“A single-storey glass-and-redbrick service station” with a sign advertising breakfast foods stands by the highway between London and Manchester. Arriving late in the day, De Botton notices the restaurant’s bright lights and garish photographs of food before bringing his chocolate bar and orange juice to a table by the wall. No one is speaking in the nearly empty restaurant; a sense of sadness and introspection is palpable despite the “upbeat music.” The building is “architecturally miserable” and reeks of the restaurant’s oily food, but something it moves de Botton, who begins to think of “other equally and unexpectedly poetic traveling places—airport terminals, harbours, train stations, and motels.”
The service station is at once a foreign and familiar place: its décor tries to evoke a sense of homely comfort, but its atmosphere is nevertheless decidedly cold and antisocial. It is a place between places, one that would not exist unless people needed to stop on their way from one city to another, and so for de Botton it represents and evokes the emotions tied up in the act of traveling itself.
From his childhood onwards, de Botton writes, the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire never quite fit into any social environment: he hated his family, got expelled from “a succession of boarding schools,” and felt, in his words, “destined to lead an eternally solitary life.” He always wanted to travel far away, but after an early trip to India—which he abandoned halfway through, when he reached Mauritius and “could not shake off a feeling of lethargy and sadness”—he remained ambivalent about traveling for the rest of his life.
Like de Botton in London, Baudelaire was deeply dissatisfied with France, and this boredom at home turned his focus outward to the prospect of traveling abroad. Yet, like de Botton and the Duc des Esseintes in the last chapter, Baudelaire was disappointed to find that simply leaving home would not cure the loneliness and melancholy he felt there, so he gave up on travel once he realized it would not meet his unrealistic expectations.
Baudelaire’s apprehensive desire to travel appeared frequently in his poetry and writing, and he admitted that he tended to believe “I’ll be well where I am not.” He would dream of one place after another, wishing only to go “‘anywhere! anywhere! so long as it is out of the world!’”
Baudelaire remained less concerned about where to travel than simply traveling for its own sake: although he never went, he saw the promise of leaving his life behind as a sufficient motivation for dreaming about travel, and just as for the Duc des Esseintes, imagining travel was better than actually going.
Baudelaire saw travel as the distinctive mark of “poets,” people whose dissatisfaction with home led them abroad, and who he saw as forced “to live in a fallen world while refusing to surrender their vision of an alternative, less compromised realm.” Baudelaire also flocked to “harbours, docks, railway stations, trains, ships, and hotel rooms,” transient traveling places that filled him with the nostalgia and thrill of departure.
While Baudelaire expressed his ambivalence about travel through poetry, he also saw something artistic about the disposition that led people to travel in the first place: he saw an intimate connection between art and travel in both directions, for it is the creative “poet” who travels, and the emotions evoked in travel are best expressed through art.
De Botton says that he often goes to Heathrow airport when he feels sad, and finds comfort in “the ceaseless landings and takeoffs of aircraft,” just as after a breakup Baudelaire used to watch ships dock and depart at a quayside, promising to “set sail for happiness.” From the parking lot, de Botton sees a plane from Singapore approach the runway and thinks about all the places it must have passed as it comes closer, into sharper focus. It serves as “an imaginative counterweight to feelings of stagnation and confinement.” A plane takes off for New York on the next runway, and four more sit at Terminal 3 destined for “Canada, Brazil, Pakistan, Korea.” At each plane, men unload baggage and passengers disembark in “a choreographed dance.”
Like the Duc des Esseintes, de Botton and Baudelaire derive pleasure from the mere idea of travel. The means of travel themselves—airplanes and boats—come to symbolize this greater human tendency for wanderlust and people’s potential to transform their circumstances. Even if one does not travel (and face the inevitable disappointment it brings), imagining that the grass is greener elsewhere can still have emotional benefits, as it reminds frustrated people that there is something worth struggling for.
The airport terminal’s unassuming departure and arrival screens condense the “emotional charge and imaginative allure” of travel elsewhere, like the last line (or byline) of Irish author James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses: “Trieste, Zurich, Paris.” The screens promise that, if one were to “walk down a corridor and onto a craft,” one could soon find oneself somewhere new “where no one knew our name.” There is always a plane going “anywhere! anywhere!”
De Botton continues to find comfort in the notion that he could easily slip into anonymity somewhere foreign, far away from his boring and miserable life in London: the unadorned names of places give the imagination absolute power to picture ideal, alternate worlds just a few hours’ flying time away.
In addition to traveling places, Baudelaire also loved “machines of motion,” and especially ships, which he found a technological wonder representing “all the signs and ambitions of humanity.” De Botton feels the same way about airplanes, whose “agility” and “self-possession” set them apart from buildings, the other greatest products of human engineering. As one takes off in an airplane, the familiar world begins to fade, and “an immense horizon opens up across which we can wander without impediment.”
Ships and airplanes have the potential to be liberating machines, ones that can break people out of their familiar frustrations and bring them into the vast expanses of sky and sea where the imagination can run wild.
The experience of takeoff lets people “imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives” and the possibility of “surg[ing] above much that now looms over us.” From above, the logic in the human landscape below becomes apparent, and airplane engines appear stoic and untroubled at their work.
The new perspective that air travel offers people on the manmade environment in turn promises to offer them a new perspective on their own lives by distancing them from what is familiar.
De Botton finds it remarkable that “we are flying over a cloud,” which would have shocked great thinkers from the past. Even terrible airplane food tastes okay when one eats it among the clouds, which begin to look more like mutating steam than the “horizontal ovoids” people see from the ground. Baudelaire wrote about the clouds in his poem “The Outsider,” asking, “what do you love, you strange outsider? / I love the clouds … the clouds that pass by … over there … over there … those lovely clouds!” The clouds’ tranquility and indifference to human affairs are all the more obvious from an airplane window.
Beyond the wonder in technology that allows people to fly among the clouds, air travel also gives people a new perspective on them. Baudelaire’s character’s love for clouds represents his desire to transcend the human realm, and joining the clouds on an airplane similarly can allow people to transcend their everyday problems and worries by instead attending to the timeless beauty of the natural world.
Back at the service station by the highway, de Botton notes that no other road leads to this place, which belongs “to some third, travellers’ realm” rather than the city or country. Inside, the overly bright lights and chairs contrast with the patrons’ silence, which reinforces this sense of isolation. De Botton enjoys his loneliness here because it matches his environment, and also because it reminds him of the American painter Edward Hopper, whose works “allow the viewer to witness an echo of his or her own grief” and feel better.
Like the airplane, the service station is a traveling place between here and there, one that invites reflection by removing the traveler from any familiar location or social group: it is equally foreign for everyone passing through. But, while the airplane is a human wonder, the service station is more like a human farce, one that seems to recognize the empty gestures made by its décor.
Hopper actually read Baudelaire throughout his life, which de Botton finds understandable given their “shared interests in solitude, in city life, in modernity, in the solace of the night and in the places of travel.” Hopper drove around the United States for months every year, painting the places he encountered: hotels, roads and gas stations, diners and cafeterias, trains and views from them. Loneliness is the central theme in his work, for his characters often “seem far from home,” looking “vulnerable and introspective” as though they are searching for something, usually in the night.
Like Baudelaire and de Botton, Hopper sees something poetic in environments designed for transit, places foreign to everyone and therefore suited to people who feel foreign to conventional society. The places he paints reflect their inhabitants’ dreariness and isolation, much like the service station where de Botton spends much of this chapter. But the loneliness that pervades Hopper’s paintings also points to his subjects’ quest for happiness through travel—isolation is another form of discomfort travelers encounter along the road to a potentially better life.
Hopper’s painting Automat (p. 50) depicts a woman drinking coffee alone at night, seemingly saddened, “self-conscious and slightly afraid” in an establishment that suggests “a common isolation.” Here, the viewer can feel empathy for the woman, who seems to have “knocked against a hard corner of the world” and found herself without “a home in the ordinary world,” like Baudelaire’s “poets.”
This painting exemplifies Hopper’s attention to the uncertainty of travel as a process: the woman appears to have broken an unsatisfactory thread in her life, and given up on the “ordinary world” in order to find somewhere better suited for her. The cafeteria’s air of shared loneliness seems to extend outward, as Hopper encourages viewers to consider their own relationships to the worlds of everyday life and transient traveling places.
Passing through empty roads in the woods at night, a car’s lights illuminate meadows and trees with “a clinical white light” until it reaches a gas station in a clearing—this is Hopper’s 1940 painting Gas (p. 53). At the station, the manager seems to have gone out and a radio may be playing. This painting also makes isolation seem “poignant and enticing,” contrasting the dark woods with the brightly-lit station that seems like a “last outpost of humanity,” where companionship may emerge more easily than in a bustling city.
De Botton offers a plausible narrative behind Hopper’s painting, told from the perspective of the viewer—there is no car in the painting itself, and indeed only one figure stands by the gas station. By inserting the reader into Hopper’s scene as a fellow traveler in the desolate in-between space of the gas station, de Botton suggests that the artist offers not a portrait of loneliness but rather an encounter that anticipates some form of communion between the man and the viewer.
Hopper saw a “dreaminess” in trains, where thought flows more freely and people can access memories they might not otherwise recall. He depicted them in paintings like Compartment C, Car 293 (p. 55), and de Botton agrees that “journeys are the midwives of thought” because the “flow of the landscape” distracts part of the mind and opens the rest to more uninhibited reflection. He thinks trains are the best thinking aid because people can discern an endless series of objects in the landscape that provide “brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains” of others’ lives.
Trains offer a continuous flow of images that one can latch onto or quickly forget, and those images—like the brochure de Botton receives about Barbados—allow travelers to project themselves into others’ lives and foreign landscapes. Indeed, the glimpses of private life one sees from trains, much like Hopper’s paintings, let viewers secretly relate to others’ experiences and feel a sense of community despite their isolation.
During his own train journey, de Botton thinks about his father’s death and an essay he is writing, an argument among friends, and, when he hits a barrier to thought, the things he sees out the window. He argues that “hours of train-dreaming” can bring people “back into contact with emotions and ideas” that matter to them and they would have otherwise forgotten amidst the unchanging furniture of their ordinary lives. Hotel rooms, too, spur reflection by inserting people into unfamiliar contexts.
De Botton’s story illustrates how trains can facilitate thought; daydreaming’s essential function here, like de Botton’s daydreaming on the beach in Barbados, is to remind travelers about deep interests, values, and commitments that they might otherwise forget during the chaos of everyday life. This is one way that travel reveals people’s particular variations on the human quest for happiness.
Critic Raymond Williams traces contemporary people’s attraction to the experience of traveling back to “a broad shift in sensibilities” two centuries ago, after which “the outsider came to seem morally superior to the insider.” Williams said that outsiders represent “nature and community against the rigours, the cold abstinence, the selfish ease of ordinary society.” De Botton agrees, seeing traveling places as an alternative to the routine drudgery of contemporary everyday life.
The elevation of outsiders above insiders is historically important because it marks a generalized interest in foreign ways and the possibilities for self-transformation that they evoke. De Botton addresses this theme head-on in the following chapter.