Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton*

In this, another delightful book from Alain De Botton, of whom I’ve previously read How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy, De Botton once again adroitly mixes personal experience, paintings, literature, and famous figures to explore different aspects of travel. Each chapter is “on”: “On Anticipation”, “On the Exotic”, “On Habit”, and so on. Each chapter is a self-contained essay that explores its chosen topic through a representative figure from history, such as Flaubert, Wordsworth, and Ruskin, to name three of the more familiar figures. Each chapter uses paintings and photography to supplement the words of the essay. “On Traveling Places”, for instance, explores works of Edward Hopper, best known for his work “Nighthawks" (not used here), but who also explored trains, gas stations, and hotel rooms along his way. Finally, De Botton includes his own experiences to provide a contemporary perspective and to sometimes test the ideas of those upon whom he has drawn. 

Part of the pleasure of De Botton’s project comes from his ability to meditate on travel from many different angles. In the opening essay, “On Anticipation”, he tells the tale of J.-K. Huysmans, who decided upon a trip to London from his French residence, only to abandon it after having made all of the necessary arrangements and consulted all of the guide books. After consulting the guidebooks, he decided he’d seen enough! Sometimes, indeed, the imagination of anticipation exceeds the reality of even the most alluring of destinations. In “On the Exotic”, the French novelist Flaubert travels to Egypt to stay and experience an alien world, while Xavier de Maistre writes about his travels around his bedroom, and then his view from his bedroom window in De Botton’s “On Habit” chapter. (De Maistre travels abroad as well.) But even within the limited purview of a bedroom De Maistre finds, upon careful and leisurely inspection, more interesting things either he or we could have imagined. 

De Botton contrasts the city with the country. Samuel Johnson found the Scottish highlands a wasteland that merely created annoyance, while not long after Johnson, Wordsworth sang the praises of the Lake District. Our views of what’s worth visiting and experiencing changes with time and varies according to our temperament. The German scientist Alexander von Humboldt traveled the Amazon basin in the early 19th century to catalogue all that was new to European scientists, loving the challenge and uniqueness of the journey. 

De Botton uses the paintings of Van Gogh to illustrate what might go unnoticed or unappreciated in a region and that can be newly (or perhaps first) appreciated only after viewing a painted facsimile of the scene. Of course, Van Gogh didn’t take a realist perspective, his cypress trees look as if they are on fire and his building are often all akimbo, but he forces us to take a new and closer look at what some once considered the boring countryside of Provence. By abstracting reality, we obtain a better appreciation of it. In a similar vein, Edmund Burke argues that we benefit when Nature overwhelms us with its grandeur and power in a manner that we label “sublime”. 

If you travel or you contemplate travel, De Botton’s book will serve as a meditative preparation, one that you can dip into at leisure, as each chapter constitutes a self-contained essay on some aspect of travel. We humans have been traveling and exploring our world for tens of thousands of years, and now, with travel easier than ever, we need to reflect upon its benefits and pitfalls. And in this, De Botton serves as an excellent guide. 

*First posted in SNG Abroad blog