Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Status Anxiety – an interview with Alain de Botton

How Proust can change your life proudly puts forward the idea that writers and books are important. What do you make about the fuss created to celebrate the centenary of 'Bloomsday', a fictional event! While you've argued the positive benefits of identifying with characters and themes in literature, isn't there the danger of blurring the lines between reality and fiction?

The danger of blurring lines doesn't seem pressing to me – and Bloomsday largely seems an invention of the Irish tourist board and newspaper editors. There must be about 5 people in the world who genuinely care about the day, just as there are probably not that many more who genuinely love Ulysses (rather than respect it or have to study it for university). Literature has always had its circus side, its freaks and its frivolities – and maybe that's all part of it, and no bad thing if it draws people towards what is most worthwhile.

While we're on the subject of Joyce – would you consider a How Proust can change your life – would it be a case of a self-destruction book rather than self-help?!

I've never got on well with Joyce, so I wouldn't be the man to write this book. But as you can imagine, many publishers have approached me asking if I'd consider doing a 'How Proust' on Dickens, Flaubert, Zola… and Joyce. It's all very flattering, but part of the integrity of the book on Proust was that it was specifically about a favourite writer of mine, and isn't really a repeatable formula.

What's your take on this seemingly world wide phenomena of reality TV, like Big Brother. Does it feed this status anxiety – you too can be famous, just for being yourself, albeit on TV.

We are certainly influenced by role models, and if we are surrounded by images of beautiful rich people, we will start to think that to be beautiful and rich is very important – just as in the Middle Ages, people were surrounded by images of religious piety, and these had a deep impact on what sides of oneself one wanted to develop and take seriously.

I feel we aren't careful enough about this. We assume we can just watch TV and not have our whole value-system played around with. Or that we can pick up a copy of Vogue and not feel anything quite significant afterwards (significant, not in a good way).Pick up any newspaper or magazine, open the TV, and you'll be bombarded with suggestions of how to have a successful life. Some of these suggestions are deeply unhelpful to our own projects and priorities – and we should take care.

Two things you've said that you'd like to write about, in the future – marriage, and also everyday beauty. Why these particular topics?

What is fascinating about marriage is why anyone wants to get married (I got married last year, happily so). After all, the disadvantages are legion and constantly presented to us. So the allure of marriage interests me. I'm also interested in the modern suggestion that you can have a combination of love and sex in a marriage – which no previous society has ever believed. Both in love and work, bourgeois ideology suggests there can be a combination of necessity (i.e. making money, raising a family) with pleasure (finding meaning, being in love). Things that previous ages held to be separate are now presented to us as reconcilable; a contravention of the old aristocratic and working class view that the two are inherently separate, i.e. that you either earn money and are bored or you bring up children and hate your wife, or are free and an artist, or are in love with your mistress… But we live with a new non-tragic view, which leads to very high expectations and so rage and despair too. All this interests me.

As for beauty, I'm currently at work on a book about architecture. Architecture is an excellent example of the way we tend to despair of the whole subjec
t of beauty. Architects themselves tend to shy away from the word, preferring instead to talk about the manipulation of space and 'machines for living'. The rest of us are caught between our instincts and postmodern relativism. Instinctively, though, neither position seems quite true. We intuit beauty all the time, often in the most officially unsanctioned places; it's just that we're not very good at understanding what these tastes and hunches are pointing to, what they're telling us about ourselves.

Here's my basic argument:
1. All objects speak to us of a way of life. That's what 'design' is. All objects are a promise of something. That's why we want to own them. An IKEA sofa is the promise of a modern, open-minded, sexually (mildly) experimental, Scandinavian way of life. And this language of objects has a political dimension which we've tended to neglect. What is the unwelcoming park bench telling us about the public realm and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen?
2. It used to be fairly straightforward to work out what it was the things around us were trying to tell us. There tended to be a dominant language – the vernacular, tradition etc – and most of us could just about speak it. Since the later part of the 19th century, with its proliferation of styles, there's been disarray. Modernism offered the illusion of an end to the confusion. Form should follow function and that was that. But the modernist architects never really practiced what they preached. In the final analysis, they were just as much suckers for beautiful effects as the rest of us. This historical process has made us wary of our own feelings about beauty.
3. But there are some basic, true things we can say. We need objects to remind us of the commitments we've made. That carpet from Morocco reminds us of the impulsive, freedom-loving side of ourselves we're in danger of losing touch with. Beautiful furniture gives us something to live up to. All designed objects are propaganda for a way of life. It's little use inveighing against Wimpey for not employing architects; it's their vision of life which we should attend to. It’s no accident that the earliest architecture was memorial in function. We need our surroundings to remind us of the people we want to be, and the values we want to live by.
4. It's urgent to move beyond seeing these issues as superficial matters of style. We shouldn't talk about design without reference to the kinds of people we want to be. We need to be more self-aware about what our tastes point to about us. There's an analogy with friendship: beautiful things can't do everything, but they can nudge us in the right direction, remind us of our aspirations in life. When we find something beautiful, that thing is speaking to us of what we feel we're missing.

Alain de Botton’s official web site.

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