Alain de Botton and his fellow travelers have sublime encounters with clouds throughout The Art of Travel, and these encounters demonstrate the overwhelming force of nature in addition to the myriad ways people can learn from and heal through their relationships to nature. In his second essay, after de Botton drives “alone with clouds” through the English countryside, he declares it incredible that airplanes can fly over clouds and cites a Baudelaire poem that proclaims a person’s love for the clouds. As people identify with the clouds, they join a realm far beyond the seemingly-petty concerns of everyday human life and can experience a tranquil unity with the natural world. Similarly, de Botton later recalls William Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” when the sight of a storm cloud stops him in his tracks; this cloud distracts him from his concerns over social status and reminds him about the “redemptive power of natural forces.” Indeed, Wordsworth believed that spending time in nature could allow people from the city to rediscover virtue, in part because doing so allowed them to take in the stoic resilience of things like trees, mountains, and clouds. Finally, John Ruskin word-painted clouds, seeing them as a source of beauty in everyday life and imagining them “compelled by an unseen power” that suggests their incomprehensibility and indifference to human affairs. Although de Botton does not return to the sublime in this passage, Ruskin’s description here clearly connects it to clouds by suggesting that they go on inexplicably, with or without humans, and evoking the common view of God as an “unseen power” who directs the universe.
In all these cases, people learn to escape their narrow perspective and shortsighted focus on immediate problems by recognizing something as seemingly common and normal as the clouds, which can lead them back to a humility before the natural world. Clouds thus represent both the sublime and the banal, a universal connection with the mysteries of nature that can be found anywhere in the world.