In part two of their conversation Alain de Botton and Paul Holdengraber discuss the cultural critic as excavator of ideas, how the French do it better, and the addictive nature of Twitter. Listen to part one, here.
Alain de Botton on communication…
It’s one of the great taboos of intellectual life that we imagine that the people who have got the best ideas have expressed them in the best ways and often that isn’t true. Often somebody’s most brilliant ideas are lying trapped deep underground, if you like, and it’s the job of the cultural critic to open up tunnels underneath and to scrape away the dirt and bring them to the surface where they can be used and admired. Some of these bits of knowledge that are otherwise lodged in the middle of some unprepossessing stuff.
Alain de Botton on writing as translation…
There’s a job of translation to be done, sometimes. And in many ways I think that’s what a writer often is, even if you’re not writing about David Hume. You’re trying to translate your own feelings or perceptions. Writers are constantly trying to build a bridge between the kind of chaos and confusion that’s in most of our minds most of the time and just trying to provide more lucid accounts at points of how life is.
Alain de Botton on why the French do it better…
I’ve always looked to people like Voltaire who was an example of somebody who tried really hard to make his writing seem utterly clear, and like common sense. In fact, it wasn’t at all. The best moments of French culture have been in that kind of tradition that goes from Voltaire, that dedication to plain speaking. You find it even before Voltaire, with people like Montaigne or Pascal. It’s a kind of commitment to entering the thickets of human experience and making sure that your reportage is pretty clear. But the Germans, bless them, have introduced a different idea in the world, and it seems odd to single out a particular country, but particularly in the philosophical area Germany was so dominant in the 19th century and really infected Western culture with an idea that the more obscure something is the more intelligent it stands a chance of being, which has just been absolutely fatal.
Alain de Botton on philosophical discourse…
We live in a world that is divided between commercial culture which places an enormous premium on clarity and the idea that your radio jingle or advert will get across to its audience immediately. There are many highly paid people who spend their lives making sure messages are absolutely aimed like a missile to pierce our hearts and our minds. Meanwhile some people dealing with very important material about democracy, liberty, money, [have ideas which] are being discussed without such a premium on clarity, with a result that the gulf between the thoughts of the elite and the thoughts of everyone else are sometimes painfully large and everybody suffers, because we live in a democracy, and in a democracy it is so important that intellectuals have a mass impact, because it is a mass society.
Alain de Botton on Twitter…
As Hume tells us, we are all much more the creatures of passions than reason. So long as we recognize that, we can put measures in place. Look, it is an addictive medium, not particularly noble. It has its place. But I think that people setting out to do big projects have a particular struggle in this day and age with digital media that is made to be engaging and made to interrupt our longer and more sincere thought processes. So we probably should all of us keep an eye on that, but I’m the first to admit it’s hard.
The Course of Love
In Edinburgh, a couple, Rabih and Kirsten, fall in love. They get married. They have children. Society tells us this is the end of the story. In fact, it is only the beginning.
The long-awaited and beguiling sequel to Essays in Love, The Course of Love charts the complex and intricate course of a long-term relationship.
We all know the headiness and excitement of love’s early days, but what can be expected over a shared lifetime? We follow our couple – Rabih and Kristen – from the first flush of infatuation through to inevitable disenchantments and then onto the freedom and insights of maturity. The Course of Love is a novel that explores not so much the start of love, as its maintenance over time; the way our ideals bend and reform under the pressures of an average existence, and the magnificent, sometimes frightening, developments we can make as we slowly realise that love is in essence a skill we need to learn rather than an enthusiasm we simply experience.
Playful, wise, and profoundly moving, The Course of Love is an unparalleled meditation on modern relationships —and a delightful return to the novel for Alain, more than 20 years after Essays in Love.
Published in 2016.