The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Posted: September 23, 2010 in Book Notes
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  • 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 ardour and paradoxes – than our travels.
  • If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps little to blame, for in them we find the same process of simplification or selection at work as in the imagination.
    • The anticipatory and artistic imagination omit and compress, they cut away periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying or embellishing, thus lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.

Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.

– Charles Baudelaire

  • There is a psychological pleasure in this take-off too, for the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives; to imagine that we too might one day surge above much that now looms over us.
  • …it is what we have in common with others that looms larger than what separates us.
  • Journeys are the midwives of thought.
    • The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is suppose to do.
    • The music or the view distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness and which runs scared of memories, longings, introspective or original ideas and prefers instead the administrative and the impersonal.
    • Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects.

From the late 18th century onwards, it is no longer from the practice of community but from being a wanderer that the instinct of fellow-feeling is derived. Thus an essential isolation and silence and loneliness become the carriers of nature and community aginst the rigours, the cold abstinence, the selfish ease of ordinary society.

– Raymond Williams, The Country and the City

  • What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
  • Central to Flaubert’s philosophy was the belief that we are not simply spiritual creatures, but also pissing and shitting ones and that we should integrate the ramifications of this blunt idea into our view of the world.
  • The people of Egypt seemed to share some of the qualities of the camel: a silent strength and humility that contrasted with the bourgeois arrogance of Flaubert’s Normand neighbors.
  • Desire elicits a need to understand.

My native country is for me the country that I love, that is, the one that makes me dream, that makes me fell well.

I am a soul brother to everything that lives, to the giraffe and to the crocodile as much as to man.

Gustave Flaubert

  • When he was asked where he came from, Socrates said not from Athens but from the world.
  • Facts have utility…and with utility comes an (approving) audience.
  • In the essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche distinguished between collecting facts like an explorer or academic and using already well-know facts for the sake of inner, psychological enrichment.

I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.

– Goethe

…[the person] looks beyond his own individual transitory existence and feels himself to be the spirit of his house, his race, his city…the happiness of knowing that one is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that one’s exsitence is thus excused and, indeed, justified.

– Nietzsche

  • Few Europeans had crossed the regions through which he traveled and their absence offered him an imaginative freedom…He could create his own categories of value without either following or deliberately rebelling against the hierarchies of others.
  • A danger of travel is that we things at the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.
    • Travel twists our curiosity according to a superficial geographical logic, as superficial as if a university course were to prescribe books according to their size rather than subject matter.

People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once: botony, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything which surrounds him?

Alexander von Humboldt

  • ...cities foster a family of life-destroying emotions: anxiety about our position in the social hierarchy, envy at the success of others, pride and a desire to shine in the eyes of strangers…City-dwellers had no perspective…however well provided for, they had a relentless desire for new things, which they did not genuinely lack and on which happiness did not depend.
    • The poet proposed that Nature, which he took to comprise, among other elements, birds, streams, daffodils and sheep, was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.
  • …our identities are to a greater or lesser extent malleable; that we change according to whom – and sometimes what – we are with. The company of certain people excites our generosity and sensitivity, of others, our competitiveness and envy.

A great Poet…ought to a certain degree to rectify men’s feelings…to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in short, more consonant to Nature.

William Wordsworth

  • …give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
  • What defies our will can provoke anger and resentment; it may also arouse awe and respect. It depends on whether the obstacle appears noble in its defiance or squalid and insolent.
    • We are humiliated by what is powerful and mean, but awed by what is powerful and noble.

A vast space naturally raises in my thoughts the idea of an Almighty Being.

– Joseph Addison

There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief without the help of any other argument.

– Thomas Gray

Amid those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, the associations are of God the creator – they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into contemplation of ethernal things.

– Thomas Cole

  • It is no coincidence that the Western attraction to sublime landscape developed at precisely the moment when traditional beliefs in God began to wane…The landscape offered them an emotional connection to a greater power, even as they freed them of the need to subscribe tot he more specific and now less plausible claims of biblical tests and organized religion.
  • Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way: the universe is greater than you. Do not be surprised that you do not understand why they have not gone your way: for you cannot fathom the logic of the universe.
    • Accept what is bigger than you and you do not understand.
    • Consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.
    • When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe.
  • We are the playthings of the forces that laid our the oceans and chiseled the mountains. Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming, but is the vast space of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us.
  • Because we find places to be beautiful as immediately and as apparently spontaneously as we find snow to be cold or sugar sweet, it is hard to imagine that there is anything we might do to alter or expand our attractions. It seems that matters have been decided for us by qualities inherent in the places themselves or by hard-wiring in our psyches and that we would therefore be as helpless to modify our sense of places we find beautiful as we would our preference for the ice-creams we find appetizing.

…quickly, quickly, quickly and in a hurry, just like a harvester who is silent under the blazing sun, intent only on his reaping…I work even in the middle of the day, in the full sunshine, and I enjoy it like cicada.

– Van Gogh

  • Painters do not merely reproduce. They select and highlight, and they are accorded genuine admiration in so far as their version of reality seems to bring out valuable features of it.
    • We are apt to call any painting realistic that competently conveys key elements of the world. But the world is complex enough for two realistic pictures of the same place to look very different depending on an artist’s style and temperament.
    • Bad art might thus be defined as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.
  • Art cannot single-handedly create enthusiasm, nor does it arise from sentiments of which non-artists are devoid; it merely contributes to enthusiasm and guides us to be more conscious of feelings that we might previously have experienced only tentatively or hurriedly.
  • A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives.
    • But beauty is fugitive, it is frequently found in places to which we may never return or else it results from a rare conjunction of season, light and weather.
  • Taking photographs can assuage the itch for possession sparked by the beauty of a place; our anxiety about losing a precious scene can decline with every click of the shutter.
  1. Beauty is the result of a complex number of factors that effect the mind psychologically and visually.
  2. Humans have an innate tendency to respond to beauty and to desire to possess it.
  3. There are many lower expressions of this desire for possession, including the desire to buy souvenirs and carpets, to carve one’s name in pillars and to make photographs.
  4. There is only one way to possess beauty properly and that is through understanding it, through making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it.
  5. The most effective way of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, through writing or drawing them, irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.
  • To notice rather than to look.
    • In the process of re-creating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its constituent parts and hence more secure memories of it.
    • True possession of a scene is a matter of making a conscious effort to notice elements and understanding their construction.

A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself one than you can make yourself a giraffe.

My effort are directed not to making a carpenter an artist, but to making him happier as a carpenter.

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.

John Ruskin

  • Technology may make it easier to reach beauty, but it has not simplified the process of possessing or appreciating it.
  • [drawing, eating or drinking] – what unites the three activities is that they all involve assimilations by the self of desirable elements from the world, a transfer of goodness from without to within.

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

– Pascal

  • We have become habituated and therefore blind.
    • We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting.
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