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Alain De Botton

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Last update – 13:14 11/08/2006
Status quotes
By Shlomzion Kenan
 
What does best-selling author Alain de Botton possibly have to be anxious about? True, like most Jewish families his too hails from a modest background, but since the 1492 expulsion from Spain, the de Bottons have done very well: They managed to dabble in international espionage, save the infant Jewish state from the Mufti and the seven armies of Arabia, get a pat on the back from David Ben-Gurion, make a fortune, donate chunks of it to the Tate Modern as well as the Weizmann Institute and sell lots of books. Still, Alain de Botton"s latest book just out out in Hebrew, "Status Anxiety," (published in English by Hamish Hamilton in 2004) reveals why most people suffer from feelings of inferiority and anxiety concerning their standing in the world, and offers some advice – if not toward making us more fabulous, gorgeous and rich, at least to liberate us from fretting too much about it.

At first glance, it is baffling to think what, in Alain de Botton"s personal experience, might have inspired such a book. After all, his father, Rothschild-backed financier Gilbert de Botton, whose portrait was painted by both Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, sold his company a year before he passed away in 1999, for more than 400 million pounds. His father"s second wife, Janet Wolfson, was recently listed as one of the richest women in Britain, somewhere between the queen and Madonna. (Gilbert"s first wife, Alain"s mother, Jacqueline, divorced him in 1988). Alain de Botton himself grew up surrounded by Picassos, made his first million around 30, wrote seven best-sellers before turning 37 and read the majority of the Western canon before the age of 18. He went to Cambridge, made three television series, he is married to a beautiful woman and father to a beautiful baby, so what status anxiety?

Arriving at his West Kensington London home to find out, I am struck by the distinct lack of status symbols, though there is no shortage of anxiety. De Botton ensconces himself in a library armchair and begins speaking with some urgency. A tinge of alarm in his tone gives a sense of polite confusion, the kind that made Hugh Grant famous. Through the bay windows, the street lined with Victorian houses seems abnormally still, probably on account of its residents" high status.

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"First of all" he says, "it"s not an autobiographical book in any simple way, because this is a history of the West, really. So whatever my own status might be or not is beside the point. The book isn"t about me as such, it"s about the modern Western condition."

And nonetheless …

De Botton: "Well, if you want to superficially psychoanalyze me, which is your journalist"s prerogative, than here is the analysis: I grew up among over-achieving Jews who had basically low status, historically. My father was an immigrant, first to Switzerland, then to England, and what happens to immigrants? They overcompensate. They don"t feel they exist. From morning till night my father would work, work, work trying to make lots of money, hanging Picassos on the walls to impress the neighbors, etc. That was trying to compensate for a feeling of invisibility and hurt and humiliation, some of which rubbed off to me. I was growing up comfortably, but you inherit how comfortable you are from your parents. My parents weren"t comfortable in society, so I wasn"t. I had more security; I wasn"t without a passport, I didn"t flee a country but I was still a little bit different from a normal English boy."

Was your father domineering or belittling?

"Yes, because he felt like an under-achiever himself. I"m sure you know that type in Jewish society, the archetype of the stern demanding father of which the Hebrew God is the ultimate exemplar. So quite frankly, whether or not there was a Picasso on the wall, it was really not going to swing the difference."

What is status anxiety?

"I tend to see it as a worry about our standing in the world; are we respected or humiliated, taken seriously or mocked – how much are we loved by the world. This is what makes many Middle Eastern conflicts so hard to understand from a rational point of view. There is so much brutality and nihilism to much of the conflict there, the whole idea of suicide bombing is the ultimate illogicality from a purely military point of view. And the actions now in Lebanon – one wonders, why the extremity? There seems to be something more going on now which is beyond politics and strategy."

What is it?

"I think there is a lot of anger and I think that anger partly stems from a feeling of humiliation on two sides, or three or four. There is an issue of pride and humiliation. And this is of course very dangerous, because international law should be above emotions such as humiliation. It"s alarming to think Israel too is involved in this humiliation and counter-humiliation. The bulldozing of houses for example, and olive trees which are the livelihood of people – think of the extremity of it! To kill a tree! It is something more than military by the time you kill a tree. More than an argument about land, or water or statehood, it is at the end of the day a conflict related to a sense of grievance on both sides. What lends the conflict its bitterness, and ultimately its violence is a feeling of lack of respect on one side for the other. An inability to accept the other person"s existence, really."

Israeli Mata Hari

De Botton has every historical right to complain. When Ehud Olmert was still mayor of Jerusalem a few years back, he inaugurated the Yolande Harmer roundabout in commemoration of de Botton"s grandmother; the Israeli Mata Hari. As a native Alexandrian with exceptionally good connections, her good looks fine moves and solid cover as a reporter for the Palestine Post put the State of Israel in her debt. During the critical years prior to the foundation of the state, Harmer, nicknamed "Nicole" and "Falcore," was the ultimate spy for the Zionist movement. (She immigrated in 1951 and passed away in "57, at the age of 44. The last name "Harmer" comes from her second husband, Harry Harmer. Gilbert was her only son from her first husband, Jacques de Botton.)

Harmer knew her way around King Farouk"s court, transferred classified intelligence regarding the Arab League"s plans for the war of 1948 and even took an active part in the cease-fire treatise and negotiations. As a token of appreciation, David Ben-Gurion granted her only son, Gilbert, Alain"s father, a modest scholarship so that he could attend Hebrew University. Years later, after teaming up with the Rothschilds and becoming a billionaire, Gilbert donated handsomely to the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Foundation and to the Weizmann Institute. The Mishkenot-Sha"anan auditorium bears his name.

Alain de Botton who was born in Switzerland, first arrived in Israel at the age of 17 when he worked for CNN. "Last time I was there was in "97. I guess I feel too sad to return at the moment."

Why is that?

"Because the political situation is just so intractable and difficult. Perhaps selfishly, I just can"t bear that"s it"s too awful. I"m sure it"s not every day and that one can have a very nice life, maybe not. It seems too painful. There"s almost nothing one can say. Everyone knows what should be done, but also everyone knows that what should be done isn"t being done. There"s no intellectual debate really, because the way forward is obvious, but the only response can be a deeply melancholy, sad silence. Maybe when one is in Israel there"s always a feeling of the possibility of change, but from the outside … it"s maybe a kind of defeatism.

"There is a continuing sense of confusion as to why Israel is not producing wiser leaders. As a follower of Israel, I see why one would become apolitical. I imagine many people concentrate on decorating the house and planting their garden, because what can be done? It"s jammed."

This week de Botton was interviewed on the BBC as an English Jew about the war in Lebanon. De Botton presented the moderate pro-Israeli stance against Bella Freud, great-grand daughter of Sigmund Freud, who spoke of monstrous immorality. He was surprised to receive much hate-mail, following his appearance, calling him a child-killing sympathizer and even a Hitler.

Could some of your despair stem from the fact that your family has given so much to this country?

"My grandmother really died, not literally, but her spirit was broken by working for the State of Israel. It is particularly heart-breaking. Operating in Egypt, she was motivated by a feeling that Jews should have a homeland. She came from a generation where living with Arabs was completely natural. The Jewish community of Alexandria was extremely integrated, my father grew up speaking Arabic with lots of Arab children, there was a sort of insight that has now been lost – there were Jews of that generation who had a cosmopolitan view that many Israelis don"t have.

"My grandma wrote in her diaries that she hoped to recreate this cosmopolitan atmosphere [in Israel] and was upset by the xenophobia there. It now seems like Israeli society has been hijacked by a militant wing of paranoid, frightened, aggressive people. It happens throughout history that the guys who are shaping the direction of a society are not wise in the deepest sense."

Can you trace what is happening now back to your grandmother"s generation?

"Yes. I think Israeli society is waking up more and more to the contradictions that go right at the heart of Israeli society. Certainly with certain books, there"s more of a reflection on the paradoxes of Zionism right from the beginning, rather than seeing the problem from right now. I feel the lens has opened up to reveal the problems have deep origins, rather than just something that happened in the last five years."

Do you have a different view of CNN since you worked there?

"I always feel I know a bit more about how the images get to the screen. The danger and also the censorship involved. We"re not seeing the terrifying. I"m also thinking of the psychological scars that go down generations. I mean, it"s easier to clean up a bomb and the blood than these scars. My wife"s grandfather for instance, was killed in the Second World War, shot down by Nazis. The trauma of the loss of this man, has reverberated down the generations: The grandmother grew up without her husband, the mother was affected in her ability to be a mother and my wife suffered as a result because a man was shot down in 1940. This is terrifying. Every time a bomb goes off – it will take two generations to work out."

Yes, the bombs that we"re getting and dropping now certainly affect everyone"s state of mind.

"You know. I read that the psychologist [Donald] Winnicott said only 20 percent of people in society are mentally healthy. He defines mentally healthy as a capacity for empathy, sympathy with other people, generosity. Unfortunately, there are periods in history where the other 80 percent control the process and then we see the most traumatized, angry, defensive responses on many sides. Every time a bomb goes off, the percentage of sane people declines."

Does something of a status anxiety simmer into the current global conflict between Islam and the West?

"The whole division into "us" and "them" is always a primitive response. It works in a way that is contrary to a civilized view that humans are fundamentally alike; this was the infinite insight of Judeo-Christian culture and universality. Socrates said, "I am not from Athens but from the world." Now we"re skidding into a situation where people say, "I"m not from the world, I"m from Athens and if you"re not from Athens, I"ll kill you.""

Basic need

According to "Status Anxiety" the search for status is as basic a need as the search for water or air. It is the reason we sometimes go to war and kill each other. All of this – to show we are worthy of love and respect. The book is dedicated, in a way, to all and "many whom the world has elected to dismiss as nobodies"; those who unlike Jesus or Socrates, still unfortunately depend on the approval of others for self-respect. It has been de Botton"s perennial project to make these nobodies (who are often his readers) feel a bit more like somebodies, or at the very least – more educated and cool.

In this book too, he diligently takes care to trickle some Baudelaire and Rousseau alongside self-appreciation charts and Mercedes-Benz commercials. He applauds the day we give up the hope of being younger or thinner, and proposes, in the manner of Racine, a world in which the richest people are those who feel the most wonder under the night"s sky.

Are you committed to making people happy?

"It"s a very naive theme and it annoys some people, but yes. I remember reading Aristotle"s ethics, I was 17 or something and he states very early on that all ends of human life is happiness, and I thought, Gosh! It came as a sort of revelation that someone so serious and revered as Aristotle could place that word right at the center of his philosophy and make such a bold statement. I sympathize with that.

"I"m always more modest about my ambitions because I"m reminded of the difficulties of helping anybody. I suppose I am trying to solve a set of problems for someone a bit like me, in a sense who is me. I would like to see myself as more than one who simplifies complex things. I"m reading to make my own insight. It"s similar to old rabbinical teachings – you"re reading a text and in the process of reading you"re making an original text – making your own."

Alongside his books, de Botton stars in accompanying TV series for the British Channel 4, where he can sometimes be glimpsed discussing the paradoxes of Xenon in Greek taverns and so on. In the series that accompanies "Status Anxiety," he dances with a gospel choir, chats to a waiter who wants to be a talk show host and joins a nudist camp. It may be sometimes easier on the eye to read him pleading with Emma Bovary to desire less than with a Midwestern homeless woman with no teeth, but one can"t deny he harbors a genuine concern for his fellow humans.

You write that people were happier when they were expected to live in the class into which they were born. Does this mean that if people remained subservient they"d be happy?

"It would be monstrous to suggest that people ought to stay down or turn the clock back. But there"s a way in which we always compare ourselves with what is going on, even though we may be more successful – other people are more. Up until a certain point, wealth increases your happiness. But after about $50,000 a funny thing may happen – the graph declines. I tried to reflect on some of the negative aspects of peace and prosperity."

You seem very careful politically. You discuss Marxism but don"t take a stand. "I"m not careful, because there are things I really believe but there are only certain things I dare to say. I think I"m genuinely confused, like many people who are broadly on the left, as to what the solution is. For many people what remains interesting about Marxism is a critique of what is wrong with the modern world. The solution just doesn"t work but the critique is what"s interesting, and I guess that"s what I"m airing. "I"m airing certain solutions that people have found down the ages to this stress that I"m calling status anxiety, but I don"t think there"s one solution. I"m not advocating becoming a Christian or sitting on a mountain admiring the smallness of all other humans or anything like that; I"m trying to open up perspectives on the question. People ask me – but what"s the answer? And I don"t know what the answer is but if the reader is left with "Oh, what"s the answer?" I think I have accomplished a lot of what I was trying to do."

Genuine compassion

Some of de Botton"s status anxiety may well stem from the fact that he is often sneered at by the so-called "intellectual" community. It has been said that he tends to chew up the world"s entire corpus of knowledge and spit it back out in digestible morsels. But somebody has to do it. After all, did we not enjoy his advice on dealing with unrequited love (or how Proust or Schopenhauer might have addressed the issue?) Or how to take a real vacation outside the brochure? Not only is he an excellent service provider for the weary of heart, but he also gives us opportunities to mention Proust"s asthma in passing, or sigh and say that indeed, there were fewer cypress trees in Provence before Van Gogh painted them. And anyway, de Botton is clearly blessed with something that many so called "intellectuals" find completely alienating: a genuine compassion for human beings.

Why do you suppose you arouse so much aversion in "academic" circles?

"The whole concept of getting a job as a teacher of English is a professionalization of an area of experience that is naturally open to everybody. So the question arises: What does the teacher know that the person in the street doesn"t know? And that is essentially the great question mark, and the status anxiety of the academic ? what does the academic actually know? From an old German academic view ? maybe this person knows how to decode an ancient text but in this day and age, when all the ancient texts have been decoded, when all the work of philology and philography has been done – what is the academic doing? I think this is a question mark that remains unresolved ? what are the humanities for? And I think I picked up in a small way some of the anxieties around that question because I present a challenge. Is this guy an idiot? What"s he doing? Who is he? Why doesn"t he go away? That"s what some people have said."

How do you feel about being called a pocket philosopher?

"Well, it"s a stupid lame thing. In a way, it"s always very surprising to have a reader, any reader. It"s very surprising if any reader is nice about what you say and it"s even more surprising and even horrible if someone doesn"t like it and calls you names. The only way I learned to deal with it is to sort of detach myself – I almost see it as a kind of unreality. I just tune out of such things because it"s not helpful to me to think about my image in the eyes of others."

Where is this sublime that you keep harking back to and what is it?

"It"s the human condition, isn"t it? That we have an intuition of the huge, the eternal and blah, blah, blah, but we know we are small and finite and flawed, and out of this tension comes the central existential dilemma; unlike cows we don"t know we are just cows, or actually we don"t know what cows think ? deep point ? but let"s imagine the cows don"t know they"re cows; we do know we"re humans. And that"s not quite enough. We know that"s not quite enough."

So how is your status now, do you feel settled down? Accomplished?

"I"m settled but not really, life still feels very precarious. I don"t feel like I know everything, what am I going to do now? I finished a book, you know, the rest of my life still feels very unformed. There are still possibilities and dangers and good things and bad things, you know, I don"t see myself as some kind of settled grand man of letters who has no existential doubts, I"m still a live wire, I guess." W

 
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