Not many of my friends have heard of Alain de Botton, the author of trim, thoughtful books like How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. People often recognize him from The School of Life or from his 2009 Ted Talk on the subject of happiness. But I know far fewer who've read his 2002 book, The Art of Travel. Which is a shame, because it's a wonderful primer on growing your powers of perception -- whether you're on the road or not.
"We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why we should go and how we could be more fulfilled doing so," de Botton writes on his website. His solution was to write a book "unlike existing guidebooks on travel, [which] dares to ask what the point of travel might be -- and modestly suggests how we could learn to be less silently and guiltily miserable on our journeys."
With that in mind, here are five of my favorite concepts from The Art of Travel:
Travel in-between your expectations.
How often do you fantasize about escaping your daily grind? Of course, as de Botton writes, it's a universal desire:
...How pleasant to hold in mind through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon, when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off for somewhere... (p. 37)
But that glossy getaway deal, with pictures of palm trees on the front, can only ever be a means to an end:
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... the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery... (p. 25)
de Botton reminds us, then, to be wary of tricking ourselves with our own expectations, and to accept all that is challenging alongside the easy:
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 woolliness of the present. (pp. 14-15)
See through your own eyes.
Traveling in Madrid, de Botton details a growing dismay with the pernicious assumptions of his guidebook:
...the explorers who had come before and discovered facts had at the same time laid down distinctions between what was significant and what was not -- distinctions that had, over time, hardened into almost immutable truths about where value lay in Madrid. (p. 111)
While on some level this seems a perfectly logical thing for a guidebook to do, its influence on a traveler's point of view can, if unacknowledged, become oppressive and even a bit sad:
We overlook certain places because nothing has ever prompted us to conceive of them as being worthy of appreciation... (p. 182)
Be patient, therefore, with your innate curiosity. When traveling, your awareness and attention will guide you naturally toward unappreciated details. Or as de Botton lovingly explains:
Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country? Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be. (p. 75)
Meaning isn't concrete.
This mantra is closely linked to the previous one, and puts similar pressure on the old, overly-hopeful presumption that linear meaning, and a linear history, can be lacquered onto the geography of a city or region using a handful of dates and facts. Deeper observation and understanding, though much harder, is more rewarding:
A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain. The risk is compounded by geography, in the way that cities contain buildings or monuments that may only be a few feet apart in space but are leagues apart in terms of what is required to appreciate them... Travel twists our curiosity according to a superficial geographical logic, as superficial as if a university course were to prescribe books according to their size rather than subject matter. (p. 122)
Be cognizant of this "superficial geographic logic," and you're bound to see more deeply.
Don't fear the bigness.
The scale and scope of the natural world really puts things in perspective, doesn't it? Coming up against an ancient, simple expanse proves time and again a salve for personal problems of all sorts:
Nature's 'loveliness' might in turn, according to Wordsworth, encourage us to locate the good in ourselves... It is of course still possible to feel envy for a colleague before a mighty cataract, but if the Wordsworthian message is to be believed, it is a little more unlikely. (p. 148)
de Botton calls these experiences 'sublime.' And he's not the only one:
[Philosopher Edmund Burke] was categorical: sublimity had to do with a feeling of weakness... A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power -- a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them... We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean but awed by what is powerful and noble... Sublime landscapes do not therefore introduce us to our inadequacy; rather... they allow us to conceive of a familiar inadequacy in a new and more helpful way... (pp. 164-167)
And where does that leave us puny humans? Perhaps at a bit more peace:
Sublime landscapes, through their grandeur and power, retain a symbolic role in bringing us to accept without bitterness or lamentation the obstacles that we cannot overcome and the events that we cannot make sense of. (p. 171)
Love, don't own.
I'll let de Botton take this one:
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one's life. There is an urge to say, 'I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.' But beauty is fugitive, being frequently found in places to which we may never return... (p. 214)
So how do you "keep" what you can't buy? Well, you don't. But what you do experience and remember is the visceral thrill and enjoyment of a genuine attention to detail, as de Botton found simply by exploring the city blocks around his home:
Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting... Once I began to consider everything as being of potential interest, objects released latent layers of value... The neighborhood did not just acquire people and defined buildings through my reawakened attention; it also began to collect ideas. (pp. 246-248)
I strongly recommend you visit alaindebotton.com and get yourself a full copy of The Art of Travel. It's a breezy read, but dense with great language and many poignant ideas beyond what I can touch on here.
As for me, I'll be doing my best to make each day an act of travel.
Quoted pagination in this article refers to the paperback edition of The Art of Travel published in May of 2004 by Vintage.
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