West is experiencing serious problems in the area of morality and community: Alain de Botton
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
Alain de Botton is a Swiss public intellectual, author, philosopher, television presenter and entrepreneur living in the United Kingdom. He has written several books on literature, philosophy, art, travel and architecture. In August 2008, he established a new educational enterprise in London called "The School of Life". Among his prominent books are "How Proust Can Change Your Life", "The Consolations of Philosophy" and "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".
De Botton is an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The title was awarded to him in recognition of his services to art and architecture. His books are translated into several languages and are among the best-selling works of literature in so many countries, including Iran. What follows is the complete text of an in-depth interview with Alain de Botton where we discussed a variety of topics and issues concerning philosophy, art, literature, travel and architecture.
Kourosh Ziabari: Dear Alain; I'm the second Iranian journalist to interview you. How's your feeling about that?
Alain de Botton: I'm delighted to hear from Iranian journalists and readers. In most countries, one signs an agreement with a publisher to sell a book and therefore there is an immediate and direct connection with a country and its readers. However, with Iran, it didn't happen like this for me. One day, from the blue, I received an email from my translator and she offered to send me a few copies of my books in Persian. This felt like a great surprise and honor. I know a lot about Iran, Its architecture, its history, its landscape, but I have never visited, so knowing that my books are read in the country helped to solidify a connection which is very vivid in my imagination already.
KZ: "How Proust Can Change Your Life" is your most widely-read book in Iran. Many Iranian booklovers with an inclination toward philosophy have read both Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" and your book on Proust's work, as well. You published this book 13 years ago. If you had to rewrite or revise your book, what would you change, append or remove? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this book in your own view?
AB: I continue to be rather happy with this book. It is short, so it doesn't say everything one could say about Proust, but it tries to say what is most important. I imagine it like a conversation with an imaginary friend who asks me 'Why should this book matter? Why should I bother with it when life is short and I am so busy?' So my book is my answer. It attempts in clear and non-academic language to convey the importance of one of the most intelligent and sensitive writers in the history of humanity. A man like Marcel Proust comes along once every 300 years or so… not more.
KZ: You admire Marcel Proust for what is believed to be his "simple and straightforward" language. What are the features of such a language? What makes a piece of writing simple and appealing to an ordinary reader? According to your response to one of Mr. Kamali Dehghan's questions, they're only the idiots and stupid people who seem complicated; the genius, intelligent man is simple and straightforward. Why do you think so?
AB: There can of course be pleasure in complex pieces of language: some very beautiful poetry is very complicated. Nevertheless, I especially admire clarity and logic, where one feels that a very complex thought has been understood so profoundly that it has been distilled into a perfect clear jewel. For example, consider this aphorism by La Rochefoucauld: 'We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others'. This thought contains years of experience, one could write an entire book on this, and yet he has condensed it into one beautiful, brilliant sentence. Marcel Proust does this too – one finds one's own thoughts in his work, but in a way that teaches us more about ourselves than we ever knew on our own.
KZ: You started your literary career at a young age and published your first book when you were 23. How did writing in the youth days contribute to your future career as a professional writer?
AB: Sometimes I wish I had started writing later, but I felt ready at 23, and I wrote the book that I still perhaps love best, Essays in Love. I felt so unhappy about love; it was as if I had no choice but to write. I felt the full agony of late adolescent unrequited love. Many works of literature have arisen from such feelings. They are among the most powerful we have.
KZ: Tell us a little about your School of Life. How did the idea of establishing this enterprise come about? What activities are usually carried out in the school? How and for what purposes do you connect people together in this school?
AB: If you went to any university in the modern world and said that you had come to study ‘how to live’, you would be politely shown the door, if not the way to an asylum. Universities see it as their job to train you either in a specific career, e.g. law, medicine, or to give you a grounding in ‘the humanities’, but for no identifiable reason, beyond the vague and unexamined notion that three years studying the classics or reading Middlemarch may be a good idea.
The contemporary university is an uncomfortable amalgamation of ambitions once held by a variety of educational institutions. It owes debts to the philosophical schools of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the monasteries of the Middle Ages, to the theological colleges of Paris, Padua and Bologna and to the research laboratories of early modern science. One of the legacies of this heterogeneous background is that academics in the humanities have been forced to disguise, both from themselves and their students, why their subjects really matter, for the sake of attracting money and prestige in a world obsessed by the achievements of science and unable to find a sensible way of assessing the value of a novel or a history book.
The chief problem for anyone in a history or an English department today is that science has been too successful. Science can make your car work, fix your liver, send spaceships to Mars and turn sunlight into electricity. In other words, science is to be valued because it gives us control over our fate, whereas in W. H. Auden’s defiant words, “poetry makes nothing happen”. Auden’s stance may be a heroic rallying cry for the freelance poet, but it becomes more alarming as a job description for a young academic who has just completed a doctorate on Biblical references in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s later verse.
The response of humanities departments to their status anxiety has been to mimic their colleagues in physics or astronomy, in a move that has had short-term gains, but is in danger of asphyxiating their subjects in the long run. Academics in the arts have decided that they, too, should be viewed as ‘researchers’ and that their principal value should come from their capacity to discover new things, like chemists might uncover new molecular structures. There are clearly occasions when scholars do make genuine discoveries which can be compared to breakthroughs in science, but it surely represents a distortion of the value of the arts as a whole to make their value entirely dependent on factual, verifiable criteria.
To do so is to behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade. In the modern academy, an art historian, on being stirred to tears by the tenderness and serenity he detects in a work by a 14th-century Florentine painter, typically ends up answering his emotions by writing a monograph, as irreproachable as it is bloodless, on the history of paint manufacture in the age of Giotto.
It was in the 16th century that the greatest anti-academic scholar of the West launched his attack on the bias of universities. Michel de Montaigne, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the great texts, nevertheless deplored the way in which academics tended to privilege learning over wisdom. “I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise, but learned. It has not taught us to seek virtue and to embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and their etymology. We readily inquire, ‘Does he know Greek or Latin?’ ‘Can he write poetry and prose?’ But what matters most is what we put last: ‘Has he become better and wiser?’”
It was because of my time at Cambridge that I started to dream of an ideal new sort of institution which could welcome Montaigne, or indeed Nietzsche, Goethe or Kierkegaard, a University of Life that would give students the tools to master their lives through the study of culture rather than using culture for the sake of passing an exam.
This ideal University of Life would draw on traditional areas of knowledge (history, art, literature) but would angle its material towards active concerns, how to choose a career, conduct a relationship, sack someone and get ready to die. The university would never take the importance of culture for granted. It would be calculatedly vulgar. Rather than leaving it hanging why one was reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, an ideal course covering 19th-century literature would ask plainly “What is it that adultery ruins in a marriage?” Students would end up knowing much the same material as their colleagues in other institutions, but they would have learnt it under a very different set of headings.
On the menu of my ideal university, you wouldn’t find subjects like ‘philosophy’ and ‘history’. Instead, you would find courses in ‘death’, ‘marriage’, ‘choosing a career’, ‘ambition’, and ‘child rearing’. Too often, these head-on assaults on the great questions are abandoned to the second-rate efforts of gurus and motivational speakers.
So I came to feel it was high time for serious culture to reappropriate them and to consider them with all the rigour and seriousness currently too often lavished on topics of minor relevance.
That’s why, in early 2009, some colleagues and I came together to start a little educational institution in London that we've called The School of Life (www.theschooloflife.com). The idea was to offer instruction in the great questions of life in a way that would be intelligent, imaginative, revolutionary and playful. At the school, you can sign up for courses in politics, work, family, love – or indeed, talk to a therapist, learn how to garden in the city or go on a communal meal for strangers. The spirit of the place is anarchic and yet serious at heart. We're throwing down a gauntlet to traditional education, trying to reinvent how learning gets done. There are similarities with what I have tried to do in some of my books, though here we're attempting to demonstrate, rather than simply describe, the advantages of the examined life.
We have had a very successful first year, which suggests to me the depth of frustration that many ordinary people feel for the pedagogic approach of traditional universities.
KZ: You serve in the Living Architecture organization as the Creative Director. You've also been appointed the honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in recognition of your services to architecture. How is your professional career as a literary author related to your admiration for sublime, transcendent architecture? How do you make a connection between architecture and literature?
AB: Is it serious to worry about design and architecture? To think hard about the shape of the bathroom taps, the color of the bedspread and the dimensions of the window frames?
A long intellectual tradition suggests it isn’t quite. A whiff of trivia and self-indulgence floats over the topic. It seems like something best handled by the flamboyant presenters of early evening TV shows. A thought-provoking number of the world’s most intelligent people have always disdained any interest in the appearance of buildings, equating contentment with discarnate and invisible matters instead. The Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have demanded of a heart-broken friend whose house had burnt to the ground, ‘If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?’ It is unclear how much longer the friendship lasted.
And yet determined efforts to scorn design have also long been matched by equally persistent attempts to mould the material world to graceful ends. People have strained their backs carving flowers into their roof beams and their eyesight embroidering animals onto their tablecloths. They have given up weekends to hide unsightly cables behind ledges. They have thought carefully about appropriate kitchen work-surfaces. They have imagined living in unattainably expensive houses pictured in magazines and then felt sad, as one does on passing an attractive stranger in a crowded street.
We seem divided between an urge to override our senses and numb ourselves to the appearance of houses and a contradictory impulse to acknowledge the extent to which our identities are indelibly connected to, and will shift along with, our locations. I personally side with the view that it does (unfortunately as it’s expensive) matter what things look like: an ugly room can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life, while a sun-lit one set with honey-coloured limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us. Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better and for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.
Our sensitivity to our surroundings can be traced back to a troubling feature of human psychology: to the way we harbour within us many different selves, not all of which feel equally like ‘us’, so much so that in certain moods, we can complain of having come adrift from what we judge to be our true selves.
Unfortunately, the self we miss at such moments, the elusively authentic, creative and spontaneous side of our character, is not ours to summon at will. Our access to it is, to a humbling extent, determined by the places we happen to be in, by the colour of the bricks, the height of the ceilings and the layout of the streets. In a house strangled by three motorways, or in a wasteland of rundown tower blocks, our optimism and sense of purpose are liable to drain away, like water from a punctured container. We may start to forget that we ever had ambitions or reasons to feel spirited and hopeful.
We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need – but are at constant risk of forgetting we need – within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves.
In turn, those places whose outlook match and legitimate our own, we tend to honor with the term ‘home’. Our homes do not have to offer us permanent occupancy or store our clothes to merit the name. To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognize its harmony with our own prized internal song. As the French writer Stendhal put it, ‘What we find beautiful is the promise of happiness’.
It is the world’s great religions that have perhaps given most thought to the role played by our environment in determining our identity and so – while seldom constructing places where we might fall asleep – have shown the greatest sympathy for our need for a home. The very principle of religious architecture has its origins in the notion that where we are critically determines what we are able to believe in. To defenders of religious architecture, however convinced we are at an intellectual level of our commitments to a creed, we will only remain reliably devoted to it when it is continually affirmed by our buildings. We may be nearer or further away from God on account of whether we’re in a church, a mosque – or a supermarket. We can’t be good, faithful people anywhere.
Ordinary, domestic architecture can be said to have just as much of an influence on our characters as religious buildings. What we call a beautiful house is one that rebalances our misshapen natures and encourages emotions which we are in danger of losing sight of. For example, an anxious person may be deeply moved by a white empty minimalist house. Or a business executive who spends her life shuttling between airports and steel and glass conference centers may feel an intense attraction to a simple rustic cottage – which can put her in touch with sides of her personality that are denied to her in the ordinary press of her days. We call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient. We respect a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.
It is sometimes thought exaggerated to judge people on their tastes in design. It can hardly seem appropriate to pass judgment on the basis of a choice of wallpaper. But the more seriously we take architecture, the more we can come to argue that it is in fact logical to base sympathy for someone on their visual tastes. For visual taste is never just simply a visual matter. It’s indicative of a view of life. Any object of design will give off an impression of the psychological and moral attitudes it supports. We can, for example, feel two distinct conceptions of fulfillment emanating from a plain crockery set on the one hand and an ornate flower-encrusted one on the other – an invitation to a democratic graceful sensibility in the former case, to a more nostalgic, country-bound disposition in the latter.
In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of particular visions of happiness.
To describe a building as beautiful therefore suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life. Similarly, buildings will strike us as offensive not because they violate a private and mysterious visual preference but because they conflict with our understanding of the rightful sense of existence.
No wonder then that our discussions of architecture and design have a tendency to be so heated. Arguments about what is beautiful are at heart arguments about the values we want to live by; rather than merely struggling about how we want things to look.
Because of my feelings towards architecture, last year, I began a new organization called Living Architecture; we build beautiful modern houses around Britain that people can rent for a holiday. It is a combination of an artistic firm and a holiday company. I love to combine business and art in this way. It is an immensely fulfilling project. www.living-architecture.co.uk
KZ: As you know, ancient Persian architecture and Islamic architecture are two of the most prominent schools of architecture in the world. In Iran, you can find the most glorious and magnificent instances of inspirational architecture. If I'm not mistaken, you've dedicated one part of your documentary film "The Architecture of Happiness" to the Islamic architecture. Tell us about your familiarity with the Persian and Islamic architecture. Which elements are the most striking and eminent features of Persian and Islamic architecture in your view?
For the modern world, what Persian architecture shows most of all are the possibilities of decoration. For 100 years, decoration became taboo in the secular west. All buildings had to be plain, white or grey – but with nothing on them. Persian architecture reminds us that a building can also be a jewel, or as something as bright and intricate as a piece of lace. This kind of architecture speaks of delight, of transcending the ordinary, of touching something that makes us awed and humble. All this we need to relearn and remember – and buildings should help us to do this.
KZ: In your book "The Art of Travel", you've elaborately discussed the delicacies and subtleties of traveling and presented guidelines on how to make one's travels more enjoyable and fruitful. How may countries have you traveled to? How do you make a travel enjoyable for yourself? May I ask you to give us some clues on how to employ the "art of travel" in order to turn our exhausting, arduous voyages into pleasurable and interesting trips?
I think we need to recognize that traveling is not only difficult practically; it is also a psychological experience. At its best, travel should change our souls, should make us into better, wiser people. However, only too often, it is ruined by our lack of expectation. Religious pilgrimages show the way: pilgrims use travel for inner transformation. This is always the way one should do it.
KZ: You spent one week at the Heathrow Airport and talked to the airline staff, senior executives and travelers about their attitudes and viewpoints about the time which they spend there. The result of this one-week research became your instructive book "A Week At The Airport: A Heathrow Diary". Unquestionably, Heathrow Airport is a unique and unrivaled venue in Europe. What did you extract from your researches, interviews and observations there?
AB: There are not too many books about airports in the world, given how central airports are to our experiences. Very often, when airports are written about, they are covered in the context of disasters. The airport becomes significant when there is a tragedy, a plane crashes, or else when there is an appalling strike, a snowstorm, some kind of disruption. I was resolutely against focusing on these extraordinary events. What interested me was to describe the ordinary, precisely because it is so very unusual and special.
The real problem with airports is that we tend to go there when we need to catch a plane and because it's so difficult to find the way to the gate, we tend not to look around at our surroundings. And yet airports definitely reward a second look. They are the imaginative centers of the modern world. It's here you should go to find, in a concrete form, all the themes of modernity that one otherwise finds only in an abstract forms in the media. Here you see globalization, environmental destruction, runaway consumerism, family breakdown, the modern sublime etc. in action.
Airports are so fascinating because they are places where high technology meets consumer culture, where we feel in the presence of the giant collective mind of the modern world. So often, we are in environments which haven’t changed much since the 19th century; suddenly at the airport, we see the promises of modernity: the promise of speed, transformation, infernal bureaucracy and nightmarish loss of individuality. It is a mixture of horror and beauty, which as an artist one can celebrate and lament.
Airports are a mixture of horror and beauty. The sight of an aircraft taking off to the skies is an intensely moving and amazing scene, not only for small boys, but for grown ups too. Boy’s dreams are often the right ones. The question is why men are not allowed to exploit the dreams of boys, why we have to put those dreams away. As I get older, I try more and more to do the sort of things I liked when I was 8. Boys are quite right to be excited by technology, like the Airbus A380 or the new Rolls Royce Trent engine, which is as fine a human document of human creativity as a cathedral.
Airports help to put us in touch with the idea of alternatives, they relativize us. They make us think that right now, be it at 10am or 3pm, somewhere on the other side of the globe, very different things are happening. They do that very basic task of the places of travel; jolt us into remembering that the world is stranger, more exciting, more various than we imagine it when we are in familiar surroundings, and in danger of boredom and routine.
KZ: While looking through your books, I came across an interesting point and that was the diversity and variability of your works. You have not limited yourself to a certain dogma in writing. You have produced works on philosophy, literature, architecture, travel, social class etc. We don't have so many notable authors with such a diverse background. It might be an attractive mission to be able to explore so many fields of study simultaneously. Isn't it?
AB: We live in a very specialized the world: the engineer must only do engineering etc. The same has become true of writing. Yet I am a naturally restless soul, always curious about things, and the questions that haunt me exist in so many different spheres. The question of meaning, happiness, fulfillment, love… these topics are everywhere, in airports, in love stories, in architecture…
KZ: As a Western author, what are in your view, the most challenging predicaments of the Western society? In the oriental communities, especially in Iran, there's a common perception that the foundations of morality are becoming shaky in the West. As evidence, we can cite the dissolution of the foundation of traditional family in the West. Do you agree with me that at the same as experiencing technological, industrial, political and economic advancements, the Western societies are undergoing a cultural, moral setback?
AB: It is certainly true that the West is experiencing some very serious problems in the area of morality and community. We are having a hard time finding replacement for a religious structure. The rational Enlightenment thought that guides the West has paid too little attention to the emotional needs of man. It has always called for freedom, very important, but we also need guidance and a sense of belonging. I have just finished a book about religion, arguing that even atheists need to learn things from religion, and in it, I make many of the points you hint at.
KZ: In your "The Consolations of Philosophy", you've tried to reconcile philosophy with the daily life. Your effort has been focused on employing philosophy to appease the pains of mankind. How is it possible for the intricate, complex concepts of philosophy to find solutions for the daily problems of the humankind? Does the philosophy of the six philosophers which you've presented in your book address the problems of humanity in one way or the other?
AB: Philosophy is something that, alongside religion, should guide us in our everyday lives. At many moments of our lives, we need assistance of a psychological kind, either someone to explain what we are feeling, or to put a feeling in context, to make us feel less strange to ourselves.
KZ: Our world is witness to a growing wave of violence, inhumanity and atrocity absorbing different countries. Discrimination against the minorities, repressive regimes which violate the human rights and restrict the natural freedoms of their own citizens, bloody wars and battles which are fought in the four corners of the world and the imperialistic powers which are looking to expand their dominance over the subjugated nations constitute the major concerns of the international community today. Are these problems solvable in short run? Does philosophy provide solutions to these problems?
AB: I very much believe that writers should be engaged in the problems of our world. They should not retreat into the domestic, or only consider abstract intellectual questions. Of course, it is easy to despair, to feel that one person can never do very much. But history shows a number of writers in every age who manage subtly to influence things, who awaken their countrymen, who frighten those who are corrupt, who say things that need to be said, who do with words what could not be done with guns and prisons. So yes, I remain hopeful that writing can in its own small way alleviate the human condition.
KZ: For my final question, let me ask you about your general perception of Iran. Although the country which you reside in and the country which I belong to are at odds, literature can bridge the gaps between us. What is your special message for the Iranian readers of this interview?
AB: I would like to say to them firstly how very honored I feel that they read my work. I know that it is a great commitment and investment, and I am deeply grateful. Also, I would like to say that though our two countries are at odds, the ordinary people of the UK, like the ordinary people of Iran, have no dispute with one another at all – we are all at heart vulnerable creatures in need of forgiveness and understanding. In a modest way, books can help to build bridges, and I would be greatly pleased if my own books helped Iranian readers to feel that there is someone a little like them living in another country far away. I sincerely believe in the international family of mankind, and that literature has a role to play in reminding us of it.
Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian freelance journalist and media correspondent. His articles and interviews haveappeared on a number of media outlets and news websites including Tehran Times, Press TV, Global Research and Foreign Policy Journal and Opinion Maker.