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REVIEW: ''The Art of Travel'' by Alain de Botton

  • Article by: Randolph Delehanty
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 27, 2002 - 11:00 PM

British essayist and philosopher Alain de Botton's latest book exudes erudition and artfulness. Taking travel as his ostensible theme, de Botton gently instructs us about seeing, thinking and feeling.

De Botton is a smooth writer, a congenial companion and must be a superb teacher in the graduate philosophy program at London University. Americans know him best as the author of the unlikely 1998 bestseller "How Proust Can Change Your Life."

In "The Art of Travel," he offers an elegant essay on self-consciousness, and it makes a lot of learning go down easily.

"Journeys," De Botton writes, "are the midwifes of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places."

In the Sinai Desert, De Botton realizes "it is no coincidence that the Western attraction to sublime landscapes developed at precisely the moment when traditional beliefs in God began to wane. . . . The landscapes offered [the Victorians] an emotional connection to a greater power, even as they freed them from the need to subscribe to the more specific and now less plausible claims of biblical texts and organized religions."

"The Art of Travel" has a circular design: The author departs; he is only partially satisfied by his travels; he comes home; he resolves to "travel" in his familiar surroundings; he makes discoveries.

Within this large design, each chapter offers an intriguing inner design, one that combines the thoughts of literary and artistic travellers with sketches of a dozen destinations (from Barbados and Madrid to De Botton's neighborhood in London). De Botton's travelers include Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Flaubert, von Humboldt, Wordsworth, Burke, Job, van Gogh, Ruskin and Xavier de Maistre, among others. It is a delightful conceit, one that allows De Botton to flesh out his own, sensitive musings with multiple viewpoints and many insights about life and art.

De Botton has a gift for understanding just what it is that makes each of his guides important and perennial. Flaubert's rage against the bourgeoisie is vividly sketched. Wordsworth and Ruskin, currently out of fashion, spring to life in this book. Wordsworth on nature should be read by all who think environmentalism a new thing, or even "natural." And the page showing just how Ruskin's writing works is worth more than a shelf full of tedious guides to "effective communication."

Here is De Botton on Ruskin: "I began word-painting. . . . I had at least attempted to follow one strand of what Ruskin judged to be the twin purposes of art: to make sense of pain and to fathom the sources of beauty. And, as he had pointed out when presented with a series of misshapen drawings that a group of his pupils had produced on their travels through the English countryside: 'I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.' "

Although he doesn't quote him, De Botton agrees at the end of his travels with Proust that: "The only true voyage of discovery is not to go to new places, but to have other eyes."

-- Randolph Delehanty is the author a dozen books including guides to San Francisco and New Orleans. He is the historian for the Presidio Trust in San Francisco.

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