Alain de Botton in interview with Three Monkeys Online.
“the abundance of information will be such that either you have reached such a level of maturity that you are able to be your own filter, or you will desperately need a filter, some professional filter. So once again you will ask somebody…an information consultant…to be your gatekeeper!”[Umberto Eco in conversation with Patrick Coppock]
The above interview took place in 1995, and with a wonderful insight predicted the increasing importance of guides in the realm of the internet, whether they be search engines, that with complex mathematical formulas decide the weighting and relevance of documents to your request, or are simply sites that recommend other sites. It would be simplistic in the extreme to sum up Alain de Botton's work as a type of gatekeeper for philosophical thought, outside of the net, and on the printed page, but it does however hit upon a particular quality in de Botton's work that earns him admirers and critics in almost equal measure. Rather than search out the great Philosophers, you can trust de Botton's assesment of the important works. Since his groundbreaking success How Proust can change your life he has been seen to make complex areas of philosophy accessible, often by the application of famous philosophical thought to everyday problems, or, to his critics, to have served up a plate of philosophy-lite made even more digestible by the T.V. tie ins of works like The Consolations of Philosophy and his latest book Status Anxiety. One can detect a certain amount of snobbery in much of the, often scathing and quite personal, criticism that he receives, and dare one say it, a touch of jealousy, at his continued success. What can't be argued, though, is that he has developed his own style, and has won an ever increasing audience, an audience that no-one could have dreamed existed before the success of How Proust can Change your life. Three Monkeys Online interviewed Alain de Botton by email.
Your non fiction books, and fiction, have a lot of playful elements in common – which is unusual particularly for non-fiction. Usually we expect fiction writers to play with form, but not our non-fiction writers. Is it a conscious attempt to create a new style of non-fiction writing, or perhaps simply the way you write?
I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It's always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work. It's as if they are still operating with a scientific model of exposition, which suggests that what's really important is the content, not the form of your thesis. I passionately believe that's it's not just what you say that counts, it's also how you say it – that the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it. This way of talking wouldn't, of course, surprise the novelists. It's always been taken for granted that a good novelist must not only have something to say, he or she must then pay attention to the quality of writing, must keep the reader interested, must create tension and drama and humour and gravity. The non-fiction writers I most admire are those who have made innovations with form. I am particularly drawn to the works of Roland Barthes (for example, S/Z) and Milan Kundera (for example, Testaments betrayed) for this reason.
You are multilingual, and have lived in a number of countries – what kind of effect has that had on your writing?
I grew up in Switzerland speaking French, then at the age of 12, moved to England. The shift made me deeply unhappy and – as we know that unhappiness is good for writing – I'm sure it helped. More directly, to move country is to feel an outsider to things, which is the natural and necessary stance of the writer. Not all émigrés are writers, but all writers are in a sense émigrés.
Who would you prefer to be trapped in a lift with: Schopenhauer or Nietzsche?
Both men are interestingly peculiar, both men are not unpleasant lift-companions. Schopenhauer tended to carry a gun (he was afraid someone would rob him), and Nietzsche's moustache was at times deeply horrible to look at when he left it untrimmed. Yet overall, I would enjoy their cynicism and good humour. Both men, in different ways, laughed in the face of the darkness.
You’ve found a market for philosophy in the mainstream book market; prior to publication of How Proust can change your life, were you aware that such a niche existed?
I was always aware that there are readers out there interested in the lucid discussion of ideas – readers who tend not to be well catered for by either the mainstream academics (whose writing often bears the scars of their professional status struggles), nor by more popular non-fiction writing ('In search of the snow leopard: one man's epic struggle against the odds…').That said, to write an essay on Proust and expect it to be in the New York Times Bestseller list is crazy. I was, as the Stoics teach us to be, ready for the best, but prepared for the worst.
When you talk of status anxiety, can that apply to states as well as people? For example Italy, or indeed Britain, with the arch over-emphasis on national football teams in the European Championships as being key to National pride and well-being, the disappointment – and if so, what can states do to cope? Can you see events in Iraq in that light, states flexing their muscles for status?
Status anxiety definitely exists at a political level. Many Iraqis were annoyed with the US essentially for reasons of status: for not showing them respect, for humiliating them. This was hard for the US to grasp: why didn't these people like us if we were trying to rebuild schools for them etc.? The Arab-Israeli conflict is also in many ways a conflict about status: it's a war between two peoples who feel deeply humiliated by the other, who want the other to respect them. Battles over status can be even more intractable than those over land or water or oil.