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The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

September 1, 2009
Sunset in an Unknown Land

Sunset in an Unknown Land

I remember many years ago telling my main teacher in the Gurdjieff Work, Lord John Pentland, that I hoped to travel more in my life. He looked at me with just the hint of a smile and said simply: “Some of us find it useful to travel outside and some inside. Perhaps you should learn to travel more inside.”

My teacher was a man who traveled a great deal, both inside and out. Nonetheless, his statement aroused some big questions in me, questions that I hadn’t asked before. Other than traveling for the most obvious reasons–such as to relocate or for business or to see friends–why travel to other cities and countries at all? What was I looking for? What did I hope to experience or gain? Was I hoping to open my heart and mind to how others lived? Was I hoping to learn more about my own conditioning and limitations by traveling to other places? Would traveling inspire me? Would it make me happier, as it seemed to promise? I knew, for some people at least, that it was true, as Mark Twain said, that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” But I also sensed some truth in what Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Perhaps both these insights can be summed up in Henry Miller’s statement that “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Since those early days I’ve traveled to many places (though not as many as I would like), even to Russia where I met some extraordinary people in extraordinary condtions, and the question still remains, why travel at all, especially since most of my trips were only short ones, often no more than a week or two–certainly not enough time to truly understand how people in other countries perceive and live their lives.

When I inadvertently picked up The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, I was immediately struck not just by the book’s originality, but also by the way it resonated with some of my own experiences and questions. I had always found that the reality of travel, when I was actually present to it, had little to do with my expectations of what it would bring. And I’ve always marveled at how trips are often reduced by all of us to a few “critical moments” and “photographic highlights” that, as de Botton says, “lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.” For most of us, the destination, and perhaps a few incidents on the way, are what we most remember; the process of traveling itself is seldom remembered or discussed. We represent our travels to ourselves and others very much like the travel books we read. Here is one of the ways the author describes it:

“A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain. A drop wends a muddy path down the dust-coated window. We wonder where our ticket might he. We look back out at the field, It continues to rain.

At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops, A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘he journeyed through the afternoon.'” And, of course, Botton hasn’t even mentioned here the many associations that these events arouse in our thoughts and emotions, as well as the often dull and heavy sensations they arouse in our bodies.

The Art of Travel is organized into five sections “Departure,” “Motives,” “Landscape,” “Art,” and “Return.” Each chapter begins with one of the author’s own travel experiences, then introduces paintings, photographs, poetry, and insights from famous artists, poets, novelists, and others related to that experience. Some of the “guides” on our journey are J.K. Huysmans, Charles Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Gustave Flaubert, Alexander von Humbolt, William Wordsworth, Edmund Burke, Job, Vincent van Gogh, John Ruskin, and Xavier de Maistre.

In the book’s last chapter, “On Habit,” the author spends some time discussing Xavier de Maistre’s rather audacious book Journey around My Bedroom. De Maistre, of course, had traveled much in his life, but, according to de Botton, this book, which de Maistre believed would bring the benefits of travel to millions of people who may otherwise be too “indolent” to actually step outside their house, may leave the reader “feeling a little betrayed,” since it “becomes mired in long and wearing digressions” about his dog, sweetheart, and servant. Nonetheless, says de Botton, “de Maistre’s work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to.”

Alain de Botton asks: “What, then, is a travelling mind-set?”. His simple answer is “receptivity,” which requires both “humility” and the giving up of “rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting.” If one ponders this simple answer, one see that these very qualities are also required for awakening here and now to the truth of our being.

Alain de Botton ends this beautiful and insightful book with the sage observation that “There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their ways through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed. Dressed in pink-and-blue pyjamas, satisfied within the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.”

I recommend The Art of Travel for everyone, whether your travels take you to distant lands, unknown dimensions of yourself, or only around the bedroom you think you know so well.

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven Maimes permalink
    September 7, 2009 2:56 am

    Excellent review Dennis. As we get older we do more inner travel and at the same time we think about outside travel… There is so much to ponder.

  2. January 2, 2010 12:29 am

    Xavier de Maistre’s Journey around My Bedroom… [prison cell, actually!]

    Mention of this book caused one of those neuronal explosions that come to one from time to time. I have a beautifully hand-written and carefully bound translation of the book. Ten years ago, using extracts from the book as scaffolding, I embarked on what has become an epic journey (or ‘zig-zag’ as de Maistre says) around my library, revisiting books I’d read long ago (noticing what I’d already seen – noticing especially the ideas that had become part of me) and fusing them into autobiography and reflections on 4th Way things and thoughts on this and that. That became Room One. I’m now into putting Room Five together. 200+ pages each!

    Thanks Dennis!

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