Returning from Barbados to London, de Botton discovers “that the city had stubbornly refused to change.” London is “unimpressed,” still grey and raining, which reminds de Botton that the world is indifferent to what happens in its inhabitants’ lives. De Botton feels as though there is nowhere worse on the planet than London.
Whereas the indifference of clouds, mountains, and oak trees to human life is a source of pleasure for de Botton, London’s continued dreariness is a source of anxiety; he returns expecting the dreadful boredom of what is familiar, and he immediately hopes to escape it again.
De Botton again quotes Pascal’s Pensées: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”
As in the chapter on the sublime, Pascal foreshadows this essay’s focus. De Botton also recalls Baudelaire’s endless desire to travel elsewhere, simply for the sake of escaping the familiar.
Nine years before Alexander von Humboldt set out for South America in 1799, the French writer Xavier de Maistre published a book about a Journey around My Bedroom. In 1798, he took a second such trip, which resulted in Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. Whereas Humboldt’s mode of travel required an enormous amount of resources and equipment, de Maistre’s only needed his “pink-and-blue cotton pyjamas.” The “intense, romantic” de Maistre loved French philosophy and paintings of domestic scenes as a child; at 23, he took an interest in aeronautics and planned unsuccessfully to fly himself to America in a paper plane. He then invented “room travel” and wrote Journey around My Bedroom from his small apartment in Turin.
Humboldt’s extravagant journey required vast resources, expertise, and ambition—de Maistre needed only his clothing (and not necessarily even that) to undertake his own explorations. While his travel within confinement might recall the Duc des Esseintes’ daydreaming about foreign places, de Maistre does not give up on travel but rather insists, after a lifetime of it, that it can be done anywhere. His attempt to fly across the Atlantic in a paper plane, however, shows his later mission’s satirical undercurrent.
Introducing Journey around My Bedroom, de Maistre’s brother Joseph wrote that Xavier did not mean to disparage the great travelers of the past, but rather to offer a more practical and cost-effective travel option. Xavier particularly recommended it to the cash-strapped and cowardly.
Joseph de Maistre’s vaguely satirical defense of travel for all underlines people’s power to control their mind-set in relation to their environment; for de Botton, travel’s most important element, receptivity, is entirely free.
De Botton declares that de Maistre’s trip “did not get very far.” De Maistre changes into his pyjamas and travels to his sofa, which he sees “through fresh eyes” and admires nostalgically, thinking back to the time he spent daydreaming on it. He looks back at his bed, appreciating its complexity and his sheets’ color coordination with his pyjamas. But he “may be accused of losing sight” of his travel’s purpose soon thereafter, as he begins to ponder his dog and women.
De Botton acknowledges that de Maistre fell into a daydreaming of the sort des Esseintes lived by, but he insists that the bedroom traveler’s initial fascination with the details of the place where he spent so many hours demonstrates everyone’s potential to become receptive to any environment, including the most familiar ones.
But de Botton sees de Maistre’s book as founded on the “profound and suggestive insight” that travel’s mind-set often matters more than its destination. By viewing familiar places through the travel mind-set, he thinks, people might find their home places just as interesting as exotic destinations like Humboldt’s South America.
De Botton breaks down the barrier between the familiar and the foreign, the tired and the exotic, and the mundane and the beautiful or sublime: by conceiving travel as a mind-set, he suggests that people have control over their attunement to their environments and can gain knowledge and virtue even without breaking from their normal lives.
De Botton states that receptivity, which leads people to approach places without pride or unrealistic expectations, is the most important characteristic of the “travelling mind-set.” People can revel in what they might consider “unremarkable small details” about the places where they live, and learn to notice “the layers of history beneath the present.” People tend to assume they have discovered everything at home and become blind to everything new that happens there; de Maistre’s goal was to “shake us from our passivity.” In his second book, he admires the night sky and laments that so few people take the time to do so, for they have begun to expect that their universe might be boring.
De Botton finally offers a unified argument about receptivity’s essential role in fostering a reflective attitude toward life and helping people take control of their lives, which seem to be his ultimate goals in this book. Throughout, de Botton has found layers of meaning in details that others might find superfluous, like Amsterdam’s brickwork or the shape of the Lake District’s trees. Just as Ruskin thought people’s failure to appreciate the weather was a product of laziness rather than the weather’s actual mundanity, de Botton argues that people’s failure to appreciate the places where they live is a product of their rigid perspective rather than the dreariness of home.
De Botton’s bedroom is too small for a real voyage, so he decides to instead travel around his neighborhood of Hammersmith, London. He feels strange wandering outside “with no particular destination in mind,” noticing a family and a double-decker bus pass by on the usual route to the Underground station that he has ceased to see as “anything other than a means to my end.” The people he encounters on the way to the station have been invisible since he first moved to Hammersmith.
The familiar space between de Botton’s house and the underground station is usually empty to him, a distance to walk in order to reach his goal. While it is uncomfortable at first for him to walk there without a destination, he quickly begins to scale back his preconceptions and return to the mindset with which he first moved to the neighborhood.
Usually, when entering a new place, people direct their attention widely, to diverse phenomena. But, over time, they start to focus on the elements of the space that bear on whatever function they hope to perform there, until they pare their sensitivity down to just a few things like—during de Botton’s walk to the train—“the number of humans in our path, perhaps, the amount of traffic and the likelihood of rain.” By imposing his own “grid of interests” on the area, de Botton had lost the ability to reflect on the neighborhood’s particular sort of architecture or people.
This theory that attention converges on people’s goals helps explain why people end up with rigid perspectives after living repetitive lives. One’s goal, de Botton argues, quite literally narrows or broadens the scope of one’s attention and receptivity to the environment, so that most commuters end up blind to the worlds they travel through.
During this walk, however, de Botton wants to “reverse the process of habituation, to dissociate my surroundings from the uses I had previously found for them.” He tries to view Hammersmith as if it is new and foreign for him, and soon “objects released latent layers of value” as he begins noticing things that previously passed invisibly, like a shop’s peculiar pillars and a restaurant’s fascinating patrons. On the bus, he begins to imagine the other riders’ private lives and wonders whether one corporate manager complaining about others’ inefficiency recognizes his own shortcomings. For de Botton, the neighborhood “began to collect ideas” as he reflects on why he finds certain features beautiful and striking.
As he begins to view the familiar as foreign, de Botton puts to use all the tools he has gathered from his traveling companions throughout the book. He speculates about other riders’ lives, much as he speculated about the people Edward Hopper painted; he wonders whether the man on the phone is projecting his own psychological issues onto whomever he is talking with, just as Ruskin and Wordsworth saw travelers diffract their own emotions and virtues through their descriptions of the environment; and he follows his curiosity, tying details to bigger questions, as he learned from Humboldt in Madrid.
De Botton explains that he prefers to travel alone, because others can often shape people’s expectations, personality, and interests on a trip, constraining their ability to follow their curiosity to its fullest extent. He embraces his “freedom to act a little weirdly” that day as he sketches a shop window in Hammersmith.
De Botton thinks that travel can be most personally enriching when the traveler is free to chart their own path through new territory, because this lets them stage an uninterrupted dialogue between the environment and their values and aesthetic preferences.
Xavier de Maistre was “also a great traveller in the classic sense”—he fought military campaigns in Italy and Russia. Whereas Alexander von Humboldt traveled to escape his “boring daily life” and discover a “marvellous world” overseas, de Maistre rejected the dichotomy between these two universes.
De Botton assures the reader that de Maistre’s affinity for bedroom travel did not stem from a lack of adventurousness or aversion to transit; rather, he saw that the travel mind-set is all one needs to re-enchant the familiar world, seeing the beauty and meaning that one previously ignored.
After reading de Maistre, Nietzsche remarked that “some people know how to manage their experiences” and learn to “become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year,” while other people who witness incredible events “always remain on top, bobbing like a cork.” The former are a minority, “those who know how to make much of little,” and the rest “know how to make little of much.” While some have ventured to deserts, ice caps, and jungles without leaving any mark of their travels on their souls, de Botton concludes, de Maistre wanted people, “before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.”
Nietzsche’s quote reinforces de Botton’s thesis that the traveler is the ultimate measure of all things: just as a trip to sunny Barbados does not solve the author’s relationship problems and Baudelaire and Flaubert find themselves tired and depressed abroad, it is unrealistic for travelers to expect that they can simply absorb a place’s benefits. Rather, the crucial factor in travel’s success is one’s own active engagement with the world and willingness to be moved by it.