The Art of Travel: Reviews

Melanie McGrath in The Evening Standard, 13 May 2002 

Every other week, a survey appears from some God-or-grant-forsaken university telling us how long we spend, on average, thinking about sex or eating or taking a pee. But how much time, I wonder, do most of us drizzle away daydreaming about getting away from it all?

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton asks why, when we spend so much of our money and energies on travel, the experience itself often turns out to be unsatisfactory. Why an array of souvenir shops, a burst of inclement weather and those small, needling rows with your companion seem so often to conspire to burst the bubble of your travel fantasies. Why crisp, white beaches, slick city cafés or fine, blue skies somehow rarely hit the spot. And how the whole business can leave you etched with an anxious desire to get out there and travel some more in the hope that this time, just once, the reality might live up to the glossy brochures lined up along the shelves of your imagination.

According to de Botton, travel is a disappointment whenever we fixate on the where and whens of the guidebooks and websites and brochures and neglect the larger questions of why and how. Why do we travel at all? What have we come to look at, who have we travelled to become, and why? What exactly do we expect to find? The answers to these questions are the destinations of de Botton’s book and he makes his way towards them in the company of artists, writers and philosophers, stopping en route to throw in observations and anecdotes from his own experiences in Amsterdam, the Lake District, Madrid and Barbados.

Through the French 19th century aesthete Joris Karl Huysmans, de Botton explores why sitting in a French-style caff in London can feel more “French” than drinking coffee in Paris. He takes excerpts from Flaubert’s Egyptian diaries to illustrate the way we are drawn to the exotic, expecting it to compensate for the inadequacies of home. The philosopher Edmund Burke defines for de Botton the idea of the sublime, a landscape so powerful that it allows us to repeat, in “grand terms”, a lesson that ordinary life teaches more prosaically; that we are, when all is said and done, pretty insignificant.

Through Wordsworth’s poetry, de Botton explores the romanticism of the “spot of time,” that numinous moment of experience which seems to arrive more readily and more powerfully while travelling and which crops up years later as you are driving along the motorway with the same vividness as the instant you first experienced it. Using the life of the 18th century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, de Botton asks whether it’s still possible to make discoveries and comes to the conclusion that it is, if only we look hard enough and in the right way.

De Botton reminds us that there is an intellectual and experiential potency in journeying and that it is the travellers’ responsibility to find it. >From the metaphorical power we experience surging over a city in a 747, to the contemplative melancholy of our plastic dinner tray, travel brings us up against ourselves. Through travel we can think more clearly about who we are and where we come from. If we allow it, we can learn to live a little more fiercely, too. To get the most from our journeys, says de Botton, we must be infused with a spirit of enquiry. In an age when travel is physically safe and often aesthetically mundane, this requires will and discipline.

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