What Alain de Botton says about the anticipation of travel

My reading comprehension is atrocious, my tracking snail-like. The only thing I remember from high school reading is Holden Caulfield’s half-gray hair and his famous line with middle fingers extended toward his despised boarding school. I love to read, and I always have; I’m just not very good at it. And just as I would rather visit a new country than repeat an old one, I try not to re-read books I’ve tackled in the past.

Though plots and anecdotes don’t stick in my memory, my impression of the book always does. That’s why I remember how much I loved Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, so much so that I want it to be a part of Creative Arts class next term (did you know I’ve been teaching?). It’s unique focus on literature and art history woven into personal travel anecdotes is seemingly undone by anyone else in this field. Alain verifies this in his book description:

Few things are as exciting as the idea of travelling somewhere else. But the reality of travel seldom matches our daydreams. The tragi-comic disappointments are well-known: the disorientation, the mid-afternoon despair, the lethargy before ancient ruins. And yet the reasons behind such disappointments are rarely explored.

We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why we should go and how we could be more fulfilled doing so. The Art of Travel is a philosophical look at the ubiquitous but peculiar activity of travelling ‘for pleasure’, with thoughts on airports, landscapes, museums, holiday romances, photographs, exotic carpets and the contents of hotel mini-bars. The book mixes personal thought with insights drawn from some of the great figures of the past. Unlike existing guidebooks on travel, it dares to ask what the point of travel might be – and modestly suggests how we could learn to be less silently and guiltily miserable on our journeys.

I welcomed its digestible 249 pages on this trip to Thailand, and now that I’ve finished my latest Bill Bryson adventure, I am diving back into The Art of Travel for both personal fulfillment and professional inspiration. I think this book may be the most accurate study of my constant state of mind. As I re-read this text, I will post favorite excerpts from each chapter, in hopes that this teaser turns more of you toward Alain and his brilliant musings. We don’t need more people writing about logistics and tips; we need to start asking, “To what effect?”

On Anticipation

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems – that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’. p9

I evolve and mature faster through travel than I ever could while geographically isolated in Hoosier land. I attribute this to the extremes I routinely face on the road that level my demeanor: witnessing exorcisms, jumping out of planes, slow and inhumane cow and pig deaths, frantic scams involving highways, police, and 20 rickshaw drivers, walking through the slums of India, Haiti, and South Africa, and so on.

I often think about this writing genre and travel industry with confusion. How did we get to the point where top ten lists and logistics get us hot and bothered? I understand the value of SEO, but if a flash-packer is focused on targeting their audience with ad words while the world spins and gyrates around them, why do we not get slapped with that irony? Are we not on the hot pursuit of happiness, with documentation only dribbling out as the byproduct of micro-enlightenment? Doesn’t it seem inevitable that industry-wide introspection will redirect us all to focus on the philosophical issues of travel? That is, after all, what consists of the vast majority of my conversations with travelers.

‘I must have been suffering from some mental aberration to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination and to have believed like any old ninny that it was necessary, interesting and useful to travel abroad.’ p11

Alain quotes a fictional character, Duc des Esseintes from J.K. Huysmans’s novel A Rebours, and uses this decadent literature to comment on the similarities in our current mental editing. Those details of experience left on the cutting room floor are those that indicate universal and location-independent realities: unattractive factories, litter, banal businesses, stray dogs, boring fields, people heading to office jobs. Duc didn’t like seeing the moments that romantic painters omitted – didn’t like seeing the truth that the Dutch countryside wasn’t littered with milkmaids, windmills, and nothing else.

Today, we either use descriptive language to depict idyllic settings or complain that a location didn’t meet our inflated expectations. Do we consider ourselves tour guides as travel bloggers with the power to recreate an experience for the sedentary? Do we think we share the abilities of the romantic painters? Or are we hoping to whet the palettes of potential travelers and facilitate their easy access to those points of philosophical inquiry? Are we just saying whatever will bring in a few ad dollars to sustain our own access to life-rocking experience?

If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination. p13

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of my students at THINK Global School. I push for the arts to offer a language with which they can sort out their impressions, but they experience so much that it’s difficult for them to focus on a main idea – or even one detail. They are overwhelmed with the prospect of editing and often leave out the most interesting facet. How does a teenager take a step back from an intense world travel education to find the most pivotal lesson in all of it?

These students have a unique opportunity to see the world, and because of this, they carry great responsibility as ambassadors. They are expected to share their experiences and constantly evolving world views. I wonder how deeply they think about the stories they tell, the illustrations of these experiences they create, and what sense of conflict or responsibility, if any, they feel regarding the simplification of these. The easy answer is probably not a lot, but with the proper leading questions, I think this would be an interesting discussion with a group unmatched in the whole world.

The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present. p14

Photo by Monique Lefebvre. Courtesy of THINK Global School.I have yet to encounter an observation more reflective of my career than this one. I spend the majority of my work time editing: cropping images, directing focus with lighting, cutting videos to impart one major lesson, and highlighting the most vivid and unique aspects of something to overshadow any pedestrian details akin to regular travels or lives. Especially with today’s fleeting attention spans, I have to compress these moments into even smaller boxes. I take life and pick out the bits of meat and flavor, leaving the pixelated carcass to the hard drive birds.

The nature of this task forces constant inquiries like, “Why am I omitting this? Do I have a responsibility to portray this angle, and does it lend to a complete vision or story?” Yes, I produce marketing material, but I don’t see it as such, most of the time.

Stories from the road have always been my way to reveal the familiar from unfamiliar locations. What gets me motivated today is making something that could provide exponential value in a way that expands minds. Though my actual audience could be miniscule, I take it as a responsibility to provide a realistic window and evoke a feeling or energy for the purpose of whittling down a bubble. How successful am I at accurately and powerfully portraying a moment? I need some focus group action to figure that out.

I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island. p19

If given the sentence starter, “I spend most of my time thinking about…” I follow it with, “…how I think too much.” I could be in a beautiful location, far from my familiar cornfields and water towers, but I have a somewhat useful – though mostly unfortunate – ability to detach and let whatever category of emotions wreck and ravage my mood.
And though I can fake it quite well – “Wow, can you believe how beautiful this is? I can’t believe I’m here.” – it takes a peak of extreme emotions to rattle me into the present, to allow my current thoughts and feelings to suffer complete abandonment, to let me see and appreciate a place detached from my human self.

After months of frustration and one last fight in Nakavika, Fiji, I collapsed on the steps of the school house around dusk. Garrett and I sat together silently, quite aware that this moment signaled the end of our efforts, and I felt all feeling drain from my mind and body. In that vulnerable breath post-sobbing, all words uttered and hyperventilation overcame, I noticed the golden setting sun was illuminating a monstrous moon in between the midnight-blue gap in green crags. Mist and wispy clouds thick with warm color connected the two extremes of our vision. It was the most beautiful moment we had ever witnessed, and it took a pinnacle of human emotion to reach that appreciation, to abandon the mental barriers that make us focus on the ‘us’ in every situation.

It seems we may be best able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there. p23

If so, then I have a big job to do.

If I carry one book with me abroad, it is this one. Each chapter requires in-depth study and results in a brain steadily gaining awareness and understanding for travel and human nature. I’m eager to read your feedback below and help you through the rest of this book in the subsequent posts to come.

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