’s the greatest thing, a many splendoured thing, a four-letter word, a story older than the sea. It’s all around and in the air – which helps us little in pinning it down. Prince Charles is in many ways a thoughtless man but he was on to something when, asked if he was in love with his first wife-to-be, he answered: “Yes … whatever that may mean.”
Here to help clear things up is Pascal Bruckner, a French thinker who has mercifully never fallen for the post-structuralist poppycock that convoluted prose signifies complexity of thought. The Paradox of Love is in many ways a deconstructive take on our ideas of romance and desire and obsession, yet you will seek in vain in its succession of suave pensées for a sentence that does not immediately make sense. Derrida’s obfuscation and Foucault’s obscurantism can have you shouting at the walls. Spend a few minutes in Bruckner’s company, though, and you want to read him out loud.
Which means that the reviewer’s temptation is to do nothing but quote. A few pages in, I realised I’d be better off underlining what I didn’t want to commit to memory, lest the book become a web of scrawls and scribbles. “The couple is a little principality that votes its own laws and is constantly in danger of falling into despotism or anarchy.” Whoa! And after a sentence like that you get another just like it: “Lovers are simultaneously sovereigns, diplomats, parliament, and people, all by themselves.”
In a book bursting apart with ideas, it feels almost fatuous to suggest that Bruckner has a thesis – but he has, and it is that the sexual revolution was no such thing. Far from liberating us, he argues, “the accursed parenthesis of the 1960s” did no more than usher us into new jails – jails in which we are both prisoner and guard.
We no longer refer to our “girlfriend” or our “husband”, preferring to talk of “partners”, as if they might one day be merged or even taken over, and yet we kid ourselves we have banished the idea of marriage as a business contract. We have, we think, purged ourselves of the poetic fantasy of love as a wrenching, redeeming force, and yet we expect our partners to be everything to us – lovers, confidants, managers, secretaries, friends. The result is not less but more pressure on the idea of the couple – so much so that we come to conceive of it as a self-determining republic, an arena of privacy in which that old Helen Reddy song about “you and me against the world” suddenly makes sense.
Except when it’s just me and not you. As Bruckner says, while we go on wanting both to love and to be loved, we insist, too, on holding on to our autonomy. Hence what he calls “the oxymoron par excellence” of free love – for “how can love, which attaches, be compatible with freedom, which separates?” At best this is have-your-cake-and-eat-it childishness; at worst the hypocrisy of those for whom relativism has become a kind of right-on absolute.
Bruckner couldn’t be right-on if he tried. Though he has always been on the left, he has never fallen for the masochist platitudes of post-1968 libertarians. (He once called multiculturalism the “racism of the anti-racist”. His detractors returned the compliment by claiming Bruckner’s ironic tone and joyously paradoxical style are somehow evidence of reactionary cynicism.)
Even his most admiring readers can be brought up short by one of his riper apothegms. While it may be true that “the body, in the name of which young people revolted in the 1960s, has been less liberated than standardised”, I am not sure it follows that if only women would stop dieting and get curvy again everyone would be happier. If the body politic really could be put right by the body proper, we’d have no need of books as otherwise sage as this one.