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Cool Consolation 

In the late '90s, after publishing three well-received novels, Alain de Botton began writing book-length non-fiction essays on a variety of topics. To How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy and The Art of Travel, he's now added Status Anxiety. The first of these books was a kind of breakthrough for de Botton. His work had always hovered around non-fiction anyway; his first novel, On Love, with its numbered paragraphs and graphs and diagrams, was a pastiche of the romantic novel and an academic report. How Proust Can Change Your Life was a literary appreciation disguised as a self-help book.

De Botton has found a groove with these non-fiction pastiches. Besides the graphs and diagrams, he uses black-and-white photographs, often taken by himself, and reproductions liberally drawn from art history, in a way that recalls the prose-collage combinations of art critic John Berger and novelist W.G. Sebald. Moreover, his insights float on a light irony that he creates by mixing a mastery of English prose sentences with lemon-twisted locutions that sound translated -- like pixilated Barthes. (De Botton was born in Switzerland in 1969.) At the beginning of The Consolations of Philosophy, he interrupts a sentence about his discovery of Jacques-Louis David's Le Mort de Socrates to point out that he had been looking for the museum's cafeteria, "where I hoped to buy a glass of a certain variety of American chocolate milk of which I was at that time extremely fond."

Rather than being a digression, such serendipity is the very stuff of de Botton's prose. His "arguments" don't come to any radical conclusions ("Art is good for you"?). Rather, the pleasures of his prose come from following the play of his mind, the vast erudition, the succinct paraphrases, and vivid, often lyrical physical descriptions. That glass of chocolate milk (de Botton includes a photo of a carton of Nesquik) is as important as the David, because that's how he got there.

Status Anxiety provides yet another angle from which de Botton can criss-cross the history of Western civilization, the book neatly divided between "Causes" (Lovelessness, Expectation, Meritocracy, Snobbery, Dependence) and "Solutions" (Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, Bohemia). Making the case that "Our Œego' or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated, and ever vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect," he takes in Marxism, the lives of the saints, modern advertising, and such unexpected juxtapositions as a convention of Heinz-ketchup salesmen in Chicago in 1902 and Herodotos' account of Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. He also makes use of the word "loser" in a way that's laugh-out-loud funny.

But, no surprise, it's art where de Botton finds the ultimate transcendence. In the book's final chapter, he addresses "Bohemia." Beginning with a photographic parody and celebration of a common bohemian theme, Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe, shot by Lee Miller in 1937 that's replete with a wry-looking Man Ray and two topless females, he goes on to discuss those whose "allegiances were to art and emotion rather than to business and material success." True to form, he traces the history of the modern concept of the word, beginning with Henri Murger's 1851 Scenes de la Vie de Boheme and continuing through Arthur Ransome's 1907 Bohemia in London, the Situationists, the Beatniks, and punks.

De Botton points out that true bohemians, rather than feeling tortured by the word "loser," have redefined the word "failure." The "myth of the misunderstood artist" becomes the operative legend of bohemia, and it's not difficult to make the leap from his description of the suicide of the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton (the subject of both a famous painting and a celebrated play) to the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Whatever real torments and depressions such artists suffer, their deaths make them immediate fodder for bohemian sainthood. If the standards of bohemia sound a bit elitist in their own right, a kind of separate anxiety, consider the book from which de Botton drew the title of his first novel, Stendhal's 1822 De L'Amour. Paraphrasing its preface, he cites Stendhal's despair of ever reaching a broad audience. "Stendhal felt his book would be best appreciated by that rare reader who had a taste for indolence, liked daydreaming, welcomed the emotions sparked by a performance of one of Mozart's operas and could be catapulted into hours of bittersweet musing after catching just one glimpse of a beautiful face in a crowded street." That could be a description of the ideal reader of Status Anxiety -- or de Botton's self-portrait.

click to enlarge Alain de Botton has found a groove in his non-fiction pastiches, including his latest work, Status Anxiety.
  • Alain de Botton has found a groove in his non-fiction pastiches, including his latest work, Status Anxiety.
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