Even if most places have little lasting effect on the viewer, de Botton explains, a few “possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty.” He has encountered many beautiful sights throughout his travels: a train that seemed to float through Madrid as apartment-dwellers settled down for the night, a crumbling brick wall in an Amsterdam courtyard, the endless sea off Barbados’s eastern coast and the endless hills that rolled through England’s Lake District.
After the fact, de Botton selectively remembered particular moments of his trips to Barbados or the Lake District; here, he again returns to the few, momentary images from travel (or perhaps Wordsworthian “spots of time”) that disproportionately capture places’ beauty and personal value to him.
Upon seeing beauty, people often strive to possess it and bring it into their lives, as if trying to say, “I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.” Yet beauty also evades people, residing in places to which they may never return or coincidences that are unlikely to recur. One way to capture such beauty is photography; another is trying to “imprint ourselves physically on a place of beauty” by, say, carving a name into it, like the Englishman whose name Flaubert found carved into a pillar in Alexandria; a third is to buy souvenirs.
De Botton again asks how to bring the wonders of the foreign back into the familiar, often dull places where people live their everyday lives. In other words, he wants to make memory as effective as possible as a tool for retaining the lessons of travel. Yet photography and carving one’s name into a place are merely physical reminders, ones embedded in objects but without a foothold in memory.
John Ruskin, born in 1819 in London, focused largely on this question of how to possess places’ beauty. From a young age, he was extremely sensitive to visual details, and his parents encouraged his interest. Ultimately, he concluded that beauty resulted from complex psychological and visual reactions. He also concluded that humans naturally react to and want to possess it. Ruskin argued that the only proper way to possess beauty is to understand it by discovering which factors create it, and that drawing and writing about beautiful places are the best ways to gain such an understanding.
Ruskin’s sensitivity to visual details recalls the receptivity that de Botton has gradually built up throughout his book and encourages his readers to pursue. And Ruskin’s emphasis on understanding the basis of beauty parallels de Botton’s insistence in Madrid that people use facts they encounter for deeper personal enrichment—in both cases, travel enriches life only when people start to question why what they are learning matters to them and gain a more fundamental understanding of themselves in doing so.
Ruskin’s preoccupation from 1856 until 1860 was teaching drawing, which he found more important (and more neglected) than writing. He wrote books and delivered lectures on the subject before dedicating himself to teaching craftsmen to draw. He believed that drawing was universally beneficial, and everyone should learn to do it, regardless of their social class or degree of artistic talent. He wanted to create not better artists, but simply happier people.
Ruskin suggested that artistic training should not be reserved for the elite classes that could afford it, but rather could help everyone better pursue their happiness. De Botton sees his mission as a writer in an analogous way: through this book, he wants to help everyone travel with (as he might put it) the cultivated refinement of those from his own class background, which has gained him as much criticism as praise.
Ruskin believed drawing was productive for people regardless of their talent because it taught them “to notice rather than merely look,” to break an object into its components and remember it more completely. He taught drawing in order to teach seeing; he lamented people’s general blindness to detail, and particularly hated the variety of tourist who tried to cover as much territory as fast as possible. He valued “thought and sight, not pace,” and thought that people could take pleasure in their environments if they could pay sustained attention to the world rather than simply pass through it.
Ruskin, to an even greater extent than Wordsworth or van Gogh, believed that visual details held the truth of beauty. In a way, much of de Botton’s careful looking over the previous few chapters has anticipated this argument from Ruskin. His distaste for fast-paced travel follows from his insistence that merely going to a place does not allow one to capture its beauty; rather, one captures the beauty of what one pays attention to—or, in de Botton’s terminology, becomes receptive to.
Ruskin shouted down a group of Manchester industrialists in 1864, accusing their railroads of trying to infect every peaceful corner of the world. He saw that technology made it no easier to possess beauty, even if it made beautiful things easier to visit. While he did not despise photography—indeed, he loved making daguerreotypes, one of the earliest kinds of photograph—he also noticed that visitors often took photographs instead of paying attention to their environment, as though “photography automatically assured them possession of” the world’s beauty.
Although photography might seem to immediately solve the problem of how to bring beauty back home, de Botton reminds us that it is at best—like van Gogh’s paintings—an art form reliant on subjective decisions about what to emphasize and erase. This can be a problem when tourists do not reflect on what they choose to capture and fail to see important details of something because they assume they have the whole picture. Photography is not inherently counterproductive to the aim of capturing beauty, but the promise it holds tends to encourage people not to look in the first place—just as Pascal feared about painting.
Ruskin saw drawing as the outgrowth of a human instinct—like eating and drinking, it was based in the “transfer of goodness from without to within.” Indeed, he remembered looking at grass as a child and wanting to eat it, but deciding to draw it instead. Photography, on the other hand, gives people the illusion of possessing beauty, but prevents them from asking meaningful questions about what is in front of them.
Following Ruskin, de Botton decides to try drawing. He tries to draw the window of his bedroom at the inn in the Lake District, and ends up with “a predictable yet instructive disaster.” He goes from a vague sense of an object’s makeup “to precise awareness of its component parts and particularities.” The window’s panes are not exactly square and its paint not exactly white, for instance; he concludes that “drawing brutally shows up our previous blindness to the true appearance of things.” As Ruskin predicted, de Botton found that he only truly learned the structure of tree branches after trying to draw them.
Although de Botton’s drawing is a “disaster,” this does not make it a failure: rather, it reveals his previous insensitivity to visual detail and points to the amount of beauty he ordinarily fails to see. Its inadequacy teaches him how to be more receptive to the environment by showing him what he failed to notice.
Drawing can also cultivate “a conscious understanding of the reasons behind our attraction to certain landscapes and buildings.” It lets people develop their “aesthetic,” which is a “capacity to assert judgments about beauty and ugliness.” People can move from a generalized appreciation of a scene to the appreciation of specific elements, and in turn to the derivation of general aesthetic rules, such as “it is better for light to strike objects from the side than from overhead.” The “conscious awareness” cultivated by drawing can also help people preserve memories more strongly.
This three-step process, from noticing beauty to seeing what about something is beautiful to understanding why that feature is beautiful according to general rules, shows how an observer can move from merely appreciating beauty to learning about themselves through the things they find beautiful. For de Botton, then, this is a crucial example of how learning to appreciate art can reveal a traveler to themselves.
Ruskin summarized his mission as an attempt to “direct people’s attention accurately to the beauty of God’s work in the material universe.” He imagined two people, one a sketcher and one not, going on a walk. They would see the scene differently; the sketcher would “penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness” in the scene, but the non-sketcher might not even remember or have anything interesting to say about it.
Just as sublimity seemed to prove God’s existence to 18th-century philosophers, beauty seems to prove God’s existence for Ruskin. The parable of the sketcher and the non-sketcher demonstrates, in de Botton’s terminology, the difference between moving through a new place unreflectively and traveling with a receptivity to the environment.
Ruskin wanted people to not only draw but also “word-paint.” De Botton notes that people often lack the language to describe beautiful places, but Ruskin thought this inability was the product of laziness and insufficient reflection. By asking pointed questions about how and why things are beautiful, Ruskin thought people could produce word paintings “motivated by a search for an authentic representation of an experience.” Throughout his life, Ruskin hated English people’s nondescript, monotonous complaints about the weather. Instead, he tried to “bottle” the skies through word-painting, writing extensive descriptions of mornings and sunsets.
Like drawing, word-painting is intended here as a source of personal enrichment more than a way of creating art; in both cases, de Botton sees art as a means to better travel and gain a more precise awareness of one’s aesthetic rather than an end in itself. The “search for an authentic representation” recalls van Gogh’s desire to capture the psychological impact of Provence’s environment and de Botton’s injunction for travelers to cultivate their own authentic personal aesthetic as part of the search for happiness.
Ruskin’s word-paintings were about places’ psychological effects as much as their aesthetic qualities. He personified clouds, seeing them “as if they were animated by an inner will, or compelled by an unseen power.” Similarly, he saw trees in the Alps as “quiet multitudes” that stand “comfortless” and proud amidst the rocks. For Ruskin, psychological descriptions of this sort allowed sketchers to understand their own reactions to a place and more consciously grasp why they loved it.
Just like de Botton in the second and fifth essays, Ruskin sees clouds as evidence of a higher power indifferent to human concerns; his personification of the environment closely recalls Wordsworth’s strong feelings that a mountain, flower, or animal suggested particular virtues. In both cases, the observer is supposed to understand that the feelings they project onto the environment reflect their own actual or desired mental states.
De Botton steps back and describes a man parked on the side of the road near some office buildings, acting in a confusing manner—he alternates between staring into space and scribbling on a notepad. The man is de Botton himself—it is 11:30 at night, and he had been driving home from watching the last flight take off at London City Airport when he stumbled upon the giant, out-of-place office buildings at the West India Dock.
The man in the car appears to be de Botton word-painting, but by describing himself in the third person the author self-deprecatingly remarks on how strange he looks surrounded by office-buildings. Foreshadowing the final chapter, de Botton has already started practicing his travel skills at home in London.
De Botton then felt a desire to possess the buildings’ beauty, and he began word-painting them in psychological terms. During the day, they were normal, he felt, but at night they were out of place, for the darkness and fog threatened the “bureaucratic vision of seriousness” that the buildings embodied. The fog led de Botton to reminisce about his days in university.
De Botton notices not merely features of the building itself but more importantly how it contrasts starkly with the environment: the night and fog seem to turn the familiar office building into a foreign, imposing aberration.
De Botton concludes that, despite his word-paintings’ middling quality, he nevertheless pursued Ruskin’s two goals for art: “to make sense of pain and to fathom the sources of beauty.” When looking at his students’ “misshapen drawings,” Ruskin himself claimed that “the sight is a more important thing than the drawing,” for drawing’s purpose is to teach people to love nature.
Like Wordsworth and van Gogh, Ruskin sees a close connection between learning to notice details and learning to appreciate nature; both require setting aside one’s own concerns to immerse oneself in the unexpected, foreign, or exotic details of a landscape that one does not know.