Highlights from "The Art of Travel"

By Alain De Botton

Cover of the book The Art of Travel

Which explains the curious phenomenon whereby valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality. The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress, they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying or embellishing, thus lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.

Every time the mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of my consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out of the window, locking on to an object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without pressure.

is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.

What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.

life is fundamentally chaotic and that, aside from art, attempts to create order imply a censorious and prudish denial of our condition.

An overwhelming curiosity makes me ask myself what their lives might be like. I want to know what they do, where they’re from, their names, what they’re thinking about at that moment, what they regret, what they hope for, their past loves, their current dreams … and if they happen to be women (especially youngish ones) then the urge becomes intense.

collecting facts in a quasi-scientific way was a sterile pursuit. The real challenge was to use facts to enhance ‘life’. He quoted a sentence from Goethe: ‘I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.’

Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask: ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until, at some point, we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace. We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of peat in the Thirty Years War.

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 connecting chain.

Why? Why would proximity to a cataract, a mountain or any other part of nature render one less likely to experience ‘enmities and low desires’ than proximity to crowded streets?

He invited his readers to abandon their usual perspectives 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.

Their survival in memory led him to argue that we may witness in nature certain scenes that stay with us throughout our lives and, every time they enter consciousness, can offer us a contrast to, and relief from, present difficulties. He termed such experiences in nature ‘spots of time’.

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