The Art of Travel (Anglais) Broché – 27 mars 2014
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It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established, relentless reality. First came a dip in evening temperatures, then days of continuous rain, confused gusts of Atlantic wind, dampness, the fall of leaves and the changing of the clocks—though there were still occasional moments of reprieve, mornings when one could leave the house without a coat and the sky was cloudless and bright. But they were like false signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has already passed its sentence. By December the new season was entrenched, and the city was covered almost every day by an ominous steel-grey sky, like one in a painting by Mantegna or Veronese, the perfect backdrop to the crucifixion of Christ or to a day beneath the bedclothes. The neighbourhood park became a desolate spread of mud and water, lit up at night by rain-streaked street lamps. Passing it one evening during a downpour, I recalled how, in the intense heat of the previous summer, I had stretched out on the ground and let my bare feet slip out of my shoes to caress the grass, and how this direct contact with the earth had brought with it a sense of freedom and expansiveness, summer breaking down the usual boundaries between indoors and out and allowing me to feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.
But now the park was foreign once more, the grass a forbidding arena in the incessant rain. Any sadness I might have felt, any suspicion that happiness or understanding was unattainable, seemed to find ready encouragement in the sodden dark-red brick buildings and low skies tinged orange by the city's streetlights.
Such climatic circumstances, together with a sequence of events that occurred at around this time (and seemed to confirm Chamfort's dictum that a man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead), conspired to render me intensely susceptible to the unsolicited arrival one late afternoon of a large, brightly illustrated brochure entitled 'Winter Sun'. Its cover displayed a row of palm trees, many of them growing at an angle, on a sandy beach fringed by a turquoise sea, set against a backdrop of hills where I imagined there to be waterfalls and relief from the heat in the shade of sweet-smelling fruit trees. The photographs reminded me of the paintings of Tahiti that William Hodges had brought back from his journey with Captain Cook, showing a tropical lagoon in soft evening light, where smiling local girls cavorted carefree (and barefoot) through luxuriant foliage—images that had provoked wonder and longing when Hodges had first exhibited them at the Royal Academy in London in the sharp winter of 1776, and that continued to provide a model for subsequent depictions of tropical idylls, including those in the pages of 'Winter Sun'.
Those responsible for the brochure had darkly intuited how easily their audience might be turned into prey by photographs whose power insulted the intelligence and contravened any notions of free will: overexposed photographs of palm trees, clear skies and white beaches. Readers who would have been capable of scepticism and prudence in other areas of their lives reverted, in contact with these elements, to a primordial innocence and optimism. The longing provoked by the brochure was an example, at once touching and bathetic, of how projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness; of how a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set into motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.
I resolved to travel to the island of Barbados.
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'.
One question revolves around the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality. I came upon a copy of J. K. Huysmans's novel A Rebours, published in 1884, whose effete andmisanthropic hero, the aristocratic Duc des Esseintes, anticipated a journey to London and offered in the process an extravagantly pessimistic analysis of the difference between what we imagine about a place and what can occur when we reach it.
Huysmans recounts that the Duc des Esseintes lived alone in a vast villa on the outskirts of Paris. He rarely went anywhere to avoid what he took to be the ugliness and stupidity of others. One afternoon in his youth, he had ventured into a nearby village for a few hours and had felt his detestation of people grow fierce. Since then he had chosen to spend his days alone in bed in his study, reading the classics of literature and moulding acerbic thoughts about humanity. Early one morning, however, the duc surprised himself by experiencing an intense wish to travel to London. The desire came upon him as he sat by the fire reading a volume of Dickens. The book evoked visions of English life, which he contemplated at length and grew increasingly keen to see. Unable to contain his excitement, he ordered his servants to pack his bags, dressed himself in a grey tweed suit, a pair of laced ankle boots, a little bowler hat and a flax-blue Inverness cape and took the next train to Paris. With some time to spare before the departure of the London train, he stopped in at Galignani's English Bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli and there bought a volume of Baedeker's Guide to London. He was thrown into delicious reveries by its terse descriptions of the city's attractions. Next he moved on to a nearby wine bar frequented by a largely English clientele. The atmosphere was out of Dickens: he thought of scenes in which Little Dorrit, Dora Copperfield and Tom Pinch's sister Ruth sat in similarly cosy, bright rooms. One patron had Mr Wickfield's white hair and ruddy complexion, combined with the sharp, expressionless features and unfeeling eyes of Mr Tulkinghorn.
Hungry, des Esseintes went next to an English tavern in the Rue d'Amsterdam, near the Gare Saint Lazare. It was dark and smoky inside, with a line of beer pulls along a counter spread with hams as brown as violins and lobsters the colour of red lead. Seated at small wooden tables were robust Englishwomen with boyish faces, teeth as big as palette knives, cheeks as red as apples and long hands and feet. Des Esseintes found a table and ordered some oxtail soup, a smoked haddock, a helping of roast beef and potatoes, a couple of pints of ale and a chunk of Stilton.
But as the moment to board his train approached, along with the chance to turn his dreams of London into reality, des Esseintes was abruptly overcome with lassitude. He thought how wearing it would be actually to make the journey—how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in lines, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely described—and thus soil his dreams: 'What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair? Wasn't he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food, and even cutlery were all about him? What could he expect to find over there except fresh disappointments?' Still seated at his table, he reflected, '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.'
So des Esseintes paid the bill, left the tavern and took the first train back to his villa, along with his trunks, his packages, his portmanteaux, his rugs, his umbrellas and his sticks—and never left home again.
We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate. The pessimistic school, of which des Esseintes might be an honorary patron, therefore argues that reality must always be disappointing. It may be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different.
After two months of anticipation, on a cloudless February mid-afternoon, I touched down, along with my travelling companion, M., at Barbados's Grantley Adams Airport. It was a short walk from the plane to the low airport buildings, but long enough to register a revolution in the climate. In only a few hours, I had travelled to a heat and a humidity that at home I would not have felt for another five months, and that even in midsummer there never achieved such intensity.
Nothing was as I had imagined it, which is surprising only if one considers what I had imagined. In the preceding weeks, my thoughts of the island had circled exclusively around three immobile mental images, assembled during the reading of a brochure and an airline timetable. The first image was of a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun. The second was of a hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen. And the third was of an azure sky.
If pressed, I would naturally have recognised that the island had to include other elements, but I had not needed them in order to build an impression of it. My behaviour... --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.
Revue de presse
Delightful, profound, entertaining. I doubt if de Botton has written a dull sentence in his life (Jan Morris)
An elegant and subtle work, unlike any other. Beguiling (Colin Thubron The Times)
Honest, funny and dripping with witty aphorisms. Extremely entertaining and enlightening . . . all the way to journey's end (Herald)
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Une phrase de Christian Bobin, dans "la Dame Blanche", pourrait convenir, dans un premier temps, à l'écriture de de Botton "Elle écrit au ras de ce qu'elle voit". Il fait de même, observe le réel autour de lui, notre modernité, dans ce qu'elle a parfois de plus rebutant, puis il la nourrit d'un regard riche, richesse des oeuvres du passé, de sa propre poésie, de son humanité très belle.
C'est un bonheur de lecture, toujours limpide tout en étant infiniment cultivée.
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I remember one such party where I met an acquaintance who just got her degree in philosophy. I asked her if she was planning on her more or less mandatory world trip as well. But she just gave me a weary smile, tapped the side of her head and said: `Travelling is something you do in here'.
In a nutshell that's the question and the essence of the answer in Alain de Botton's thoughtful book on travel. Why do we bother? What do we expect, and why are we so often disappointed? And then again, why do our memories of the trip rarely reflect the disappointments? And what is the clue to not being disappointed? How do you go about really experiencing the place where you are and making it part of yourself? On all such questions De Botton has interesting and often entertaining observations to make. He shows us that the exotic is not defined by long-haul flights and palm trees, but can be found literally on your doorstep if you just know how to look. He explains why a travelling Englishman can be depressed on far away and exotic Barbados and euphoric in nearby, but in many ways equally exotic Amsterdam, or even around the corner in Hammersmith where he lives. As a Dutchman I was fascinated by his detailed analysis of a sign in the arrivals hall of Amsterdam Airport, explaining its exotic nature from a British viewpoint, and the reasons you would never ever find a sign like that in the UK, just across the Channel. De Botton is a master at finding such surprising angles to elucidate his subjects. Moreover he has considerable erudition to add, resulting in an engrossing mixture of philosophical insight, personal experience, and references to artists, writers, explorers and scientists of the past. Mostly these historical figures, Flaubert in Egypt, say, or Humboldt in South America or Van Gogh in the Provence, are exemplary `artists of travel', people who knew how to make the most of their expeditions. By taking their mindset, involving energy, patience and an eye for detail, as a template, De Botton generates some useful suggestions for the modern day traveller who no longer wants to bore himself by `scoring' obligatory highlights in the guidebook star-rating order, or who refuses to be a slave to his camera any longer. He may even give you some clues as to how to deal with that greatest travelling problem of them all, the fact that wherever you go, you always have to take yourself along.
In all, an elegant, intelligent, thought-provoking, amusing and useful little book, that nobody who takes travelling seriously should miss. Don't take it with you though - it won't last you much longer than an afternoon on the beach...
de Botton is well read, and he draws upon his knowledge of artists, philosophers, naturalists and poets, combined with first-person narrative, to illuminate his points. If you take the author's suggestions to heart, wherever you go -- across the globe or in your own neighborhood -- you will immerse yourself in your wanderings to a greater and more satisfying degree.
Having said that, I should add that this book is not just a means to an end. The journey itself is enjoyable. de Botton's writing is as engaging as his philosophy is attractive.
Personally, I found the most rewarding and instructive chapter to be, 'On eye-opening Art', using the views and paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Just as instructive, however, is the chapter, 'On Possessing Beauty', drawing on the works of the 19th century critic and writer, John Ruskin. The message from both these individuals are quite similar. One of the tasks of art, specifically painting, is to provide us, the viewer, with new perspectives in which to view the world. Vincent van Gogh's exceedingly original style and use of colour, for example, transformed, for some of us, the way we see a sunflower, a wheat field and a Cypress tree. When viewing these works of art, or any work of art, we are inspired to travel to these places where the artist created, and experience the subject of the works first-hand.
John Ruskin believed that one of our primary needs in life is beauty and its possession. He suggested that the only meaningful way to possess beauty was through understanding it: '...making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it,' (P.220) The way to attain this understanding, he suggests, is to draw and write (word paint) those things and places we come across in our travels that strike us as beautiful. A person sitting down in front of an expansive landscape, and sketching its many features, will discover aspects about the scene that would be invisible to the casual observer. When travelling, take the time to draw and write about those places and things one sees, and the experience will be much richer as a result.
~The Art of Travel~ is a helpful philosophical guide to the budding and seasoned traveller. Where other books on the subject instruct us on where to go and what to see, Alain De Botton tells us how to approach our journeys and some useful tools on achieving a much more meaningful and rewarding experience.
In his other books that I have read -- HOW PROUST CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE and THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY -- Alain de Botton has succeeded to taking very complex material and distilling it down to a few home truths that are as enlightening as anything I have read on the subjects.
You can imagine that I was eager to see what de Botton would do with travel, about which I know something because I love it above all other things in my life. Before going on a vacation, I start a six-month reading program encompassing guidebooks, histories, biographies, and the literature of the country or countries I am visiting.
When I visited Iceland in 2001, for example, I read all the major medieval Icelandic sagas, anything I could find by Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness, histories, travel books by W. H. Auden, Lord Dufferin (19th century Governor General of Canada), and others. That would place me in the category of J. K. Huysmans's hero Des Esseintes -- with one major difference: I also took the journey and enjoyed it. I am doing the same prep now for an upcoming visit to Patagonia.
People travel for many reasons, but they sometimes forget that travel will not necessarily open their minds and hearts to anything. There is an old 1960s saying: "Wherever you go, there you are." De Botton exposes our motives and shows that, in effect, the way to enjoy travel the most is to be prepared for and open to change, to in effect change the "you" that is travelling.
Both Pascal and Dostoyevsky have noted that man is unhappy largely because he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room. If so, man will be no happier under a palm tree in Bora Bora.
There is one scene in the first chapter, "On Anticipation," that summarizes it all for me. De Botton and his travelling companion get into a spat over who gets which portion of dessert. Despite the idyllic setting in Barbados, the day is spoiled for both of them:
"There is a contrast between the vast projects we set in motion, the construction of hotels and the dredging of bays, and the basic psychological knots that undermine them, How quickly may the advantages of civilisation be wiped out by a tantrum. The intractibility of the mental knots points to the austere, wry wisdom of those ancient philosophers who walked away from prosperity and sophistication and argued, from within a barrel or a mud hut, that the key ingredients of happiness could not be material or aesthetic but most always be stubbornly psychological..."
And there we get to the rub: This is a book about how travel can make you happy -- if you're ready for it!
If nothing else, this book left me with the desire to read van Gogh's letters (which I own) and anything by Ruskin (which I don't own but will certainly start looking for on Amazon.com; I found Ruskin's observation about the twin purposes of art to be as true today as when he noted them: to make sense of pain and to fathom the sources of beauty, p. 233.)