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Beyond Therapy 

Alain de Botton discusses his literary take on the self-help genre

Alain de Botton's books are seductive. The clarity of their prose is exemplary, the certainty of their ideas is reassuring, and what is more, they promise to make us healthier, happier human beings. You could say that de Botton writes self-help books, but from the outskirts of that industry. Typically, self-help books dice their advice into small pieces, so readers won't choke on the preponderance of gristle. De Botton, by contrast, is a supremely literary author. He began his career as a novelist, with On Love, a scenes-from-a-marriage-type work that skillfully combines essay fragments with allusions to philosophy and literature. At the time, one could imagine him becoming a Jay McInnery or Bret Easton Ellis for the Oxford set, but his next book overturned this notion completely. How Proust Can Change Your Life was a bestseller that ran on the singular platform that we can read the great books (in this case, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past) for the clues to successful living. The Swiss author, who now lives in London, continues this campaign in his latest book, The Consolations of Philosophy, which takes up the lessons afforded by six major philosophers. The Independent had the opportunity to interview de Botton recently, on the occasion of his new book's publication in a paperback edition.

The Independent: One interesting thing about The Consolations of Philosophy is the way it can be read as a straightforward self-help book on the one hand, and as a serious introduction to the philosophers it considers on the other. This might seem to imply a divided audience--those looking for advice on their love lives as opposed to those interested in Montaigne or Nietzsche. It's remarkable, however, that the book assumes its readers' interest in both popular and serious subjects. Did you have this in mind when you wrote it? Have you encountered any criticism with respect to your approach, charges that it misappropriates the philosophers' ideas, for instance?

Alain de Botton: In our culture, we're very shy about asking blunt questions about great authors of the past, questions like, "What's the point of this?" We tend to become very polite around great authors and simply take their importance for granted. But I've always been more impatient (or just more blunt) than this. When I read a book, even by a great author, I want to gain something from it--I want to be enlightened, amused, educated or challenged. And I suppose that in my own writing on great authors, I bring this more practical approach to bear. That said, I don't think that being practical necessarily has to mean being unserious or unscholarly, or doing an injustice to great figures. In fact, it's really an act of love to take writers so seriously that you open yourself up to being influenced by them in your own life. So I am writing in quite an unusual way in our culture, in that I try to balance a scholarly look at certain figures with a practical approach. The danger is of course that you get shot down from two sides: Some people might prefer true self help and stick to Dale Carnegie, while scholars and university professors might say, and have said, "this is a travesty." And yet, however flawed my work may be, and however hostile some responses may be, I still stick by my project and see it as an ideal worth fighting for.

While your approach seems decidedly postmodern, the sensibility of your work is more modernist. After all, the premise of both The Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life is that relief from suffering can be had, if only we follow the example of great thinkers. Are there areas outside of official culture where we might fruitfully seek consolation? What are your thoughts on psychoanalysis, reference to which is glaringly absent in your writing? One reason I'm asking is that your work faintly resembles that of analyst-turned-author Adam Phillips.

I am very interested in psychoanalysis, in particular in two authors, Donald Winnicott and Adam Phillips. They both belong to a British school of psychoanalysis which is very down to earth and believes in speaking plainly about everyday problems. Psychoanalysis and philosophy naturally have great affinities. I like to see psychoanalysis as a discipline that arose out of philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century (in 1900, Nietzsche, the last of the great psychological philosophers dies, and Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams). In general, I like to broaden the conception of where consolation, and interest, could be found--not only in philosophy, but also in psychoanalysis, history, political philosophy and, of course, literature.

With The Consolations of Philosophy you continue an early ambition--from as early as your first novel, you wanted to theorize by way of fiction, to invent by way of theory. This is different from interpolating fiction and theory, which is more common in contemporary fiction. How does this ambition relate to what your books are about? While the style suggests a forward movement, sometimes the subject, or your treatment of it, casts the reader backward a century or more. The result is a kind of vertigo. This effect was particularly intense for me while reading the chapter on Schopenhauer, in which brokenheartedness is identified with heterosexuality--i.e., in your reading of Schopenhauer you find that people's disappointment in love follows from their biological drive to procreate. As a gay reader, what consolation can I take from this chapter?

I've always seen my work as owing something to fiction, but essentially belonging to nonfiction, in that my real interest lies in analysis and ideas. Often, I need to root analysis and ideas in personal experience or in novelistic experience, but this is really only by way of exemplifying, of making vivid, an idea or thought. I have great sympathy for the classic action-and-character-based novel, but it's not something I could myself write. As for your point about Schopenhauer, his analysis of love is deeply insufficient and yet also deeply fascinating. Two generations before Freud, he was the first to point out that there are largely unconscious reasons why we fall in love with the people we do. There were many aspects of love he did not directly consider, homosexual love among them, and yet his essential (and consoling) point still stands: namely, that love can be in conflict with our rational selves and that we must accept this humbling fact with good grace.

What will your next book be about? I noticed that The Consolations of Philosophy has been turned into a six-part TV series for Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. Have you considered writing specifically for television or film?

I've just finished a book about travel, to be entitled The Art of Travel, to be published in May of 2002. I did some TV in the United Kingdom for Channel 4. It was a great experience, a chance to leave the house and work in a team, which I found very fulfilling. I may do a little more of this, but TV is a very industrial medium, taking ages to do and demanding huge resources, so writing will always be my true love.

I imagine that lately you have found yourself feeling like the protagonist in Miss Lonelyhearts. What problem do people ask your advice on most often?

I would say "love and work." These were the two ingredients that Freud famously said were essential to happiness. They are enormously hard to get right, but--as Nietzsche would say--the struggle to get them right is worthwhile. EndBlock

  • On the eve of his Durham reading, Alain de Botton discusses his new work, "The Consolations of Philosophy."

More by Thomas Schur

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