Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Status Anxiety – an interview with Alain de Botton

Is philosophy a more accessible subject than previously thought?

It's clear to me that there is no good reason for many philosophy books to sound as complicated as they do. It's not the ideas that necessitate such impenetrable prose, it's just that the authors can't write very well, or if they can, they are overly interested in frightening the reader. Kant and Hegel are interesting thinkers. But I am happy to insist that they are also terrible writers. There have, of course, always been good philosophical writers: Montaigne, Nietzsche, E.M.Cioran, for example. The word 'accessible' leaves me a little uncomfortable though. I prefer to draw a distinction between good and bad writing. One wouldn't, after all, call Tolstoy 'accessible', though of course, he is that as well.

You enjoyed success with The Consolations of Philosophy; does the title of that book indicate that you are primarily optimistic about existence?

The word consolations is a dark word with a silver lining. It suggests that there are some things we can do nothing about, and yet we can still learn to adopt a serene, wise approach to them. I think most great problems of life have no 'solution' to them – death among these. And yet that doesn't preclude one being able to look upon them in a better or worse way.

I am in general a very pessimistic person with an optimistic day to day take on things. The bare facts of life are utterly terrifying. And yet, one can laugh. Indeed, one has to laugh precisely because of the darkness: the nervous laughter of the trenches.

What philosophers do you feel closest to?

The philosophers I felt closest to all came with into my book The Consolations of Philosophy. That is, Socrates (as found in Plato), Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In all of these thinkers, I find a welcome interest in the problems of every day life, I find a humanity and a devotion to using thought to alleviate suffering.

There have been mixed reactions in the American press specifically to your non-fiction work, which, according to an earlier interview, you ascribed to a certain snobbery on the part of some critics: “it was felt by highbrow critics to be uncomfortably close to the dumb side of America.”, and also “In the reception to my book one can make a mini history of American intellectual attitudes”. Can you elaborate? It's an interesting point, and what about the reaction in Europe, is it substantially different?

When my book How Proust can change your Life was published in the States, certain critics were quick to say that this was just another cheap self-help book of a style that already crowded the dumb self-help shelves of the nation's bookstores. In fact, I had meant the work to be deeply serious, but to have a somewhat ironic title, both a wink at, and criticism of these very self-help writers. Snobbery exists in all areas of life, not least literary criticism. By snobbery I mean, any method of judging someone or something whereby you latch on to one or two features about them/it, and use these to come to a definitive, immovable judgement. In intellectual matters, the snob will often take the external features of a work as a guide to its value. They will see whether a book looks serious and deem it worthwhile if it ticks certain standard boxes for seriousness. Similarly, they will dismiss anything which doesn't fit the proscribed notions of intelligence.

Reactions in mainland Europe to my work have in general been highly positive. In Britain, because I live here, I can also run into problems of envy and competition. But all this is just in a day's work for a writer. You can't put stuff out there without someone calling you a complete fool. Oh well.

Were you uncomfortable writing fiction? Why the change to strictly non-fiction? Is there any chance of a return to fiction?

I was uncomfortable writing fiction. My love was the personal essay, rather than the novel. My first book, ON LOVE, was in fact an essay, but my publisher changed its definition to a novel because she thought it would sell better (it sold worse). I remain very interested in using my own personal experience to illuminate my work. In fact, my last book The Art of Travel pretty much reads like a novel. I am currently writing a book about architecture which is deeply novelistic. One day I hope to write about relationships again and the book will read a little like fiction: though my allegiance remains to the personal essay.

Are there any specific writers who have influenced you, in the way you write? For example, where does this love of diagrams and illustrations come from? In Kiss and Tell it reminded me, tenuously perhaps, of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne for example.

I've been deeply influenced by:Milan Kundera – for his playfulness and elegance, for his innovations in the novel and essay formsRoland Barthes – for his inventiveness with the essay. I especially like Camera Lucida, Mythologies, S/Z and A Lover's DiscourseNicholson Baker – for his book U & I: which seems a charming way to meander around a subjectJulian Barnes – for Flaubert's Parrot. For showing what you can do with literary criticism.Stendhal – for On Love. For showing how you can systematically analyse an emotion, yet keep things human.Montaigne – for pioneering the personal essay.This is sounding like the Oscars…

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