In which I re-read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and fail to become one of the Enlightened.
When preparing for a year-long excursion through Proust, you could do worse to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I read it seven years ago when I first had the idea for the Proust blog. I found it charming and witty, and was deeply irritated to learn that de Botton was only 28 when he wrote it.
It’s a combination of literary analysis and self-help book, with a vaguely insouciant hint of satire. Written in a jaunty shade of purple prose, de Botton sets out to convince us why reading Proust can make you happier, more self-aware and better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. “Far from a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age,” he says, In Search of Lost Time is “a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting, and begin appreciating one’s life.”
Since first reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, I’ve encountered much more of de Botton and his growing cultural empire. He’s the founder and director of the slightly cult-like The School of Life, an independent cultural institute that markets courses in self-improvement for middle-class Guardian readers, and sells very expensive “Utopia”-theme candles on its cooler-than-thou website.
Despite his irritating postmodern tendency to wink knowingly at his audience, de Botton’s mission seems to be clear. All art has some therapeutic purpose, he says, and engaging with masterworks can help us answer the big philosophical questions about our existence that were once answered easily, if not always convincingly, by religion.
Most recently, de Botton attempted to sell this theory to the Dutch, re-hanging paintings in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum by emotional content rather than chronology, and placing giant Post-It notes on the walls to explain the therapeutic qualities of significant artworks. The critical reaction ranged from mild disinterest to outright contempt. Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian – the newspaper of the urban hipsters who de Botton and the School of Life market to – described de Botton as “a doorstopping self-help evangelist” whose “insights and descriptions [are] shallow and obvious.” Ouch.
Re-reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, I find myself more and more inclined to agree with Searle. Despite de Botton’s love of Proust and some intelligent insights into In Search of Lost Time, there’s an awkward shoehorning of Proust’s complexity into his self-help theory, and a continual sense of preening at his own cleverness. The mock-serious tone of the book, while entertaining, also feels destabilising: I’m not really serious, he seems to be saying – so let’s all have a good laugh about how clever we’re being. There’s something rather smug and self-congratulatory about de Botton, in this and his other works, that Searle and other detractors are quick to pick up on.
Some of de Botton’s conceits work wonderfully well. In Chapter Three, How to Take Your Time, he describes how Proust paid close attention to newspaper reports and train timetables, finding in them nuances and possibilities not noticed by a casual, hurried skim-read. De Botton notes that the greatness of works of art like In Search of Lost Time “has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter.” He encourages us to read slowly and carefully, as Proust did: “An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.”
Other chapters waver a bit more, and lack the same coherence. In How to Suffer Successfully, de Botton encourages us to embrace Proust’s maxim of suffering as an opportunity for self-knowledge. “Infirmity alone makes us notice and learn”, Proust says, and “it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” This is all very fine and rather Zen – but even de Botton has to concede, as Proust did, that most people suffer “badly” and become mean, selfish and self-pitying rather than enlightened.
The missing link in de Botton’s theory is his assumption that reading In Search of Lost Time will “sensitise” us to our surroundings, and that we will become as perceptive and wise as Proust was. Botton is a dab hand at flattering his readers’ intelligence, assuring us that engaging with great literature will “stimulate our dormant antennae by evidence of [the writer’s] own developed sensitivity.” As charming as this is, it overlooks the rather blunter reality, spelled out in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that high achievement is a combination of innate talent, favourable personal circumstances and good timing. Few writers of Proust’s or any other era have demonstrated the talent, the spare time and the independent income necessary to write an enormous book like In Search of Lost Time. While we can enjoy reading Proust, will it really make us more like him? It’s just as possible that reading a work as monumental as Proust’s may discourage rather than sensitise. In his final chapter, How to Put Books Down, de Botton notes the devastating effect that reading Proust had on Virginia Woolf’s self-confidence about her own work, leaving her wondering whether there was anything useful about life left for her to say.
Elsewhere, de Botton’s self-help tips feel misinformed and downright patronising. In How to Open Your Eyes, he recounts how Proust wrote an essay encouraging his impoverished readers to study the still lives of the painter Chardon, and by doing so learn to “open our eyes” and appreciate the beauty in “ordinary” things. Such a viewpoint allows us, de Botton says, to enjoy “many of the charms… previously associated only with palaces and the princely life.” No longer will we feel “painfully excluded from an aesthetic realm” or envious of “smart bankers” with beautiful things. We can learn that “metal and earthenware could also be enchanting, and common crockery as beautiful as precious stones.”
This all sounds very nice, but it feels rather hard to take from Proust, who, as de Botton points out, favoured a life of ostentatious luxury – practically living at the Ritz, tipping waiters 400% and once offering to buy a boyfriend an airplane as a gift. It’s also rather a hard lesson to take from de Botton, a man of great learning and cosmopolitan interests, whose work takes him all over the world and allows him to do exciting things like interview Arianna Huffington and re-hang galleries in the Rijksmuseum.
It seems to me that taking pleasure in small things is a virtue enjoyed more easily those who have experienced life outside of the ordinary and so have the privilege of choosing where they place their attentions. Not everyone is so fortunate. I think of Jane Eyre going up onto the roof and looking out over the fields, longing “for a power of vision… which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen.” In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf notes how Charlotte Bronte knew “how enormously her genius would have profited had it not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her.” I also think of my own parents, who after living quietly in rural New Zealand for most of their lives, discovered great joy in being able to travel to Europe in their 70s – and subsequently became depressed at returning to their “ordinary” life, which they said felt drab by comparison afterwards.
In defence of his “Simple Life” theory, de Botton notes that Proust became disenchanted with the glamorous world of Parisian society that he once courted so assiduously. This may well be true, but I’m sure that Proust never regretted having those experiences – if nothing else, they provided him with a rich vein of material for his novel. It’s much easier to say “Meh” to an invitation to a society ball and stay at home with a book when one has been invited to the ball in the first place. De Botton just doesn’t get this, which makes his theory sound rather patronising, like a 19th century moralist who prescribes an austerity he doesn’t live up to himself. While it’s fine to open our eyes and admire beauty in unexpected places, it’s a wan substitute for all the experiences that a life of travel and glamour can offer.
I finished my re-reading of de Botton sensing, as I often do when I read biographies of writers, that I’ve learned more about the biographer than the subject of their work. I also felt irritated at de Botton’s strenuous display of virtuosity, in the manner of a friend’s precocious child who insists on performing at the dinner table. In this regard, I’m reminded of the New York Times review of Wes Anderson’s movie The Royal Tenenbaums – another piece of entertainment that overstays its welcome: “Yes, yes, you’re charming, you’re brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed.”
It remains to be seen whether I will thrill to Proust in the way that How Proust Can Change Your Life predicts. I can’t wait to find out. And if I am transfigured, I plan to attribute it all to Proust rather than the tiresome Mr de Botton.