The Incurable Romantic and Other Unsettling Revelations by Frank Tallis - review by Jane O'Grady

Jane O'Grady

Confessions of a Love Doctor

The Incurable Romantic and Other Unsettling Revelations


Little, Brown 276pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Any number of inconvenient feelings and behaviours are now pathologised. You can be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, or as a gambling, shopping or internet addict. Yet, oddly, it seems quaint to us that in the ancient world you could have complained to your doctor of love sickness and been offered a variety of remedies. Frank Tallis, a clinical psychologist, says that in the eight years he studied psychology, he only received one hour’s teaching on the subject of romantic love, and that mental health professionals tend to treat patients distressed by it as if they are merely silly or behaving like teenagers. All of us, he says, tend to ‘trivialise’ an aspect of the human condition that Hippocrates, Lucretius and Avicenna took justifiably seriously. 

Tallis presents a series of case histories of lovesick patients. Megan, a barrister’s clerk, suffers from the delusory condition known as de Clérambault’s syndrome: opening her eyes after coming round from general anaesthetic, she became convinced that the dentist who had just extracted her tooth was in love with her, after which she continually phoned and wrote to him, even confronting him in the street to demand he explain why he was too cowardly to leave his wife for her. Paul, a well-educated young banker, refuses to accept that the ‘totally perfect’ girlfriend who has left him won’t recognise that they were made for one another. Tallis wonders whether, had Paul not met her, he would just as thoroughly have idealised some other woman instead. The ‘good paedophile’ is totally obsessed with his friends’ six-year-old daughter and with trying to curb his attraction to her. Similarly Jim, a night porter, is (less successfully) struggling with his compulsion to visit prostitutes, which he insists is due to the devil possessing him. Wealthy, married Ali frequents prostitutes too, not for sex but for romance: he wants each of them to fall in love with him, but whenever his fraudulent courting actually achieves that goal, he instantly moves on to the next pursuit.

What qualifies these people as ‘unwell’ seems mainly to be the lopsidedness of their love – that it is not reciprocated. But is it just a case of this one-sided mania seeming more like a pathology when the love object is (for whatever reason) inappropriate? Is normal love simply the happy coincidence of two de Clérambault’s syndrome sufferers concocting separate romances simultaneously?

Although the case histories may elicit such questions from the reader, Tallis doesn’t actually ask them or quite fulfil what he seems to promise, which is an in-depth probe into romantic love. The book is more a series of well-told stories, with interesting characters, including Tallis himself, an unusually modest and honest psychologist who is quite prepared to admit, and demonstrate, how unlikely it is that a ‘cure’ for this sort of mental distress will ever be found. Astute, self-deprecating and funny, he describes his reluctance to diagnose one of his Indian patients when she complained of hearing the voices of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and Shiva, god of destruction – and how her husband (also Indian) was having none of this cultural sensitivity. ‘“Isn’t it obvious?” he said impatiently. “She’s bloody mad.”’ Along the way, we get other illustrative anecdotes and are told about ‘assortative mating’ (evolutionary biologists’ label for the way we each tend to pair with someone of roughly equivalent attractiveness), ‘the just-world hypothesis’ (a social psychology term for the popular assumption that everyone deserves what they get, and gets what they deserve), polyamorous communes, spiritualism in 19th-century Paris, and Pierre Janet’s hypnosis technique.

But the informative gems, and Tallis’s humour and astuteness, cannot quite compensate for the lack of analysis. He touches on the matter of whether romantic love is socially fabricated: whether, as La Rochefoucauld suggests, people would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about. And he mentions one of the original sources of romantic love, the troubadours’ songs in the 11th century, which told of high-born ladies inflaming knightly passions. But his account of courtly love is perfunctory and superficial. He dogmatically plumps for only one of the multiple explanations of its origins and fails to explore the fascinating depths that still inform the cult of romantic love that has developed from it.

Also tantalisingly brief is his treatment of the Greek myth that explains erotic love as the result of Zeus slicing the first globular, double-genitaled humans in two and scattering the severed halves. Ever since, each half of what was once whole is perpetually seeking its other half, longing to fuse with it. Tallis calls this ‘Plato’s myth’, which is misleading. It is only one of several accounts of the origins of erotic love offered by characters in Plato’s Symposium, this one by the character Aristophanes, who, as a writer of comedies in real life and lampooner of the revered Socrates, is hardly likely to be voicing Plato’s own views. Aristophanes’s account, which initially seems so charming, may be meant to describe a potentially unhealthy form of love. This certainly makes it an apt reference point in the case of Paul, with his solipsistic insistence that, whatever she may think, his ex-girlfriend is indisputably his soulmate, but Tallis does not attempt to untangle its possible connotations. It remains an undigested gobbet of his own erudition, its significance unexplored. Ultimately, for all its plums of learning and glints of insight, The Incurable Romantic remains an unsatisfying read.

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