How Proust Can Change Your Life

As I sip delicately from pages of Proust in tiny increments, I indulge myself in reading books about Proust in larger bursts. I stumbled on this book whilst hunting another psuedo-guide to Proust (which was quickly abandoned). I love most of what Alain de Botton has written and this was a pleasure romp like the others. By interspersing Proust’s own words within a framework of a How-to guide, de Botton breathes new life into the heavy volumes of In Search of Lost Time. He breaks the advice down into nine tidy sections: How to love life today, how to read for yourself, how to take your time, how to suffer successfully, how to express your emotions, how to be a good friends, how to open your eyes, how to be happy in love, and how to put books down. It’s a prescription from the lit doctor that you won’t want to ignore.

As always, I find comfort in authors’ antisocial tendencies, and Proust is no exception. De Botton pulls out a Proust quote in the section on friendship that I particularly love: “Conversation, which is friendship’s mode of expression, is a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.”

Also, Proust once compared friendship to reading: “In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.”

Lovely light intro to Proust for those afraid of dipping a toe in. Once you dip, you dive, submerge, and never return, so caveat lector!

Updated to include this snippet that I just quoted in a letter to my sister, imploring her to give up her attempt to read Ulysses in order to clear the decks for Proust, mentioning that Joyce met Proust at a friend’s dinner party in Paris in 1922 and wrote of the meeting: “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘Non.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said ‘Non.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said ‘Non.’ And so on.” They then shared a taxi away from the party and Joyce said nary a word while Proust chattered away to the Schiffs (Sydney & Violet), not speaking to Joyce at all. Fin!

Status Anxiety

I would like to book a vacation to tour de Botton’s brain. It would be a clean, well-kept, orderly, climate- controlled treasure trove of information. For example, the table of contents to this book:

Status Anxiety: Contents
* Lovelessness
* Expectation
* Meritocracy
* Snobbery
* Dependence
* Philosophy
* Art
* Politics
* Religion
* Bohemia

My oversimplification of his work is that once meritocracy replaced aristocracy, we were no longer sheltered from the pain of being the losers at the bottom of the status ladder. It was up to us, and our fault alone, that we were not on top. Crushing weight of expectations. The ultimate cut is to not be acknowledged by the world, and the world ignores the mass of humanity that is not “great” (e.g. in monetary wealth currently, but previously in noble blood, or selfless gestures).
How do we pull the weight off ourselves, rise above? To be bathed in the clear cold mind of philosophy, to lose ourselves in art, to demand change in what matters via politics, to become religious, or to encourage Bohemian lifestyle of uplifting the mind über alles.

Nature didn’t tell me: “Don’t be poor.” Nor indeed: “Be rich.” But she does beg me: “Be independent.” — Chamfort, Maxims (1795)

Alain de Botton’s 6 books of wisdom

“Most philosophy books are incredibly boring (who needs sleeping pills when you could read Hegel or Kant) so you have to choose what you read very carefully. Here are the six books which brought me most pleasure, and even more importantly, wisdom.”

The Essays: Montaigne

Montaigne likes to point out that philosophers don’t know everything, and that they would be a lot wiser if they laughed at themselves a little more. He also writes in a personal and often very frank way designed to shock the prudish. “Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies,” he says, “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated still upon our arses.”

Letters from a Stoic: Seneca

Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which is all about teaching you how to respond calmly to disaster. We tend to imagine that cheering people up involves saying happy things. But Seneca says the saddest things and strangely enough, he is very consoling. “What need is there to weep over parts of life?” he asks, “The whole of it calls for tears.”

Essays and Aphorisms: Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer is another great pessimist who makes you feel happier. He makes some brilliant analyses of why love affairs tend to go wrong (he’s perfect to read after a break up). His general drift is that you’d be mad to expect happiness from a relationship.

Twilight of the Idols: Nietzsche

A much misunderstood philosopher, seen as barking mad, but actually very wise and sane. He tells us nice things about the need for struggle in life. No pain, no gain, or as he put it; “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”

Collected Works: Epicurus

Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word “epicurean” has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite unmaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.

The Last Days of Socrates: Plato

Plato recounts the last days of his mentor and teacher Socrates, famously made to drink hemlock by the people of Athens. It’s a tear-jerking account, as the funny and wise Socrates is put to death by his ignorant contemporaries. It’s also a lesson in how to stand up for your beliefs and inspiration for anyone standing up against the will of the majority.

Kiss & Tell

Splashy pink cover and risque title hides Alain de Botton’s ingenious biography of an unknown woman. De Botton weaves philosophy, fiction, and humor while questioning the nature of biography. Why is it we are most interested in hearing the dreary dull mundane facts about famous people? Because ultimately, we are all searching for clues to our own identities.
Alain begins the work by admitting his last girlfriend accused him of being unable to empathize, which sets him on the task of biographer, intrigued by “the idea of understanding a human being as fully as one person could hope to understand another.” He decides to chronicle the life of the next stranger who enters his life, twenty-something Isabel, who also evolves into his girlfriend.
He questions the best way to biographize– a mere linear progression or how it streams from the subject’s mouth willy nilly? He wonders which bits of trivia to include or exclude– favorite foods, music, pathways around London.

What is it we reveal of ourselves with our choice of lover? In so far as we desire what we do not ourselves possess, our loves trace the evolution of our needs… But lovers are not chosen according to a perfect match between emotional void and amorous candidate – and in this sense are a complicated guide to our inner needs. We may be forced to identify our lovers from a cripplingly small pool of choices. In trying to explain the more inexplicable love stories, one may have to answer the question, ‘Why them?’ with the gloomy thought, ‘Did you see the others?’

This one got the raised eyebrow when I was getting my hair cut– “oh one of those books,” he said. Subversive covers are my new favorite thing.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The author calls this book “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”
Ten short bursts of insight into various aspects of the working world:
* Tracking cargo ships as they enter the Thames and eventually spitting out their cargo on a forgotten dock in London, allowing us to be blissfully ignorant of the sea passage of our necessary goods (shoes, car parts, rolls of paper).
* The logistics industry, following a tuna from being clubbed to death on a deck of a boat in the Maldives through the fish processing plant and onto a cargo jet to Heathrow, loaded into an “articulated lorry” (e.g. freight truck) to drive to a grocery store in Bristol, where Linda picks up the tuna steak and is ambushed by the author and photographer to be allowed to follow her home to watch her make dinner and see the fish end up in the belly of her 8 year old son.
* An inside glimpse into biscuit manufacturer United Biscuits, chatting with the marketer who came up with a new biscuit (read: cookie) named “Moments” which aimed to address low-income mothers’ yearning for sympathy, affection and “me-time”. The division of labor allowing for specialization and narrowly constricting tasks (high efficiency but not a driver of a meaningful life). “It is significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers.”
* Time spent with a husband and wife team of career counselors, therapists attempting to help you understand what it is you like to do best. “I left [the counselor’s office] newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”
* Japanese TV satellite launch from French Guiana reinforces the switch from our previous awe of nature to our new fascination with things man-made.
* A poignant peek at an artist’s time spent painting the same tree for 5 years, resulting in a collection of work that is exhibited in London and slowly sold to net the artist the equivalent salary of a dysfunctional plumber.
* A walk under the power lines from the coast of England through to London, admiring the 542 pylons holding up the currents of electricity. The engineer reveals codes that allow him shorthand notation for common electrical occurrences, and allow him to communicate with engineers the world over. The author yearns for this type of shorthand to express things like the desire to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like, or the irritation evoked when acquaintances express more concern for one’s illness than oneself.
* A tour of Ernst and Young accountancy, the financial auditors. “The advent of dedicated financial specialists, who are unable to fish or build a house or sew a coat but are entirely committed to answering questions of amortisation, standard engagement revenue and transaction tax, seems a culmination of a long history of the division of labour, which began in Ancient Egypt three millennia ago and, in oases like these at least, has generated spectacular returns and some distinctive psychological side-effects.” “In wider view of the public, accountancy may be synonymous with bureaucratic tedium, but from close up, this particular conglomeration of numerical talents presents the observer with a case-study of the discrete charms of offices, with their intriguing blend of camaraderie, intelligence, and futility.” “They seem to have no desire to undertake the kind of work which makes any claim to leave a lasting legacy. They have the inner freedom to exercise their intelligence in the way that taxi drivers will practise their navigation skills: they will go wherever their clients direct them to. They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.” “Generating money is really an excuse to do other things, to rise from bed in the morning, to talk authoritatively in front of overhead projectors, to plug in laptops in foreign hotel rooms, to give presentations analysing market shares… Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfaction of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions.”
* An essay on entrepreneurship and an exposé of an Inventors’ Conference; de Botton arranges for an interview with the Iranian inventor of shoes to walk on water, who is detained in customs for alleged bomb making materials and can’t make it to the convention. There are also the inventions of the Crisp Bar, a flattening of several potato chips into one bar, to save space in your pantry; a braking system to prevent accidents, a non flammable material that has no practical use, and on and on.
* The final essay on aviation begins with a trade show in Paris for the aviation industry, where the author sees deals being struck between 3rd tier nations and various aviation supplier, watches bits of cheese laid out as lunchtime snacks for the delegates to lure them closer into the booth about new wing technologies. Six months later, the author gets lost in the Mojave Desert and stumbles on an airfield of decaying planes, bribing his way onto the tarmac to take a closer look and snap photos.
A few of the longer quotes:

Most of us stand poised as the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or a bicycle. (p 127)

The Japanese TV satellite launch in French Guiana covered by a famous Hong Kong TV personality who is decidedly out of place:

The only person who seemed unable to join in the excitement was the Hong Kong television presenter, who sat glumly at a table pushing shrimp around her plate. She had found the launch a disappointment, she said and, smily weakly, added that she had now started her own countdown: to her return to her apartment overlooking Victoria Harbour. Her bitterness smacked of bruised egocentricity. The only topic she appeared comfortable with was mosquitoes. Though tales of the bites of others are usually no less wearing than those of their dreams, she boasted at length about how she had been devoured during the launch, and proceeded to show off her ankles, hopeful that the interest of so many minute beings might stand as a last, desperate proof of her continued magnetism. I realized then that it might be possible to feel jealous of a rocket. (p 164)


On Seeing and Noticing

I picked this book up at the famous bookshop, Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London. This pocket Penguin has served me well in the months since London– I have carried it with me and made the most of my time in waiting situations. I confess, I was lured by the Table of Contents, which I’ll reproduce here:
On the Pleasures of Sadness
On Going to the Airport
On Authenticity
On Work and Happiness
On Going to the Zoo
On Single Men
On the Charm of Boring Places
On Writing (and Trouts)
On Comedy
56 pages of blissful de Botton writing!
This is part of the 70 Pocket Penguin series, published to celebrate 70 years of Penguin paperback editions.


The Art of Travel

A refreshing look at travelling, comparing expectations to reality, travel aided by literature and art. The last chapter (most fresh to my mind) dealt in realizing the beauty around your everyday life, insisting that you need not travel far (merely outside your front door) to be entertained by new thoughts and things you’d not noticed out of habit.
De Botton travels to Barbados, Amsterdam, Egypt (via Flaubert’s writings and life), Sinai desert, the English countryside, Madrid, Provence, and his neighborhood block. He interspersed several relevant pictures and paintings between pages of words.
The best travel book I’ve yet read.