Wednesday, April 08, 2009

All that one might have been, and now never will be

Exceptionally, the train tonight allows him half a carriage to himself. He has been making this journey for the past 12 years. In the slanting summer light, when the smell of cut grass enters the windows from across the open countryside, he falls prey to feelings of nostalgia. He puts his feet up on the seat opposite and is carried back to other evenings which looked almost exactly like this one, which were of the same temperature and clarity, but happened when his mother was still alive, before his children were born, when he was not yet divorced. He contemplates all that has been difficult, unnecessary and regrettable but from a position of distance, with a calm and poignant vantage point over his imperfections and missed opportunities, as though his life were a bad sentimental film and he its half sympathetic, half repugnant hero. He has reached the age of reminiscence, though right now, somewhere in the scattered houses outside, there is a 16-year-old boy for whom this will be the one central hot summer of longing and discovery, the one remembered in 30 years on a train which is not yet made and remains as iron ore in the red scrub of the Western Australian desert.

Everyone's favourite glabrous, middle-brow, populist television philosopher, Alain de Botton is back with a book on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. For a fairly harmless, genial individual, de Botton seems to generate large quantities of opprobrium amongst professional philosophers and literary types. Mary Margaret McCabe (no relation, as far as I'm aware), gave The Consolations of Philosophy an absolute pasting back in 2000, complaining that

"Philosophy, on this view, is the self-help science, the art of success, whose imperatives are heard throughout the book against barely disguised autobiographical themes of social awkwardness, disastrous sexual activity and failure in love.

"De Botton fails entirely to see that if reflection is to be thus directed, then, corrupted by the exigencies of practicality, it ceases to have the kind of reflective distance which makes it work."

"In the culture of the market economy, we miss the fact that philosophy is valuable in and by itself; and this is the culture which will destroy not only the independence of philosophy, but the humanities entire."

On the contrary, there's no justification for making such assumptions about what philosophy can and cannot be, and philosophy as a whole is sufficiently robust to withstand the odd attempt at popular applicability.

Nevertheless, it's true that the actual philosophy in de Botton's books is quite shallow. It is, rather, the poignancy and the wit of de Botton's observations on life which become their real attraction. In de Botton's discourse on the art of travel, he advises readers to avoid compulsive photography on holiday, and instead, to try drawing landmarks in pencil. By so doing, one processes all the intricate detail and structure through one's own my mind, and in the bargain, one generates a uniquely personal rendition, rather than a generic, disposal photo.

And on the subject of work, it would be wrong to dismiss an author capable of suggesting that the "start of work means an end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires... How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate, in the loneliness of the early hours, all that one might have been, and now never will be."

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