Status Anxiety: Reviews

Sam Leith in the Telegraph, 6 March 2004

Read at the Telegraph website

Does everyone think I’m a featherbrain.

Why have they only given me Alain de Botton to review? Why not that clever-sounding new book about Browning? Why not Conrad Black’s biography of FDR? Alain de Botton: that was the bloke who did the silly-sounding self-help book about philosophy, wasn’t it? Am I only up to popular philosophy-lite?

Oh God. Does everyone think I’m a featherbrain?

These thoughts and others like them will tend to plague the jobbing book reviewer. The near-relatives of these thoughts have plagued, and continue to plague, everyone in human history, with the possible exceptions of Diogenes, God and Chris Eubank. And these thoughts are the theme of Alain de Botton’s new book.

Status Anxiety presents as its thesis – in a voice at its best measured, amused and compassionate – the notion that the search for human happiness consists in two separate quests for love. One, romantic love, is the subject of intense and unashamed public discussion. The other is our dependence on the esteem of a wider society to feel good about ourselves; and it’s a neediness that, de Botton argues, seldom speaks its name. We crave signs of status – in the modern West, linked to getting or spending – but don’t admit to doing so for fear of being seen as vulgar or snobbish.

De Botton ends his first section saying, more or less, that the best way for us to stop letting this make us unhappy is to “bare the device”: to acknowledge and understand this drive. He doesn’t really aim to carry an argument, though. Rather, he uses the loose theme of his title as an occasion to digress through economic philosophy, art, ideology theory, his favourite books, the history of the term snob, philosophical contemptus mundi, avant-garde art and Christianity. He even finds time for Proust.

His approach is to be as much anthologist as author, offering a bitty, purposely quirky sort of omnium gatherum. Much of the book consists in schoolteacherly retellings of old stories or passnote-style settings-out of episodes from intellectual history, accompanied by frequent quotations. Like Schott’s Miscellany – oddly, a comparable work in some respects – it ends up standing or falling on whether you go for the tone of voice and whether you like the quotes and stories reproduced.

And, for the most part, it works rather well. Still enjoying teasing the self-help genre, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life adopts a delightfully hubristic arrangement, dividing his book about human unhappiness into two parts: “Causes” and “Solutions”.

It is beautifully published: a chunky, expensively made hardback thronging with quirky incidental pictures, semi-facetious diagrams and, a real indulgence, a chapter studded with reproductions of de Botton’s favourite New Yorker cartoons. There are several good jokes in it, in fact, and de Botton is a surefooted discoverer of the pungent but less well-known quote; the witty supplementary detail to an old story; the amusing 19th-century advertisement. His virtues are the buoyancy and charm of his style; his vices the occasional bursts of babyishness.

He repeats himself (we learn that Jesus was a carpenter, in similar words, on pages 69, 70 and 79; and Aelfric is quoted to identical effect on pages 69 and 75), and some chapters are pretty glib. His section on literature, for example, swallows whole the Arnold/Leavis account of the civilising role of art – to the extent of endorsing a George Eliot quote, “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally”, with the incensing formulation, “knew George Eliot …” He doesn’t attempt to engage or summarise – even though the chapter that follows is all about Marxism – the various Marxist accounts of literature’s ideological role. Nor does he really address the way status anxiety varies between the sexes (if it does). Similarly, his chapter on Christianity as a solution to status anxiety is an odd one, being, essentially, a run through the old principles without much added and without mention of the alternatives. Perhaps he has got God.

But there are many lovely little nuggets in here: cross-section diagrams of ancient flushing toilets; memento mori photographs of baked-bean salesmen; allusions to Greek philosophers, “many of them with beards”; the story of two Germans duelling to the death after one wrote a rude poem about the other’s moustache.

It’s the sort of book you’d be pleased, I think, to get in your Christmas stocking. Alain de Botton does not take himself too seriously. And, if I understand his book correctly, that’s one of the most important steps on the road to happiness.

Now can I review Eric Hobsbawm?

Comments are closed.