There's a touching little experiment in which a group of students are asked to assess the competence of some trainee psychiatrists. All they have to do is construct a question about some worrying aspect of their personal lives and ask the trainees for advice. But there are two constraints. The psychiatrists remain invisible and their advice is limited to saying "yes" or "no".
The trials duly take place, and overall the students are mightily impressed with the advice they're given. ("Well, I have to admit that his answer was unexpected. I didn't really want to leave my partner but now I can certainly see his point.") Only then is it revealed that all the answers were randomly generated. Moral? We have become so desperate for personal advice that we are now prepared to swallow almost anything they choose to lob our way.
Until now, no one would have suggested that Alain de Botton was a player in this vacuous self-help either/or advice market. In books like How Proust Can Change Your Life, he wittily used the genre as nothing more than a device upon which to hang his elegant and astute observations about how the awkward stuff of everyday life could be informed, enriched, and smoothed by philosophy and literature. There were even indications in On Travel that he might be about to turn his hand to the deconstruction of some of the dilemmas that he so adeptly chronicled and become a Roland Barthes for our time.
But this new offering is desperately disappointing. De Botton has nothing much to say about status anxiety that hasn't already been said a thousand times by knowing journalists or populist sociologists. You'll recognise the tune after the first few notes: we all now live in a meritocracy and that means we are constantly assailed by doubts about our relative status; we all feel that we could do with more loving pats on the back; we all feel that we deserve more respect (Richard Sennett's wonderfully astute analysis of this concept doesn't rate a mention). Even when de Botton has taken these familiar points for a long historical and literary walk, he's still so hard pressed to fill his allotted space that he has to resort to the type of nursery instruction that wouldn't seem out of place in a De Bono text on thinking. Here, for example, is how he explains relative deprivation:
"If we are small and live among people who are all our height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size (see figure 3). But if others in our group grow so much as a little bit taller we are likely to feel sudden unease and fall into dissatisfaction and envy even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by even a millimetre (see figure 4)".
And in case that is not sufficiently clear, figure 3 duly shows us six cartoon human figures of equal height with smiley up-turned mouths and figure 4 duly shows us two bigger smiley figures and four figures of the same size as figure 3 but now with downturned mouths.
And then, at last, it's solution time. What can be done to relieve the status anxiety that is so routinely generated by this nasty, entrepreneurial, cutthroat, winner-takes-all world? Overthrow capitalism? Don't be silly. What we need is not revolution but consolation. Another 150 pages follow of Consolations from Philosophy (reason can persuade us that we're not as lacking in virtue and skill as others say we are), from Art (just consider how many low-status characters in novels are accorded high status by the author), from Politics (we might not have to live in a meritocratic society for the rest of history), from Christianity (blessed are the meek) and Bohemia (sod the bourgeois and all their values).
De Botton works his socks off to bring this material to life, but for all the neat phrases and quirky illustrations, it still sounds more like a writer following a greedy publisher's brief than the de Botton of former times - the literary flâneur happily indulging himself.
A serious postscript: if you do genuinely suffer from status anxiety you can save yourself a great deal of time and money by ignoring de Botton altogether and simply ringing the Status Anxiety Helpline. A dozen monosyllabic psychiatrists are waiting to take your call.
Laurie Taylor is the co-author, with his son Matthew, of 'What are Children For?' (Short Books)Reuse content