Alain de Botton: 'My father was physically quite violent... he would destroy the house'
His brand of popular philosophy has long polarised opinion – not that Alain de Botton is worried. Because the only person he ever really wanted to connect with through his writing was his spectacularly successful father.
Sunday 25 March 2012
For some reason, I tell Alain de Botton, I have always admired people who have excelled in more than one discipline. Which is just as well, because there are few men alive who can claim expertise in quite such disparate areas as the Swiss thinker. In addition to his distinguished contribution to the fields of philosophy, history and broadcasting, De Botton is a recognised authority on modern architecture, comparative religion, love and motoring. In May, to the relief of adolescent boys from every corner of the UK, he will publish a book called How to Think More About Sex.
"It would come as no surprise," I tell him, "to discover you are also a virtuoso flautist who has kept goal for Blackburn Rovers and, like that other occasional journalist, Tintin, once walked your dog on the Moon but filed no copy."
"So why is it that you've described yourself as being 'thick' when young?"
"The thickness tag," he says, "continues to pursue me."
"Really?" "Yes. There are people who say, 'Oh this guy is quite thick.' I think the reason is that, increasingly, I don't mind being simple in terms of literary expression. Others say, 'No, no, no. He went to Cambridge. He got a good degree. He must be Einstein.'"
If you had to choose the least appropriate adjective for Alain de Botton, it might well be "uncouth". He speaks carefully articulated, Received Pronunciation. Even in casual conversation, he almost never contracts two words (as in "couldn't").
His clothes (smart-casual), like the décor here in his Hampstead study, are tasteful, understated and immaculate. He lives in the north London suburb with his wife Charlotte, and their two young sons Solomon and Saul.
Outside, a worker is cutting up trees with a chainsaw; De Botton apologises for the noise. (When living at a previous address, he described a neighbour who played music "too loud" as "vulgar and coarse – a hooligan".)
He produces two glasses of mineral water, which he places on the table between us. The writer, who famously doesn't care for over-stimulating drinks such as tea or coffee, offers no alternative refreshment, but I don't think this is impoliteness on his part. If anything, he seems a little distracted. De Botton isn't exactly pawing the ground at the prospect of being interviewed; understandably, when you look back at some of the unkind phrases that people have written about him. They include: "Pretentious? Moi?" and "Alain 'I have read some Proust' de Botton". One enemy called him, "A slapheaded ruby-lipped pop philosopher who's forged a lucrative career by stating the bleeding obvious."
Few writers polarise opinion quite so starkly. Now 42, he came to prominence in 1993 with his first novel Essays in Love, a book which earned him a devoted following among young women drawn by an authorial voice of such incredible sensitivity that some still refer to him as Dr Love. I tell him how much I enjoyed his best-known book, How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), which John Updike called "dazzling".
"That remark about stating the bleeding obvious," I continue, "seems a little harsh, because that's what a good philosopher does sometimes: articulates a simple truth you have subconsciously recognised, but never actively expressed."
"Like Montaigne. A lot of Montaigne is what you might call peasant wisdom. It's artful, but plain. I always feel that I am writing for somebody who is bright but impatient. Someone who doesn't have unlimited time. That is my sense of the reader. So I have got to get to the point."
He's made his point all too clearly in his latest book, Religion for Atheists, and through which his capacity to enervate has never been more effectively demonstrated. Its thesis, simply stated, is that there are social and artistic aspects of major religions that might usefully be annexed, or reclaimed, so as to benefit confirmed unbelievers such as himself.
"To me," he says, "the interesting issue is not whether God exists. As a committed atheist, my starting point is: OK, so there is no god. Now what? This book is about how we live, in the future, in a godless world."
Religion for Atheists infuriated many of his fellow unbelievers. "It's funny," I suggest, "but while most religions have developed more tolerance in recent years, atheists seem to fly into a fanatical rage at the merest hint of contradiction; for instance, the suggestion that God might exist. In the age of rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling, atheists have become the new Jesuits."
"That's the paradox. I have had a lot of hate mail from militant atheists. They've complained by the hundred since this book appeared. They say things like, 'You have betrayed atheism.' What does that mean? I think this is a kind of masculine world view that seems impatient with anything that seems..."
"Yes. In the broader sense."
Religion for Atheists is, I confess, one of the strangest books I have ever read.
"It is weird," he agrees. "Very weird."
While the book's premise sounds reasonable enough, and is coherently argued in the opening pages, it's when De Botton gets down to the practicalities of how his ideas might be implemented – he is one of those rare writers driven by a determination to improve the world – that things really do start getting very odd indeed.
At one point his book (which contains the sentence: "We have grown sick from being left to do as we please") recounts, with what sounds almost like nostalgia, the discipline of the Jewish legal code, the Mishnah, with its proscriptions on when it is permitted to have sexual intercourse. "For men of independent means, every day. For labourers, twice a week. For taxi drivers, once a week; for bus drivers, once in 30 days." To be fair, I've substituted "taxi" for the word "camel" in that last sentence, and "bus" for "donkey", but the inclusion of the original passage is no less curious.
Equally bold is his proposal that illuminated billboards depicting wailing walls should be erected among similar advertisements for Coca-Cola or Levi's jeans, so as to encourage public displays of rage, dejection and abject misery. I can see the sense in targeted use of this strategy – they already have the facility at Stockport County – but De Botton appears to be advocating its extension to less conspicuously doom-laden locations, such as railway stations, airports, and Piccadilly Circus.
As the critic John Carey wrote: "A sympathetic query that will occur to all readers is: 'Can he be serious?' To which the answer seems, certainly, yes."
In addition to what atheists might borrow from religion in terms of meditation, philanthropy and education, De Botton advocates the revival of the ancient Christian tradition of communal feasting. This would involve establishing a number of what he calls agape (Greek for love) restaurants: places where strangers can gather, much as they might attend communion, sip wine and exchange ideas. "Everyone would be safe to approach and address [others]," he says, "without fear of rebuff or reproach."
"It sounds great," I tell him. "But my first thought was: OK, you run the one in Moss Side..." (an area where it might be especially interesting to try out De Botton's suggested conversation-starter: "Whom can you not forgive?") "...and I'll handle the franchise in South Central LA. This communal dining assumes a level of gentility which, certainly where I grew up, isn't to be taken for granted."
"I don't know. Politicians always, in terms of repairing social fabric, say, 'We'll give more money.' That doesn't necessarily work."
"You write that, in an agape restaurant, a visitor will be 'privy to accounts of fear, guilt, rage, melancholy, unrequited love and infidelity'. Now that to me sounds just like a regular Friday evening in The Haringey Arms."
"Other people have said this; that in some other place, Lesotho or somewhere, this kind of thing already goes on. I am not claiming originality. I am saying that religions throw into focus existing practices and lend them resonance. A good example of that is pilgrimage."
"Just getting back to The Haringey..."
"Well, that's not structured. It depends on alcohol. It's a very particular section of male society..."
"They have allowed the odd woman in."
"But if you were to walk in there," the philosopher speculates, bizarrely, "it would be daunting. It would be frightening."
"Want to go down later, and see?"
Mr de Botton is otherwise engaged this evening. k
"No song nauseates me more than 'Streets of London'," I venture, "but reading your book I did find myself asking: has this man ever ventured on the wrong side of the tracks?"
"What would I have discovered if I had?"
"Maybe some of those people Woody Allen once described as walking down the road 'dribbling a social worker'."
"Saying that is like reading a book about art that says art is beautiful and important," De Botton replies, "and then saying, 'Has this man ever been to South Central LA?' You're taking one solution and contrasting it with violent dysfunction."
"We already have violent dysfunction. I'm not sure how feasible it would be to apply some of these ideas in most urban areas. I think there is a thread from your early life, where you show an admirable intent to improve the cultural environment, but as soon as the reader ponders the practicalities, all sorts of snags come to mind."
"I am trying to solve a certain sort of problem. And even if that solution gets limited to problems above the sort of problems of Moss Side, ie working-class, lower-middle-class"(that last phrase is one that some readers might not have heard for some time) "and upwards – not underclass problems, I'd say fine. Yeah. Absolutely."
Alain de Botton gets slightly testy when you suggest that he may not be thoroughly grounded in the challenges of the real world, it's understandable. He's reluctant to discuss exact figures but acknowledges that his father Gilbert, a former head of the Rothschild Bank in Zurich, who then established his own investment firm Global Asset Management, bequeathed a fund of £50m – though he adds that, "The money is left in the Gilbert de Botton Memorial Fund which donates money to education, science and the arts... I am not a recipient." His father died when Alain was 30. (The philosopher has an elder sister, Miel, who is a neuroscientist in France.)
"I don't think it's fair that people beat you up for coming from a wealthy background," I tell him. "What were you supposed to do? If you'd gone to Reno and blown all the money on roulette, crack and hookers, then we'd have something to whine about."
The bequest, De Botton says, is held in a trust and could only be accessed in an emergency.
"Have you drawn on any of it?"
"No. My father paid for my education; then he made it clear that I was on my own. But when I walk into a room I know people will go, 'Oh that's the French [sic] aristocrat whose father has given him lots of money.' I know that's what they're thinking. And as a writer who's all about nuance and perception, that kind of does your head in."
De Botton grew up in Zurich, then was dispatched, aged eight, to the exclusive Dragon School in Oxford, proceeding via Harrow to Cambridge University, where he read history; he subsequently went on to Harvard, where he abandoned a PhD. He describes his childhood as one of financial ease and emotional deprivation.
"You're on record as calling your father a 'cruel tyrant'. Cruel tyrants are, as I understand it, the very worst sort; far worse than the kind ones. But he was also a man who read Montaigne and Cyril Connolly, like you did."
"Yes. It was very hard for me to understand my father. For me, the energy involved in writing ultimately comes from a desire to make sense of these people that I saw as a child."
"When you say he was cruel; you mean physically?"
"I don't know. He has been dead for a long time."
"That sounds like a 'yes' to me."
"Why do you assume that?"
"Because when you say 'I don't know,' I find that hard to believe."
"Well, he was physically quite a violent man, but not with people. He would sort of... destroy the house."
"Like Keith Moon?"
"No. Well. He would get very angry and throw objects."
"Not TV sets. Look, I think, fundamentally, he had been rejected by his father. His parents divorced when he was very young. His mother [Yolande Harmer] was a very spirited woman; a Zionist spy living in Alexandria. She left my grandfather just after the birth of my father. He was then rejected by his father. So he grew up in this very uncertain atmosphere. She was a single parent; they were Jews living in Egypt. There were times when he was looked after by the neighbours because his mother was in prison. So the fact that the guy was able to have a successful life was extraordinary. But the idea that he would ever be 'Dad' – no. And I think he had a particular problem with a son."
"Because you reminded him of his own childhood?"
"Yes. It was just too painful. So he more or less ignored my existence. It was almost as though he actually did not see me. He was dismissive of everything I achieved and also competitive, in a strange sort of way."
"It sounds like envy to me."
"It was envy. I had constant reminders of, 'I didn't have this when I was growing up,' and so a constant feeling within me of guilt."
"Yet he rose – or maybe, given the esteem in which we currently hold that profession, sank – to be head of Rothschild Bank, and then ran his own, hugely successful, company."
"He made a lot of money when I was in my twenties. By that time I rarely saw him. Our relations were tense."
"But there were points of communication?"
"Literature was one of them. I looked at his bookshelves and saw that he was reading Cyril Connolly. Proust. Virginia Woolf. We never discussed those writers. But it was a way of connecting with him."
"And your own books?"
"Were attempts at connecting with him."
"So anyhow, what parts of the house did he trash?"
"Mostly doors. He was very anxious all the time. He was managing other people's money, and he was terrified of losing it for them. I remember holidays that began and ended at the airport, because he had to go back home; some disaster had happened. Phone calls in the middle of the night. It was very high risk."
Over the years De Botton has repeatedly referred to his preference for the company of women: a tendency which seems likely to have been encouraged by his relationship with a dominant father.
"I have a problem with many men," he told the writer Patrick Pittman, in an Australian periodical called Dumbo Feather, earlier this year. "I prefer women. I'm not so keen on certain kinds of male culture."
It's a line reminiscent of the one which Jack Lemmon, in drag, delivers in the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like it Hot. "Men? Rough, hairy beasts with eight hands. And they all want just one thing from a girl."
His public-school education, De Botton says, "gave me a horror for a certain kind of Englishness. When I look at our current Government; those types just give me the shivers." He believes that his passion for modern architecture is prompted by "a kind of anti-Englishness. Because Modernism is the one thing that that kind of Englishness hates. They just can't bear it."
It's very hard not to warm to De Botton when he's talking like this – candidly, on the subject of his early life. But he does, like the rest of us, have his imperfections; prominent among them a failure of any sense of irony when confronted with criticism of his own works.
There was a notorious episode in 2009 when Caleb Crain of The New York Times gave him an unfavourable review. The philosopher responded: "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move that you make."
I'm surprised, I tell him, at the vehemence of that retort, even if it does come in a noble tradition: Lord Rochester, as I remind De Botton, once despatched six hired hands to beat Dryden within an inch of his life in an alley at Covent Garden. "Why bother," I ask him, "to read reviews anyhow? Many don't. He's just another guy with another opinion. And then, after you'd written those things, you apologised. Why not stick with it?"
"Yes, yes. No doubt not a wise thing to do. Erm..."
"There is that French expression along the lines of: you missed a good opportunity to shut up. What did Crain say that pushed you over the edge?"
"I don't want to dwell on it."
"Oh, go on. Dwell away."
"It was not a good review."
"So why read it?"
"It's market data, in a sense."
"Get your agent to read it."
"I think the deeper thing is to try to find resources not to be overly upset about reviews. You learn stuff about the world, reading them."
"And we learn stuff about you. Like, you can get very angry indeed."
"Everybody can. If you are famous, and you do something that everybody does 19 times a day, it is judged to be extraordinary."
The generally convivial atmosphere of our conversation begins to falter when we get on to his 2009 book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Of all his publications it's the one I like least, mainly because it illustrates his principal weakness: an inability to engage with what some Old Harrovians might term hoi polloi. What he lacks is that endearing curiosity in his fellow man and absence of self-regard that render Michael Palin peerless as a travel presenter.
Airports are among De Botton's favourite places; largely, I suspect, because he can watch the mass of unwashed humanity from a point of elevation without getting too closely entangled with it. Someone once accused him of observing other people as is they were ants. "You have an unusual gift for describing a broad landscape," I suggest. "But with individuals – strangers – I always feel you under-engage; you under-report their dialogue."
In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, De Botton instinctively connects well with management, but exhibits consistent unease in connecting with what some broadcasters still refer to as "ordinary people". During a visit to Belgium, he confesses that he "ran scared of the forced intimacy that provincial family restaurants so often involve and chose instead to eat in the anonymity of motorway service stations. At one of these, on the E40," he continues, "I met a Turk..." There follows a thorough description of the man's lorry.
As one reviewer said: "A Turk? Which Turk? Where did he live?" Where, in short, is the curiosity in his fellow man that De Botton hopes to propagate at the agape restaurants?'
"The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I suggest, "calls to mind a passage in The Road to Wigan Pier where George Orwell, staying in a humble terrace, says that it was the kind of house where 'one felt ashamed to use the lavatory'. What Orwell was saying there was that he was unused to the combination of cheap, thin walls and very poor people."
"What you are saying," De Botton replies, "distresses and annoys me. All you have done is, you have read some newspaper cuttings, and accepted a view which has been assembled by other journalists."
"I was thinking more of your own writing..."
"Robert..." De Botton interrupts, in the kind of firm tone you might use to a mongrel who knows it shouldn't jump on the couch but is considering risking it anyway.
"I'm not sure you need to shout."
"I am not shouting."
"Who was it who said every artistic work is a confession?"
"I don't know."
"I think it was Camus. Anyhow. Sometimes we put more of ourselves into books than we know. We are not always the best judges of that."
And a book, De Botton counters, like an interview, can also be a kind of ink-blot test for the reader, or journalist.
"You do polarise people," I suggest. "But I don't feel polarised. There are some books of yours that I like, some that I like less, and one that I really don't like at all."
"I would rather that my work was attacked as a work, rather than as against my background."
I don't recall initiating any reference to his biography in reference to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, but never mind. We struggle on. "The tone of that book has to relate to your upbringing. It can't not."
"I think," De Botton says, guiding us expertly towards new and calmer waters, "I have grown impatient with just being a writer. I like working with people. I believe change can only come through collaboration. It strikes me that I have an approach towards guidance. What interests me is guidance. I have a therapeutic view of literature. And that vision, which has been expressed in 15 books, can also be expressed in other ways."
De Botton is referring to projects such as his London-based School of Life, established in a former shop near King's Cross. It's a "kind of mindshop" where, if I understand him correctly, he is involved, with others, in the teaching of philanthropic principles similar to those that inspired Religion for Atheists. Areas of discussion have included "Dinner Parties with Strangers", "Seduction" and "Pessimism". Though routinely derided in the press, the school has recruited a number of highly distinguished editors, writers and thinkers as ambassadors and guest speakers.
"I don't know about 'mindshop'," I tell him, "but someone once told me never to go within a mile of anything called a 'workshop' that didn't involve a Black & Decker."
"Well, we do a bit of that sort of work there, too," he says, good-naturedly. "The school, I think, is one of the best things I have done. It is hard work but it meets a need." He has another project called Living Architecture, which he gives me a swift but impressive verbal kicking for not knowing more about. "To put it pretentiously," he told Dumbo Feather magazine, "Living Architecture [is guided by] my two main interests: beauty and wisdom." (I've yet to meet the interviewee who has knowingly initiated a quest for ugliness and stupidity, but there you are.) "I am," De Botton added, "a very aesthetic person."
Living Architecture is "about building what you could call houses. You can rent them, you can go and stay in them. We have five houses on the go at the moment."
Botton wrote, in his book on Proust, that, "There may be significant things to learn about people by looking at what annoys them most."
"You know how people seem to repeat the behaviour patterns of their parents whether they approve of them or not?" I ask. "I had the sense back there that you were on the edge of losing your patience. Have you booted in the occasional door?"
"The occasional journalist?"
"No." He doesn't need anyone to tell him, De Botton adds, that "an encounter with an interviewer is a crazy one for the interviewee."
"You speak for yourself."
"The reason is that you surrender your identity to somebody who will make you somebody else. I think the only response can be: OK. Fine. Let it happen."
"If you really believe that, why did you go off the edge with the guy from The New York Times?"
"Off the edge?" De Botton repeats this lazy metaphor in a tone of scorn. "I don't know why. I think I was tired."
"Yes. I felt wounded because [somebody close to the reviewer] was a person that we had looked after at the School of Life. We had done him a lot of good turns. So I felt personally aggrieved. It seemed particularly nasty."
Alain de Botton said recently that he would like to be remembered as "somebody who has made a few stabs at trying to bring elite culture into the wider culture". The idea of posterity, and his place in it, seems to preoccupy him.
"You've been quoted as saying that you think of death constantly 'because it's a way of getting myself to work'. That ambition reminds me of a story in Max Beerbohm's classic 1919 collection Seven Men. It concerns the decadent writer Enoch Soames, who is so desperate to be remembered that he brokers a deal with the devil in order to travel forward a century in time to examine the catalogue of the British Library, and discover the popularity of the books he's written, notably his collected poems, Fungoids. Can I detect a similar desire to be important?"
"No," says De Botton. "Not important in a classic literary sense. More to have had an impact centred not specifically around me, but around the things I care about. I am not trying to solve all of the world's problems. If people were to say this is only for Hampstead dinner parties, well, I'd think that, on a good day, what I am saying can stretch beyond that. I don't think you can expect anyone to operate across all social problems."
And he's right: you can't. Nobody would ever claim the power to achieve that, with the possible exception of God. But God, just like concepts such as heaven and purgatory, is one of those things that simply doesn't exist for De Botton. Even if, inconveniently enough, this passionate atheist is going to have to cross over into the next world before he can proclaim with any certainty just how right he was.
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