27 March 2004

Status anxiety

Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton)

Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.

His new volume, Status Anxiety, begins by pleading, in characteristically self-congratulatory manner, the originality of its subject. Stories of our quest for romantic fulfilment abound, De Botton remarks; conversely, however, “the story of our quest for love from the world” is apparently little told — it is “a more secret and shameful tale” whose crevices and clefts can only now be probed by our author.

This claim has the distinct rhetorical smell of an introduction to a television documentary, and indeed De Botton himself presented a two-hour programme of the same name on Channel 4 earlier this month. But the claim that status anxiety is a little-noticed phenomenon is, of course, just nonsense, as demonstrated by the endless quotations that he has compiled from such luminaries as Adam Smith, David Hume, Hobbes, De Tocqueville, Marx, Paine, Rousseau, George Bernard Shaw, and so on.

De Botton’s standard argumentative gambit is exemplified in the opening pages, when he offers, as what is grandly called a “thesis”, the proposition: “The most profitable way of addressing the condition may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it.” I think this means that we’ll feel better if we understand our feelings. The sentence thus dresses up a platitude in a style that may pass without close inspection as literary.

The faux-tentative “may” in that sentence, as though hesitantly proffering a complex and difficult idea when what is being said is, in fact, shatteringly banal, is also characteristic. The book is stuffed with such weasel uses of “may” and “perhaps”. In fact De Botton manages to stay his book’s entire course without ever offering a strongly held opinion, without ever arguing. Real philosophical thinking involves fierce, passionate engagement; here the voice never rises above a soothing, reassuring murmur.

So what is this new book purportedly about? People are and have always been anxious, De Botton surmises, about their place in the world, about what other people think of them. We might feel ourselves to be failures in love, or financial disaster zones, or cogs in a corporate machine.

In the first half of the book, entitled “Causes”, the author proceeds gaily by means of laboriously explicated citation, potted histories and tidbits of information. We are told of an interesting thing called the industrial revolution (and treated to a Schott’s Miscellany-style list of fascinating facts about inventions such as Corn Flakes and dry-cleaning), and we accompany Nixon on his trip to Moscow to show off the incredible luxuries of an average American home.

The upshot of all this is that our expectations have been unfairly increased by modernity’s abundance. Status anxiety, it is suggested, is more common than ever in today’s wealthy western societies because there is so much more to envy. “A sharp decline in actual deprivation may – paradoxically – have been accompanied by a continuing and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it,” De Botton eventually declares, virtuosically convincing us with his “may” and his “paradoxically” that this is a rare aperçu.

Luckily we are not left hanging too long on the horns of this dilemma, since the second half of the book offers “Solutions” to our unhappiness, drawn from the five spheres of philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia. Each of these, apparently, can allow us to re-examine our priorities and re-engineer our status systems. The lessons from this half of the book are edifying. Buying a new car will not make us happy. Jesus was a holy man, and yet a humble carpenter. Some people have valued poetry more than money. Dropping out of the rat race and lounging around in the park with topless women might be fun. It makes you think, doesn’t it?

In the section on “Art”, De Botton relates the plots of Oedipus the King, Mansfield Park, Madame Bovary and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, doggedly rephrasing the moral each time. He quotes an English translation of Baudelaire’s poem “L’Albatros”, which compares a poet to an albatross captured and humiliated by sailors. The poem’s last line is given as: “He cannot walk because of his great wings.” In case we did not understand that, De Botton generously hurries to provide a simpler version: “It is because of his great wings that the poet cannot walk.” Ah, now I understand.

It would be interesting to know who translated this poem of Baudelaire’s, since whoever it was (I hesitate to jump to the conclusion that it was De Botton himself) has made a crude mistake of vocabulary. He or she has a sailor tease the albatross’s beak “with a branding-iron”. The French, “brûle-gueule”, actually means a short pipe, of the tobacco-smoking variety. The mocking cruelty of sticking a pipe in a bird’s beak is far more poignant than the simple sadism of brandishing a red-hot poker at it.

Variously abused as it is, De Botton’s source material is taken from a very conservatively defined western canon. The book is thus enacting its own set of status anxieties about what constitutes literary respectability. But its refusal to engage with almost anything written during the 20th century is also the only reason that it can pretend to any originality of theme. Issues of status, envy and inequality in our relatively rich society have been discussed by real philosophers and sociologists for many decades. But within these pages you will find no mention of, inter alia, a Rawls or a Bourdieu.

The more of Status Anxiety you read, indeed, the more odd it seems. The prose often sounds as though it has been awkwardly translated from the German, an effect of the author’s constant straining after aphoristic profundity: “Humans rarely smile without being tempted by robust reasons to do so.”

Sitting uneasily with this striving for gravitas is the fantastically irritating whimsy by which banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams. The effect of one of these is, surprisingly, to imply that God manifests Himself in the shape of a giant pepper-pot.

Most damningly of all for the book’s supposed function as a high-class self-help text, De Botton consistently writes about the contemporary world as though he has heard reports of it but never actually been there. He claims that today, “because societies are practically trusted to be ‘meritocratic’, financial achievements are understood to be ‘deserved’.” A second’s thought about our real culture of corporate fat-cats, lottery winners and drunken footballers shows this to be false.

The book’s most pungent irony, in the end, is not expressed by its text, but by the way it is situated in the marketplace. The real value of this volume — beautifully designed and manufactured by Hamish Hamilton — is not as a work of thought but as an object, a status symbol. If you read it on the train or in a coffee shop, you are declaring that not only are you the kind of sensitive, thoughtful person who reads improving literature, you are the kind of successful person who can afford to buy it in hardback. And so Alain de Botton approaches the status of Tommy Hilfiger: never mind the quality, feel the brand.