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Book review: Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Monday, 29 January 2018  | Rex Dale

The Art of Travel

By Alain de Botton
(London: Penguin Books, 2002)

Travel is no longer the preserve of the rich. Most of us are doing it, and even the poorest student seems to be able manage a trip to a nearby country - though there are still a significant number who prefer familiar places and faces rather than venturing to unfamiliar surroundings.

Alain de Botton suggests that the type of trip we take can tell us a lot about ourselves. The book is not about how to select the right travel agent, or how to make our money stretch further, or perhaps how to deal with a roadside emergency. Rather, it is about what we do or think about on our travels, how travel might enhance our lives and give us a larger vision, and how to minimise disappointment. It goes well beyond taking ‘selfies’ with perhaps a castle in the background.

Botton looks at some travellers of the nineteenth century and their differing attitudes. He begins with a story of himself to show how an otherwise sensible person can make unwise plans and feel let down by their travel experience. He recalls being in London during the onset of winter. With leaden skies, short days and the air increasingly cold and damp, he searches for a way out. His eyes fall on a brochure. The cover shows a beach, blue sea and some leaning coconut palms, all bathed in warm sunshine. With very little information, he decides to book a flight to that very same place to experience the magic that has already cast a spell over him.

Getting there, he finds that the island has a petrol storage facility and that, besides other inconveniences, the hotel food lies heavily in his stomach! He asks himself how he could not restrain his desperation sufficiently to think more carefully before making his plans. Why did a picture of some leaning palms cast such a spell over him (12)? The experience can be worsened when we are mismatched with an unsuitable travelling companion and find ourselves in a confined space.

Two Frenchmen of the nineteenth century took very different journeys: Charles Baudelaire of Paris and Gustave Flaubert of Rouen.

From an early age, Charles Baudelaire felt uncomfortable at home. He quarrelled with his mother and stepfather and so was sent to a succession of boarding schools from which he was expelled. With his horror of a home and a feeling of loneliness, he felt destined to an eternally solitary life (33). He decided that he had to get out of France before he suffocated. His first trip was to Mauritius, but he could not shake off the feeling of sadness and lethargy (33). Sarcastically he wrote:

We saw stars

And waves; we saw sand too;

And despite many crises and unforeseen disasters

We were often bored just as we are here. (34)

Other ideas for travel presented themselves. He dreamt of going to Lisbon where, like a lizard, he could gain strength by lying in the sun. After considering other places, he decided that the destination was not the point. He just needed to get away! Baudelaire saw himself as a ‘poet’, one whose temperament oscillated between hope and despair, childlike idealism and cynicism. He thought it was the fate of ‘poets’, like Christian pilgrims, to live in a fallen world while refusing to surrender their vision of an alternative less compromised realm (35).

Baudelaire lived during a time of enormous expansion of trains and ships, and all that goes with them. He was powerfully drawn to harbours, docks, railway stations, trains, ships and hotel rooms. These transient places made him feel more at home than his own dwelling. TS Eliot thought Baudelaire was the first nineteenth-century artist to highlight the beauty of all things connected with travel.

Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!

Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made from of our tears! (48)

In 1906, the twenty-four year old Edward Hopper went to Paris and discovered Baudelaire’s poetry. So great was the impact that for the rest of his life he read and recited Baudelaire’s poetry, and was determined to convey the same feelings on canvas and make loneliness the dominant theme. The people in his paintings seem to be cut off from family and friends. They sit on the edge of a hotel bed and look at a letter or drink at a bar, watch a moving train or read a book in a hotel lobby. Their faces are vulnerable and introspective. Have they left someone or have they been left? They seem adrift and in our minds we search for answers. They are not necessarily ‘poor’ but they are sad just the same. Botton suggests that viewers get a like feeling of sadness and grief that makes them feel less beset by their own griefs (49).

The second Frenchman, Flaubert, had longings to escape from the ordinary. He lived in Rouen where conversation centred around taxes and road improvements. Boring! He longed to escape ‘prosperous pettiness’. His mind turned to the Orient. From what he had read, it seemed an exciting escape. Flaubert wrote to Chevalier: ‘My life, which I dream will be so beautiful, so poetic, so vast, so filled with love, will turn out to be like everybody else’s – monotonous, sensible and stupid. I’ll attend law school, be admitted to the bar, and end up as a respected assistant district attorney in a small provincial town…’ (74). Flaubert could not bear to stay, but how could he afford to go to the Orient? Unexpectedly, his father died, leaving him a lot of money (75). He could make plans immediately. He could even take a close friend, Maxime du Camp, an ideal companion who understood the practical requirements of travel, which Flaubert didn’t. He could now escape those elements of French life he so much despised. The Orient would provide him all that for which he longed.

But there would be disappointments that he would conceal. Many years later, after an account of their Egyptian journey would be written, and he had become a celebrity, Maxine du Camp, now distant from his friend and embittered, claimed that, implausible though it might seem, Flaubert was as bored on the Nile as he was in Rouen (96). Flaubert responded that he had to modify his absurdly idealized image with a realistic but still admiring view of Egypt (97).

A person with a very different view of travel and his surroundings was the twenty-nine year old German, Alexander von Humbolt, who set sail for South America in 1799. Humbolt was the supreme gatherer of information. He was forever taking measurements, whether it be of plants and animals, or whether it be to measure the temperatures of the oceans (107). His curiosity was boundless. He could be excited to discover that flies did not exist beyond a certain altitude. Writing some years later, Friedrich Nietzsche was to challenge this attitude of Humbolt, asserting that the mere collection of facts was ‘sterile’. Echoing Goethe, Nietzsche said that knowledge that merely instructs without enriching one’s inner life was hateful (112).

The next great traveller Botton leads us to is William Wordsworth. Wordsworth became the great poet of nature, but he did not come to that immediately. In his youth he was thrilled by news of the French Revolution. He had to travel to France to join the excitement as a bright new era was to be ushered in. ‘Bliss was it that dawn to be alive’, he declared. Arriving in Paris, it was not long before he realised that all was not well. Disillusioned, he returned to England and, with much prompting from his sister Dorothy, became the poet of nature. Wordsworth felt that city life was damaging. He was not concerned so much about our lungs; rather, he thought that city life was fostering envy, pride and anxiety about our social standing. He was particularly vexed to discover that neighbours often did not know each other (138).

Wordsworth’s poetry was ahead of its time, and for a few years brought great ridicule. He wrote about a butterfly, a cuckoo, a skylark and many other everyday things. Lord Byron was scathing. The Edinburgh Review declared that Wordsworth’s poetry was a babyish absurdity (136). Wordsworth was patient. A woman wrote to console him. He replied: ‘Trouble not yourself upon the present reception of these poems. Of what moment is that when compared with what I trust is their destiny, to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel…’ (137). The reading public gradually ceased guffawing and learned to be charmed and to even recite by heart these celebrations of nature. Large numbers of people, with the assistance of the newly developed railways, began to visit the Lake District to see where Wordsworth gained a good deal of his inspiration. It was soon being said that there were more visitors than sheep!

As great as Wordsworth’s appreciation of nature was, a new thought about human’s connection with nature began to come to prominence: the idea of the sublime. The word had been around for centuries, but had languished. In the eighteenth century it was taken from its inert state and given a fresh examination. Joseph Addison, in his ‘Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination’, described a delightful stillness and amazement he felt as he viewed certain types of terrain. Jacob Hildebrand wrote an essay on a similar theme. In 1739, Thomas Gray went on a walking tour of the Alps and reported on his feelings when seeing, either in the calm or a storm, precipices, caverns and Swiss mountains. Others like Edmund Burke followed. The idea of the sublime was definitely not about meadows in spring, soft valleys, and banks of flowers. For a landscape to be sublime, it had to suggest power greater than humans, even to threaten them, or at least to make people feel small.

Pascal, when he viewed the heavens, wrote: ‘When I consider….the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright…’ (159).

Why seek out sublime places, or view the heavens, if it is going to make us feel small? Botton suggests that ‘sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically teaches viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will, and that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves’ (169).

In the book of Job, in the Hebrew scriptures, God addresses a greatly conflicted person. Job was in a dire situation and no relief was in sight. He had no idea that his troubles were the outcome of a particular conflict between God and Satan. It all seemed very unfair and, to make matters worse, Job’s friends gave unhelpful advice. God’s response was to bring Job to consider sublime places to reach acceptance of his condition without bitterness, even though nothing made sense. Viewing sublime places help us to see beyond our difficulties and realise that there is a bigger picture and that we are finite creatures.

And now for the Christian view of our surroundings. Alexander Whyte notes that the Apostle Paul has often been noted for his seeming indifference to nature and towards the classic sites of Greece and Rome. His indifference has been contrasted to Jesus Christ’s attitude, who says to consider the lilies of the field. Calvin has been criticised for not lifting his eyes from his ‘Institutes’ to the splendour of the Swiss Alps and giving us a full description. Yet Paul, in Romans 8, says he eagerly awaits the liberation of nature from bondage into a glorious liberty. Yes, nature is beautiful, but it has its nasty side. A person who was greatly entranced by the beauties of nature was the philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards of New England. Botton does not mention him, but we cannot overlook a vivid experience which overcame him, and which connects his spiritual experience with nature. It needs to be explained that what he describes as his conversion was not an initial acquaintance with Christian truth, but something much deeper. Here I close with a shortened description of that time:

Immediately after my conversion, God’s excellency began to appear to me in everything – in the sun, in the moon, in the stars, in the waters, and in all nature. The Son of God created this world for this very end, to communicate to us through it a certain image of His own excellency, so that when we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind we may see in all that only the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ.

Botton offers us distinctive views on travel as seen through the eyes of various people. He writes with considerable sensitivity to the human condition and is not afraid to deal with the rawest of emotions. Botton describes journeys as ‘the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving ship or plane’. This raises a few questions: can this journey enrich me and enlarge my understanding of the human psyche, or will it disappoint me? Most important of all, will it deal with my inner malaise, or will it leave me more confused than before? I like Botton’s prose. English is not his first language, but he writes with carefully chosen words that give his writing a lively and engaging quality. Writers of cool detached ‘spare’ prose could do well to study him.

Rex Dale is a graduate of UWA spending much of his retirement reading and writing. He is the author of Insights From Greco-Roman Times and a Christian Response (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2014).


Paul Arnott
January 30, 2018, 3:49PM
Great review, Rex. Made me realise yet again that the destination is less important than the journey and that what happens inside us when we travel is more important than anything else.

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