The Art of Travel: Reviews
Kendall Hill in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 2002
Don’t read The Art of Travel while you’re actually on the road or mid-flight – it doesn’t work. You can’t romanticise travel for very long when you’re stuck in it. Better to find yourself a good armchair and settle down to explore the nuances of globetrotting with the ever-inquisitive, best-selling author and brainy TV presenter Alain de Botton.
He might not be the world’s greatest traveller – certainly that’s the impression you get after he reveals his one great regret when roaming the world is that he can’t leave himself behind. But de Botton is inspired to pen substantial essays on the topic.
For example, while most wanderers appreciate that curiosity plays a part in the desire to travel, de Botton thinks it so important he devotes 22 pages to exploring the concept. Using the motif of a place (Madrid) and a “guide” (the intrepid scholar/explorer Alexander von Humboldt), he dissects the relationship between travel and curiosity, contrasting his own experience of arriving in Madrid and sinking into a melancholic lethargy with von Humboldt’s insatiable appetite for exploration and knowledge.
Using a cast of characters as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, Edmund Burke and Job, de Botton’s frequent self-deprecation provides an enjoyable foil to the often grand or esoteric pursuits of his subjects.
Flaubert’s almost pathetic infatuation with foreign places, Wordsworth’s elegising about the everyday, Edward Hopper’s stark interpretations of American car culture are nicely offset by de Botton’s admissions that he finds Barbados disappointing, that a maid pestered him into exploring Madrid, and that on a romantic visit to the Lake District he lodged in a room with stained blankets.
During his research the author appears to have learned (as well as reprinted) a valuable lesson from Nietzsche: that there’s a world of difference between collecting facts like an explorer and using already well-known facts for the sake of inner, psychological enrichment. The latter is what he does best.
He goes on a bit sometimes, especially when hyperbolising about his experiences of natural beauty. Maybe he does this in an effort to “possess” beauty and give it weight, a hypothesis he explores with the aid of no fewer than five destinations but just one guide, the Victorian artist/critic John Ruskin. Regardless, de Botton’s rapture is nothing unforgivable. When he recognises “a ferocity to the olive trees’ branches … as if they were flexed arms ready to hit out”, you just need to remember that we all get carried away at times.
Less easy to excuse is his habit of labouring the point. Particularly when describing how Van Gogh, like all artists, didn’t try to reproduce exactly what he saw but “an artist’s impression” of it. There wasn’t much more de Botton needed to say, but he droned on at length about it.
Thankfully there is always art to relieve the words. No fewer than 46 artworks are reproduced here (the number seems important to convey how much has been crammed into this compact, handsome volume) and each acts as a kind of circuit breaker, giving the reader time to contemplate de Botton’s latest contention. If only they’d been in colour.
In the end, de Botton seems to suggest, our craving for travel boils down to Pascal’s belief that “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Ironically, The Art of Travel provides a fine incentive to do just that.