If one ever needed further confirmation that smart people don’t necessarily make outstanding mates, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love is a great starting point. Andrew Shaffer has assembled the lacking love stories of 37 philosophers, mostly male, whose words may have stood the test of time, but their ability to personally connect did not. From 350 B.C. and Diogenes the Cynic’s chronic (and public) masturbation and defecation habits, up until Louis Althusser “accidentally” strangles his wife in 1980, there’s a lot here that will have you muttering, “These guys were absolutely mental.”
Each entry is short — There’s a photo or artistic representation of the person, followed by a brief history in regards to their love life, followed by a bit of their own words. The stories and thoughts are both hilarious and worrisome:
Meanwhile [Jean-Paul] Sartre adopted his Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, as his daughter in 1965. Neither he nor [Simone de] Beauvoir had any children of their own, and the adoption was a legal necessity to ensure the sanctity of his literary legacy. Elkaïm was named the executor of Sartre’s estate upon his death in 1980. Not to be outdone, Beauvoir adopted one of her own lovers, Sylvie Le Bon, as her daughter after Sartre passed away — and named Le Bon the executor of her estate.
Despite the uncommon nature of their romance, Beauvoir and Sartre are forever linked by virtue of being buried together in a shared grave in Paris.
Elsewhere, there’s the coldness with which Ayn Rand and her affair-mate Nathaniel Branden inform their spouses that they’d like to have an emotional affair. Branden wrote of the moment by saying that Ayn spoke with:
[…]the persistence of a drill cutting through granite. After Barbara and Frank flared up in angry protest, Ayn became still warmer, gentler, and more implacable. She acknowledged their feelings, conveyed compassion for their pain, and tried to make them accept the situation with the single-mindedness of a military commander.
On one hand, one could sort of respect the chutzpah of just laying it all out, but on the other… Damn, that’s harsh. Of course, the two did eventually end up sleeping together for awhile, Rand with her “single-tracked concentration with which she did everything else,” until Branden began seeing a fashion model named Patrecia Scott. Predictably, Rand puffed up with arrogance and swore that Branden would be nothing without her. He went on to publish a bestselling book, The Psychology of Self-Help.
Further on the side of existential, lovelorn despair, we have Nietzsche and his madness by way of untreated syphilis, Heidegger joining the Nazi party despite having a Jewish mistress (she left him, unsurprisingly), and Sartre seeing several women at a time, in addition to the aforementioned Beauvoir and Elkaïm. “It’s amazing that he ever found the time to write,” Shaffer says.
There’s also a fair share of misogyny, chastity, and closeted sexuality, and Shaffer covers a sizable chunk of the philosophers that most people have heard of — Thoreau, Socrates, John Locke, etc.
There’s not really a lot to analyze here — If you dabble in psychology or philosophy, or if you want to send a funny gift to a student of these subjects, this is a decent book. Shaffer also makes his living as a off-beat greeting card writer, so the site for the book has plenty of amusing merchandise that ties in with quotes from the people mentioned in the book. It’s a quick read and the anti-chinstroke to other books on the subject of the historically notable in love.
Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.