The New Art of Travel by Alain de Botton was to be a gift to Chiem. He’s my husband’s uncle and the occasion his 85th birthday. Chiem had resigned himself to the fact that he would no longer be able to travel. What better gift than a book by a Swiss philosopher about the art of travel?
At the last minute, I decided to buy a copy for myself. I promised Chiem that he and I would discuss De Botton’s book as soon as we both had read it. 4 years later, I finally cracked the spine. Just in time, too. In a few more weeks, my husband and I will start our round-the-world trip and I’ll be traveling with De Botton’s words in my ear.
Not that De Botton offers any useful travel information. De Botton despises the tyranny of the guidebook with its imperative to see this museum or that. He despises, as well, our sheepish tendency to follow the leader. This is perhaps an odd objection, given the fact that AirBNB helped relaunch the original 2002 edition, now under the title The New Art of Travel. Listen to AirBNB co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky.
Forget guidebooks and pamphlets. In this book, Alain [de Botton] provides a new kind of roadmap that’s actually useful — stories and observations that can help you approach travel in a new way, so a trip can live up to its life-changing potential.Brian Chesky, Forward to The New Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton 2015)
So what sort of a roadmap does De Botton offer? The New Art of Travel is divided into 5 sections: Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return. Each chapter features one or more sites, say, Hammersmith, London and Barbados. Our guide to these locations is oftentimes an artist or philosopher.
For example, Chapter II “On Travelling Places” takes us to the service station, the airport, plane, and train. Our guide to these liminal travelling places is the painter, Edward Hopper. He takes us to the lonely landscape of American motorways, diners, and hotel rooms. He shows us people, usually alone, in transit, sunken in thought.
Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places.De Botton, On Travelling Places
Seeing through new eyes
For as much as De Botton seems to prize travel, I wouldn’t want to share a journey with him. He refuses to leave his Madrid hotel room until a maid chases him out. In Barbados, he squabbles with his traveling companion over who has to eat the damaged creme de caramel. De Botton sniffs at the invitation offered by friends to spend a few days in a farmhouse in the Provence.
I knew that the word ‘Provence’ was for many people rich in association, though it meant little to me. I tended to switch off at its mention out of a sense, founded on little, that the place would not be congenial to me.On Eye-opening Art
And yet he goes, forcing himself to see with new eyes. It is what De Botton calls the traveling mindset. In contrast with the blindness that habit brings, the traveler looks with curiosity and humility on that which is new.
We irritate locals because we stand on traffic islands and in narrow streets and admire what they take to be strange small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall.On Habit
We look at these strange small details because, according to De Botton, we are in search of beauty. For him, there is beauty in an orange-colored gas station, people visible in apartments lit against a night sky watching television, or the surface of a brick wall gnarled and pitted and utterly kissable.
How to travel
Is there any practical advice at all in The New Art of Travel? For me, it’s the sneer De Botton deals out to travelers with their cameras, iPads and iPhones.
We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it. The camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge but it may unwittingly make the effort of acquiring it seem superfluous.On Possessing Beauty
De Botton calls on John Ruskin for the solution. We travelers need to sketch. With a proper drafting pencil or a crayon and napkin. With or without any skill. The act of sketching forces the eye to focus. De Botton tries his hand at sketching his window at the Mortal Man Inn. He discovers that what had seemed to be white paint proves to be a kaleidoscope of ash-grey, brown-grey, yellow, pinky mauve and mild green.
This advice is bad news for me on so many levels. I had planned to make many photos on our round-the-world trip. I’ve even downloaded an app that promises to organize my photos by geographic location every time I connect to the Internet. It’s true, I’m no professional photographer, but my drawing is infantile, at best. Luckily for me, De Botton offers an out.
Ruskin did not only encourage us to draw on our travels, he also felt we should write, or as he called it ‘word paint’, so as to cement our impressions of beauty.Idem
In his Foreword, Chesky says travel isn’t about where you go. It’s about the person you’ve become when you return. De Botton puts it a little more elegantly in the final section of The New Art of Travel: A Psychological Atlas. This was the prepublication I read in 2015 that led me to buy this book for Chiem. It is, to some extent, the inspiration for my round-the-world trip.
A Psychological Atlas identifies destinations for particular ailments. Are you feeling dissatisfied? De Botton recommends a trip to Comuna 13, San Javier in Medellin, Mexico.
Of course we know, in theory, that we’re lucky, all of us in the first world; we’ve known it ever since we were intimidated into finishing what was on our plates by tales of malnourished children in foreign lands. But it’s really only when one spends one’s first night in Comuna 13 that the truth starts to sink in.
De Botton’s antidote for inhibition is to buy a prepaid telephone card from the corner shop in Yokohama, Japan where neither buyer nor seller is in possession of any language in common. This will happen to us during our trip. In one form or another, in every country we visit. De Botton says, don’t worry.
You’re learning to be brave.
22 July 2019 | Karen Kao