Kathryn Harrison on Why She Writes

kathryn harrisonFor colossus of modernism James Joyce, writing in English was the “most ingenious torture
ever devised.”  For Kurt Vonnegut, it was a heartbreaking reminder of the difficulty of articulating himself: “When I write,” he confessed, “I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”  Hunter S. Thompson also humorously  described the torment of putting pen to page: “Writing is the flip side of sex— it’s good only when it’s over.”  Those of us who’ve stared down the blank page know to write is to battle your inner saboteur:  

Who do you think you are?  What makes you think you have something worthwhile to say?”  

“Really…that’s your topic?  All your ideas are hackneyed and tired.  Millions of people have already written the same thing and have written it better.”

“Nothing you do will ever be intelligent/funny/original enough.”  

If you write, you invite your most merciless demons to your desk day after day.  Sometimes writing even a single sentence is beset with debilitating self-doubt.  Yes, there are days of creative rapture, blissful moments when writing is a mystical convening with the muse but they are few.  Most days writing is work: rather than scribble in a fit of ecstatic revelation, we combat one line after another.  No matter how hard we try to quell their rebellion, our sentences mutiny.  More often than not, the act of expressing ourselves requires excruciating effort: instead of feel seized by a divine power, ideas pouring forth from some otherworldly plane, we experience each sentence, each word as a struggle.  At times, writing a meager one hundred words is a trudge up a steep hill. 

So why, when writing is such a demoralizing profession, do novelists and essayists, poets and playwrights, willingly put pen to page?  In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion, patron saint of mythic 1960s LA, observed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”  When distinguished author and National Book Critics Circle member Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors in her indispensable collection Why I Write, the answers were as assorted as the authors.  Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan remarked she writes “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  New Yorker contributor Susan Orlean responded in characteristically beautiful, understated prose, “I write because I love learning about the world.”  Fearless poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied she wrote “to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead” while controversial bad boy James Frey wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  

One of the most insightful responses came from Kathryn Harrison, writer of haunting, hypnotic beauty whose memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world.  When first published in 1998, the deeply disturbing account of her incestous affair with her father was both lauded and scorned: while novelist Tobias Wolff argued Harrison redeemed her dark subject matter with the “steadiness of her gaze” and the “uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language,” Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished her to “hush up.”  Thankfully, Harrison ignored her detractors.  A woman of remarkable candor, today she continues to turn an unflinching eye toward the taboo.  But what, exactly, motivates her to write— especially when speaking the unspeakable has historically made her the target of vehement vitriol?  Like many overachievers whose obsession with success conceals deep-seated feelings of inferiority, Harrison hoped writing would finally be an accomplishment impressive enough to win her mother’s approval:

“I write because it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love.  It has everything to do with my relationship with my mother.  I spent my childhood in an attempt to remake myself into a girl she would love, and I’ve translated that into the process of writing— not intentionally, but just as I was always looking beyond my present incarnation toward the one that would woo my mother’s attention, I’m always looking toward to book that hasn’t come out yet: the one that will reveal me worthy of love.  

[…]

When it’s great, writing can be ecstatic.  Even when it’s just hard, it’s always involving.  The moments that are sublime— I get just enough of them that I don’t lose hope of being given another— are only so because for that moment, when even as little as a sentence seems exactly right, before the feeling fades, it offers what I think it must feel like to be worthy of love.  I want praise of course; it’s a cousin of love.  But equally important to me is a bit of evidence, here and there, that a reader got it, saw what I’d hoped to reveal.”

When pondering why she writes, Harrison notes writing is a meaning-making machine, a consoling way for her to comprehend what at first seems unfathomable:

“I write, also, because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works.  By the time I was in high school I’d discovered that the process of hammering text on the page— being able to articulate things, to get them right— offered not only consolation but a place I could live inside.”

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more informally as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named this transcendent state of complete absorption “flow.”  To experience such an elevated state of consciousness, explains poet of resplendent prose Diane Ackerman, is to be transfixed in a “waking trance.”  When artists throughout the ages have compared creating to being a vessel, they were describing this psychological process.  For Harrison, writing is a portal to this euphoric, almost otherworldly state of being, a magical place where she can both erase and affirm her identity:

One thing I love about writing is that in that moment, I am most completely myself, and yet totally relieved of my self.  I don’t really like spending that much time with myself when I’m not writing, but when I’m in that strange paradox of being most and least myself, I can be transcendently happy, rapturous.  Those moments are rare— I’m doing well if it’s two percent of the time— but memorable, like a drug you have to get back to.”

In a moment equal parts tough love and practical no-nonsense, Harrison concludes by dispelling the long enduring myth of the suffering artist.  Though we sentimentalize the image of the artist as a tormented drunk, Ms. Harrison, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, maintains the most productive writers are actually sane, happy and healthy— not irreparably fucked up.  A real writer doesn’t harbor romantic notions about his profession (“Writing is hard…coal mining is harder.  Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal?  They do not.  They simply dig,” Cheryl Strayed counseled with hard-earned wisdom in her advice column Dear Sugar) nor does he wait around for the mercurial muse to whisper a masterpiece into his ear—he treats writing just like any other job.  In other words, he shows up:

“Writing is a job.  If you’re going to do a job, you’re going to do it everyday.  You’re going to get enough sleep, and not fall into dissolute habits.  I never had a romantic idea about writing.  In grad school other people would spend the evening drinking, then tear home to write something at three in the morning, thinking the work would be exceptional because of the exceptional circumstances under which it had been produced.  You don’t write by sitting in a garret thinking the muse might arise under some particular circumstances.”

Jennifer Egan on Writing as a Magical Mode of Time Travel & the Dark Side of Success

jennifer eganGeorge Orwell once said writing a book was a “horrible exhausting struggle.”  Oscar Wilde, who had more of a dandy’s flair for the dramatic, compared the artist’s life to a “long, lovely suicide.”  Artists throughout the ages have romanticized their demons, believing torment a requisite component of the creative process.  “If my devils were to leave me,” luminous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke worried, “I’m afraid my angels would take flight as well.”  To create- we’ve been told- is to suffer.  Artists are dark and brooding, too temperamental to forge intimate human bonds, too promiscuous to be faithful lovers.  They’re deplorable drunks who most often meet their demise drowning in their own vomit or passing out in gutters.  They put their heads in ovens and chop off their own ears.  We glamorize these notions of the tormented artist as if it were somehow noble to be so desperately dysfunctional.  But being an artist doesn’t mean being miserable.  Despite our cultural fascination with the figure of the suffering artist, when asked why she writes in the altogether lovely collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan- like many of her fellow scribes- speaks with an ecstatic, almost rapturous love for her craft.  In response to the titular question, she replies she writes for the bliss of being transported to another world.  For her, writing is an act of enchantment, a magical mode of time travel in which she can live countless other lives without leaving her home:

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.  I don’t think my husband can tell.  It’s a double life I get to live without destroying my marriage.  And it’s heaven.”

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her tour de force A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan ascended to the utmost heights of literary superstardom.  While securing such a prestigious prize might have assured others of their own genius, Ms. Egan didn’t let the applause go to her head.  Because she had served on judges panels herself, she had the insight to understand that luck had played a vital role in her success.  A Pulitzer didn’t designate her the voice of a generation or prove her superior literary talents.  If anything, all it proved was that A Visit From the Goon Squad had tapped into the zeitgeist— it had simply been the right book at the right time.  Though in the modern meritocracy we tend to conflate winning with being the best, Egan knows “making it” has less to do with a work’s objective quality than with subjective taste.  Whether you earn a critic’s commendation or a critic’s scorn, whether you garner illustrious prizes and rise to literary acclaim or toil away in bitterness and anonymity is largely a matter of chance:

In one hundred years, if humans still exist, and if anyone remembers the name Jennifer Egan, they’ll decide whether I deserve the Pulitzer or not. The question doesn’t preoccupy me. I’ve judged a major prize and I know how it works. It all comes down to taste and, therefore, luck. If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes.

I think my book is strong, and I know I did a good job. I also know it could have been better. There are plenty of books out there that are also good, and those writers could also have had the luck I had. Deserving only gets you so far. Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.”

Though most aspiring young writers look longingly to the day they’ll arrive at the dazzling peaks of literary fame (not to mention probably sell their grandmother’s kidney to receive an honor as impressive as a Pulitzer), Egan speaks ambivalently about her newfound success: while on one hand, she’s grateful to have written a book so universally beloved, she— like novelists throughout time misfortunate enough to compose a massive bestseller— is tormented by the more than likely possibility she’ll never write such a popular book again.  Whatever she writes next will be compared to Goon Squad and inevitably be found less than.  When a “writer” is transfigured into an “author” and a “person” transmutes into a “persona,” writing is no longer a private act of creation undertaken for the sheer transcendent joy of putting one word against another— it’s a public act debased with worries of how we’ll be perceived by others.  Will the next book sell as many copies?  win as much praise?  Hurled into the limelight by the Goon Squad’s blockbuster success, Egan finds herself battling these voices more than ever.  Like many featured in Why We Write, she seems to yearn for the days before she was published, a time when she was not yet beholden to publishing houses or the public, a time when she wrote for no one but herself.  In order to maintain our integrity as artists and safeguard the playful exuberance of writing from the commodifying forces of the market, Egan suggests, we must write not for approval but for the joy of writing itself:

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad– the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes- is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing.  And it’s dangerous.  Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be the goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work.  I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.

I’m curious to find out what influence this will have on my writing.  I won’t know until I start another book.  A scenario I could easily envision is the following: I start the book, feel it’s not going well, and start to freak.  My rational side says, “Let’s get one thing straight.  You’re going to hate the next one.  The whole world’s going to hate the next one.”  I have no idea why this one got so much love.

But part of me thinks, they liked my last book.  Hurray.  Now we move on.  The moving on will undoubtedly involve massive disappointment on the part of others.  It never happens this way twice.  In a way, I find that sort of freeing.  My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one.  If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good.  I know that.  Stop getting better?  There’s no excuse for that.”

Mary Gaitskill on How Books Help Us Penetrate Outward Personas & See the Person Beneath the Exterior

“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things,” remarked Rebecca Solnit, “from the most mary gaitskill - Version 2practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships.  Some books are wings.  Some are horses that run away with you.  Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.  Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles.  Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning.”  For Eudora Welty, the miracle of books was their ability to liberate us from the limitations of our own personality: “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” she said, but “the man who never reads lives only one.”  Whereas for Joyce Carol Oates, reading was the sole means by which we could slip into “another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

The humanizing power of books to infiltrate the ordinarily impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them” is what Mary Gaitskill ponders in her lovely essay “I Don’t Know Anymore,” one of forty six stunning pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A delightful trove of wisdom from authors as diverse as Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  As reassuring as good conversation and a cup of coffee, Light the Dark offers insight and inspiration not only to aspiring writers but to anyone who’s been enthralled by the imaginary world of books.  

When asked what inspires her, Gaitskill chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina.  Anna, a passionate, sophisticated woman, has just left her husband Karenin for another man.  After getting deathly ill, she writes to Karenin begging for his forgiveness.  At the height of her fever, she confesses to him, “There is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her— she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you and couldn’t forget the other one who was there before.  The one who is not me.  Now I’m real, I’m whole.”  For Gaitskill, what’s remarkable about this exchange is how both Anna and Karenin behave in way that’s totally out of character:

“Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person— as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger.  And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person.  I was so surprised by that.  I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.  

And it’s not just Anna.  As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too.  The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.”  

Though this moment gives us hope for the estranged couple, their reconciliation doesn’t endure: Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside her again.  So which, Gaitskill wonders, is “the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterward?”  Tolstoy never offers a definitive answer.  Perhaps the regretful Anna who displays remorse for her wrongdoings, Gaitskill speculates, is the “truer part of herself.”  Perhaps death has a way of dispelling the falsehoods we tell.  Who knows?  

What’s genius about Anna Karenina is the way it probes the complexities of the self.  Like all great characters, Anna and Karenin reveal man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  Rather than confine his characters to shallow and superficial categories, Tolstoy agrees with champion of the human spirit and paradox-embracing poet Walt Whitman’s belief that man is “large and contains multitudes.”  Anna is both the unfaithful wife and the repentant cheater just as Karenin is both a spiteful husband betrayed and a man willing to forgive her.  By granting us access to a character’s inner self, a self often at odds with the facade he presents to the world, books remind us every person has an interior life we’re not privy to.  Like us, others suffer from fear and insecurity.  And like us, others possess yearnings so intense they don’t dare be uttered.  Literature’s humanizing power lies in its ability to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable abyss between self and other.  As Gaitskill concludes, “the truest parts of people can be buried”— we must be more empathetic and largehearted toward each other.

On How Gazing Upon Once Great Ruins Can Cure Us of Our Status Anxiety

ozymandias

In the 13th century BCE, Ramses II was the most powerful man in Egypt.  Over the course of his reign, the great pharaoh, also known as Ozymandias, was beloved by his subjects.  From the Delta to Nubia, Ramses built grand monuments to immortalize his greatness.  So obsessed was he with preserving his legacy that he constructed more statues of himself than any other monarch.  But today what remains of this once legendary leader?  a brief mention in our history lesson on ancient Egypt?  perhaps an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Despite his egotistical efforts to defeat eternity, time- as always- triumphed: three thousand years later, nothing remains of Ramses’s worldly accomplishments, as romantic poet Percy Shelly wrote in his 1817 poem “Ozymandias,” but a “shattered visage.”  

It is a cruel irony that we squander so many of our limited hours on earth trying to acquire power and prestige when, in the end, neither much matters.  Much like Ramses hopelessly attempting to erect an everlasting monument to his earthly success, we in the modern age hysterically scramble for status: envy-inducing job titles, degrees from esteemed Ivy Leagues- anything that signifies we are worthy of admiration and respect.  When we’ve captured that majestic-if elusive- butterfly of professional, material success, we feel like who we are may finally be enough.  But if that butterfly manages to slip from our grasp or if- god forbid- we never catch its shimmering wings in our nets, we’ll never respect ourselves.  Because we in the modern meritocracy attach moral significance to social standing, if we fall from the social ladder or never ascend to its highest rungs, we’ll contend our underachievement is a result of a character deficiency.  “Why did we fail to make something of ourselves?” we’ll wonder, “had we been lazy?  or had we simply not been intelligent/talented enough?”  This is why over-achieving straight-A students leap in front of trains when they’re rejected from Harvard: to go to a lesser school- they’ve been told- is to be lesser.  And if you’re lesser, why live at all?  

This may be a drastic example, but similar feelings of inferiority at one time or another beset us all.  According to erudite and edifying explorer of human history Alain De Botton, the same brilliant mind who elucidated how status is a construction of culture and expectation causes malaise and discontentment, status anxiety, or the worry that we’re nobodies in the eyes of others, is “capable of ruining extended stretches” of our existence.  If we’re unsuccessful in our quest to secure the love of the world, if we never receive its tokens of affection, renown and distinction, we foresee one shameful word engraved on our tombstones: “failure.”  Believing achievement equates to worth, we hustle to gain admission to the most exclusive universities, land that million dollar book deal and make six figures.  We fritter away a significant portion of our lives either chasing validation or fretting that what we have accomplished is still not good enough.  

So how can we cure ourselves of this destructive notion that the world is divided between winners and losers?  How can we alleviate the psychological anguish that accompanies the belief that we’re only as lovable as our accomplishments?  In his immeasurably interesting Status Anxiety, De Botton offers an unexpected remedy: gaze upon the decaying beauty of ancient ruins.  Thousands of years ago, Ramses II’s commanding statue beheld the ancient world’s most magnificent civilization- today, both his statue and kingdom have disintegrated to dust, as insignificant as a speck of Saharan sand.  At the height of Rome’s power, the Forum bustled as the cultural and political epicenter of the world’s mightiest empire- several millennia later, only the skeletons of a few buildings remain, their pillars looking out at the decay with the solemnity of defeated kings.  Instead of host lavish banquets for dignified statesman, today the Forum is just another “must-see” for pushy, poorly dressed tourists in cargo shorts and jeans.  As Genesis 3:19 so poetically says, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  

That we all return to dust seems to validate the bleak nihilistic belief in life’s inherent meaninglessness.  Yet the fact that all things must end is not cause for despair.  The crumbling fragments of ancient Rome and the declining figure of Ramses II make us conscious of our ultimate insignificance, yes, but- if anything- this awareness puts our petty status anxieties into proper perspective.  No matter how brave our military exploits or how vast our lands, the disquieting truth is no one will remember them a thousand years hence.  Countless important figures have been lost through the ages: once influential world leaders dim into the oblivion of irrelevance and obscurity, all-powerful empires topple over, nations’ borders are drawn and redrawn.  Because our mortal accomplishments inevitably perish in the almighty face of eternity, De Botton suggests it’s pointless to worry too much about our status in society:

classical ruins

“Ruins reprove us for our folly in sacrificing peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power.  Beholding old stones, we may feel our anxieties over our achievements- and the lack of them- slacken.  What does it matter, really, if we have not succeeded in the eyes of others, if there are no monuments and processions in our honor or if no one smiled at us at a recent gathering?  Everything is, in any event, fated to disappear, leaving only the New Zealanders to sketch the ruins of our boulevards and offices.  Judged against eternity, how little of what agitates us makes any difference.

Ruins bid us to surrender our strivings and our fantasies of perfection and fulfillment.  They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are merely playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished.  We enjoy local victories, perhaps claim a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but ultimately will slop back into a primeval soup.  If this prospect has the power to console us, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns.  We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.

Christian moralists have long understood that to the end of reassuring the anxious, they will do well to emphasize that contrary to the first principle of optimism, everything will in fact turn out for the worst: the ceiling will collapse, the statue will topple, we will die, everyone we love will vanish and all our achievements and even our names will be trod underfoot.  We may derive some comfort from this, however, if a part of us is able instinctively to recognize how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions.  To consider our petty status worries from the perspective of a thousand years hence is to be granted a rare, tranquillising glimpse of our own insignificance.”

In the poem “Ozymandias,” Ramses II declares, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  But, as Shelley observes in the next line, a few millennia later, “nothing beside remains.”  Ramses II’s ruins remind us of the futility of acquiring worldly fame as, in the end, nothing is eternal: somebodies will become nobodies just as surely as buildings will be reduced to rubble.

Alain De Botton on How Expectation Causes Anxiety, Malaise & Discontentment

If the whole of human history was a book, each page spanning several hundred years, the last status anxietypage would be more heart-racing than all the previous pages combined: in the last few centuries, we’ve increased life expectancy, completely eradicated many once widespread diseases, and drastically reduced poverty.  In contemporary society, the majority of people live in prosperity unimaginable only a few decades ago.  In 1950 alone, three-quarters of the world lived in extreme destitution; by 2015, that number had dropped to below 10%.  But while our particular page in human history has seen unprecedented economic growth and astounding technological and scientific progress, it also recounts a more distressing tale of hard-to-place malaise and pervasive dissatisfaction.  Though the 21st century man’s material quality of life is doubtlessly better than the ancient hunter-gather’s or medieval serf’s, he suffers a malady that very rarely afflicted his ancestors: status anxiety, or the near constant fear of being perceived as a failure.

Why status anxiety is a distinctly modern phenomenon is what Alain De Botton explains in  Status Anxiety, the same philosophical masterpiece that revealed status as a construction of culture.  Pondering the paradox that we’ve become less satisfied as we’ve accumulated more things, De Botton writes:

The benefits of two thousand years of Western civilization are familiar enough: an extraordinary increase in wealth, in food supply, in scientific knowledge, in the availability of consumer goods, in physical security, in life expectancy and economic opportunity.  What is perhaps less apparent, and more perplexing, is that these impressive material advances have coincided with a phenomenon left unmentioned in Nixon’s address to his Soviet audience: a rise in the levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, by which is meant a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income.  

A sharp decline in actual deprivation may, paradoxically, have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation.  Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.”

The idea that we’re more plagued by discontent today than in previous generations defies common sense.  How is it possible to live in an affluent society with every conceivable luxury and convenience and still feel as though who you are and what you have isn’t enough?  For De Botton, the answer is expectation.  What, exactly, qualifies as “enough”- enough prestige, enough wealth- is relative: we determine what is enough based on our peer group, or those we deem similar to us.  If those in our immediate social circle- family, old high school and college friends- have impressive job titles at glamorous Fortune 500 companies or can afford luxurious trips across the continent, we’ll begin to expect ourselves to attain similar heights of success.  

But what happens when we perceive ourselves to be falling behind while our more talented, well-regarded friends hurry ahead?  Even if we objectively occupy rather high rungs on the social ladder, most of us are stung by bitter envy at the news of our peers’ success.  The idea that we could potentially be someone other than who we are tortures us with a sense that possibilities are boundless.  The result?  We in the modern era never quite feel content: 

“Such feelings of deprivation may seem less peculiar if we consider the psychology behind the way we decide precisely how much is enough.  Our judgement of what constitutes an appropriate limit on anything- for example, on wealth or esteem- is never arrived at independently; instead, we make such determinations by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, a set of people who we believe resemble us.  We cannot, it seems, appreciate what we have for its own merit, or even against what our medieval forebears had.  We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms.  We see ourselves as fortunate only when we have as much as, or more than, those we have grown up with, work alongside, have as friends or identify with in the public realm.  

If we are made to live in a droughty, insalubrious cottage and bend to the harsh rule of an aristocrat occupying a large and well-heated castle, and yet we observe that our equals all live exactly as we do, then our condition will seem normal- regrettable, certainly, but not a fertile ground for envy.  If, however, we have a pleasant home and a comfortable job but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no more compelling reference group) now reside in houses grander than ours, bought on the salaries they are paid in more enticing occupations than our own, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune.  

It is the feeling that we might, under different circumstances, be something other than what we are- a feeling inspired by exposure to the superior achievements of those whom we take to be our equals- that generates anxiety and resentment.  If we are short, say, but live among people of our same height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size.  

But if others in our group grow just a little taller than us, we are liable to feel sudden unease and to be gripped by dissatisfaction and envy, even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by so much as a fraction of a millimeter.

Given the vast inequalities we are daily confronted with, the most notable feature of envy may be that we manage not to envy everyone.  There are people whose enormous blessings leave us wholly untroubled, even as others’ negligible advantages become a source of relentless torment for us.  We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like- we envy only members of our reference group.  There are few successes more unendurable than those of our ostensible equals.”  

alain de botton status

Before the paradigm-shifting political and social revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was believed that God ordained social class.  Just as God granted Adam dominion over the beasts and babes, he gave certain men command: kings were meant to reign over kingdoms, masters over slaves, the oppressors over the oppressed.  Because your station was understood as an expression of God’s will, it would be both immoral and futile to revolt against your designated rank.  Unlike in modern egalitarian societies, in the aristocratic states of the past, status was determined by one’s family name- one could not transcend the destiny of his born social class.  To suggest that a lowly peasant could aspire to one day be king would be preposterous- as nonsensical as proposing a lion was once a rat. 

Though the medieval serf’s life was undoubtedly more arduous than the modern man’s, in many ways it was less troubled.  Unlike we in the 21st century who are tormented by a terrible sense that we can be anyone and do anything, the impoverished of earlier eras were satisfied with their stations: they didn’t begrudge their lord’s lavish manor or resent the rich.  Because they never expected to overcome the limitations of their parentage, they suffered none of the insecurity about stature that we do today.  After all, if it was predetermined that you should sit on a certain stratum of the social ladder, if it was impossible to raise your reputation because social orders were fixed and unchanging, what could follow but acceptance?  If you were born a serf, you’d die a serf, simple as that:

“It follows that the greater the number of people whom we take to be our equals and compare ourselves to, the more there will be for us to envy.  

If the great political and consumer revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused psychological anguish while vastly improving the material lot of mankind, it was because they were founded on a set of extraordinary new ideals, a practical belief in the innate equality of all human beings and in the unlimited power of anyone to achieve anything.  For most of history, the opposite assumption had held sway, with inequality and low expectations being deemed both normal and wise.  Very few among the masses had ever aspired to wealth or fulfillment; the rest knew well enough that they were condemned to exploitation and resignation.

‘It is clear that some men are by nature free and others are by nature slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right,’ Aristotle declared in his Politics (350 B.C.), voicing an opinion shared by almost all Greek and Roman thinkers and leaders.  In the ancient world, slaves and members of the working classes in general were considered to be not truly human at all but a species of creature, lacking in reason and therefore perfectly fitted to a life of servitude, just as beasts of burden were suited to tilling in the fields.  The notion that they might have rights and aspirations of their own would have been judged by the elite as no less absurd than, say, an expression of concern for the thought processes or level of happiness of an ox or an ass.  

The belief that inequality was fair, or at least inescapable, was also subscribed to by the oppressed themselves.  With the spread of Christianity during the later Roman Empire, many fell prey to a religion that taught them to accept unequal treatment as part of a natural, unchangeable social order.

[…]

A good Christian society…took the form of a rigidly stratified monarchy, a design said to reflect the ordering of the celestial kingdom.  Just as God wielded absolute power over all creation, from the angels down to the smallest toads, so, too, his appointed rulers on earth were understood to preside over a society where God had given everyone his and her place, from the noblemen down to the farm-hand.”

coronation of virgin in paradise

It wasn’t until the birth of democracy that societies adopted a more egalitarian perspective.  Whereas in the Middle Ages it was believed that God granted dominion to a privileged few, in the 17th century, philosophers began to argue all men- not just the elite upper classes- were endowed with certain rights by virtue of their humanness.  No historical event captured this shift in thought more dramatically than the American Revolution, whose founding document declared with unparalleled poetry that among these rights were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The idea that all men- king and subject, nobleman and peasant- were more or less equal represented a radical departure from the severely stratified class system of the past.  In the New World, democratic ideals razed rigid class barriers to the ground.  No longer was your status at birth an inescapable fate; through persistence and perseverance, even the poorest man- it was thought- could surpass his humble social class.  Rather than be dictated by family lineage, standing in the modern meritocracy was allocated on the basis of ability and talent: the most distinguished positions were now available to everyone, both the wealthy and the penniless.

Because democracies offered more equitable social and economic opportunities, they broadened what the masses thought possible: for the first time, a commoner could aspire to be a gentleman, the most ordinary drudge, a fashionable member of high society.  With this rise of meritocratic ideals came a historic upswing in expectations.  On one hand, the ability of democracy to increase what the majority of its citizens expected of themselves represented a monumental achievement: never before had a such a large number of people had such grandiose ambitions; but on the other hand, it’s a law of life that the higher your expectations, the more likely you are to meet dispiriting disappointment.  If happiness is as simple as reality meeting your expectations, it’s logical to conclude that the probability of being happy is inversely proportional to your expectations: the lower your expectations, the more likely you are to be satisfied and vise versa.  As the democratic philosophy of equal opportunity attracted more and more adherents, the average person’s aspirations inflated to previously unheard of proportions.  In the old aristocratic class system, you only compared yourself to your direct peer group: if you were a servant, you compared yourself to other servants, etc.  But in the egalitarian era, everyone was your supposed equal: it was now reasonable for a servant to compare his fate to a president’s- and expect that he, too, could achieve great things.  And though fairer accessibility to opportunities made such upward mobility possible for a fortunate few, the vast majority of the working class had their dreams disappointed.  So while the medieval peasant had only the most limited notion of what was possible, he possessed a certain peace of mind that eludes us today.  Because he harbored no lofty aspirations, his heart was spared the embitterment of thwarted expectations:

“The rigid hierarchy that had been in place in almost every Western society until the late eighteenth century, denying all hope of social movement except in the rarest of cases, the system glorified by John of Salisbury and John Fortescue, was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom to not have to take the achievements of quite so many people as reference points- and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance.”

we the people

The advent of mass media in the late nineteenth century raised expectations to even loftier heights.  For the first time in history, ordinary people- through the glossy fashion spreads of Elle and Vogue– gained access to the rich’s extravagant lives.  With just a quick stop at the corner newspaper stand (or in today’s terms, one effortless click on a vapid celebrity gossip site), a man of modest means could glimpse his parallel lives- grander, more glittery fates in which he could sip champagne and caviar and sail a yacht with John Jacob Aster.  In this new world where anything was possible, no citizen was too poor- to borrow the words of Alexis de Tocqueville- to “cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich.”

But the effect of this near constant exposure to the rich was to make the poor feel poorer.  It stands to reason that if you spend the majority of your time gazing at gorgeous, impeccably dressed supermodels in Chanel sweaters, your life will seem lacking by comparison.  It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when you read about the hottest Hollywood parties: suddenly your weekend seems far less exciting.  The rise of celebrity culture has convinced us in the contemporary era that who we are and what we have isn’t enough- we need more: more stylish handbags, more luxurious home furnishings, more glamorous friends.  

The fact that the media relentlessly stokes the flames of our desire explains our current happiness crisis.  Both the Buddhists and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had it right: happiness is relative to our desires.  Being happy doesn’t mean possessing many things; rather, it means possessing what we yearn for- we only suffer if we don’t procure what we lust after.  That’s why it’s possible for a billionaire to have a magnificent mansion and still feel discontented: if his estate is only 6,000 square feet but he longs for 8,000, his stately palace will seem little more than a shack.  But if a homeless drifter sleeps in train cars yet has no desires, he will be at peace, even content.  This resolves the seemingly irreconcilable paradox of our age: though we’ve managed to tremendously increase material wealth, by simultaneously multiplying the average person’s desires, we’ve made happiness harder and harder to attain:

“There are two ways to make a man richer…give him more money or curb his desires.  Modern societies have done the former spectacularly well, but by continuously whetting appetites, they have at the same time managed to negate a share of their success…Insofar as advanced societies supply their members with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us wealthier.  But in truth, their net effect may be to impoverish us, because by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open permanent gaps between what we want and what we can afford, between who we might be and who we really are.” 

Alain De Botton on Why We Travel

We live in an unprecedented era.  In the last century alone, we’ve witnessed the invention of alain de bottonspace exploration, cloning, the internet, TV, telephones.  Ours is a globalized, technologically advanced age.  The idea that one could wake up in Barcelona and later that evening fall asleep in San Francisco was unthinkable a mere hundred years ago.  Today, however, around-the-world travel in twenty four hours is a real possibility for an unparalleled number of people.  The ordinary 21st century person can voyage across distances once reserved for only the most daring explorers.  And like those adventurous souls, we find ourselves seduced by wanderlust’s seductive siren call: we study abroad, we devour Conde Nast Traveler, worshipping sparkling turquoise seas and striking cliffs like devout Catholics at the altar.  

But what, exactly, compels us to travel?  Some of us travel for mere aesthetic reasons- the quaint old-fashioned charm of a cobblestone street, the beauty of pastel-colored houses along the Italian Riviera; others for the sheer intoxication of being entirely free of our ordinary lives, our ordinary names.  Still others travel to reawaken our long dead and dormant senses, blunted as they are by the familiarity of routine.  Some travel to experience a sense of expansion and partake in the bountiful banquet of being (“We travel,” Anais Nin observed, “to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”) while some trek the globe to remind ourselves of our own smallness in the grand scheme of things (As Gustav Flaubert wrote, “Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”)

Why we travel is what Alain De Botton ponders in his delightful The Art of Travel, which begins with a dreary depiction of a charcoal gray London day.  As the days disguise themselves in more melancholic costumes and a mass of somber white clouds engulfs the winter sky, De Botton- that rare philosopher who possesses both shrewd intellect and exceptional writing ability- finds himself nostalgic for the blissful sultriness of summer.  Depressed by his doleful surroundings and overwhelmed by wanderlust, he begins daydreaming about sunnier climes:

“It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived.  The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established relentless reality.  First came a dip in evening temperatures, then days of continuous rain, confused gusts of Atlantic wind, dampness, the fall of leaves and the changing of clocks- though there were still occasional moments of reprieve, mornings when one could leave the house without a coat and the sky was cloudless and bright.  But they were like false signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has passed its sentence.  By December, the new season was entrenched and the city was covered almost every day by an ominous steely-grey sky, like one in a painting by Mantegna or Veronese, the perfect backdrop to the crucifixion of Christ or to a day beneath the bedclothes.  The neighborhood park became a desolate spread of mud and water, lit up at night by rain-streaked lamps.  Passing it one evening in a downpour, I recalled how, in the intense heat of the previous summer, I had stretched out on the ground and let my bare feet slip from my shoes to caress the grass and how this direct contact with the earth had brought with it a sense of freedom and expansiveness, summer breaking down the usual boundaries between indoors and out, allowing me to feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.” 

rainy-london - Version 2

Hoping to escape the despondency of London, De Botton decides to travel to Barbados, a gorgeous Caribbean island.  For months, his vision of the island revolves around images he collects from postcards and brochures: palm trees, French doors opening onto white sand beaches and clear skies.  But when he finally arrives at his-much romanticized destination, the reality doesn’t quite correspond to the picture he had constructed in his mind: 

“We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate.  The pessimistic school…therefore argues that reality must always be disappointing.  It may be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different.  

After two months of anticipation, on a cloudless February mid-afternoon, I touched down, along with my traveling companion, M, at Barbados’s Grantley Adams Airport.

[…]

Nothing was as I imagined- surprising only if one considers what I imagined.  In the preceding weeks, the thought of the island had circled exclusively around three immobile mental images, assembled during the reading of a brochure and an airline timetable.  The first was of a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun.  The second was of a hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen.  And the third was of an azure sky.”

vintage beach

When we fantasize about gallivanting to a faraway land- Timbuktu, Taiwan, Tibet– our imagination operates in much the same way as a story, magnifying certain plot lines while entirely excluding others.  As we anticipate our exotic getaway, we envision striking landscapes, colorful prayer flags and Buddhist monks, imagining such far-flung places and foreign customs will liberate us from the humdrum realities of the day-to-day.

I recently had this experience when I visited Italy.  Had you observed me in my office for the days and weeks leading up to the trip, you would have seen a girl lost in ecstatic reverie, daydreaming about pink-orange sunsets and Mediterranean skies.  How could strolling through Rome’s charming cobblestone streets, gazing upon the awe-inspiring beauty of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael- I wondered- be anything but bliss?  But like many an idealistic traveler who too zealously romanticizes their destination, with arrival came a disenchanting epiphany: Rome was just like anywhere else.  It may have ancient ruins and croissants and cappuccinos but it also has impossibly long lines, cancelled flights, lost luggage, and rude people.  Reading a travel guide will give you the impression that Rome is only magnificent sight-seeing but in actuality there’s always the tedium and at times unbearable misery of traveling itself.  In much the same way a novelist functions by means of omission, choosing only those incidents that are rich in drama and excitement while neglecting the uninteresting or irrelevant, our imagination tends to bring the most significant events into focus.  The result is the reality of our travels- filled as they are with trivial annoyances like jet lag and stuffy airplanes- very rarely live up to our fantasies of the trip:

“If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination.  Artistic accounts include severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us.  A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn.  But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’.  We sit in a train.  Lunch digests awkwardly within us.  The seat cloth is grey.  We look out the window at a field.  We look back inside.  A drum of anxieties resolves in our consciousness.  We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite.  We tap a finger on the window ledge.  A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread.  It starts to rain.  A drop wends a muddy path down the dust-coated window.  We wonder where our ticket might be.  We look back at the field.  It continues to rain.  At last, the train starts to move.  It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops.  A fly lands on the window.  And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journeyed through the afternoon’.  

A storyteller who provided us with such a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening.  Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetition, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines.  It insists on showing us Bardak Electronics, the safety handle in the car, a stray dog, a Christmas card and a fly that lands first on the rim and then in the centre of the ashtray.

Which explains how the curious phenomenon whereby valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality.  The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.  

As I lay awake in bed on my first Caribbean night looking back on my journey…already the confusion of the present moment began to recede and certain events to assume prominence, for memory was in this respect similar to anticipation: an instrument of simplification and selection.”  

When De Botton recalls that first day in Barbados, he is able to recreate the sensory experience in evocative detail: the tranquil quiet of the morning, the magnanimity of mother nature bountifully bestowing the gift of warm weather, the languid way the coconut trees lean towards the sun.  Though his recollection gives the impression of coherence, such orderliness- he confesses- is an illusion, the slight of hand of a sorcerer’s wand.  Just as storytellers make the disorder of experience comprehensible by imposing a narrative structure, De Botton renders that enchanted morning in paradise intelligible by highlighting certain things while downplaying others.  The soothing quiet, the turquoise seathe languid trees– these are only but a few of many features Mr. De Botton could have focused on.  So why bring these particular elements into the foreground?  Like any artist, he chooses to emphasize certain things for effect: the sea and trees paint a picture that coincides with his fantasy of the island, an island where he imagined “I” was a confine he could circumvent.  But, like many an escapist who learns a change in scenery can never magically solve his problems, De Botton realizes he can never break free from the penitentiary of who he is:

“Awakening early on that first morning, I slipped on a dressing gown provided by the hotel and went out on the veranda.  In the dawn light the sky was a pale grey-blue and, after the rustlings of the night before, all the creatures and even the wind seemed in a deep sleep.  It was as quiet as a library.  Beyond the hotel room stretched a wide beach which was covered at first with coconut trees and then sloped unhindered towards the sea.  I climbed over the veranda’s low railing and walked across the sand.  Nature was at her most benevolent.  It was as if, in creating this small horseshoe bay, she had chosen to atone for her ill-temper in other regions and decided for once to display only her munificence.  The trees provided shade and milk, the floor of the sea was lined with shells, the sand was powdery and the colour of sun-ripened wheat, and the air- even in the shade- had an enveloping, profound warmth to it so unlike the fragility of northern European heat, always prone to cede, even in midsummer, to a more assertive, proprietary chill.

I found a deck chair at the edge of the sea.  I could hear small lapping sounds besides me, as if a kindly monster was taking discreet sips of water from a very large goblet.  A few birds were waking up and beginning to career through the air in matinal excitement.  Behind me, the raffia roofs of the hotel bungalows were visible through the gaps in the trees.  Before me was a view that I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretched away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay, behind it were jungle-covered hills, and the first row of coconut trees inclined irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun.  

Yet this description only imperfectly reflects what occurred within me that morning, for my attention was in truth far more fractured and confused than the foregoing paragraphs suggest.  I may have noticed a few birds careening through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness  of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among these, a sore throat that I had developed during the flight, a worry at not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom.  A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

In a disillusioning moment recalling the Eastern idea that “wherever you go there you are,” De Botton discovers that “I” is a constant that remains continuous regardless of place:

“I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity quite at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.”

At the heart of De Botton’s at once erudite and affable The Art of Travel persists the question of why we travel at all.  Most of us voyage to far-flung places because we believe breathtaking views and unforgettable food will remedy the dissatisfaction that ails us back home.  We imagine that our restless minds will miraculously find peace drifting asleep to the sea’s consoling lullaby, that our marriage’s ten years of embittered resentments and petty squabbles will magically resolve themselves because we’re no longer tormented by bad weather and desolate gray skies.  But this is a fallacy.  When we romanticize a raffia bungalow in Tahiti or an idyllic cottage in the French countryside, we forget one inescapable rule of the human condition: happiness cannot be assured by the external circumstances of our lives.  Anyone who’s had a romantic dinner ruined by a trivial disagreement knows the aesthetics of an evening-champagne, fancy silverware, fresh flowers- matter little when a conversation with your significant other devolves into infantile bickering and words hurled in spite.  In the end, De Button learns one thing- it’s possible to be amongst the most spectacular surroundings and still be miserable:

“When the cremes arrived, M received a large, but messy portion which looked as if it had fallen over in the kitchen and I a tiny, but perfectly formed one.  As soon as the waiter had stepped out of earshot, M reached over and swapped my plate for hers.  ‘Don’t steal my dessert,’ I said, incensed.  ‘I thought you wanted the bigger one,’ she replied, no less affronted.  ‘You’re just trying to get the better one.’  ‘I’m not, I’m trying to be nice to you.  Stop being suspicious.’  ‘I will if you give me back my portion.’  

In only a few moments, we had plunged into a shameful interlude where beneath infantile rounds of bickering there stirred mutual terrors of incompatibility and infidelity.

M handed back my plate grimly, took a few spoons from hers and pushed the dessert to one side.  We said nothing.  We paid and drove back to the hotel, the sound of the engine disguising the intensity of our sulks.  The room had been cleaned in our absence.  The bed had fresh linen.  There were flowers on the chest of drawers and new beach towels in the bathroom.  I tore one from the pile and went to sit on the veranda, closing the French doors violently behind me.  The coconut trees were throwing a gentle shade, the criss-cross patterns of their palms occasionally rearranging themselves in the afternoon breeze.  But there was no pleasure for me in such beauty.  I had enjoyed nothing aesthetic or material since the struggle over the cremes caramel several hours before.  It had become irrelevant that there were soft towels, flowers, and attractive views.  My mood refused to be lifted by any external prop; it even felt insulted by the perfection of the weather and the prospect of the beach-side barbecue scheduled for that evening.  

Our misery that afternoon, in which the smell of tears mixed with the scents of suncream and air-conditioning, was a reminder of the rigid, unforgiving logic to which human moods appear subject, a logic that we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful land and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence.  Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.  We will not enjoy- we are not able to enjoy- sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment.

If we are surprised by the power of one sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods.  We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.”

Alain De Botton on Status as a Construction of Culture

status anxietyStatus-anxiety is a malady that has afflicted many over the millennia but is particularly rampant today.  More than in previous generations, in the 21st century, we’re beset with this debilitating disease: when we’re perpetually bombarded with photos from our friends’ exciting trips to faraway lands, when we’re ceaselessly assaulted by old college buddies’ more prestigious job titles on Linkedin, what can follow but stinging envy- and a disheartening sense that we’re somehow less than?  So we nod politely and give insincere congratulations when a friend shares she’s been admitted to grad school all the while struggling to conceal the fact that her success has us seriously doubting our worth as human beings.  The worry that we occupy too modest a rung in the social hierarchy defines much of our existence in our twenties.  “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories,” endlessly erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton proclaims, “The first- the story of our quest for sexual love- is well known and well charted…The second- the story of our quest for love from the world- is a more secret and shameful tale…And yet this second story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful.”

How to defend against the pathological obsession with how we’re doing in relation to others is what De Botton— the same nimble mind who suggested the reality of an exotic locale almost never lives up to our expectations— explores in Status Anxiety, his thought-provoking examination of the causes and solutions to this distinctly modern disease.  In his chapter on politics, De Botton argues status is not apportioned identically across cultures but is relative to time and place:

“Every society holds certain groups of people in high esteem while condemning or ignoring others, whether on the basis of their skills, accent, temperament, gender, physical attributes, ancestry, religion, or skin color.  Yet such arbitrary and subjective criteria for success and failure are far from permanent or universal.  Qualities and abilities that equate with high status in one place or era have a marked tendency to grow irrelevant or even become undesirable in others.”

alain de botton status

Using fascinating examples from history to substantiate his claims, De Botton contends what a culture values is not eternal or immutable but rather in a constant state of change: in medieval times, for instance, no one was more revered than a knight who was valiant in battle and chivalrous with the ladies.  However, by the mid 19th century, the sophisticated gentleman had thrust the gallant knight from his dominant rank.  No more did men strive to dauntlessly defend castles or make aggressive demonstrations of their virile masculinity- instead, they sought to be polite, refined men of cultivation and taste.  Was one way of being inherently better than the other?  No, but had you been a sensitive soul who preferred poetry to battle in medieval England, most of your society would have regarded you as a disgrace.

That a doctor is regarded as a man of stature while a store clerk is shamed says little about the worth of the men themselves and everything about their state.  As De Botton so eloquently explains, societies value occupations essential to their survival: in medieval times, when kingdoms were under constant threat, a warrior like a knight would be held in high esteem because his skills would protect the people.  But as the world became more stable, fighters- much like today’s U.S. automobile workers- were no longer necessary or useful:

“Certain people may win status through their ability to defend others, whether by patronage or through control of food, water, or other staples.  Where safety is in short supply, as in ancient Sparta or twelfth-century Europe, courageous fighters and knights on horseback will be celebrated.  If a community craves nutrients that are available only in the form of elusive animal flesh, as in the Amazon, it is the killers of jaguars who will earn respect and its symbol, the armadillo girdle.  In areas where the livelihood of the majority depends on trade and high technology, as in modern Europe or North America, entrepreneurs and scientists will be objects of admiration.  The converse also holds true: a segment of the population that cannot provide a useful service to others will end up without status, in the manner of muscular men in countries with secure borders, or of jaguar hunters in settled agricultural societies.”  

Culled from fields as diverse as philosophy, politics, history and artStatus Anxiety is both provocative and paradigm-shifting.  In the same way he distilled the wisdom of great French novelist Marcel Proust into an accessible self-help guide for the contemporary reader, De Button dives into the dusty archives of human history to help us better understand the status-anxiety that ails us in the modern era.  What he finds is who reigns at the top of the social pyramid varies depending on culture: what qualifies someone as an object of admiration or an object of scorn is not the same in a 12th century English village as in an isolated tribe in the Amazon.  This fact should console those of us who’ve ever felt like “failures” as such derogatory terms don’t reveal objective truth- they’re merely constructions of our culture.  What makes you a “loser” in one age could very well make you a “winner” in another.