The Art of Travel: Reviews

Chris Wright in the Boston Phoenix, 5 September 2002

Read at the Boston Phoenix website

A lunch date with Alain de Botton can be a daunting prospect. A former philosophy professor at London University, the 32-year-old Swiss-born, London-based author has been known to rattle off lines like, “I am no great fan of Boethius.” For those of us who cannot pronounce Boethius — let alone offer criticism of his work — it’s easy to imagine that sitting down to dine with de Botton might involve ample servings of humble pie. (Him: “Though not strictly fatalistic, Boethian metaphysics have suffered from a kind of Lamarckian attenuation.” You: “I like soup.”)

Beyond his philosophical credentials, de Botton possesses an imposing literary CV. At the age of 23, he published On Love (Atlantic Monthly, 1993), the first of three well-received novels (The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel[Picador, 1995] and Kiss and Tell [Picador, 1996] completing the trilogy). At 27, he wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (Pantheon), a witty, quirky, highly literate take on the self-help genre. A few years later, he published The Consolations of Philosophy (Pantheon, 2000), another highbrow self-help book, in which he argued that the works of Socrates, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others can help us cope with everyday problems. In July of this year, de Botton published The Art of Travel(Pantheon), which, characteristically, uses ideas gleaned from artists, novelists, and philosophers to explore themes related to travel.

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to,” the author writes in the book’s opening pages, “but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.’” In an age when human flourishing is generally the province of Oprah, Rosie, and theChicken Soup people, evoking the ancient Greeks (eudai-what?) would seem to be a sure-fire way to ensure your book does not make too many bestseller lists.

And yet de Botton’s books do extremely well. His Consolations of Philosophy, for instance, sold more than 150,000 copies in the UK alone, and was even adapted for British TV in the form of a hit series narrated by the author himself. Today, de Botton doesn’t just have readers — he hasfans. More than any contemporary author, he has helped rid philosophy of its image as a starchy, grindingly cryptic discipline. For this reason, de Botton has become, as one reviewer described him, “the [UK’s] favorite mass-market metaphysician.”

In person, despite having an accent that would not be out of place at a meeting of the Oxford University Debating Society, and a pallor that suggests too many hours spent in libraries, de Botton is, like his work, surprisingly down to earth. “I do get people saying to me, ‘I’m afraid to read your books; I’m sure they must be really clever,’” he says, picking at a salad Niçoise at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel. “My heart always sinks when I hear that. I’ve worked so hard to make [my books] completely understandable by absolutely anyone. I really rebel against this idea that the humanities are beyond comprehension. If you’re dealing with rocket science, sure, make it obscure, it is pretty difficult. But if you’re dealing with, I don’t know, love, death, work, there’s absolutely no reason why one shouldn’t be able to understand it.”

It is this democratic impulse, perhaps, that has led de Botton to apply his considerable erudition to the lowbrow self-help genre. De Botton is quick to point out, however, that readers will not find Eat Right For a Better You–type affirmations in his books. “Most self-help is absolutely ridiculous,” he says. “It completely misses out on the fact that most of the time what cheers us up is real pessimism, not someone saying everything’s great, which is something Americans haven’t managed to understand, the consolations of grimness.”

The Art of Travel certainly contains its fair share of grimness. The book starts out with a section titled “On Anticipation,” in which de Botton and his girlfriend (identified only as “M”) take a vacation to an idyllic Barbados holiday resort. “The coconut trees provided shade and milk,” he writes, “the floor of the sea was lined with shells, the sand was powdery and the color of sun-ripened wheat, and the air…” Well, you get the picture. The only problem is, as de Botton notes, “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.” In the midst of this Elysian setting, de Botton finds himself fretting about money, work, the mechanics of his digestive system. Later, he and M get into a squabble about who gets the larger portion of crme caramel, and a cloud settles over the rest of the vacation.

Before he had arrived in Barbados, de Botton had sat in his poky flat in gray-skied West London and pored over glossy travel brochures as though they were soft-porn mags — airbrushed beaches, surgically-enhanced palm trees. He soon discovered, however, that the reality of travel — like the reality of sex — is a lot messier, inconvenient, and fraught with potential for discord than the version our imaginations may serve up. “Our misery that afternoon,” he writes of the dessert-fueled spat with his girlfriend, “in which the smell of tears mixed with the scents of sun cream and air conditioning, was a reminder of the rigid, unforgiving logic to which human moods appear to be subject, a logic that we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful land and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence.”

The Art of Travel is filled with these kinds of insights, explorations into what de Botton calls “the psychology of place.” For de Botton, travel is a tricky, often discomfiting business, and he starts out his book with more questions than answers. How do we reconcile the anticipation of travel with its reality? How do we learn to pay the proper amount of attention to things? What are we looking for when we travel? What are we trying to get away from? Finally, de Botton asks whether we may revisit our own hometowns, our own bedrooms even, and feel the sense of wonder and fulfillment that distant travel, when done right, provides. In short, de Botton wants to make us better travelers, and, as a result, better people. “I love the idea of a book that sets out to show you something,” he says, “to change your life in some way.” And yet, in an age when travel has become a form of consumerism, when journeys are tolerated rather than valued, when destinations are viewed through the dull eye of a video camera, de Botton knows he has his work cut out for him.

“There is a sense in which we, as a culture, have a hard time looking around us,” he says. “There are so many excuses not to look at things, there are always excuses not to be on your own, not be with your own thoughts, not to be digesting your own experiences. If you get on an airplane now there are a million gadgets — you can make phone calls, you can gamble. There’s never a moment when you can just be on your own, and that has to be a bad thing.”

True, perhaps, but as de Botton’s book makes quite clear, being with your own thoughts is not always conducive to rewarding travel experiences. In a section on a trip he took to Madrid — “On Curiosity” — de Botton fixates on his own shortcomings as a traveler, comparing himself (unfavorably) with the 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose journeys through South America contributed to our understanding of geology, geography, botany, anthropology, and meteorology. While Humboldt was driven by an endless hunger for knowledge, de Botton finds his own appetite dulled by a steady diet of guidebooks. “[I]n Madrid,” he complains, “everything was already known; everything had already been measured.” He ends up standing on a corner asking himself, “What am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to think?”

Again and again, de Botton resorts to this plaintive, self-deprecating tone. He is, by his own admission, the kind of person who is happier reading about the world than being in it. On a trip to the Sinai Desert, where he has trekked in order to get a sense of the sublime, he writes, “In my backpack, I am carrying a torch, a sun hat and Edmund Burke.” Timid, easily bored, and preoccupied with minor irritations, de Botton often seems unable to enjoy himself no matter where he is. If The Art of Travel is a self-help book — or at least a guide to better living — then it seems the person de Botton is setting out to help is himself.

“I think all my books have been attempts to help me,” he says. “That’s where I start from. I don’t have any John-the-Baptist desire to convert others. If I manage to elucidate something for other people, that’s great, but I don’t set out to do that. All of my books spring from personal problems, and this book sprung up from the personal problem of not looking around enough. I guess I felt I’d kept my eyes down in books for too long.”

Even so, de Botton — who describes himself as an “egghead” — cannot resist inviting a cortege of cultural icons — Edmund Burke, Flaubert, Van Gogh, John Ruskin — along for the ride. And, while using the works of his chosen figures to shed light on the art of travel, he uses travel as a basis for exploring the works of these figures. As a result, the journeys in the book are as often intellectual as they are physical. Which isn’t as dry as it sounds.

While The Art of Travel includes a long, thoughtful section on the poet William Wordsworth’s love of nature, for instance, it also includes a section titled, “The exoticism of shitting donkeys.” And de Botton takes great pains to tackle even the knottiest topics with plain, straightforward language. ‘What defies our will can provoke anger and resentment, but it may also arouse awe and respect,” he writes in an effort to explain the nature of the sublime. “It depends whether the obstacle appears noble in its defiance or squalid and insolent. We begrudge the defiance of a cocky doorman even as we honor that of the mist-shrouded mountain.”

Though a self-confessed lover of philosophy, de Botton has no time for convoluted, arcane philosophical writing. “Most philosophy books you read, you think, ‘Is this a human, or is this being written by a computer?’” he says. “When you read Jean Paul Sartre writing about how to remain authentic in the modern world, you get five paragraphs into it and you think, ‘Come on, he hasn’t done the work; he hasn’t sat down and thought, “What am I trying to say here?” Or, more insidiously, he’s thought that it’s rather fun to confuse everybody.’”

Meanwhile, de Botton’s efforts to make his work accessible have led some critics to accuse him of dumbing-down his topics. “What I come up against from certain quarters,” he says, “is, ‘Oh, this guy’s not clever. He’s actually really stupid, because he keeps saying these things that are so obvious, everyone knows that.’ And that’s the danger you run into. But I’m always weirdly flattered by that accusation. I’d be much more devastated by someone who said my work’s just not very interesting.” He adds, sounding less blithe, “There was a review [of The Art of Travel] in the New York Times today that was absolutely terrible.” For a few minutes after this announcement, de Botton’s salad Nioise goes untouched.

And de Botton has good reason to be unnerved. The review, by none other than Times heavy hitter Michiko Kakutani, was the critical equivalent of assault and battery. Kakutani started out calling the book “a glib recycling of others’ thoughts and observations,” and continued that “the author … succeeds in making himself sound like a petulant, lazy and self-involved philistine,” before rounding off her attack with: “The generalizations in this book that aren’t obvious tend to be dubious or just plain stupid.

Kakutani’s critical credentials aside, she’s wrong. The Art of Travel is a wonderful book: inventive, witty, intelligent, and beautifully written. At its best, its prose achieves the intensity of aphorism — a fact that is snidely referred to by Kakutani, who remarks that de Botton is often “trite in a quote-book sort of way.” While many of de Botton’s observations may not bear the mark of irrefutable logic — “[I]t seems we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there”; “What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home” — they are nonetheless provocative and insightful. As every good aphorist knows, something can be true without being correct.

Perhaps the biggest falsehood contained in the Art of Travel, the biggest whopper, is de Botton’s portrayal of himself as a poor observer. The book is teeming with tantalizing detail, from a storm cloud with “an almost decadent orange glow, making it look like a grave old man bedecked with party decorations,” to a cypress tree that “takes on the appearance of a flame flickering nervously in the wind.” Even the dubious charms of a highway rest stop cannot escape the author’s gaze:

Overlooking the motorway between London and Manchester, in a flat, featureless expanse of country, stands a single-storey glass-and-redbrickservice station. In its forecourt hangs a giant laminated flag that advertises to motorists and to the sheep in an adjacent field a photograph of a fried egg, two sausages and a peninsula of baked beans….

But then it’s possible that there is a paradox at work here, that in the process of writing The Art of Travel, de Botton learned to take his eyes off of the page long enough to take stock of his surroundings. In the last section of the book, de Botton returns once more to his home in West London. “I tried to reverse the process of habituation,” he writes, “to dissociate my surroundings from the uses I had previously found for them. I forced myself to obey a strange sort of mental command: I was to look around me as though I had never been in this place before.”

Since finishing his book, de Botton has been more inclined to stand about staring at things — traffic lights, storefronts, caterpillars, clouds. His friends, he says, are finally getting used to the habit. “I’ve learned to say that I’m going to stop here and look at the sky, that I’d like to be left alone to look at the sky for a half-hour, and to be unashamed about it,” he says. “People go, ‘Oh, all right, weirdo,’ but I’ve got a lot more license to do that now.”

And de Botton would hope that we, having read his book, might take the time to stop and admire the odd traffic light ourselves. “There should be a policeman in front of every travel agent saying, ‘Okay, you can buy a ticket, but first go check out your own city.’” For his part, meanwhile, de Botton expects his book-tour responsibilities will preclude any local sightseeing. “I’ve traveled across the Atlantic,” he says. “I’m in Boston, yet I’m not going to see anything. It’s horrific.”

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