The Art of Travel: Reviews

Erich Eichman in the Wall Street Journal, 1 August 2002

Read at the Wall Street Journal website

It is sometimes said that travel narrows the mind. Alain de Botton would not agree, but he isn’t about to get on a soapbox and insist that you travel to an ancient Roman village to improve your sense of history, or fault you if you decide to stay put this summer, avoiding the ordeal of what is often wrongly called a holiday.

“The Art of Travel” (Pantheon, 255 pages, $23) begins by acknowledging the cruel fact that when you travel you bring yourself along on the journey. Anxieties travel with you, and annoying habits of mind and petty displeasures. Travel itself may make them worse, given the odd people you are likely to encounter, the peculiar food, the unreliable lodgings and, most shocking of all, the sudden strangeness of your traveling companion, whose preference for five-mile hikes over rough ground was unknown to you until the moment you arrived in that pretty little village from the brochure, ready for a long rest.

Indeed, the brochure is part of the problem. Mr. de Botton notes that the images of a place — from literature, from exotic reputation, from Travel & Leisure magazine — may surround it with an aura, setting up expectations that can rarely be met by actual experience, at least right away. And part of the aura is the promise that a far-off place will offer little epiphanies and transports of spirit impossible in the rounds of normal life.

He notes that the poet Charles Baudelaire, disgusted by the Horror of Home, as he called it, “dreamt of leaving France for somewhere else, somewhere far away, on another continent, with no reminders of ‘the everyday.’” With such ecstasies of otherness in mind, Baudelaire once started on a journey to India when a storm caused his ship to stop at Mauritius, on the Indian Ocean. “It was the lush, palm-fringed island that Baudelaire had dreamt of,” Mr. de Botton writes. “But he could not shake off a feeling of lethargy and sadness, and he suspected that India would be no better.” He sailed back to France.

The extreme version of such disappointment — or really the clever avoidance of it — is to be found in an episode from J.K. Huysman’s novel “A Rebours” (sometimes translated as “Against Nature”). As Mr. de Botton tells us, the novel’s eccentric hero, residing alone in a villa outside Paris, sits down one day to read Dickens and is seized by a desire to see England. He gets only as far as Paris. Having dressed himself in a tweedy English way, he visits an English bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli, reads a Baedeker’s guide to London, stops at a bar frequented by Englishmen, remembers scenes out of “Little Dorrit” and “David Copperfield,” dines on oxtail soup at an English-style tavern and decides that he has had his “English” experience. He returns home, satisfied.

Sometimes, it seems, the photograph, travel guide or novel — or perhaps just the longing they create — capture the essence of a place better than our own experience of it ever will. So why go? And yet much of “The Art of Travel” is devoted to confuting this claim. Mr. de Botton visits the Lake District, reading Wordsworth and feeling intimations of what the poet grasped there. In the Sinai desert he ponders the sublime, the overmastering awe inspired by startling juxtapositions and grand designs in nature. And he goes to Arles, in Provence, seeing the cypress trees differently once he has studied van Gogh’s versions of them, which are more “real” for being so expressive.

One of the themes of Mr. de Botton’s book is that seeing is an art of travel, and art itself helps one to do it. He comes to John Ruskin toward the end of his book, noting that “drawing brutally shows up our previous blindness to the true appearance of things.” Ruskin put great store by drawing and believed that everyone should attempt it, if for no other reason than that it requires sustained attention and the deliberate depiction of detail. The camera works in the opposite direction, Ruskin felt, too often causing people, in Mr. de Botton’s summary, to pay “less attention to the world than they had done previously, taking it on faith that photography automatically assured them possession of it.”

One of Mr. de Botton’s earlier books was called “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” a subtle reading of the great novelist with tongue-in-cheek “lessons” from Proust’s often cruelly paradoxical observations of how the mind and heart work. There is something Proustian in “The Art of Travel,” in the best sense, for Mr. de Botton is a kind of flaneur, strolling through his subject thoughtfully and offering nuanced truths based on his reading, experience and philosophical temperament. His sentences have a Proustian flow, too, without quite the length.

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