In his pragmatic self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same boundlessly charming mind who offered a surprising remedy to status anxiety and shed light on the psychology behind why we travel, argues Proust (and artists like him) can open our eyes to the world’s limitless but often overlooked beauty. Though de Botton is a bookish academic who possesses seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of literature, art, and philosophy, he’s never pretentious. Far from the dry intellectualism of a university textbook, his work emits a playful exuberance— and a sense that he doesn’t take anything too seriously. The common thread that unites his books is a belief that the great thinkers of the past have invaluable lessons to teach. After sifting through Proust’s diaries, letters, novels, and essays, De Botton distills his prolific literary output into digestible advice for the modern reader. The result? An indispensable guide to being happy in love, remembering the benefits and limitations of reading, and expressing yourself precisely while avoiding the lure of platitudes and cliches. How Proust Can Change Your Life’s every beautifully-patterned sentence sparkles with wit and wry humor, every word, with erudition and insight. So if you’re curious why one of the finest minds of the 20th century believed you should never worship books too zealously or sleep with someone on the first date, check out this book from the library.
The book’s seventh chapter “How to Open Your Eyes” begins with a summary of Proust’s essay “Chardin: The Essence of Things” which recounts the story of a disgruntled aesthete. A cultured young man of worldly sophistication and refined taste, he worships at the temple of beauty. Because his imagination is full of the glory of cathedrals and museums, he’s offended by the mundanity of his surroundings: in his dreary domestic settings the only thing to behold is “one last knife” lying next to an “underdone, unsavory cutlet” on a “half-removed tablecloth.” The sole object of beauty—a “ray of sun shine”— only serves to accentuate as “cruelly as an ironic laugh” the everyday banality of his existence. Why hadn’t he been born into a rich, noble family and been blessed to live among luxurious furnishings and fine art? He envied the socialites who floated from grand party to grand party, the dapper aristocrats and chicly-dressed debutantes.
Deprived of beauty in his bland surroundings, the man flees to the Louvre. The stately portraits of Van Dyck, the rich colors and magnificent palaces of Veronese, the spectacular landscapes of Lorrain: these masterpieces, he believes, will finally nourish his starved aesthete’s soul. But rather than let him hurry to the galleries of Van Dyck and Veronese, Proust redirects him to the French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin. A painter of still lives and domestic scenes, Chardin prefers bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen. His subjects are rarely engaged in anything noteworthy: rather they’re doing needlework, stirring tea, building a house of cards or carrying loaves of bread.
But though Chardin depicts commonplace people in commonplace settings, his paintings reawaken us to the extraordinary splendor hidden beneath the ordinary. The breathtaking beauty of white flowers delicately arranged next to a basket of richly red strawberries; the subtle elegance of a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread; the splendid luster of copper cookery: through his devoted attention to detail, Chardin restores our ability to see transcendence in the mundane and therefore broadens our conception of beauty. Once the young man was “dazzled by this rich painting of what he called mediocrity, this zestful painting of a life that he found tasteless, this great art depicting a subject that he considered mean,” Proust asks:
“This makes you happy, doesn’t it? Yet what more have you seen here than a well-to-do middle-class woman pointing out to her daughter the mistakes she has made in her tapestry work; a woman carrying bread; the interior of a kitchen where a live cat is trampling on some oysters while a dead fish hangs on the wall, and an already half-cleared sideboard on which some knives are scattered on the cloth?”
For Proust, this young man is so discontented not because his existence is actually beauty-starved but because he’s imperceptive. As Chardin demonstrates, there’s no reason to envy the lavish lifestyles of aristocrats or covet the glamorous circles of the rich— he can find as much poetry in a simple bouquet of flowers as in a volume of Shakespeare, as much rapture in classic blue-and-white china as in Beethoven’s Fifth. The young man can’t behold all the exquisite beauty around him, not because of some shortage in his surroundings, but because of his own dullness of vision (“If your everyday life seems poor,” Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet, “don’t blame it; blame yourself…you were not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.”) Thankfully, the discerning eyes of artists like Chardin can resharpen our deadened, desensitized powers of perception.
At its foundation, How Proust Can Change Your Life suggests, much like Proust’s dispirited aesthete, we world-weary adults take life for granted. Blinded by the shroud of custom and habit, we no longer see the miracle of the ordinary. For Proust, art is our only hope of resuscitating the senses. The artist, through his acute sensitivity and appreciative awareness, restores to the world a sense of awe and wonder, enlarging our definition of beauty to accommodate the mundane material of life we usually neglect. A madeline and cup of lime-blossom tea, a bowl of peaches, a wedge of brie and slice of bread: when our eyes are no longer obscured by routine, the most unremarkable things reveal themselves worthy of appreciation.
The tragedy of our times is our conception of aesthetics is too small, too narrow. Most of us think beauty is restricted to the rarefied world of high culture, something as inaccessible as Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Cypresses” at the Metropolitan Museum. Beauty, we believe, is sunsets and red roses and brides on their wedding day — not slate skies, withered flowers, and street corner whores. So when we look upon our vulgar day-to-day, we feel dissatisfied, bored. Art is so essential because it reminds us beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.