Alain de Botton does it again — for me at least, with his book The Art of Travel (Shop your local indie bookstore). As a Pisces through and through, the mind is always in another place, city, country or continent far from where the feet are planted. There is a restlessness everyday, and I’m one to daydream all day long until I’ve had my fill of whatever place I want to be in.
But the fill is never enough, with the advent of the internet and all the travel subscriptions and newsletters and travel promos. The more begrudging each day becomes, the more the incessant need to wander.
This book was gifted to me by a friend who knew my wandering ways. After reading the book, I realized that I was actually more grounded than I thought I would.
There is an art to traveling, de Botton explains, something that is intricately tied to our happiness more than we care to think of. To illustrate his points, he observes and parallels the conditions of the soul with writers, poets and thinkers as he himself engages in its art.
From his explorations in Barbados to Denmark, here are four notable things to think of in when it comes to traveling:
I haven’t really thought about this myself, but one of the first important points that de Botton states is that our happiness isn’t tied to material goods or any aesthetic, but rather that it is stubbornly psychological. Although we may find new places and new scenery distracting, we are still our old selves even when we think that we’ve left them back home.
I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.
This was something I experienced when I was in Puerto Rico last year — that no matter how beautiful the architecture was and how the new surroundings distracted me momentarily, I was still my mopey self that a friend had to deal with unfortunately. Knowing ourselves more intimately then, before and after trips we make is key to being a better traveler.
de Botton references the French poet Charles Baudelaire in this section as I simultaneously nod and chuckle at the poet’s musings on travel:
Baudelaire honored reveries of travel as a mark of those noble questing souls whom he described as ‘poets,’ who could not be satisfied with the horizons of home even as they appreciated the limits of other lands, whose temperaments oscillated between hope and despair, childlike idealism and cynicism. It was the fate of poets, like Christian pilgrims, to live in a fallen world while refusing to surrender their vision of an alternative, less compromised realm.
I’d like to think I’m one of those ‘poets’ with a ‘noble questing soul’ even if at the moment my feet are touching the drab, gray carpet of my 9 to 5 job.
Another aspect of the book that de Botton emphasized is how we can enrich and enliven our travels even more just by expanding our curiosity. He praises the childlike wonder we once had that helps us see the world around us a little better, a trait if nurtured could’ve evolved in a perspective that lets us ask the right questions.
The Prussian geographer, explorer and naturalist (among many things) Alexander von Humboldt’s life is one to emulate, for the purpose of traveling for discovery. I admit that the mention of “discovery” in the Old World brings up colonization in mind but Humboldt did so from a point of curiosity as opposed to conquer.
This is the second time I’ve read about Humboldt, the first from a The New Yorker Magazine book review by Elizabeth Kolbert of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I’ve been eyeing this book ever since, grateful that de Botton memorialized him in his book about the art of traveling.
Humboldt’s excitement testifies to the importance of having the right question to ask of the world. It may mean the difference between irritation with a fly and a run down the mountain to begin work on an Essai sur la geographie des plantes. Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve.
With the proliferation of travel guides both in print and online, travel destinations are dotted with “places of interests” and other tips on what to see and experience. This actually comes in handy for the purpose of tourism, but it barely scratches the surface of what a wandering soul can hope to achieve.
There was a lot of fixed to the Iglesias de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco – but it hardly helped me to be curious about it.
A danger of travel is that we see things at the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connection chain.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over ten years now. While most are flocking to the Bay (San Francisco and Oakland) for career opportunities, for its ‘world-class’ cuisine/arts/music/everything, its culture that promotes mindfulness and well-being, I find myself restless. You start to take things for granted, after the newness of a place wears off. Everything is familiar (and in your mind, a little worn out).
de Botton quotes poet William Wordsworth in this regard, pointing to the effect of cities on the soul:
The poet accused cities of fostering a family of life-destroying emotions: anxiety about our position in the social hierarchy, envy at the success of others, pride and a desire to shine in the eyes of strangers. City-dwellers had no perspective he alleged; they were in thrall to what was spoken of in the street or at the dinner table. However well provided for, they had a relentless desire for new thing, which they did not genuinely lack and on which happiness did not depend.
This probably explains that need of mine to get out, of wishing to live a simpler life by the ocean or on the countryside. At the same time, it is exactly a “local’s point of view” that is sought after in the traveling industry. There are now not-for-tourists guide for every major American city and tips on where locals love to eat or hang out. It seems like there is much to be gleaned from the perspective of a local, and yet I find that it is not the best route when you come upon a new place.
Perhaps it would make would-be travelers and wanderers like myself to look at old places with new eyes, something that Joseph Campbell also reminded me of. Instead of carrying the knowledge that nothing is new and everything is familiar, it would be beneficial to the soul to look at the same streets with a sense of humility and wonder.
He invited his readers to abandon their usual perspective and to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes, to shuttle between the human and natural perspective. Why might this be interesting, or even inspiring? Perhaps because unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with.
If there’s a common thread to de Botton’s writing, it is his utmost appreciation of beauty and the role it plays in our lives. Whether physical, geographical or psychological, we are predisposed to be attached to anything that exudes beauty. And because we live in a capitalistic society, we’ve only been able to respond to it the best way we know how: to want to possess it, immediately.
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.’
So much so that social media networks (like Instagram) have become verbs for sharing and while that is completely fine, de Botton introduces the English writer and artist John Ruskin to us so we can learn how to appreciate beauty better. While he lauds the camera as an invention for memory-keeping, he invites us to delve deeper into our surroundings and its effects on our beings.
The camera provides on option. Taking photographs can assuage the itch for possession sparked by the beauty of a place; our anxiety about losing a precious scene can define with every click of the shutter. Or else we can try to imprint ourselves physically on a place of beauty, perhaps hoping to render it more present in us by making ourselves more present in it.
Ruskin proposes a different way of appreciating beauty — of noticing instead of just looking. He states that we can sketch what we saw, and write about what we’ve witnessed. There is something endearing about Ruskin’s approach to beauty, and even in the way he referred to writing as “word-painting.”
He recognized that many places strike us as beautiful not on the basis of aesthetic criteria — because the colors match or there is symmetry and proportion — but on the basis of psychological criteria, because they embody a value or mood of importance to us.
Armed with all of these insights, a mindset cultivated by self-awareness, curiosity, humility and a new way of appreciating beauty will render our trips and travels much more meaningful.
Still, he quotes the French mathematician and thinker Blaise Pascal in a way that is significantly de Botton — of what we can achieve no matter where we are.
The soul cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.