The Art of Travel

Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
The Art of Travel is not a guide to travelling but an exploration of the role of travel, broadly understood, in the lives and work of some eminent artists and writers. De Botton doesn't attempt full biographies, but provides an overview and then focuses on specific aspects of their work and ideas. He uses his own travels as a complement to this, sometimes quite directly and sometimes only tenuously, but doesn't spend too much time on himself.

Beginning with the gap between anticipation and reality, de Botton moves between a trip of his own to the Bahamas and the abortive or disappointing trips of the Duc des Esseintes in J.-K. Huysman's novel A rebours.

Next de Botton turns to service stations, airports, planes, trains and other places and mechanisms of travel. Here our guides are Charles Baudelaire, who was less interested in travelling than in the apparatus of travel, and Edward Hopper's paintings of hotels, roadside eateries, gas stations and so forth.

Gustave Flaubert was obsessed by the exotic from childhood, but was not, somewhat surprisingly, disillusioned when he actually went to Egypt.

"[He] insisted that he was not French. His hatred of his country and its people was so profound, it made a mockery of his civil status. And hence he proposed a new way of ascribing nationality: not according to the country one was born in or to which one's family belonged, but according to the places to which one was attracted."

The polymathic explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt epitomises curiosity for de Botton; his career is contrasted with the prepackaged, predigested and unmotivated facts of modern guidebooks.

"Unfortunately for the traveller, most objects don't come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing fixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing."

One of William Wordsworth's central ideas was that experience of Nature can make us better people. De Botton asks "Why would proximity to a cataract, a mountain or any other part of nature render one less likely to experience 'enmities and low desires' than proximity to crowded streets?" — and in an attempt to understand this visits the Lake District himself.

Though Edmund Burke gets the lead, de Botton calls on a range of writers in a chapter "on the sublime".

"At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a word came to prominence with which it became possible to indicate a specific response towards precipices and glaciers, the night skies and boulder-strewn deserts. In their presence, we were likely to experience, and could count on being understood for later reporting that we had felt, a sense of the sublime."

And a visit of his own to the Sinai offers a link to the story of Job.

Visiting Provence in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, de Botton ponders the power of art to "open our eyes" and change the way we perceive places.

"A few years after Van Gogh's stay in Provence, Oscar Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them."

John Ruskin argued for the mass practice of drawing and word-painting, however poor quality, as a way for people to learn how to see better, and to notice and remember details. "He deplored the blindness and haste of modern tourists".

In 1790, the 27-year-old Frenchman Xavier de Maistre undertook a journey around his bedroom and published an account of what he had seen in Journey around My Bedroom; this was followed by a sequel Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. He suggested that "the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to".

The figures de Botton writes about are (with the exception of Edward Hopper) from the 19th century or earlier, which limits the scope of The Art of Travel. There's nothing about such concerns of modern travellers as environmental sustainability, economic inequality, and cultural appropriation. A minor complaint is that the reproductions of art works accompanying the text are in black and white, which doesn't work so well when the text is discussing Van Gogh's use of colour.

Some of the pieces in The Art of Travel are stronger than others, but they're all entertaining and thought-provoking. De Botton doesn't try too hard for profundity or novelty and doesn't take himself too seriously — comparing Humboldt's curiosity with his own inability to get out of bed one morning in Madrid is surely comic hubris. The result may make us rethink or reinterpret some of our own experiences, but The Art of Travel will be most compelling as an introduction to unfamiliar figures or a source of new approaches to familiar ones.

Note: thanks to reader Bill Graham for sending me a copy of The Art of Travel.

March 2006

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%T The Art of Travel
%A Botton, Alain de
%I Hamish Hamilton
%D 2002
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0241140102
%P 261pp