Since attending a lecture on the origins and future of humanism by Professor A. C. Grayling, convened by the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, I feel inspired to explore this thinking. It was thus a happy coincidence that my last book club reading was “The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton. De Botton, who reflects and meditates on life in an engaging and pithy way, makes philosophy most accessible. As his CV explains, he is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’

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During the book club meeting, I was content to simply follow the discussion – the room was full of worldly people – but when we considered the idea of making “The Course of Love” compulsory reading for a couple embarking upon marriage, I was compelled to mention something about my first real relationship. I had experienced euphoric waves of romantic love at the age of 23 and guessing, back then, it was true love – the love that sustains a couple over a lifetime of ups and downs –  I was married. Looking back on that crazy time, I had no idea of the troubles ahead; I was simply cocksure all would be well. Certainly I was dismissive of my father’s advice.

Romance is idolised in books, films, theatre and art – much of the media is packed with it – but there can be a dark side. Parents can often see the mistakes their children are making and romance can be heartbreaking when it fails. As an adult without children, this book speaks to me: about the all-encompassing selfless love that can be bestowed on a child, and the sacrifices and the protectionism provided by my parents are, because of it, clearer to me now.

De Botton presents the stages of love as a novel where we are introduced to Rahib, and we travel the journey of his relationship with Kirsten. The story is segmented into romanticism, ever after, children, adultery and beyond romanticism. Within each chapter, philosophical remarks (presented in italics) provide much food for thought. “The Course of Love” might be missing a retirement phase – an illustration of the later years of life at home together – but it does make you think about your relationships, past and present.

I love the section where Rahib and Kirsten seek counselling. It marks a change in their relationship where respect and friendship become more important, and finally there is an appreciation of living in the moment. It is fun to recognise some of the incisive comments and insights: ‘“What would Joanna say?” becomes a ritual playful question between them.’ My current husband and I once developed our own encoded response to the trials of life: What would Irene say?

I believe this is a book to share; as is the wonderful exhibition, “Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800.”

Our book club facilitator, come NGV guide, introduced us to some of the 200 exhibits drawn from NGV archives that represent various paintings, objects, passions and tragedies associated with love.

I was mesmerised by Bernardo Cavallino’s beautiful painting, “The Virgin Annunciate.” This human image, hanging at eye level, depicts an emotional woman, while another but more traditional image of the same event hangs nearby but higher on the wall, austere and remote.

The exhibition is located at NGV International, ground level, where entry is free until 18th June. Don’t miss it.

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