This article formerly appeared in Wild River Review.
By Kimberly Nagy
To enter into conversation with Alain de Botton is to stroll into a garden of fertile yet impeccably organized thought.
You might feel relaxed walking through rows of elegant flowers and past soothing fountains. But soon you turn corners and climb cobbled stairs with heightened senses and increasing curiosity.
“Beauty is something to be found, rather than passively encountered,” de Botton suggests in The Art of Travel.
Taking his own advice, de Botton finds and harvests beauty (his books are full of paintings and photographs) in equal measure. Yet, what sets de Botton’s work apart from many modern bestselling authors is the way in which he connects unlikely subjects and classical writers. Located in multiple sections of bookstores ranging from self-help to literature and philosophy, de Botton’s books includeEssays on Love, Kiss and Tell, The Romantic Movement, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety, The Architecture of Happiness and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
In de Botton’s repertoire, love can be found (and diagrammed) on commercial aircraft carriers. Architecture feeds into (or detracts from) our potential for joy. Nineteenth-century literature and ancient philosophy supplant self-help instruction manuals. And artists and poets serve as illustrious travel guides.
So, I can’t help asking de Botton whether he plans for these connections or if they arise organically.
“I think a little bit of both,” he replies. “It does feel important to me to make connections because there is such a tendency towards specialization and I think that though specialization has its place, there’s also something very nice about making unexpected connections. And I believe it’s also more true to our own experience.”
Born in Switzerland, de Botton moved to England as a boy and went on to graduate with a double-starred first in History at Cambridge University. By the time he was in his mid twenties, de Botton withdrew from his pursuit of a Ph.D. in philosophy to follow an already flourishing writing career. His first novel, called Essays in Love (entitled On Love in the US) was published in 1993. Though fiction,Essays in Love includes essay-like analyses and is still celebrated for its unique style and insight.
Eight books later, de Botton still applies his signature logic to wide-ranging, seemingly incongruent subjects (such as paintings of Socrates and cravings for NesQuick, or Proust’s attention to toilet soap advertisements). In doing so, he helps us to remember that our own lives rarely follow neatly calculated patterns, and that creativity draws upon a surprising number (and unexpected combinations) of seeds.
WRR: What first attracted you to the rich body of literature and philosophy your work draws upon? Do you remember the first book (or few books) that opened your eyes, and when you read them?
Well, I think it’s worth saying that I’ve never been attracted to the main body of philosophy and actually what’s always tended to attract me are people who write what you could call essays. I was never a great novel writer, but I was always, from I’d say my teenage years, looking out for essays. In terms of the writers I first read… good essayists. I remember reading some of the essays of Virginia Woolf and Robert Louis Stevenson, and of Emerson, Montaigne, and Stendhal. So, all of them in various ways big names but their essays not necessarily the things they are remembered for.
WRR: About how old were you?
In university when I was about eighteen or nineteen.
WRR: You’ve said that you’re attracted to sincerity in writing. And here I’ll turn to a quote about one your favorite authors, Stendhal. Lytton Strachey remarked that Stendhal combined the emotional intensity of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl and the penetrating vision of a high court judge. In your words, “that’s something I both admire and aim for.”
Well, I don’t know if I manage it. I mean really what it’s about is valuing a certain kind of sensitivity married up with a kind of logic. I think in a lot of Anglo-Saxon writing, and Anglo-American writing, as well, there’s been a real tendency to privilege macho experience and that writers are essentially compensating for a fear of femininity in their writing. Whether they’re men or women, they’ve tried to sound increasingly virile.
And I think a writer — who’s this lone creature in his study — has to compensate for a job that can seem less virile than other people’s jobs. What’s nice about a lot of writing, from say Germany and France, is that people do really extraordinary things like burst into tears and long for their mothers, or feel sad for no particular reason etc.
WRR: When you first moved to London from Switzerland, you were deeply unhappy, which you’ve mentioned is good for writing. What other experiences seem absolutely necessary for good writing?
A lot of reading… and I don’t know, it’s hard to know really. The traditional one, of course, is that you should be unhappy in lots of various ways. But, there are lots more unhappy people than there are good writers. I mean at some level, a feeling of dislocation from a particular environment. However, I’m wary of falling into romantic traps about it. Actually, the question leaves me a bit uncomfortable as there is no real prescription.
WRR: Understood. Great works of literature can deeply shift our perspective on the world, and yet they are rarely looked to as therapeutic in American culture in the same way we look at prescription-oriented self help books? Do you think the same phenomenon is true in Britain and Europe?
So, are you saying that the prescription ones can’t be great literature?
WRR: Well, there’s the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Anthony Robbins’ type of self-help. And then there are other literary books like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, for instance, which changed my perspective on the world.
Well I think it is strange how high culture is very addicted to an impractical vision of itself in literature. It’s a very twentieth century phenomena. Similar to what happened in music as well. So that high culture in music was supposed to be atonal and a rhythmical, whereas popular music could have a tune and a chorus and a rhythm and all of those things. As though things that you enjoy and things that are good for you have to be kept very separate. Then, you get to the ultimate absurdity, which is that people make the distinction between a film you might enjoy and a film that’s good.
And people do the same with books and a lot of other things. It does seem absurd and I think it comes from a fear of mass culture and the 20th century was the century of mass culture… mass communication. As a result, I think many cultured and sensitive people became rather terrified of mass culture and its genuine excesses and vulgarities, and so needed to put some clear blue water between themselves and the rest, the mob as it were.
But in the process it became quite ridiculous in many areas. So, you get the cliché of the academic novel that academics like, which is going to be blindingly tedious… Or the piece of music that music critics will really love, but no one else will want to listen to, etc. etc. As in so many things, the best area actually lies in the middle. One of the things we can learn from popular culture is that books which help you are not necessarily bad. And in fact, the ambition that books can help you is a very good one. Also, just because many self-help books are bad doesn’t mean that the underlying ambition that a book can actually help you is a bad one in itself.
WRR: We live in a culture that emphasizes specialization in academic pursuits. But there’s something about a more general approach that allows us to make connections so powerful that old teachings can come alive in wholly new ways. I think of the way you connect art, poetry, psychology, and travel… architecture and joy, logic, and emotional satisfaction. Can you talk a bit more about how you make these connections?
Well, when we walk down the street, we don’t say okay, now I’m doing a trivial thing like walking down the street so I must not have any deep thoughts, or now I’m in my library so I will only have deep thoughts. All that time, we’re mixing the high and the low, the old and the new, music and images and conversation and whatever. That’s the way our minds are composed. And it just seems truer to experience to let in some of that diversity and often incongruity.
I think it’s nice to give the reader a sense of how a thought develops, and where a thought might emerge from. I mean in most standard academic books, you don’t get any sense of the overall context in which ideas occur, the larger picture. You’re often only pointed to the fruit of the thought and I think it’s also nice to show the tree and the branch… the larger context.
WRR: You’ve commented that the problem with most mass media is that it subtly forces us to abandon our thoughts in order to concentrate on things we actually don’t care that much about. What do you most want to read about and what publications provide you the most food for thought?
A lot of the time I want to read about things precisely because I don’t really want to think about anything that’s urgent to me. Reading the newspaper is a really good way to relax because there’s nothing in it that’s got anything to do with my life. And it’s just reading about large global events and so it’s quite relaxing. I read things like the New York Times online. Maybe it sounds heartless to say that sometimes reading about tragic stories can be seen as relaxation, but I think that’s very often the way we look at other people’s lives through the media: That they’re not actually real, but rather very abstract to us and that’s why I think that many people can go to sleep just having watched the news. Whereas I think reading a novel might be more personal and engaging.
As far as publications I read… The New York Times online… The Spectator… The Economist… The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books.
WRR: I wanted to ask you a question regarding your book Status Anxiety. You write that “the beginning of a mature solution to status anxiety might be said to begin with the recognition that status is available from a variety of different audiences, from industrialists and from bohemians, from families and from philosophers — and that our choice of audience can be free and willed.” But I’m wondering about the concept of an internal calling, for instance if we feel pulled by instinct to be a scientist, nurse, or artist?
Is there perhaps a difference between desiring status in order to gain the respect of our peers, and on the other hand, following our foremost abilities and passions in order to pursue a daily life where we can practice exactly what makes us feel most alive?
Yeah, sure. And I think that the person who feels that they desperately want to be a nurse or a doctor or whatever… probably would say that they’re doing it not so much to win the approval of their friends, but for the job. So, I’m not saying that all jobs are necessarily done for other people. Because, we can also very much do jobs for themselves. I think in every choice of career there’s a social component and as it were a component that’s more aimed at the job itself.
Most of the time we do jobs for a combination of reasons because we enjoy them and because we hope that other people will applaud us for doing them. But of course, in some people, one or other of these components get the upper hand and so you get them doing things they don’t enjoy simply because other people might approve. And then you get people who so enjoy what they’re doing that even if no one approves of it, they don’t mind… It’s a very, very hard balance to get right. But, I think most of us start out in life emphasizing the external applause bit of the equation.
WRR: One of the reasons I ask the question, is that I’ve also interviewed a number of scientists. And almost all of them said they felt pulled from the time they were quite young to enter the sciences… I think it’s an experience that not many of us have so I’m wondering if you felt pulled to be a writer, a philosopher from a very young age?
No. I don’t think so. I know the kind of types that you refer to. I mean the mathematician who knew from the age of five, etc. And you know those are definitely the minority, and I think perhaps lucky minority.
For most of us, we have impulses in a certain direction, but other parts are quite vague. So, that one might say, I want to be creative, or I want to do something with words. That’s maybe the feeling I had, but it left a lot of room for options. Everything from being a poet to being a speechwriter to working in advertising…
So, I think where people tend to end up results from a combination of encouragement, accident, and lucky break, etc. etc. Like many others, my career happened like it did because certain doors opened and certain doors closed. You know, at a certain point I thought it would be great to make film documentaries. Well, in fact, I found that to be incredibly hard and very expensive to do and I didn’t really have the courage to keep battling away at that.
In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So, it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.
WRR: You own a production company, Seneca Productions and I’ve read you met your producer by chance at a party. As a writer, what are the satisfactions and disappointments of seeing your work conveyed on the screen?
Well, I think in the United States making a documentary is a very different deal. But in the UK there are government funded channels, Channel 4 and BBC and they enable the kind of people who probably wouldn’t get a show on PBS to make documentaries. People like me, who ended up making documentaries with relative ease. And I’m not saying it’s total ease, but relative ease. And for me it was through an opportunity that came along, as you say, from bumping into someone at a party. I’ve now presented four documentaries, based around four of my books.
But, the fun of it has tended to be just getting out and about and collaborating with a group of people to make something happen. The bad thing is that filmmaking is a very bad way of conveying ideas and so if you’ve got ideas to convey, write a book. If you want to show some pictures and create an emotional mood, then a documentary is good. So, for my kind of work, I’m not sure documentaries are the best kind of medium. But, it’s fun to do. And it’s lucrative so that’s nice.
WRR: During PEN WORLD VOICES in 2006, Orhan Pamuk emphasized the crucial role that writers can play. He wrote, “It is because our modern minds are so slippery that freedom of expression becomes so important: we need it to understand ourselves, our shady, contradictory, inner thoughts.” What do you see as the roles and responsibilities of being a writer today?
One of the things that literature is particularly good at is pinning down more elusive, finely grained truths that tend not to be discussed by the mass media. There are many ways in which you can be reading a book and think, “I’ve never heard anyone really say that before” or “That’s an impression I dimly had but I didn’t know that you could elaborate on that so well.” So, it’s what people have always thought, it’s a conversation with the best minds of the age. It raises our sense of what’s possible in the world of ideas and therefore possible more generally. That’s a constant source of inspiration and nourishment.
Especially since the minds that we frequently hear around us, be they acquaintances or people on television, are frequently not the best minds.
WRR: Pamuk also talked about the importance of being able to express that world of imagination and ideas freely. I’m wondering what your thoughts on that and the role that PEN plays…
The idea of free speech can be taken for granted in the prosperous, developed and so- called free world. But, I think that recent events have shown the inhabitants there that free speech is not something they can necessarily take for granted. There is a constant impulse to censor and to repress ideas that are uncomfortable. And people do want to lock others up for their ideas and beat them up and maybe even kill them. So there is a really constant threat that’s still there. Even though we might have thought in the West that this is something Voltaire fought for in the 18th century, and that we are somehow over that. Well, I think we’re absolutely not over that and it’s a continuing battle and that’s why I think an organization like PEN will always have its work to do.
WRR: Here’s the light and fun question: An interviewer once asked the band Radiohead whether their music would be fiction or nonfiction if it were writing (they opted for nonfiction). So, to turn that question around, if your writing were music, what type would it be and why?
Hmmm. Well if I were to take classical I would say someone like Bach… and the reason for that (I mean it’s a high example but that’s the ideal) is Bach’s music is both very structured and very ordered and yet it is pleasant to listen to, lots of good melodies. It’s harmonious and melodious. I like that combination of the melodious and the more analytical.