Archive for September 21st, 2011

This is the transcript of a talk I gave on Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel” for my creative writing masters, c. 2005.

Alain de Botton has made a name for himself writing popular philosophy. In a review of de Botton’s best-selling Consolations of Philosophy, in the Independent, Christina Hardyment wrote: “Singlehandedly, de Botton has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose: helping us to live our lives.” In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton considered the works of six great Western philosophers – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – and drew from them ideas he found of particular value and relevance to modern life.

This was a theme he had already explored in depth in his earlier publications, Essays in Love, published in 1993 when the author was only twenty-three years old, The Romantic Movement, 1994, Kiss and Tell, 1995 and the best-selling How Proust can change your life, published 1997.

Philosophy, poetry and theory do not normally attract popular attention owing to a misguided conception that they bear no relation to the practical and exist solely for the gratification of intellectuals commonly derided for their social disjunction. What de Botton succeeds in doing so masterfully is to reveal the simplicity and humanity of much philosophical writing, poetry and theory by putting it into the context of personal experiences which are familiar to all of us. At the same time, whilst locating material parallels for these ideas in the quotidian, he avoids making them appear mundane or banal. The high brow becomes palatable by removing its intimidating veneer, but without cheapening or ridiculing the evident seriousness with which much of these ideas were initially produced, except where were they were, to some degree, designed to be amusingly provocative.

In the Art of Travel de Botton examines themes in the psychology of travel; how we imagine places before we have visited them, how we interpret places upon arrival, and how we shape our recollections of places upon our return.

As is the case with How Proust can Change your Life, The Art of Travel is really a collection of essays. The text is divided into five parts under the thematic rubrics of Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return. Each of these parts is further subdivided into chapters with subtitles such as On Anticipation and On Travelling Places. On the title page of each chapter, de Botton provides a sort of itinerary for what is to come; a handy list accompanied by thumbnail illustrations not only of the place or places he intends to discuss, but also the guide or guides through whose eyes or with whose thoughts he will consider the place or places. Thus, in the first chapter, On Anticipation, de Botton considers his own locale, Hammersmith in London, and his impending holiday destination, Barbados, through the eyes of Joris-Karl Huysmans. In his 1884 novel, A Rebours, Huysmans’ “effete and misanthropic hero”, the Duc des Esseintes, attempts a journey to London. He makes it as far an English tavern near the Gare St Lazare, where, after a meal of oxtail soup, smoked haddock, roast beef and potatoes, two pints of ale and a chunk of stilton, he is overcome by lassitude.

“He thought how wearing it would be actually to go to London, how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in queues, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely described – and thus soil his dreams. ‘What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food and even cutlery were all about him? What could he expect over there but fresh disappointments?’”

De Botton applies the lesson of contrast between anticipation and realisation to his own experience of a holiday to Barbados. The promised lures of a travel brochure with its palm trees and spotless beaches are soon darkened by a cloud of anxieties. Shortly after arrival, fretting about concerns he ought to have left behind, de Botton notes that:

“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

He adds:

“My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination.”

In the chapters that follow, de Botton continues with this clever interspersing of accounts of real and imagined journeys with personal, anecdotal accounts of his own travel experiences. The tight and entertaining summaries of the thoughts and ideas of his guides make clear and immediate the experience of these writers, artists and thinkers. The anecdotal accounts make even clearer just how quotidian are the concerns of many of his guides, and are further enriched with photographs of his own personal spaces and acquaintances.

He applies the techniques of the anthropologist and ethnographer in examining social artefacts and extrapolating from them about the society they represent. In describing the exotic nature of an overhead sign in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, he writes:

“A bold archaeologist of national character might have traced the influence of the lettering back to the de Stijl movement of the early twentieth century, the prominence of the English subtitles to the Dutch openness towards foreign influences and the foundation of the East India Company in 1602 and the overall simplicity of the sign to the Calvinist aesthetic that became a part of Holland’s identity during the war between the United Provinces and Spain in the sixteenth century.”

De Botton’s analysis of cultural artefacts extends to an exceptional empathy with the subject matter of artists. His chapter On Travelling Places which includes a study of places of transit such as services stations, airports and roadside diners, is a masterful combination of art appreciation, focussing primarily on the twentieth-century American artist, Edward Hopper, and extrapolation with personal, anecdotally driven musings.

In Chapter 4, On Curiosity¸ de Botton describes his first experience of Madrid, to where he travelled in order to attend a conference. Having been advised of Madrid’s many attractions, he finds himself overcome with an intense lethargy upon arrival.

“And yet these elements (ie. the sights of Madrid as described in his guide book and assorted brochures) about which I had heard so much and which I knew I was privileged to see, merely provoked in me a combination of listlessness and self-disgust at the contrast between my own indolence and what I imagined to be the eagerness of more normal visitors.”

He contrasts his own lack of enthusiasm with that of his guide to the chapter, the German explorer and Botanist, Alexander von Humboldt, who was driven by a powerful urge to visit foreign lands. The chapter serves to establish the difference between the known and the unknown – von Humboldt’s explorations take him to uncharted places, whereas de Botton feels overwhelmed by the seemingly meaningless level of detail available to him through his guidebooks. The philosophical point of the chapter is to establish an understanding of what lies at the heart of curiosity and the degree to which it is personal and contextual.

De Botton writes:

“In the end it was the maid who was ultimately responsible for my voyage of exploration around Madrid. Three times she burst into my room with a broom and basket of cleaning fluids and at the sight of a huddled shape in the sheets, exclaimed with theatrical alarm, “ola, perdone!”

De Botton not only contrasts his attitude to Madrid with von Humboldt’s attitude to South America, but also highlights their respective realms of exploration. Again, the ideas he explores are firmly rooted in highly illustrative personal anecdotes, and the success of his anecdotes lies not merely in the ideas they are designed to illuminate, but in the level of personal detail he provides. He appears wholly honest with us, occasionally pushing the envelope of self-deprecation to the point of humiliation. He informs us of the flavour of a packet of crisps he ate in Madrid, tells us of a hair he found attached to the sideboard of his bed in a hotel in the Lakes District, and describes the sound of the timer on a microwave on a train.

In many ways the core to de Botton’s philosophical approach in The Art of Travel can be found in his chapter on Ruskin. He focuses on Ruskin’s ideas of the importance of “seeing” and “appreciating”. Ruskin worked keenly to promote the teaching of drawing in nineteenth-century Britain, believing that drawing would teach people to have an eye for beauty and to appreciate detail, thus making them happier by enriching their everyday experience. For Ruskin talent was an irrelevance – it is not ability as an artist that matters, merely the attempt to draw that is important, for, Ruskin argues, drawing teaches us to see.

“A man is born an artist as a Hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself an artist than you can make yourself a giraffe. My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist, but to making him happier as a carpenter.”

His aim was to teach people to spend time to appreciate the detail and complexity, or indeed, simplicity that made something beautiful, and to notice beauty in things that might not be obviously beautiful. Ruskin was fervently opposed to people who travelled and looked, but did not see. He wrote:

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser.”

In many ways de Botton’s intention mirrors that of Ruskin, though he is hardly about to suggest that we take a sketchbook with us on holiday. Rather, he impresses the importance of remembering how rewarding it is to appreciate things with the eye of a sketcher. He is equally keen to make us “see.”

“The only way to be happy is to realise how much depends on how you look at things.” Your own viewpoint will fix feelings far more solidly than any vista: “If you have to rank how happiness comes about,” he argues, “beauty is a worryingly weak ingredient, in terms of shifting mood.”

This key injunction to learn to “see” underlies every major idea presented in The Art of Travel.

Despite the apparent variance between many of the places and the historical figures upon whose thoughts de Botton draws in The Art of Travel, each selection of place or person is so apposite as to seem almost inevitable. His combination of personal, anecdotal detail with equally personal anecdotes from his subjects ensures a specificity and intimacy that engages. It is only in his chapter on Provence, aided by Vincent van Gogh that one feels his point is rather laboured. It still holds our interest but lacks the charm and economy of his writing elsewhere in this book.

De Botton’s works have been bestsellers – selling in the many hundreds of thousands in many different territories over the last eleven years. He has written and presented two TV series based on The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety. His work has also been characterised as ‘popularisation,’ yet his books are in fact attempts to develop original ideas (about, for example, friendship, art, envy, desire and inadequacy) with the help of the thoughts of great past thinkers. There is much that is original and, indeed, amusing in his application of the ideas of the people upon whose thoughts he has drawn. As stated above, his “popularisation” does not come at the expense of intellectual integrity and he thus avoids the lowest common denominator as a benchmark for his relativism. De Botton has been described as a “Mass-market metaphysician,” a term which could be misconstrued as a pejorative, but is not intended as such.

For an aspiring writer The Art of Travel is almost as frustratingly neat as it is delightful to read. The end result is a book of theory and philosophy that reads with the ease and accessibility of a travel guide. It comes effectively to constitute a companionable treatise on Romantic aesthetics.

It has been said of de Botton that his musings are akin to an accessible W. G. Sebald, equalling his gravitas, though perhaps falling short of the depth of Sebald’s personal reflections. De Botton’s strength lies not only in the quality of his writing, which, for its complexity, shows no signs of impenetrable flabbiness, but in the powerful ideas to which we can all easily relate. His scope covers all aspects of travel, from the quotidian journey to the bus-stop, to international flights and expeditions to unknown regions. Essentially de Botton’s purpose in writing The Art of Travel is to promote further the importance of applied philosophy as a way of enriching life.

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