Probably the first thing to understand about Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel is that the title has a double meaning. Most students I speak to understand immediately that we’re talking about ways to travel well, but very few have realised that the title also refers to that art which has been generated because of and about travel. This somewhat irritating ambiguity continues as a theme throughout the book.
Let’s first look at the structure. Ostensibly, this book is divided into a number of sections, each purporting to deal with a certain aspect of travel. From expectations (ultimately disappointed), through liminal places, and ultimately in a kind of full circle back to sitting at home and thinking about travel, we get what appears to be a journey of sorts encoded into the book. More careful consideration, however, reveals that what we’re looking at is quite possibly a structure which is mimetic of the ‘seven ages of man’, with a kind of reflective addendum at the end. Over and above this apparent resonance, the fact of the careful parsing or segmentation of each distinct sub-idea related to travel is reminiscent of philosophical treatises from The Enlightenment onwards. These aspects, combined with a general lack of travel anecdotes, should provide us with our first and most convincing clues that this is not a book about travel, or art.
When we look at the content also, we can see a general trend moving from the human to the divine. We begin with individual imaginings of the exotic with Botton himself, Des Esseintes, Baudelaire, Flaubert, et al, through to more complex understandings of the sublime and of beauty with Humboldt, Ruskin, and Van Gogh. Inserted somewhat weirdly before Wordsworth and other Romantic pursuers of the sublime is a consideration of The Book of Job, dealing with the problem of evil, before the whole thing tails back full circle to De Maistre and his semi-ironic explorations of his bedroom. The real journey here is a mental one. From Des Esseintes, incapable of leaving his native land owing to being a useless effete sack of human garbage, right through to De Maistre, capable of finding wonder behind his own couch, we can see that the book tracks a progress not through geography, but through philosophy.
This is consistent with contextual understandings of what Botton is actually about. He is known the world over as a ‘pop philosopher’, i.e., someone who reduces and simplifies philosophical work with the intention of making it accessible and usable to all. Leaving aside controversies around whether or not he should be taken to task for failing to credit the work he has so shamelessly ripped off, understanding that this is his overall mission is key to understanding this work within the framework of critical appreciation. Alain de Botton’s overarching thesis is as simple as it is saccharine. Put simply, he posits that since so much of the landscape of our reality is ‘made’ by the process of observing it, then we should therefore take control of this ‘making’ by being consciously and deliberately alive to the wonder and majesty of the world around us. He argues that consciousness and reality are in fact a mutually performative nexus, in that they create each other, and that control of this nexus is the key to achieving eudaimonea, or human flourishing.
Taken from this point of view, Botton’s mode of representation makes a whole lot more sense. His use of guides and images isn’t random, but are rather appeals to authority culminating in Ruskin and Van Gogh, the two great visionaries of that process of interacting with and interpreting reality. He presents, in logical form, a progress from the raw instinctive cycle of imaginings of the ideal leading to disappointment, to the high cultivated Epicureanism of actively seeking enjoyment and grace through interaction with the landscape. And he signposts this by referencing people who he feels represent major surges of development in the awareness and manipulation of that relationship between the individual consciousness and reality. Which is all a fancy way of saying that the book proposes that ‘life is a journey’, and that the best way to undertake it is with as full as possible an awareness of the beauty and wonder which can be observed along the way.