Just a few weeks ago, in an interview commemorating his 70th birthday, a journalist from New Scientist magazine asked Professor Stephen Hawking what he thinks during the day.
“Women,” Hawking said. “They’re a complete mystery.”
One of the greatest minds of our time admitting to total bafflement by the opposite sex is less a revelation than a verification of what most of us already know: the heart and the brain are seldom, if ever, on speaking terms. How often have you said “What was I thinking?” after a bad romance… as though you weren’t there but instead hired a temp to get it up and running and by then it was really out of your hands. “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” Blaise Pascal said, and Woody Allen (who would paraphrase that as “The heart has its reasons,”) wrapped the whole thing up neatly in Annie Hall with “Intellectuals prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on but on the other hand the body does not lie…”
We’ve become smart enough to unclog, transplant and maintain our hearts but once they’re broken it takes something more than intelligence to bring them back.
That’s a bit depressing, especially if you believed your parents when they (hopefully) dunned you into getting a good education… cleverly leaving out the fact that it wouldn’t help you one iota in matters of the heart (an omission you, not being as educated yet as you would become, failed to notice).
On the bright side there is a great little book that might convince you that there’s an upside to not being the sharpest knife in the drawer (aside from George Bush’s bank book). The book is Andrew Shafffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, a compendium world-famous eggheads whose love lives stunk on ice… maybe not because of their intellects but most certainly in spite of them.
I read about Shaffer’s book in Mental Floss (the print version) and was lucky to get my hands on it quickly. It gave me a nice big pillow of schadenfreude, letting me take comfort in the fact that even if I could become one of the world’s brain boxes it wouldn’t necessarily improve my chances of having a great, or even passable, personal life.
Take, for example Friedrich Nietzsche, one existentialist famous for the declaring that “God is dead!” and vehement condemnation of religious sexual repression (not to mention a mustache that makes Ned Flanders’ look like John Waters’). Nietczhe was terribly unlucky in love; his marriage proposals to different women were repeatedly turned down and in the end he decided that marriage for him would be “asininity.” He had sex “on doctors orders,” orders which may have lead him to endure a bad case of syphilis for which he was treated but which caused him chronic health problems. Then there’s poor Henry David Thoreau, the “Walden” author, lover of and believer in the power of nature, whose most famous quote is likely that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He may well have been talking about himself, seeing as the one woman he believed to be the love of his life turned down his proposal (his neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Thoreau “ugly as sin”) and he may well have been quietly and desperately gay. “…even while he was in the forest Thoreau was in the closet,” Shaffer quotes columnist Nicholas Collias as saying of the author.
French philosopher Jean-Jaques Rosseau is most famous for the striking quote “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Speaking of chains and striking, Shaffer says that Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions, spoke of his interest in spanking, being dominated and he enjoyed exposing himself to women. Publicly, however, he proffered marriage as integral to a healthy society, though he had many affairs and abandoned all five of his own children…personally…to a foundling hospital, only marrying their mother afterwards and referring to her as his “housekeeper.”
Shaffer gives us the skinny on the private lives of 37 philosophers, all full of various types of affairs, angst, desire, despair and scandal in nicely portioned bite-sized pieces, perfect for the short-attention span reader who likes to graze and jump around (as I do). He doesn’t go into much detail about their actual doctrines, probably assuming you’ll know who they are, but the ones with whom you’re unfamiliar are just as much fun to get cozy with. I, for example, had never heard of Louis Althusser, an influential 20th century Marxist who had a nervous breakdown after his first sexual experience and who later “accidentally” strangled his wife (he was “judged mentally unfit to stand trial”).
There are, interestingly, only two women represented but those — Ayn Rand and Simone de Beauvoir have juicy stories to their credit, specifically de Beauvoir whose ties to another philosopher — Jean-Paul Sartre — is a heart-warming account of an open relationship. There are a number of religious figures including St. Augustine of Hippo, famous for saying “Lord, grant me chastity and continence…but not yet.”
A saint offering up such a human dilemma as a prayer is the microcosmic reason Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, is so attractive. We think of philosophers as too dry and brainy to be effected by the messiness of love and sex but they’re not. No one is. And when it’s driving you nuts it’s comforting to know that it drives the smartest people in the world nuts, too. So don’t worry Professor Hawking, I won’t say that some things are better left a mystery because that’s clearly just defensive BS. I will say that sometimes the smartest thing to do is not try to figure it out. Just enjoy the piece of love while you have it….and enjoy the peace of mind when you don’t.