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The anti-Valentine's book: 'Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love'

February 14, 2011 |  2:29 pm

Henrydavidthoreau Just because you like to take long walks in the woods, it doesn't mean you'll find someone to walk beside you. Henry David Thoreau, born in 1817, was one of the most important writers and thinkers of his generation, penning "Walden," a seminal work about man and nature, not to mention "Civil Disobedience," about political engagement. But when it came to love, he struck out, proposing marriage to a woman who'd already turned his brother down (Henry did no better). "Love and lust are far asunder," he wrote. "One good, the other bad."

The sad tale of the loveless Henry David Thoreau is in "Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love," a paperback original by Andrew Shaffer, out now for those haunting bookstores for the perfect Valentine's Schadenfreude.

There are 37 unlucky philosophers included. And while Thoreau's plight is not one to be envied, at least he didn't strangle his wife to death by accident.

That dubious honor goes to Louis Althusser, a leftist French philosopher born in 1918. In 1980, he was "massaging" his wife Helene's neck and "accidentally" strangled her. Judged mentally unfit to stand trial, he was institutionalized for three years before writing a memoir, "The Future Lasts Forever."

In short vignettes, the anti-Valentine's inclined can read about the love-life problems of Albert Camus (twice-married, many affairs, yet still he claimed he had "no gift for love"), Martin Heidegger (his own affairs, including one with Hannah Arendt, distracted him from his wife's dalliances, which resulted in a child) and Ayn Rand (when her affair with a man 25 years her junior ended, he left her with only her husband for comfort).

In explaining the conundrum of great minds being unlucky in love, Shaffer cites another philosopher, Bob Dylan, who sang, "You can't be in love and wise at the same time."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: An undated Daguerrotype of Henry David Thoreau. Credit: Associated Press