Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst to more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy.  Books are lamps and life rafts, friends and teachers, time machines and time capsules.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, disturbing portrayals of violence, and tasteless profanity, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a frost-bitten December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?”  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-hatred and self-doubt.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such groundbreaking novels and essays as Orlando and A Room of One’s Own.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!” 

Proust on How to Be Happy in Love

lovers“Who, being loved, is poor?” witty master of aphorisms Oscar Wilde once wondered.  Though it might be an overstatement to say “all you need is love,” ancient philosophers and contemporary science agree that satisfying relationships are a crucial component, if not the crucial component, of human happiness.  In one of the longest studies of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 724 men in hopes of discovering the secrets to a good life.  Over the course of nearly 80 years, they observed their defeats and triumphs, their careers and love lives.  What they found was astonishing: more than IQ, social class, or genetics, quality relationships, particularly marriages, were the number one determiner of a fulfilling existence.  Not only did a harmonious matrimony dictate their overall life satisfaction— it had a far-reaching impact on their health.  Those in loving marriages, not those who had achieved wealth or prestige or our societal ideal of social status, were found to live longer than both their unmarried and unhappily married counterparts.  In fact, those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age fifty were the healthiest group at eighty.  Marital contentment was even a better predictor of later health than cholesterol.

Because meaningful relationships are so critical to our emotional and physical health, we should be alarmed by the current state of romantic love.  In the U.S. alone, nearly half of marriages end in divorce.  My generation is more reluctant to get married and often postpones, if not completely forgoes, tying the knot.  Though the rise of casual hookup apps like Tinder give the impression that millennials at least have red-hot sex lives, they’re actually having less sex than young people a generation ago.  Experts attribute the “sex recession” to everything from the widespread availability of porn to increasing psychological fragility and fear of intimacy (after all, masturbating to a cold blue computer screen requires a lot less vulnerability than being intimate with someone).  Still others argue the advent of online dating has made approaching the opposite sex in public socially awkward, even taboo.  The result?  Loneliness is at an all-time high with nearly 20% of Americans reporting they’re dissatisfied with their lives because they don’t have close confidantes.  

To say we in the modern era are suffering a crisis of love would be a gross understatement.  If nothing is more essential to human happiness than having a partner who can act as a lifeboat amid the sea of life’s misfortunes, it’s vital we learn how to sustain gratifying long-term relationships.  Based on our staggering divorce rates and dwindling number of sex partners, we clearly need a teacher to instruct us.  In his ever-enlightening self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we can find no better mentor than Marcel Proust, the fine French novelist who also taught us how to suffer successfully, reawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, remember the benefits and limitations of reading, and avoid the lure of platitudes and cliches.  At the beginning of the chapter “How to Be Happy in Love,” the example of the telephone illustrates the difficulty of keeping a long-term relationship alive.  When first invented, we stood before the telephone astounded at its ability to allow us to communicate across once unsurpassable distances.  Now, with just the dial of a few numbers, we could speak to someone over seven thousand miles away in Mumbai from the comfort of our studio apartment in New York.  But within a span of only a few decades, this technological wonder became just another staple of the average household, as commonplace as cutlery and toasters:

“Take the unemotive example of the telephone.  Bell invented it in 1876.  By 1900, there were thirty thousand phones in France.  Proust acquired one and particularly liked a service called the “theater-phone,” which allowed him to listen to live opera and theater in Paris venues.  

He might have appreciated his phone, but he noted how quickly everyone else began taking theirs for granted.  As early as 1907, he wrote that the machine was

a supernatural instrument whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.

Moreover, if the confiserie had a busy line or the connection to the tailor a hum, instead of admiring the technological advances that had frustrated our sophisticated desires, we tended to act with childish ingratitude.  

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone “convenient,” or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that “it isn’t convenient,” we fill Le Figaro with our complaints. 

A mere thirty-one years separated Bell’s invention from Proust’s sad observations on the state of  French telephone-appreciation.  It had taken little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolate.”

lovers #2

Just as we take even the most miraculous technological innovations for granted once they become part of our day-to-day, we ungrateful mortals struggle to appreciate our significant others once we’ve committed to lifelong monogamy.  Recalling the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Botton suggests our capacity for appreciation diminishes as something becomes more familiar:

“As a boy, Proust’s narrator longs to befriend the beautiful, vivacious Gilberte, whom he has met playing in the Champs-Elysees.  Eventually, his wish comes true.  Gilberte becomes his friend, and invites him regularly to tea at her house.  There she cuts him slices of cake, ministers to his needs, and treats him with great affection.  

He is happy, but, soon enough, not as happy as he should be.  For so long, the idea of having tea at Gilberte’s house was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after quarter of an hour in her drawing room, it is the time before he knew her, before she was cutting him cake and showering him with affection, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.  

The outcome can only be a certain blindness to the favors he is enjoying.  He will soon forget what there is to be grateful for because the memory of a Gilberte-less life will fade, and with it, evidence of what there is to savor.  The smile on Gilberte’s face, the luxury of her tea, and the warmth of her manners will eventually become such a familiar part of his life that there will be as much incentive to notice them as there is to notice omnipresent elements like trees, clouds, and telephones.” 

At the cornerstone of both Botton and Proust’s conception of a fulfilling life is the ability to see clearly— and not just in the literal sense of visually discerning an object in physical reality, but in the deeper sense of seeing the world in all its miraculous grandeur and beauty.  While artists are experts at looking closely, we in regular life often fail to exercise our perceptive faculties.  We might “see” a night sky but never notice the way charcoal clouds blot out an erie moon, the way the silhouettes of bare branches form a sinister backdrop to a still autumn night.  We might “see” our husband or wife but never notice, truly notice, their rare ability to listen or the sweetness of their dimples or the innocence of their eyes.  It is a tragic irony that the more we see an object, the more we become blind:

“Though we usually assume that seeing an object requires us to have visual contact with it, and that seeing a mountain involves visiting the Alps and opening our eyes, this may only be the first and in a sense the inferior part of seeing, for appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.  

After looking at a mountain, if we shut our lids and dwell on the scene internally, we are led to seize on its important details.  The mass of visual information is interpreted and the mountain’s salient features identified: its granite peaks, its glacial indentations, the mist hovering above the tree linedetails that we would previously have seen but not for that matter noticed.

 […]

Having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it.  Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact.” 

So how, exactly, can we apply these insights to be happier in love and cultivate more satisfying bonds?  In the Proustian worldview, the key to marital bliss, in fact any bliss, is looking anew: in other words, noticing, not just seeingour partners.  Rather than regard our husbands with the blasé indifference that extinguishes the flames of millions of marriages (“How was your day?” we ask more out of obligation than genuine interest only to half pay attention when he replies), we can reignite passion by pretending we’re first getting to know each other.  As Yiyun Li so beautifully articulates, the people closest to us are as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  Because the institution of marriage requires we live with the same person day after day, we begin to think we’ve charted the entire map of our lover’s heart; after all, after so much time together, how could any territory of his nature possibly remain unplumbed?  But this sense of familiarity is a mirage: though physical proximity ensures we literally see our partners, we rarely notice the many facets that comprise who they are.  As Mary Gaitskill observes, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  The routine nature of matrimony convinces us there’s no land of our lover left to explore when in actuality there’s still many new worlds and many new shores:

“Deprivation quickly drives us into the process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.

If long acquaintance with a lover so often breeds boredom, breeds a sense of knowing the person too well, the problem may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough.  Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters.”

It is a rule of human nature that desire begins with denial, infatuation with inaccessibility.  After all, who consumes us with the most ardent longing: our husbands whom we’ve managed to acquire or the sharply-dressed guy in the break room we barely converse with but see once in awhile?  In high school, who was our helpless obsession: our sweetest, most considerate guy friend or the hot punk we only observed from afar?  What lies just beyond our grasp is what most tantalizes us.  Proust was well aware of this fact.  “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free,'” he once said.  Why is it that the rebuff of a dinner invitation makes a love interest all the more attractive?  For Proust, the answer once again rests in this idea of seeing vs. noticing: because our capacity for appreciation is gradually dulled by the habitual nature of domesticity, we merely see our long-term partners instead of notice them.  If couples don’t make a conscious and consistent effort to stoke the flames of romance, the intensity of desire they once felt will most certainly wane until what was once a lustful blaze will be smothered by the monotony of routine.  Our lovers will no longer hold interest for us because we know them too intimately (or, that is, we think we know them too intimately).

The man in the break room, on the other hand, will continue to allure us because he carries an aura of mystery.  Because our desire for him has not been fulfilled, he remains enticing.  The fact that he’s a distant crush and not a husband explains why he’s a source of fascination: the moment a lust is gratified, the moment when what we desperately yearn for is finally possessed is almost always unsatisfying— at least, not as satisfying as we imagined.  Attainment is ultimately disenchanting.  It is the delay of gratification, it is the not having that makes everything from a potential lover to a pair of shoes appealing.  In Search for Lost Time demonstrates this lesson through the characters of the Duchess and Albertine: 

“Both Albertine and the Duchess de Guermantes are interested in fashion.  However, Albertine has very little money and the Duchess owns half of France.  The Duchesse’s wardrobes are therefore overflowing; as soon as she sees something she wants, she can send for her dressmaker and her desire is fulfilled as rapidly as hands can sew.  Albertine, on the other hand, can hardly buy anything, and has to think at length before she does so.  She spends hours studying clothes, dreaming of a particular coat or hat or dressing gown.  The result is that though Albertine has far fewer clothes than the Duchesse, her understanding, appreciation, and love of them is far greater.

[…]

Proust compares Albertine to a student who visits Dresden after cultivating a desire to see a particular painting, whereas the Duchesse is likely a wealthy tourist who travels without any desire or knowledge, and experiences nothing but bewilderment, boredom and exhaustion when she arrives.  

Which emphasizes the extent to which physical possession is only one component of appreciation.  If the rich are fortunate in being able to travel to Dresden as soon as the desire to do so arises, or buy a dress after they have just seen it in a catalog, they are cursed because the speed with which their wealth fulfills their desires.  No sooner have they thought of Dresden than they can be on a train there; no sooner have they seen a dress than it can be in their wardrobe.  They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn’t free that evening.”

french women.jpg

Now let’s turn to a more controversial topic: sex.  What did the legendary French author have to say about getting busy between the sheets?  Throughout time, women were told chastity was a requisite for finding a husband.  Even after the feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s, our mothers still clung to the conservative belief that we should wait as long as possible before engaging in the ultimate act of intimacy.  “Why would a man buy the whole ice cream truck if you’re giving away the popsicles for free?” they cautioned.  In other words, why would a man ever exchange vows to remain faithful in “sickness and health” if he already achieved his ultimate aim?  

Though as a culture we no longer hold the outdated belief that a woman needs to remain “pure” to be attractive, Proust might say our mothers— for all their antiquated ideas of gender roles and offensive double standards— were in some ways correct.  “Women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, whom one does not even know at first whether one will ever possess are the only interesting ones,” he once wrote.  Now, before we condemn Proust as an unforgivable misogynist, he believed this principle equally applied to men.  If love is three quarters curiosity as quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, love wilts as familiarity grows.  Compare your attitude toward where you live to an exotic locale.  What do you look at with more longing: the cobblestone streets and sparkling waters of Venice, Italy or the well-trotted roads of your daily route?  Obviously, the former.  However, if you could too easily secure the object of your desire, if because of an overflowing bank account or an abundance of frequent flier miles, you could fly halfway across the world to gaze upon St. Mark’s Basilica with little difficulty, the experience would be less satisfying.  Within an hour of suffering the impossibly long lines of Italy in summer, you’d be dreaming of yet another faraway destination: the idyllic English countryside, perhaps, or a breathtaking beach in the Caribbean.

This elucidates the basis of Proust’s theory of desire: we are incapable of appreciating what can be obtained with little effort.  If we sleep with someone on the first date (or even the second or third), there’s no more mystery, curiosity: the once exciting possibility of traversing the societal boundaries of clothes and exploring the forbidden territory of another’s body becomes as boring and predictable as our well-trodden route to work.  For Proust, this was the fundamental problem with the prostitute: “because she both wishes to entice a man and yet is commercially prevented from doing what is most likely to encourage love— namely, tell him that she is not free tonight…the outcome is clear, and therefore real, lasting desire unlikely.”  So if we want to captivate our lovers, we must maintain the mystery.

Proust on How Art Reawakens Us to the Extraordinary Beauty of Ordinary Things

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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. 

wine & loaf 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.

the silver cup

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 of Art.  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. 

Alain De Botton 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.”