In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton argues that travel’s greatest gift to those who undertake it, the travel mind-set, centers on a receptivity to one’s environment. By engaging with foreign environments, both urban and natural, de Botton believes that travelers can gain new perspectives on the world and their individual role within it. To de Botton, a receptive attitude to the natural world can teach travelers humility and patience, which can help them overcome the suffering they experience in their ordinary lives, and travelers can investigate the important questions at the center of human life by linking their curiosity about these questions to the places they visit. But these benefits of receptivity do not come through osmosis: rather, travelers must actively pursue and cultivate receptivity by learning to pay better attention to, and ask the right questions of, the places they visit.
During their travels, de Botton and many of his subjects heal themselves in various ways by immersing themselves in nature. William Wordsworth thought that trips to the countryside could remedy city-dwellers’ vices by reminding them of nature’s virtues. Trees and mountains suggested “sanity, purity and permanence,” flowers showed “humility and meekness,” and animals “were paragons of stoicism.” During his own trip to the Lake District, where Wordsworth lived, de Botton begins to imagine a sheep’s perspective on the world and ponder the virtues Wordsworth preached. Similarly, in the following essay, de Botton travels to the Sinai Desert in search of the sublime, a feeling of human insignificance usually tied to standing before vast natural expanses like mountain ranges, oceans, night skies, and deserts. To philosopher Edmund Burke, this feeling helps people recognize their own insignificance, but in a productive way: the power of the sublime inspires awe and can lead people to accept the limits of their will and inevitability of natural forces. De Botton suggests that sublime landscapes can therefore help people accept their failures and put their relatively minor human worries into perspective. And in his chapter on traveling places, de Botton argues that taking off in an airplane can feel liberating because it allows people to remove themselves from their concerns on the ground and imagine that they might “surge above much that now looms over us.” In all these cases, the traveler’s receptivity to the environment leads them to a humility before nature and a perspective beyond the limited one that dominates their everyday lives.
Becoming receptive to their environment also allows travelers to pursue their curiosity and cultivate their own individual perspectives. Gustave Flaubert’s curiosity about Egypt led him to intensively study the local language, social customs, history, and religion, all of which influenced his later life, fiction, and self-image. De Botton’s chapter “On Curiosity” tackles this most directly, contrasting Alexander von Humboldt’s boundless curiosity with the natural world with de Botton’s own lack of interest in his guidebook about Madrid. The secret to making the environment relevant to people’s curiosity, he concludes, is tying the details travelers see to the bigger questions at the heart of human existence. Upon visiting a church, a traveler should not focus on the date it was built or the height of its ceilings (unless they happen to be intensely interested in such things). Rather, de Botton thinks that people should consider why people build churches at all, or believe in God in the first place. He thinks that human curiosity naturally extends out from these big questions to the more minor details of everyday life.
De Botton cites the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to make the analogous argument that people must connect details and big questions to their purpose in order to truly fulfill their curiosity. Art educator John Ruskin thought that drawing’s value was in its ability to help people notice the detailed parts that make up beautiful and visually interesting objects; in turn, the ability to notice these parts was valuable because it helped people understand the general aesthetic rules that determine what they find beautiful and ugly. As he starts paying closer visual attention to the world around him, de Botton uncovers rules like “it is better for light to strike objects from the side than from overhead,” which are valuable because they can guide his search for beauty in the future.
However, achieving receptivity to the environment is not as easy as going somewhere new and passively waiting for insights to strike; it also requires the traveler to actively cultivate their own abilities, both in the moment (by actively attending to the world rather than absentmindedly floating through it) and in the longer term (by learning how to pay attention in the first place). In his first essay, de Botton finds himself disappointed in part because he falsely blamed his unhappiness on London’s weather and believed that simply going to Barbados would solve his problems. He suggests that many travelers share the same unrealistic belief, for they suppose that they will simply absorb the energy of wherever they travel. Accordingly, they fail to look around and reflect on what they see or address the fundamental problems that follow them on vacation. Although de Botton’s happiest moments in Barbados are nevertheless those when he loses himself in the sun and air, he also recognizes that he can only do so during moments of deliberate attention and reflection. In fact, even imagining nature’s perspective and processing the sublime require a deliberate thought and reflection that may not come naturally for humans. De Botton interprets the Biblical Book of Job as a lesson in appreciating the sublime, for Job only learns about the sublime significance of the desert and the mountains after God asks him questions he cannot answer.
People who so often proceed through their normal lives in a state of partial blindness to the world around them have much to gain from a receptive attitude in travel, but they also need to learn receptivity in the first place, whether by reflecting on the central questions of human life to the point where their travels can impact their broader sense of personal meaning or by learning to think through the implications of nature’s indifference to human problems. While de Botton seems to find it easier for people to achieve humility through nature than to satisfy curiosity through a built environment—since the former extends from an immediate feeling and the latter requires people to ask the right questions—both these fruits of travel require an active investment in and engagement with the world, rather than the passive attitude that the word “receptivity” might misleadingly suggest.
The Receptive Self ThemeTracker
The Receptive Self Quotes in The Art of Travel
I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.
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.
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.
The value of landscapes would henceforth be decided not solely on the basis of formal aesthetic criteria (the harmony of colours, for example, or the arrangement of lines) or even economic or practical concerns, but rather according to the power of places to arouse the mind to sublimity.
Because we find places to be beautiful as immediately and apparently spontaneously as we find snow to be cold or sugar sweet, it is hard to imagine that there is anything we might do to alter or expand our attractions. It seems that matters have been decided for us by qualities inherent in the places themselves or by hardwiring in our psyches, and that we would therefore be as helpless to modify our sense of the places we find beautiful as we would our preference for the ice creams we find appetizing.
Yet aesthetic tastes may be less rigid than this analogy suggests. We overlook certain places because nothing has ever prompted us to conceive of them as being worthy of appreciation, or because some unfortunate but random association has turned us against them.
A few years after van Gogh’s stay in Provence, Oscar Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. Surely, too, there were fewer cypresses in Provence before van Gogh painted them.
The camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge, but it may also unwittingly make the effort of acquiring that knowledge seem superfluous. It suggests that we have done all the work simply by taking a photograph, whereas proper eating of a place—a woodland, for example—requires that we pose ourselves a series of questions such as “How do the stems connect to the roots?” “Where is the mist coming from?” “Why does one tree seem darker than another?” These questions are implicitly asked and answered in the process of sketching.
“I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”