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Volume 1, Issue 3
Autumn 2005:

The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

Review by: Ed Scofield

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Autumn; 1(3):a9

Pantheon (2002); 225 pages, Illustrated; ISBN: 0375420827

I found this little book by accident in my local library and was initially intrigued by its title, and then by its size. Books on travel are usually large, often very large. I wondered: how could lessons on the "art" of travel be condensed into such a very small book?

I confess that initially I found the book somewhat irritating. The author is ambivalent about travel, and this, in many ways, sets the book's tone. Yet, despite this, as I read on, his unusual viewpoint began to get under my skin, and started to resonate with some of my own attitudes and feelings towards travel.

As an artist, when I travel to a new place I usually set out with pretty well-formed ideas about what I'd like to paint. This is based upon books, pictures, conversations, and paintings of other artists. Often, almost always, the pictures I paint at the beginning don't come out very well. I have to go through some degree of pain, discomfort, even disillusionment before good pictures materialize. This was particularly true when I painted in Aix and Avignon several years ago! Good things started to happen after I disengaged from preconception.

Describing how different well-known artists and writers have been affected by travel is the central theme in De Botton's (pronounced d' boh-TAHN) book. How the creative imagination has been affected by travel, both pro and con, makes for often fascinating reading. Consider the people whose travel experiences are explored in this little book: Edward Hopper, Baudelaire, Flaubert, von Humboldt, Van Gogh, Wordsworth and Ruskin.

Travel seems to be the time when people go to change their mood, because they change locations. Describing the result of his travels to Barbados for this purpose, de Botton discovered "...a momentous but until then overlooked fact that was making itself apparent: I had brought myself to the island."

"With vacations" he continues, "there are two strands of desire. On the one hand, there is the desire for relaxation, which is almost a Zen type of emptying your mind, a freedom from anxiety and stress, etc. Then there is the idea of stimulation. Most of the time, people run those two things together, and they're completely incompatible." Asked in a recent interview to summarize The Art of Travel in 15 seconds, he answered, "It's about the different kinds of beauty that are available in different places and why we search for them — and the obstacles that get in the way of that beauty."

Baudelaire dreamt of escaping the gray, cloudy skies of northern France for "somewhere with warmer weather, a place in the 'legendary couplet from L'Invitation au Voyage, where everything would be 'ordre et beauté/luxe, calme et volupté'." After many attempts to find it, he sarcastically wrote:

We saw stars
And waves; we saw sands, too
And despite many crises and unforseen disasters,
We were often bored, just as we were here.

Baudelaire's compromise with his lifelong ambivalence toward travel was that he felt more at home in transient places — harbors, docks, railway stations, trains, ships and hotel rooms — than in his own dwelling.

De Botton observes: "Journeys are often the midwives of thought." Edward Hopper, so identified in our minds as an artist of places in New York and New England, paradoxically depicted loneliness in figures that seem far from home. Hopper, stereotyped as someone who rarely left New York City or his haunts in New England, actually crossed America five times between 1941 and 1955. He always stayed in roadside places, eating in roadside diners and restaurants. In these ignored, homely and overlooked landscapes he found poetry. His paintings (and their resonant titles) suggest a consistent interest in five different peripatetic places: hotels, road and gas stations, diners and cafeterias, views from trains. "In Hopper's art" notes De Botton, "the figures are not the opponents of home per se. It is simply that, in a variety of undefined ways, home appears to have betrayed them, forcing them out into the night, or on the road."

Edward Hopper's house on Cape Cod, painted by Mr. Scofield

He raises the question: how to preserve the feeling stirred by some encounter with beauty? Moderns would use a camera of course, but Ruskin offers an alternative answer: by writing and, above all, by drawing and sketching. Ruskin wrote: "Your art is to be the praise of a shell or a stone." Ruskin preserved a feeling towards a scene (or a stone) in "word painting" as he put it.

De Botton is the author of two other recently published and bestselling books: How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. Both of these books were filmed for television in England. Ralph Fiennes who played Proust was recently asked about a passage in Consolations of Philosophy concerning a list of "dream acquisitions," and if he had acquired anything on his list. He answered, "The private, jet? The villa? No, no. A fascinating theory of Epicurus goes to the heart of Western materialist society, the idea that you could have more, but what are the right things to have?"

Such choices, including where and why we choose to travel are not easy to make. De Botton seems to hold that knowing how to look is what, in the end, makes travel rewarding and satisfying.

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