The Art of Travel – by Alain de Botton
Date read: 5/15/17. Recommendation: 6/10.
Interesting book that feels like a series of essays. Dissects why we travel, the inspiration for doing so, and contemplates the experience of traveling abroad in a way that resonates with any seasoned traveler. In certain sections the language gets a bit too abstract and flowery for my taste. But if traveling is a large part of your identity, you'll appreciate de Botton's ideas.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest–in all its ardor and paradoxes–than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.
Eudaimonia: Greek philosophy term for human flourishing.
It is easy for us to forget ourselves when we contemplate pictorial and verbal descriptions of places.
We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.
Charles Baudelaire: "It always seems to me that I'll be well where I am not, and this question of moving is one that I'm forever entertaining with my soul."
The value we ascribe to the process of traveling, to wandering without reference to a destination, connects us to a broad shift in sensibilities dating back to some two hundred years ago, whereby the outsider came to be seen as morally superior to the insider.
What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
Anything I learnt would have to be justified by private benefit rather than by the interest of others. My discoveries would have to enliven me; they would have in some way to prove 'life-enhancing.'
What would it mean to seek knowledge 'for life' in one's travels?
Nietzsche also proposes a second kind of tourism, whereby we may learn how our societies and identities have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging. The person practicing this kind of tourism 'looks beyond his own individual transitory existence and feels himself to be the spirit of his house, his race, his city'. He can gaze at old buildings and feel 'the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that his existence is thus excused and indeed justified.'
A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as a necklace without beads without a connecting chain.
Even in the most fascinating cities, [many] have occasionally been visited by a strong wish to remain in bed and take the next flight home.
Our identities are to a greater or lesser extent malleable, changing according to whom–and sometimes what–we are with. The company of certain people may excited our generosity and sensitivity, while that of others awakens our competitiveness and envy.
Natural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us–oaks dignity, pines resolution, lakes calm–and therefore may, in unobtrusive ways, act as inspirations to virtue.
[William] Wordsworth urged us to travel through landscapes in order to feel emotions that may benefit our souls. I set out for the desert so as to be made to feel small.
There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist; we are forced instead to make awkward piles of words to convey what we feel as we watch the light fade on an early-autumn evening, or when we encounter a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing.
Sublime places embodied a defiance to man's will.
Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.
What, then, is this traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting.
Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations.