Status Anxiety: Reviews

David Gilmour in The Globe and Mail, 5 June 2004

There’s something depressing about a Paul McCartney world tourĀ – not those wonderful Beatles tunes, but the fact that McCartney still seems to need the applause. Is it uncharitable to say that he should have outgrown it by now?

He isn’t alone. I know an actor who cannot go to the movies without fulminating for an hour after. The notion of Keanu Reeves getting all that attention, all that money, all those beautiful women (he suspects) makes him queasy. In an interview not so very long ago, John Updike groused that he’d been denied an award which had gone to Philip Roth instead. Bear in mind, Updike is the well-to-do and justifiably respected author of some 50 books and recipient of many literary honours. But this one prize got away and it bugs him.

What he and McCartney and my actor acquaintance share, what practically anyone except Jesus and Buddha shares, is something called status anxiety, and that is the subject of a new book by Alain de Botton. De Botton is an utterly fascinating young Englishman who has written a half dozen books about subjects as far-ranging as Marcel Proust and the art of travelling well. He has a kind of Midas touch when it comes to his interests, an ability to make them fresh and arrestingly appealing. Status Anxiety is his latest.

Its premise is biblically simple: We spend a lot of our lives agonizing about how we’re doing, and how others are doing better. Whether it’s a Regina high school teacher poisoning himself on a nightly basis by watching Entertainment Tonight (an activity designed to cement the notion that life’s real sparkle is passing you by) or an author’s inability to go into a bookstore without her pulse escalating to dangerous levels (where are my books, why are his there instead?) fussing about how other people are doing can ruin your life.

Meritocracy (people getting what they deserve rather than what they inherit) sounds like a good idea. No more chinless aristocrats getting the good jobs because of daddy. The playing field of one’s professional life is, if not entirely level, certainly more level now than it was in the 19th century or the 15th. Which is to say that back then a peasant didn’t go around beating himself up for stalled career aspirations. But these days, well, put it this way: It’s getting tougher and tougher to blame one’s failures on a lack of opportunity. There’s a lot of it around. That’s the problem with a level playing field: Everyone gets to play on it, not just you, and when they excel and you don’t, there are certain inescapable conclusions at hand, the principle one being, I am a loser.

One of the things that made de Botton’s book on Proust (How Proust Can Change Your Life) so terrific was not just its intelligence but also a lightness of touch. Reading Proust (and ideally he should be read in the middle of the night) is like having the most interesting man you’ll ever encounter whisper in your ear while you fall asleep. But talking about Proust, people can get rather dull indeed, and one of de Botton’s achievements is that he didn’t. I rather missed that bouncy readability in some of Status Anxiety’s early chapters, the erudite but rather dry accounting of the whys and wherefores of the agonies of how-am-I-doingness.

De Botton has taken some rather nasty hits at the hands of English critics recently (rather like the attacks that Proust endured when he first submitted his manuscript), the suggestion being that he’s a lightweight rich boy bouncing along on the surface of things. My guess is that these attacks may have made him a tad self-conscious, with the result that Status Anxiety has a more formal, “legitimate” essay tone than his earlier work.

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