Alain de Botton: The modern muser

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 04/05/2014
Alain De Botton

IN THE KNOW: Alain de Botton says he has all the answers to some of the questions.

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There is something wrong, believes Alain de Botton, with people who want to be famous.

"People say celebrity makes you mad, but that's not really the case. The people who want to become celebrities are already carrying with them quite a lot of disturbance."

De Botton is rather famous, as writer/philosopher/self-help gurus go. He's written more than a dozen books, sold them by the millions, and has been on TV a bit. Is he, then, a disturbed celebrity?

Not exactly, he says, because he's not a celebrity, at least not in the way David Beckham or pop singers or Tony Blair are.

"But I'm definitely damaged in my desire to be known to strangers. I've definitely got pathological traits in this area. But I'm outgrowing it."

Take, for example, his feelings during this interview, conducted by phone from Melbourne, where he's promoting his new book and launching an Australian branch of the School of Life - a resource centre he set up in London.

"In the past, I'd have been absolutely desperate that you like me. It really would have mattered to me and I'd have [done] everything I could to make sure you did."

Now, at 44, he still likes to be liked, but the desperation has subsided. He's outgrown it, in part, "because I've done a lot of self-examination and reflected on all of this".

Opportunities for self-examination, reflection and self-improvement are never far away with de Botton.

This is the man who has built a career on drinking deep at the wellsprings of cultural greatness - philosophy, art, literature, architecture, religion - then bottling a few of the choicest drops for re-use in highbrow selfhelp products: mainly books, but also some online and TV material and, in recent years, the School of Life, which offers classes in subjects like managing a relationship, worrying less about money, and connecting with nature, all through a cultural prism.

He doesn't much like the label "pop philosopher" ("It's normally said in a nasty way"), but is proud to be a "populariser", which is "a deeply serious and  important" task. "People," he says, "say, 'Oh, it's very easy - all he's done is popularise [notoriously impenetrable German philosopher] Hegel.' Really? Do you want to give this a try?"

De Botton speaks fast and fluently, in a well-bred English accent. The son of a Swiss financier, he grew up speaking French and German, learning English only when he was sent to a boarding school in Oxford at eight.

If he sounds a bit defensive, it could be because he's been under attack quite often. Something about de Botton gets under the skin of some cultural commentators.

On a good day, they accuse him of trivialising big ideas. On a bad day, they're mean: a recent blog on the Spectator website is entitled "Why Alain de Botton is a moron", and in 2005, Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker described him as "an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man - a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who's forged a lucrative
career stating the bleeding obvious".

De Botton says he's still baffled by what happens on review pages.

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"I used to think reviewing was a version of what happens at universities at seminars, where people take a work apart - a critique with a view to improvement. I discovered it's not that at all. What it tends to be is a character assassination - literally an attempt to say, 'This person doesn't deserve to exist and they should be wiped off the face of the earth.' Is
that upsetting? Of course it is. It's maddening. I don't know what to do about it."

Needlessly nasty reviewers are one of the targets of de Botton's latest book, The News - A User's Manual. The book is a cousin to earlier works such as Status Anxiety, How Proust Can Change Your Life and Religion for Atheists.

It contains the suggestion that, at a pinch, news can be a source of solace or self-improvement. Mainly, though, it's a stern critique of modern media.

The author starts with a paraphrase of Hegel, arguing that news has replaced religion as society's central source of guidance and authority.

In which case, says de Botton, we better look closely at the effect it has on us.

The book is clever and wry, full of trademark juxtapositions of high culture and mundane concerns.

Lines from Anna Karenina help explain why foreign news is so boring. Actor Emma Watson shares a chapter with demigod Heracles and fifth-century BC Athenian celebrity Pericles.

Fun, too, are de Botton's straight-faced suggestions to editors on how to organise their lifestyle pages.

Instead of Dining, Travel, Fashion, Music or Books, each section should be based around a psychological "destination", such as Conviviality, Calm, Confidence and Rationality.

Inside each would be a range of ways to get there - perhaps by listening to a piece of music or reading a book, but also by being shown "material purchases in sympathy with our desired outlook - a particular sort of jacket, perhaps, or a trip abroad, or a comfortable armchair".

However, The News is also frequently infuriating, with too many statements of both the bleeding obvious and the horribly over-generalised.

Investigative reporters, de Botton suggests piously, really ought to be looking at subjects like mental health, architecture, family structures and the educational curriculum. Newsflash: they already do.

News stories, he reckons, should be written with all the poetry and colour of great literature. A fine idea, yes, but one already well-recognised by such jobbing journalists as George Orwell, Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe.

Sometimes it seems de Botton has skim-read a few pages of the UK's Daily Mail and concluded modern media is rubbish, when he might have been on safer ground by saying, 'Quite a lot of modern media is rubbish, but there are some good bits if you know where to look.'

Ah, says de Botton, but those broad statements aren't meant to be definitive truths. They're just "invitations" to his readers to agree - if they so choose.

"Too much writing nowadays, especially academic writing, is scared of an objection at every turn," he says. "It's like:
'The cat sat on the mat.' Footnote: the cat was observed to sit on the mat. My view is, look, the cat sat on the
mat - and we're just going to go with that. I'm not going to prove it to you at every point."

To be fair, his target was "the big five media organisations in the West. It's an attack on factory-farmed news," he says, "whereas you're providing me examples of the delicious market producers. Of course there are the wonderful organic producers of seared salmon out there in Nova Scotia, but that's not the mainstream - yet."

De Botton is also fond of Eeyore-ish generalisations about the human condition. He counsels us not to be downcast when reading an envy-inducing article about "Silicon Valley's top twenty investors", because "most businesses in fact fail, most films don't get made... and almost everyone is sad and worried a lot of the time".

A lot of the time? Almost everyone? Who is de Botton talking about here, because that's neither me, nor most of the people I know. Again, he has an escape route: "I'm talking about the constituency that will agree with the statement. As I say - it's an invitation."

In other words, if the reader is a cheerful chap, then that's not the sentence for them, but if they do feel that way, they will "feel a communion with the book, and that's what literature is all about - creating moments of communion with readers".

What about de Botton. Is he happy?

Eeyore responds: "I think the business of living is really hard for everybody. I don't think happiness is possible for most human beings except in 10-minute bursts, when something has been accomplished, or whatever. I think the natural state, like the Buddhists tell us, is an awareness of lack. I'm a very optimistic person, a very energetic person, who doesn't believe in hiding too long under the duvet, weeping about the sorrows of myself or the world. That said, I'm a very sensitive person. I feel things very deeply and there's lots that is upsetting in life. I would consider
myself an averagely content person - keeping on at keeping on."

Of the lacks one might have an awareness of, de Botton cannot include money.

In 1999, his Egyptian-born father sold his finance company for $824 million. Alain went to private schools and studied history and philosophy at Cambridge and in London.

He started a philosophy PhD at Harvard, but quit to write books. If he wanted, he could tap his trust fund -which in 2009 was reported as being more than $392 million - but he claims to live exclusively off his own labours.

Sometimes he sees that work in martial terms: "I'm battling a certain vision of culture as not being connected to life. That's the fight I've got."

After How Proust Can Change Your Life was published in 1997, "people would say, 'That's stupid. That's like self-help.
That's for Americans, who are stupid people.' And I'd say, 'Well, I don't think I'm that stupid, but nevertheless I need this stuff.'"

Self-help, says de Botton, "has very much been in the hands of gurus who say you can solve all your problems in a week, or be happy forever, or smile and make a million. Obviously, that's idiotic, but I'm looking to a tradition which has been there in Eastern and Western culture, often filtered through religion, which has been about the care of the soul; of the inner part of us."

In one chapter of The News, de Botton shines a similarly respectful light on something else seen as undeserving: celebrity. There's a view among serious people "that the only person who'd be interested in Kylie Minogue would be an idiot", but he doesn't agree.

For a start, celebrities deserve compassion because their desperation to be loved by strangers bespeaks the
psychological scars of feeling unnoticed in childhood.

More importantly, though, de Botton has spotted an "opportunity": instead of being scathing about celebrities, the media should extract useful lessons from their public lives.

He and some "philosophical buddies" have shown what they mean on their website philosophersmail.com, visually modelled on the Daily Mail website, and where famous folk receive a de Botton-esque reinterpretation.

A short essay on David Beckham, for example, ruminates on the soccer player's "submissiveness to his wife's authority, which is very unusual in a man who is very powerful. It's completely rare and very instructive."

Another salutes Shane Warne's hyper-confidence, suggesting his brash, childlike behaviour could be a model for people who are shy or prone to guilt. Photos of Kim Kardashian's bum share a page with curvy bottoms from the paintings of 16th-century Italian artist Titian, alongside a discussion of the benefits of a bit of glamour in one's life (see right).

"There are lots of fascinating and wonderful people who are not wonderful in every area, but they've got some 'virtues' as we call it."

The site is, of course, taking the p*** to some extent, but de Botton sounds entirely serious when he says, "There's an awful lot of lessons to be pulled out of this stuff."

Then, because he really is a helpful guy, he offers me some guidance on how one might write up this very interview.

"I would ask, what's the reader supposed to pull out of it? You're sitting there in New Zealand, and you're hearing about a bloke, his name seems completely strange, can't understand it, you've never really heard about his books, and he seems to come from a very faraway country, and it's like...what's the point?

"My view is that the only point would be if you're able to learn something from this guy. What is this guy doing that in some way could help your life, to make it more interesting or relevant?"

So, dear reader, you're the judge. Does your life seem more interesting, or relevant, than it did 10 minutes ago? If so, congratulations - it looks like Alain de Botton has, indeed, changed your life for the better.

- Sunday Magazine

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