Interviews June 2004

The Status-tician

Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains

You paraphrase Schopenhauer's idea that "nothing could more quickly correct the desire to be liked by others than a brief investigation into those others' true characters," which are "for the most part excessively brutish and stupid." I've tried making it through the world like that myself, but the mindset has caused me too many problems with people. And since one also has to master the art of politicking to get ahead, one inevitably comes to impasses…

Well, there's a distinction between thinking someone is an idiot and telling them that they are. Still, I do think we tend to have this idea that in order to be a good person, you must like people—that you must have a friendly, open disposition toward everyone in order to be normal and well-balanced. I think it's interesting to contemplate the wisdom of a more misanthropic approach, of which Schopenhauer is a dramatic example. Instead of worrying about what other people think, it might be worth asking, Who is this person? Who am I worried about? Do I actually respect and like this person? Because I think that we're built in a rather odd way: we want people to like us even before we've decided whether we like them or not. And that's a very odd perspective. I think we should try to wean ourselves from that because it's very self-destructive.

One of the book's more intriguing detours is its passage on nineteenth-century novels: Fielding, Thackeray, Dickens. You talk about how certain kinds of characters are accorded high status in novels, even though in the real world they would have been dismissed by society as low-status. Then you take a quick look at a similar phenomenon in Zadie Smith's 2000 novel, White Teeth. How can a character that most people would see as lacking status have high status in a novel? And do you think contemporary literature is returning to these themes?

I think that many works of art are subversive of the status system that existed in the societies in which they were produced. The heroes and heroines in much of art are not those that would have been granted high status in the world outside the work of art. Particularly in the nineteenth-century novel. The heroes and heroines of those books are often seamstresses, lumberjacks, stone masons, and so on. Yet within the world of the novel they are accorded a high degree of status. We are led to see their richness and complexities, their intelligence and sensitivity. So many works of art are correctives to the snobbish value system that reigns outside of them. Charles Dickens, for example, is often credited with having helped to change attitudes toward the poor in London. Even less politically minded writers have had that same effect. They ask us to take a new look at those who don't usually have a voice. It's the opposite of sentimental Hollywood art. One often leaves the cinema after seeing an enjoyable Hollywood film thinking, My life is terrible. I want to marry a princess and live in a castle or something. The work of art was enjoyable, but it was a fable—a fantasy—and it makes us dissatisfied with our own lives. But there are other films that let you leave the cinema feeling that you can find new dignity and value in the everyday world around you. That's very much the art I'm attracted to; the kind of thing that doesn't cut you off from your own life but instead enables you to appreciate and engage with the reality of it. I think art always has a role to play in that.

Take tragedy, which I also discuss in the book. Tragedy is an art form dedicated to telling the stories of people who have failed—who have lost their status. But we would hardly be inclined to leave a performance of Hamlet saying that the guy was a "loser." He was a loser, in a sense. But we wouldn't call him that. The word sounds incongruous. Because we've been led to interpret the story of his failure in a very complex, sympathetic, and understanding way. I think one of the things we fear about losing status is being called a loser. And this is the opposite of what tragedy teaches us to do.

You write that the segment of Western society that has most successfully altered its status in modern times is women. Women who weren't allowed into a library didn't ask what was wrong with themselves for not being allowed in but rather what was wrong with the "keepers of the library for not allowing them in." In your view, have they achieved an equal footing with men?

They've certainly radically transformed their status. There's been almost no more successful example of status-transformation than feminism, even though the financial ways of the world have not changed that much. It's been a revolution in status and should be an example. Are women on an equal footing with men? I detect a problem in that very question. I don't think the goal of women should be an equal footing. That's actually part of the problem that feminism has landed contemporary women in. It has denied the possibility that women could have equal value while not necessarily doing exactly the same things as men. The idea of difference has so often been used historically as a stick to beat women down that it's led many women to claim that the only way for them to earn status is to say that they must focus on being "equal" in all areas and in all ways.

Your next book is about architecture. Will you look at how our perception of buildings can help us through a particular emotional issue? Or will it be a broader sort of meditation?

It's basically looking at aesthetics. That includes, art, painting, pottery, jazz. It's looking at the built environment and how it affects us—why we call certain things beautiful, and why some beautiful things can make us sad or inspire us. A lot of these themes affect our approach to architecture—and especially our own homes, which is where we tend to encounter questions of aesthetics most vividly and perhaps for the first time.

Lastly, can fans of your fiction expect another novel sometime? I've read that you don't consider your fictional works to be novels, even though Kiss And Tell was as much a character-driven send-up of the popular biography as it was a collection of essays.

I saw my first book very much as an essay about relationships. I've always seen my novels as very essayistic. I don't draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction because I see myself as more of an essay writer. A lot depends on the subject matter. The essence of the novel, which tends to be character, works better for me if there's a love story to recount. I think it would be hard for me to write a novel about architecture, say, or a novel about traveling. I tend to be inspired by things that are problematic in my own life, and since my love life is not currentlyproblematic, I don't feel the impulse to write more about the subject. But look out for a book on marriage down the road. That will be a sign of something. Who knows?

Adam Baer is a writer in New York. He has covered books for The New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, and Slate.com, among other publications. His most recent interview was with David Bezmozgis.
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Adam Baer is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and Slate, on NPR, and elsewhere.

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