In The Art of Travel, the philosophical writer Alain de Botton draws from his own experiences abroad, as well as those of distinguished artists, thinkers, and fellow-travelers throughout history, to explore the essential allure of travel. The book’s nine loosely-connected essays juxtapose his own voyages with the travels and travel-related musings of men of European literary and artistic fame. The central motivation for de Botton’s travels—and, he thinks, for most travelers’ journeys—is the desire to escape the familiar and experience the foreign. In one way or another, travelers tend to become enchanted with (or, at worst, fetishize) the places they plan to visit—they crave knowledge of places they imagine as irreconcilably different from home. This ultimately reflects less the superiority of other places than it does people’s deteriorating ability to see beauty in the places where they already live. Although de Botton emphasizes the benefits of travel, he thinks those benefits are also available to travelers at home, so long as they are willing to view the familiar as though it were foreign.
People’s attraction to the foreign and curiosity about difference are perhaps the primary motivation for travel, de Botton claims. In his chapter “On the Exotic,” he uses the travels of influential French novelist Gustave Flaubert to illustrate this point. Growing up, Flaubert was obsessed with the prospect of visiting the Middle East (or, as 19th-century Europeans like him called it, “the Orient”). “In Flaubert’s mind,” writes de Botton, “the word happiness became interchangeable with the word Orient.” His infatuation with the idea of the “Orient” (an imaginary construct that encompassed about as much territory as Europe) led him to move to Egypt after his father’s death. When he arrived, he dwelt on particular moments of beauty that reflected his high hopes: his first glimpse of the “Oriental” shoreline, the chaotic soundscape of Alexandria’s markets, the exoticism of camels, and the unfamiliar idioms of Egyptian Arabic. Similarly, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited South America out of a desire to learn as much as possible about the unfamiliar continent. He studied its plants, animals, people, mountains, rivers, and climate (among other things)—his absolute curiosity about the unknown driving him to dive wholeheartedly into a foreign land. And, in his own travels, de Botton himself consistently notices and derives pleasure from the differences between the places he visits and his native London—for instance, in Amsterdam, he dwells on the differences between English and Dutch architecture, language, and transportation infrastructure. When he first sees the sign reading “uitgang” (“exit”) in the Amsterdam airport, de Botton is overwhelmed with the excitement of cultural difference, which he attributes to the underlying belief that one might discover something abroad that one could never have learned at home. At worst, de Botton suggests, the allure of the foreign is based merely on its sense of novelty; at best, however, it points to elements of other cultures that travelers can learn from and use to enrich their own lives.
But, for de Botton, this bias toward the unfamiliar often emerges more fundamentally from people’s boredom with the places where they already live. When de Botton vacations to Barbados in the first chapter, his primary motivation is the desire to escape London’s dreary winter for the Caribbean’s tropical sun. Similarly, Flaubert loved the idea of the Middle East because he imagined it as uninhibited and passionate, a better fit for him than his boring, bourgeois, and bureaucratic hometown of Rouen. Although it ultimately fails to meet his expectations, the “Orient” serves as an imaginary counterweight to the drudgery of French aristocratic life throughout Flaubert’s work. De Botton also suggests that French poet Charles Baudelaire was obsessed with the prospect of traveling “anywhere! anywhere!” simply because he wanted to escape his own boredom in France. Each of these men appears to recognize that their impulse to travel and obsessive interest in foreign lands come fundamentally from their sense of having exhausted what they already know.
But, ultimately, de Botton thinks that people can learn to approach everything—the familiar and the foreign alike—with the curiosity and receptivity that make travel so rewarding. In the final chapter, de Botton profiles the French writer Xavier de Maistre, who managed to find enough detail in his bedroom to write two lengthy travelogues about journeying through it. De Maistre’s book, although it parodies conventional travel literature, also points to the possibility of traveling mindfully through the spaces where one already travels thoughtlessly: de Maistre puts on his pajamas and treks across the room to his sofa, where he reminisces about the hours he has spent curled up there and admires its elegant construction in detail. Like de Maistre, de Botton learns to see the immense beauty and diversity that fill the neighborhood where he lives his often monotonous and unsatisfying life in London; through his travel mind-set, he learns to notice features of his own environment that, like Amsterdam’s bicycles and unadorned windows, he can adopt to enrich his own life. Many of de Botton’s other “travelers” also traveled within the places they called home—for instance, William Wordsworth found daily joy in the natural features of England’s Lake District even though he was born there. For de Botton, travel is liberating because it teaches people to take pleasure in the details of the world around them and take control over their subjective relationship with that world. This mind-set of receptivity to the world and humility before its unconquerable vastness can lead people to “notice what we have already seen.”
For de Botton, the difference between the familiar and the foreign is fundamentally a difference in mindset, which means that travel can teach people to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of places with which they are already familiar. Whereas travelers often approach new places with fresh eyes, they expect repetition and boredom at home—and, of course, they see what they expect, because they fail to truly look around their hometowns. De Botton concludes that “the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to.” The travel mind-set—which is governed by a receptivity to the world and a humility before novel experiences, sights, and cultures—can lead people to view the familiar as foreign, bringing travel’s expanded sense of possibility back home to transform their own options and more effectively pursue their own happiness.
The Familiar and the Foreign ThemeTracker
The Familiar and the Foreign Quotes in The Art of Travel
Readers who would have been capable of scepticism and prudence in other areas of their lives reverted, in contact with these elements, to a primordial innocence and optimism. The longing provoked by the brochure was an example, at once touching and bathetic, of how projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness; of how a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set into motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.
If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems—that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.’
The twenty-four-hour diner, the station waiting room and the motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a home in the ordinary world—those whom Baudelaire might have dignified with the honorific poets.
What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
Yet none of this meant that Flaubert’s original attraction to Egypt had been misconceived. He simply replaced an absurdly idealized image with a more realistic but nevertheless still profoundly admiring one, he exchanged a youthful crush for a knowledgeable love.
We are all of us, without ever having any say in the matter, scattered at birth by the wind onto various countries, but like Flaubert, we are in adulthood granted the freedom imaginatively to re-create our identity in line with our true allegiances.
One of Wordsworth’s poetic ambitions was to induce us to see the many animals living alongside us that we typically ignore, registering them only out of the corner of our eyes and feeling no appreciation for what they are up to and want: shadowy, generic presences such as the bird up on the steeple and the rustling creature in the bush. He invited his readers to abandon their usual perspectives and to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes, to shuttle between the human and the natural perspective. Why might this be interesting, or even inspiring? Perhaps because unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with.
A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, “I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.”