Observer Review: The Art Of Travel By Alain De Botton Essay, Research Paper
Toothbrush, bikini… and dead poetThe Art of TravelAlain de BottonHamish Hamilton ?14.99, pp272Travel is now the world’s biggest industry, according to the World Trade Organisation. It beats arms and pharmaceuticals both in turnover and in numbers of people employed. Despite the post-11 September dip, forecasts for the sector are measured not in billions of dollars but in trillions. Man’s collective endeavours – our god-like technology, our money, our precious time – seem more and more directed at satisfying an oddly unnecessary urge: to be somewhere else.As the scope of our travel widens and we become more efficient at getting there, and as the material standards of hotels and resorts improve, a predictable paradox emerges: the experience itself is tinged with disappointment. Cue Alain de Botton, the young high priest of humanism.He begins with a common complaint. When he gets to Barbados, with its bare blond beaches and coconut palms, he is surprised to find himself worrying about petty things – a sore throat, a colleague he has failed to contact before he left. Then he has an argument in a restaurant with his girlfriend about puddings and his whole day is spoilt. Why? Why in such exotic surrounding should we be assailed by the same old woes?The answer, he suggests, is that we do not do it well – we are sadly ignorant of the art of travel. The travel industry is quick to tell us where to go but not how and why. With the aid of a team of dead painters and poets, aesthetes and Romantics, de Botton explores this very modern malaise.Thus from Edward Hopper we can learn the poetry of train journeys and gas stations and half-empty cafés. From Flaubert’s horror of home and his yearning for the East, we can understand more of the traveller’s motive. From that great post-Enlightenment traveller Alexander von Humboldt, with his exhaustive mapping, taxonomy and pioneer botany, we can learn little because all that stuff has been done now, but reading Wordsworth can certainly improve our appreciation of landscape. God’s answer to Job could also be the traveller’s manifesto – the joy of feeling small in a big world.Painters can help us to see when we travel: Van Gogh to see cypress trees and Provence, Ruskin to see everything if we do as he says and take the time to sit and draw, even if we’re not very good. At the end of his own course in travel, de Botton tests out his newly acquired skills with a walk in Hammersmith. He finds himself noticing all sorts of things afresh: people in the street, people in restaurants, buildings.This is the third of de Botton’s books to make use of his own brand of playful and erudite self-help. In How Proust Can Change Your Life he fondly pulls apart the life and work of Proust. It is a teasingly profound book, a distillation of years spent in thrall to Swann and his creator. Likewise in The Consolations of Philosophy, he demonstrates a love for various thinkers that imbue his own book with great clarity and humour. The trouble with The Art of Travel is that he clearly does not have the same enthusiasm for travel.When he goes for a walk in the Lake District, and it rains, and he is struck briefly by the beauty of some trees, he presents it as some sort of esoteric experiment (forgetting that a good deal of Britain spends every weekend in this way). Finding himself in Madrid for the first time, he admits he cannot bring himself to go alone to a restaurant, so eats a packet of crisps from the hotel minibar. The next day, his first day in a new city, he cannot be bothered to get up, but lies in bed dreaming of his flight home. Keen to experience the solitude of the desert, he joins a party of 12 others to visit Sinai.It is not that in this self-deprecating way he does not raise good questions – the tyranny of guidebooks, the dullness of great sights, our acquisitive reaction to exotic splendours, all these are part of the traveller’s affliction. His prescriptions are unarguable: remain curious, remain aware, nature and the sublime can help correct our psychological imbalances. His ability to draw quick pen portraits of his chosen writers and painters is impressive, his command of their work masterful.He does omit one of abroad’s most fulfilling aspects – people. His is a solipsistic quest and he suggests turning to the paintings of Van Gogh if Provence looks a little grey rather than spending time with a group of strangers in a café. Give me five minutes of a man’s life over all the books in the world, said Borges – a lesson as relevant for travellers as for pallid bookies.Apart from his own passionless attitude to travel, the problem for de Botton lies in the diversity of his subject. We travel for different reasons – relaxation, work, adventure, self-fulfilment, knowledge. Forced into generalisations, his aphoristic style tends towards the trite – ‘what we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home… the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.’In Barbados, at the beginning of his odyssey, de Botton is alarmed to realise that ‘I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island’.He recognises the naivety of supposing that distance can separate us from ourselves. All of his expert witnesses – from Baudelaire to Flaubert to Caspar David Friedrich – offer us abstractions of experience. And that, surely, is the art of travel, no different from the art of art. We are often more aware of ourselves when travelling – we are cold, hot, ill, exhausted, isolated. Yet without these discomforts we would never be allowed those moments of transcendence that justify our efforts. The world is still full of wonders. Being able to fly to any country in a single day has not really brought these wonders any closer. Finding them is just as difficult, and just as rewarding, as ever.