by Alain de Botton
Published by Hamish Hamilton
314 pages, 2004
Reviewed by John Keenan
I am writing this review on a laptop in a luxurious room in the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin. Seven floors below in the lobby pop star Kylie Minogue, who's also staying here, is running a gauntlet of fans as she makes her way to yet another music awards ceremony. What brings Kylie and me to such a prestigious address? According to Alain de Botton, we are looking for love; specifically, we desire the feelings of significance, acumen and achievement that are supposedly conferred by the ability to rent a room in a five-star hotel. Yet even as we enjoy the freebie chocolates and surf the myriad television channels, Kylie and I know that this feeling is all-to contingent. As de Botton puts it; " we may fail due to stupidity or an absence of self-knowledge, macro-economics or malevolence." We are prey, in other words, to status anxiety.
It is this craving for status and the fear of its loss that de Botton sets out to explore in a diverting, if ultimately unrewarding, new book, Status Anxiety. de Botton is the author of Consolations of Philosophy and How Proust Can Change Your Life and has demonstrated a knack for memorable maxims and a light, readable style. Collectors of recondite information will find much to enjoy in this work. We learn that Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Paine shared a disdain for hereditary preferment and that Matthew Arnold was the proud possessor of eccentrically long sideburns. de Botton tells us that dancing supplanted fighting as the main method by which an Englishmen might impress a woman in 1750 when the notion of "the gentleman" took root and he provides the novel -- at least, novel to me -- information that a fad for breastfeeding among high-born woman of the late 18th century led them to bare their breasts at any opportunity, behavior which the cartoonists of the day were quick to satirize.
de Botton sets out five causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy, dependence) and provides what he believes are five cures for the ailment (philosophy, art, politics, Christianity and bohemia).
Frustratingly, de Botton does not explore how each of these supposed cures eventually establishes its own hierarchy. Anyone who has ever suffered the pious stare of the self-satisfied Christian or the contemptuous glare of the cooler-than-thou punk will knows that status anxiety is not confined to the denizens of suburbia.
In a chapter on art, de Botton writes: "Paintings too can challenge the world's normal understanding of who and what is important." This is hopelessly naïve; no other area of activity is more prone to spurious trend setting and the fear of being out of fashion. Was de Botton asleep in the 1980s, when corporate vulgarity and greed drove the art market to hyperinflated prices and a shallow concern with being "with-it," with the result that even sober museum curators were heard to talk fatuously about "the cutting edge"?
And when he idealizes Virginia Woolf as a champion of women's rights, whose experience of being turned away from Trinity College Library in Cambridge provoked the Pauline realization of her sex's "disenfranchisement from equal rights to education," one wants to say "Get a life, Alain." Virginia Woolf was a colossal snob who only ever championed the rights of Virginia Woolf and the fellow members of the unbelievably self-regarding Bloomsbury set.
Status Anxiety is further undermined by the author's seeming ignorance of everyday life. For example, he writes amusingly about how the invention of the telephone in the 19th century provided new opportunities for snobbery and invidious comparison but he fails to mention that the modern telecommunications industry, with its interchangeable mobile phone covers, ringtones and accessories, would be insupportable if young people had the maturity to realize that possession of last month's model does not a loser make.
In trade newspapers in Great Britain Status Anxiety is being plugged with the strapline "Get this book -- everyone else will," which demonstrates that his publishers, if not de Botton himself, have spotted the fatal irony which pulls the rug out from under the whole enterprise: the book itself is a status symbol. Whether or not you read it, agree with it, or find it bogus is beside the point. The chief thing is to own it and thereby prove your superiority in the world of cultural studies.
Ho-hum. But now it is time to close down my laptop and repair to the eye-wateringly expensive Ritz-Carlton bar. Otherwise how will anyone know I am here? And where would be the sense in that? | April 2004
John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.