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by Alain de Botton
320 pages, $24.00
In 1997, Alain de Botton, a twenty-eight-year-old Swiss-born Londoner with a Cambridge degree and three hit novels on the shelves, took it upon himself to teach a broad, thinking, audience to benefit from Marcel Proust's most enlightened virtues—without having to spend a year lugging around the seven dense volumes that make up In Search of Lost Time. He penned How Proust Can Change Your Life, a slim, elegant work of nonfiction, dotted with droll illustrations and charts, and dedicated to offering tips for better living gleaned from Proust's life and work. The book not only sold countless copies around the globe; it also earned high praise for demystifying some of the most challenging passages in Western literature in an insightful and idiosyncratically humorous way.
Since then, de Botton, who has not only written relationship columns for British newspapers, but also briefly directed a branch of London University's graduate philosophy program, has expanded his oeuvre with two more nonfiction books, both similarly predicated on the idea that we can look to the great writers for counsel on improving our lives. The Consolations of Philosophy, which was published in 2000, is a compendium of practical advice culled from the writings of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and other renowned philosophers. And The Art of Travel, which was published in 2002, is a collection of more personal essays that delves into writings by the likes of Wordsworth and Flaubert to probe the reasons why we holiday.
In his new book, Status Anxiety, de Botton takes readers on a tour through the history of ideas—economic, sociological, and political— to tackle the problem of "status anxiety," which he characterizes as "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one."
This obsession with our place in society, de Botton writes, emerges from several sources: our fear of lovelessness; inflated expectations about what our lives should bring; our faith in meritocracy (which leads us to believe that modern day academic achievement sorts everyone into their rightful place), snobbery; and the fact that we are at the mercy of "fickle talent," luck, our employers, and the global economy. But status anxiety, he argues, can be cured—or at least mitigated—if we draw upon the resources of philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia as tools for putting the issue in perspective. For example, we can curb our urge to grasp after bigger, more impressive things and learn to appreciate our mundane lives, he argues, by exposing ourselves to art and literature that celebrates the beauty and dignity of the ordinary. Likewise, an understanding of the ideals that drive Western religion can help us relinquish our fixation on worldly success. And we could do worse, he suggests, than to heed the observations of astute social critics like the eighteenth-century French commentator Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, who warned, "public opinion is the worst of all."
On June 15 I met up with de Botton, in the midst of his book tour, in a New York City hotel. Over breakfast we discussed these issues, along with such questions as how, say, a survivor of status anxiety might respond to mean-spirited book reviews. His overarching message: remain humble and down-to-earth, even if you happen to become a writer of best-selling books that brim with sophisticated references. Philosophy may not be able to influence the most close-minded of the status-obsessed. But for those with the time and inclination to read carefully, it may go a long way toward keeping this sinister ill at bay.
Alain de Botton
You've written books about the thoughts of others (as in Proust and Consolations), as well as books that advance your own ideas on an issue (such as The Art of Travel and your novel Kiss and Tell, which was a send-up of biographies). With Status Anxiety do you feel that you're mainly synthesizing arguments that have been made in the past by other thinkers? Or are you seeking to formulate an original theory of your own?
I consider myself to be combining ideas in original ways—not necessarily wildly original ways, but different. You can probably find every idea I use in the book somewhere else, but that's probably true of any work. It's about combination. Also, I suppose I'm moving away from relying on just one source—like Proust or one set of philosophers—and instead drawing upon a much more diverse range of sources that feed into a particular concept. So I do feel that in a way Status Anxiety is a more original book than some of the others.
The book begins by stating that "every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories ... the story of our quest for sexual love" and "the story of our quest for love from the world." Why is the latter in your estimate a "more secret and shameful tale"?
All of us are incredibly embarrassed by our more narcissistic elements. People go to great lengths to hide their narcissism. Narcissism is, in a way, a nasty word. But it's very normal. It's the desire for people to think well of us, and accord us respect. I think the reason that desire is so carefully hidden is because it can very easily provoke envy and anger in other people. Talk to any beautiful woman. She will rarely say "I'm very beautiful." She knows she's beautiful. But training has taught her that you don't say something like that unless you want to become very unpopular very quickly. Modesty is a survival instinct. But deep down, everyone has a desire to feel significant. It's just something we're loathe to admit to.
You write that "our ego' or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated, and ever vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect." Why does "our mood blacken if a colleague greets us distractedly"? This would seem to be a minor occurrence in the grand scheme of things.
I think we are very attuned to negative interpersonal signals, just as we are, say, to bad smells—maybe because a bad smell might be a prelude to real danger. We're aware of funny glances people give us, and exhibit a sort of paranoia, sometimes with legitimate concern. This makes up the tragicomedy of everyday life. Particularly office life. Relationships are full of this as well: Someone might say, "You sounded weird on the phone last night." "No I didn't." "Yes you did." "You hung up a bit too quickly." All that kind of stuff. These sensitivities are alive and well in office life as well, but there's no room to say to one's boss, "Why don't you talk to me? Please love me. Are you about to sack me?" We can't say those things, but of course it's what we feel.