Philosopher king: Alain de Botton finds glamour and drama in the world of work
If you want your eyes opened to the erotic potential of electricity pylons, or the nowhere-ness of airports, Alain de Botton is your man.
Friday 27 March 2009
It is difficult to know how to prepare for a meeting with Alain de Botton. What kind of questions should one ask a man who, in times of emotional trauma, turns not to gin and crying but to Epicurus and Schopenhauer for support? What do you talk about with someone who likes to spend his holidays at Heathrow – including lunch courtesy of Gate Gourmet, an "emotional audit of the airport", and a lecture on the topic of luggage handling techniques by the man who designed the very last word in baggage carousels?
How do you even relate to someone who, in his latest book, writes about electricity pylons: "In different species, I noted varieties of modesty or arrogance, honesty or shiftiness, and in one 150-kilovolt type in ubiquitous use in southern Finland I even detected a coquettish sexuality in the way the central mast held out a delicate hand to its conductor wire"? De Botton is a Wordsworth for a modern world of warehousing, satellites and logistics, and earth has not anything to show more fair than on an Optional Night Time Walk in Terminal 5. This man could just be Britain's greatest living geek.
Happily, this is not something that he would deny. "I think I do have a sort of planespotter side... that is often seen as male and autistic," he says, seriously. "Although I do feel the need to rescue that. I find technology quite interesting and moving because it's the result of so much labour and so much dedication. We're used to seeing a cathedral and thinking of all those people who chiselled away at it. But we don't think the same when we look at a radiator... And so what I was trying to do, in a modest way, was give [the radiator] some glamour."
We meet in de Botton's sunny north London flat (in whose tidy back-room is a huge, framed poster of a soaring cathedral ceiling and, yes, some radiators) to talk about the book that has this audacious aim. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is a devoted analysis of jobs from career counselling to cargo ship logistics, transmission engineering to biscuit marketing, and an effort to understand, among other things, what on earth it is that other people do for a living. It was, he says, "research heavy"; his minute observations about the cargo of a container ship, in one page of the first chapter alone, for instance, are mind-boggling. They include elegant, convoluted, Bottonian sentences, such as (to choose one at random): "This peripatetic leviathan is headed not for the better-known precincts of the river, where tourists buy ice-creams to the smell of diesel engines, but to a place where the waters are coloured an intemperate brown and the banks are gnawed by jetties and warehouses – an industrial zone which few of the capital's inhabitants penetrate, though the ordered running of their lives and, not least, their supplies of Tango fizzy orange and cement aggregate depend on its complex operations."
Photographs by Richard Baker – of the author looking queasy on board a fishing boat in the Maldives, or of his eight-year-old son Sam in Bristol eating a tuna steak – prove that he really did follow a fish from sea to processing plant to plane to warehouse to lorry to supermarket to plate in order to show the vast, global intricacies of packing and chopping and epic transportation that go into providing a seemingly simple element of our dinner. This particular adventure was merely to provide a 20-page photo essay within the first, teeming chapter of an equally fact-rich book. De Botton has put the hours in.
The book has received mixed reviews, adding to the impression that most readers either love de Botton or loathe him. One reviewer called it "compelling, sharp-eyed and often very funny... a sort of philosopher's version of The Office". Another said: "40 pages [in] I was ready to hurl it across the room... it reads in many places as if someone had sent Oscar Wilde to investigate the meat-packing industry in Chicago." A third praised the "tone of voice" in de Botton's books: "their charm, their elegant writing, their continual benign irony." Another said that he "seems to regard [people] more as ants" and "immediately provokes the furious question, what do you know about work?" (Perhaps by coincidence, the two positive reviews were written by men, the negative comments by women.)
What Alain de Botton knows about work is a very relevant question. He is quick to admit that he has never had a "proper job". The worst student-holiday work he ever had, he says (and I prepare to write it down eagerly), was researching a supplement about home improvements for Time Out. It was the worst because he felt out of his depth and wasn't sure he was doing a good job; not because he had to work all night hacking up tuna in below freezing conditions, for example.
He is unusual, among writers, in not having to worry about working at all. His father, Gilbert de Botton, moved to Switzerland from Egypt as head of Rothschild Bank, and then founded Global Asset Management in 1983. He sold it in 1999 for £420m, leaving young Alain (who turns 40 this year) a trust fund of £200m. He doesn't use the money, preferring to live by his writing – but he admits that the soul-sapping tedium of the modern workplace is not something he really understands. His first book, Essays in Love, was published when he was 23 and still "pretending to do a PhD". His books are successful enough that fish packing has never beckoned. Maybe this, he admits, is why he finds it all so fascinating. "I mean, I don't know what accountants do, and I'm curious about them... And because, you know, there are not that many people who are interested in electricity pylons."
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work grew from a realisation that there is an uncanny lack of work going on in fiction. It does seem to be a puzzling phenomenon, given that most of us spend the majority of our waking lives doing things that we don't enjoy in order to make money. But it's true: with the notable exception of Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, two years ago, there have been few successful works of literary fiction about workplaces since Douglas Coupland and Microserfs. "I think we're still labouring under this Romantic idea of work being evil and there being no real passion in work," says de Botton. "And that real life is love and war and murder. I'm sure that there is something in the idea of having writers-in-residence in offices. Offices are always full of dramas." Indeed they are.
I put it to him that if we were all to consider the specific journeys of our tuna and electricity, or think about the complex packaging systems and marketing seminars that go into inventing biscuits, it would be enough information to send us mad. A true philosopher, he manages simultaneously to agree and to argue the opposite.
"It is, in a way, terrifically alienating: the feeling you get in the modern world where you just don't know where things come from, who made them and what's going on. You meet people and you can't understand their jobs. They tell you, 'I'm a deputy systems co-ordinator.' And you think, 'What is that?' 'Well, what I'm really doing is moving the data from the back office to the front office...' In children's books you don't get that. We're still working with the idea that you're a farmer, a doctor, a painter..."
For him, he says, knowing what is in that container, where it is going and why, "helps you feel grounded and aware of what's going on". There is a peculiar kind of empathy in this geeky curiosity, and his evident fascination with it makes it look more like a noble aim than the impudent enquiry of a remote intellectual.
De Botton is also quite good at psychoanalysing his own motives – as V Cyou might expect of someone who has had two years of expensive therapy and cornered the market in intelligent self-help books based on ancient philosophy. Take his obsession with planes and airports, for which he has a theory. "I've always had problems with fitting in," he explains. "Work-wise, who am I? Am I a fiction writer or a non-fiction writer? Am I an academic or not an academic?
"But there are deeper things. I've got an odd background. I was born in Switzerland. I now live in England. People think I might be French. But I actually have a Spanish-Jewish name. My father was born in Egypt, so it gets even more complicated. I am aware of not quite belonging. And I think that at a deep level – I'm psychobabblising myself – the airport is an in-between zone I feel comfortable in. It's nowhere in particular, and I rather like that."
He adds later that "writing is a way of creating a kind of belonging". And that he has a detailed interest in the workings of cars. I ask whether he has any low-brow, guilty pleasures. "I'm really keen on architecture and photography," he suggests, eagerly. Does he ever switch off his great brain and read OK! magazine, for instance? "I don't tend to read for pleasure very much, which is in a way a guilty secret." He does sometimes watch TV, however. So what does he watch to chill out? "I love watching news, particularly disasters. It's all gripping; it's so relaxing, isn't it?"
This does not mean, however, that de Botton only sees the value in so-called high art. Quite the reverse. And this explains his holidaying at Heathrow. The trip happened in November, as part of a schedule of events for the School of Life, for which he is an "ambassador".
At the time, he explained it thus: "It was not until the end of the 18th century that anyone ever thought of describing the Lake District as beautiful. For most of human history, mountainous regions had been thought of as frightful places which must have been overlooked by God during his Creation. It was only a selection of great artists, and in particular Wordsworth, who persuaded the British public that there might in fact be something to revere in the northern English hills..." So he wants to do a Wordsworth on Britain's most hated transport hub? "Why not?" he cheerfully says.
The School of Life, founded last September, is another ambitious project. Based in a discreet shop in central London, it offers courses, dinners and holidays (not all of them at airports) that aim, de Botton says, to provide "a kind of intelligent self-help". The definition has clearly made some people wince. "[Self-help] is a word that rings so many alarm bells and that is seen immediately as stupid. But it doesn't have to mean a kind of optimistic twaddle... It could mean any piece of writing or work or artistic endeavour that in some way has a consoling or therapeutic goal in mind. And that used to be the mission of philosophers. It used to be the mission of religion."
De Botton's mission is to wrestle back these consolations from the "huge gatekeeper, the billion-pound quango" that is academia. His books – from Essays in Love, which detailed the arc of a fictional love affair with philosophical commentary, via the very definition of a surprise bestseller, How Proust Can Change Your Life, in 1997, to 2006's The Architecture of Happiness – have all tried to provide this kind of philosophical analysis of everyday concerns in a way that can help intelligent people to deal with troubles. Art, he believes, can teach us how to be wise. But writing about it is not necessarily the best way to achieve contentment.
I am struck, in his book, by a passage in Chapter Eight: Accountancy. I cannot decide whether or not it is patronising. "They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future," he writes of these happy little wage slaves. "They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion." I wonder how the author of Status Anxiety can have believed in such a peace. He didn't, he says. "They thought it was an odd question, because I kept drilling away at this. Because, personally speaking, it so fascinates me." His next sentence is quintessential de Botton. "I'm quite fascinated by that ability – which is almost, to be quite pretentious, Buddhist – to dissolve the ego and... dive into life in a way that is harder for other people."
Does that mean that they are happier? Stupider? Smarter than him? "Well, I've often thought that to go into writing is a sign of psychological neurosis or disturbance," he says. "That desire to hang on to perceptions, fix it down on paper, means a slightly troubled soul. And I think that the capacity not to want to do that is a sign of health. I would want nothing more for my children, for example, than that they never feel the desire to write."
After a certain amount of neurosis about relationships – a lot, if Essays in Love is anything to go by – de Botton's transition into marriage and fatherhood sounds uncharacteristically smooth. He met his wife, Charlotte, after telling some dinner-party companions about his ideal partner: a doctor's daughter who grew up outside London and works in business or science... One of them happened to know her and introduced them. Parenthood, he says, has made him more sympathetic about people. But it doesn't seem to have brought peace.
"Having children makes you really appreciate how vulnerable people are," he says. "Because obviously children are very physically vulnerable, they get crushed and killed very easily. And psychologically they are so easily traumatised by things." He hopes that his children avoid the mighty cataclysms that life can bring, which he lists as: murder, disgrace, prison... "But no life is without some really terrible, terrible things. And bringing up children, you just think, 'Hmm, I wonder what it's going to be for these guys.'"
If they do run into difficulties, the junior de Bottons, Samuel and Saul, will always have art to turn to. They could even take solace in their father's self-help books – if they want to call them that. Hearing that he prefers Big Subjects to small talk, I wonder if I can test the neurotic philosopher by asking him: what is the point of literature? But it's an easy one.
"There are things that are not spoken about in polite society," he says. "Very quickly in most conversations you'll reach a moment where someone goes, 'Oh, that's a bit heavy,' or 'Eew, disgusting.' And literature is a place where that stuff goes; where people whisper to each other across books, the writer to the reader. I think that stops you feeling lonely – in the deeper sense, lonely.
"I think the other thing it does is to reawaken wonder. It makes the world seem more interesting than you thought it was. It just makes stuff interesting." Even, sometimes, electricity pylons – though it takes someone really unusual to see their erotic potential.
Words of wisdom: five of de Botton's best
Essays in Love (1993)
De Botton's first book, written when he was 23, is the story of a love affair with philosophical annotations. It won a cult following for his brand of thoughtful enquiry into everyday dilemmas. 'The Independent' said he'd "taken philosophy back to its simplest, most important purpose: helping us live our lives."
How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997)
Following 'The Romantic Movement' (1994) and 'Kiss and Tell' (1995), 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' made de Botton's name with its mix of literary criticism, biography, self-help guide and genre-defying charm. John Updike in the 'New Yorker' wrote that it was "curious, humorous, didactic, and dazzling... It contains more human interest and play of fancy than most fiction."
The Consolations of Philosophy (2000)
Continuing the idea of applying the thinking of great minds to modern problems, 'Consolations' set Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to work on lack of money, heartbreak, inadequacy, anxiety, the fear of failure and the pressure to conform. It inspired the Channel 4 series 'Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness'.
The Art of Travel (2002)
Discovering in Barbados that "I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island", de Botton set out to write a guide, not about where to travel and what to do when you get there, but about why we travel and how it can be fulfilling. The travel writer Jan Morris wrote: "I doubt if de Botton has ever written a dull sentence in his life."
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)
After 'Status Anxiety' (2004) and 'The Architecture of Happiness' (2006), de Botton examines "that which is too often ignored and yet as central to our lives as love". It includes chapters on Cargo Ship Spotting, Logistics, Biscuit Manufacture and Transmission Engineering – about which the author is unexpectedly fascinated.
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