Alain De Botton
Nature in The Art of Travel and How Mountains
Distinctive representations of the symbiotic relationship between natural landscapes and people are reinforced through personal and socio-cultural contexts. Such representations can be brought about through travel, often renewing an individual’s relationships between real, imagined and remembered landscapes, also their identity. Alain de Botton’s non-fiction, multi-modal novel ‘The Art of Travel’ profoundly explores the personal and esoteric experiences of the sublime landscape facilitating the narrator’s augmented recognition of identity through the eclectic mix of artists and writers. Similarly, Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘How the old mountains drip with sunset’ (How mountains) explores nature’s overwhelming beauty as an influence on humanity through the narrator’s perceived image of the sunset. Although both texts provoke a profound understanding of an individual’s identity, their experience of landscape is diverse.
It is human nature for individuals to crave exploration of exotic landscapes that evoke a sense of appreciation in their monotonous lives that in turn, heighten their self-awareness. Through the distinctive representation of ‘The Exotic’ landscape in ‘The Art of Travel’, de Botton reveals his appreciation for beauty that landscapes provide through guides such as Gustave Flaubert to maintain the essay-like structure of the novel. Travel allows individuals to escape their mundane life as presented through de Botton’s portrayal of Gustave Flaubert, a highly educated French novelist who became attracted to the Orient. Flaubert’s need to flee his “sterile, banal and laborious” life, ultimately provides him with the ability to appreciate an exotic landscape as displayed through the listing of negative attributes of his current landscape. Flaubert continues with high modality in “dreamt of glory, love, laurels, journeys to the Orient” where the notion of travel provides a medium for his dreams and wishes to be satisfied. In this way, the landscape provides a medium for a heightened self-awareness. Correspondingly, Dickinson’s ‘How mountains’ explore nature’s alluring influence on humanity through the poem. The narrator’s speechlessness as she describes nature in awe through the repetition of “how” in the first stanza, demonstrates her amazement, appreciation and questioning of the beauty that nature provides. In “a Dome of Abyss is Bowing into Solitude”, Dickinson profoundly explores the personal and esoteric experiences through the eclectic allusion to artists and writers, revealing her acknowledgement for nature’s capacity to exceed the most skilful artists as nature can provide perspectives that art cannot. De Botton and Dickinson’s representation of the symbiotic relationship between exotic landscapes and people as well as its profound influence on identity goes beyond personal and socio-cultural contexts.
Individual experiences of nature present the ability to grasp insights into life and inevitably, enhance the understanding of their identity. De Botton’s representation ‘On the Country and City’ reveals that responders may become artists themselves as landscapes have the power to inspire and incite our imagination. Through the guide of William Wordsworth, he provides a romanticist perception of landscapes. “The poet proposed that Nature…was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by the city” as the high modal, negative language suggest that the city can coerce individuals to escape towards the country or somewhere that provides peace through nature’s beauty. This is further reflected in; the “natural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us” where the personification of nature portray the impact that landscapes can have, resulting in our renewed relationships with others. Here, de Botton reveals that this exposure will lead us to change our identity as we travel from landscape to landscape, ultimately uncovering the profound influence on identity. Dickinson reveals in ‘How mountains’ that even the Italian painter Domenichino who was glorified for his use of colour was “paralysed” by nature’s awe, suggesting that nature may have been a prominent influence in shaping the sociocultural context of his era and his career. This further implies that paintings may fail to capture nature’s beauty while poems can. Dickinson additionally appreciates nature in the simile “Fire ebbs like Billows”, presenting the sun to slowly fade away, ultimately revealing how the sun can limit our view of the natural world, through her use of assonance. This highlights nature with the ability to dictate our lives and ultimately shape our identity. Furthermore, the personification of “how a small Dusk crawls on the Village” deonstrates the landscape as a living thing, emphasising a landscape’s ability to come alive to an individual and effect their perceptions. Thus, it is the personal and sociocultural contexts that characterise de Botton and Dickinson’s symbiotic relationship between landscapes and people to illuminate a profound influence on identity.
Both Alain de Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’ and Emily Dickinson’s ‘How the old mountains drip with sunset’ portray a character’s liberation to explore the exotic and organic to ultimately, demonstrate an appreciation for the landscape around them. This presents individuals with an ability to escape their monotonous lives and experience a thorough understanding of their identity. Through the portrayal of these ideas and the distinctive representation of the symbiotic relationship between landscape and people, provide differing perspectives of landscape resulting in a profound identity.
Representation of People and Landscapes in The Art of Travel and Wild
Representations of authors’ experiences of particular landscapes hold great significance for their audiences, as they portray the multifaceted relationships between people and landscapes, such as how interactions with landscape shape awareness of identity. This is potently represented in Alain De Botton’s postmodern collection of essays ‘The Art of Travel’ (Penguin, 2002) and Jean-Marc Vallée’s biographical film ‘Wild’ (River Road Entertainment, 2014). De Botton explores how real landscapes can offer relief from the monotonous nature of life and how they can enlighten individuals on the limitations of their humanity, whilst Vallée examines how real landscapes can allow individuals to heal from traumatic experiences and how imagined landscapes can provide hope for an individual in difficult circumstances.
De Botton clearly examines how transitional places can provide an escape from the mundane and provoke introspective reflection through his poignant representation of real landscapes in his essay ‘On Travelling Places’, didactically enlightening us on the complex nature of communal identity, specifically on how individuals can be paradoxically comforted by communal loneliness. De Botton parodies the typical travel guide by investigating the “power of the liminal travelling place”, how our anticipation of landscapes shapes our perception of them. De Botton’s use of intertextuality from Baudelaire’s poem “Anywhere! So long as it is out of the world!” illustrates De Botton’s premise that the promise of something other than the mundane is transpired in the journey through landscapes; that “the destination was not really the point. The paradoxical perspective that Hopper’s paintings ‘Compartment C’ and ‘Automat’ convey is that lonely public places “dilute a feeling of isolation”, expressing how undesirable landscapes may offer solace in the realisation of collective solitude, thus journeys become the metaphoric ‘midwives of thought’ and catalysts for contemplation. Essentially, De Botton highlights how landscapes can shape identity, especially in transitional places where individuals are connected emotionally however possess no substantial relationships.
Additionally, Vallée’s eloquent illustration of landscapes in his biographical film ‘Wild’ presents the notion that the promise real landscapes can bring can cause one to imagine the journey ahead of them, Vallée provoking contemplation on the power of landscapes to influence the self, especially how landscapes can provide sustenance and hope in difficult circumstances, through Cheryl, who fails to cope with her mother’s death. The still shot of Cheryl watching her dishevelled reflection in the window accompanied by non-diegetic slow music emphasises her disconnection from her disturbing, external reality, the raindrops paralleling to her inner turmoil and the sharp cuts which follow conveying her fragility and the fragmentation of her life. Vallée’s use of camera cuts back and forth between Cheryl and the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) on a book signify Cheryl’s eagerness to explore it, similar to De Botton’s ‘On Travelling Places’ on the anticipation of journeys. A rapid montage of Cheryl buying the book to her hiking the PCT, synthesised with her meta-reflexive voiceover of her high modal declarative statement, “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,” evidently conveys how the thought of the journey through landscapes can provide strength to escape one’s turmoil.
Furthermore, through his powerful portrayal of landscapes in his essay ‘On the Sublime’, De Botton didactically explores how real natural landscapes can enlighten individuals on the limitations of their humanity and enable them to gain insight into their place in the world. Through the socratic method of philosophical inquiry, De Botton rhetorically questions “What do such barren, overwhelming spaces bring us?”. An extreme long shot of Loutherbourg’s painting ‘An Avalanche in the Alps’ contrasts the miniscule humans with the threatening landscape, portraying human frailty in sublime environments and how landscapes can evoke the paradoxical human pleasure of feeling powerless, therefore evocative of existential understanding. De Botton utilises intertextuality to add weight to his premise through the ‘guide’ Burke’s analogy of oxen as powerful but passive landscapes and bulls as landscapes that are “very destructive … therefore great”, enlightening us on the human tendency to be in awe of things more powerful than ourselves through the bull-like Sinai. Biblical allusions to Job’s sufferings parallel sublime landscapes with a divine power beyond human understanding, where God makes Job realise his seemingly insignificant place in the ‘grand scheme of things’, suggesting that despite existential questions that an overwhelming landscape may provoke, one becomes aware that they “cannot fathom the logic of the universe”.
In addition, Vallée’s biographical film ‘Wild’ enriches us through its evocative manifestation of landscapes as it he stimulates thought on how travelling through real natural landscapes can provide a hiatus from the chaotic nature of everyday life, allowing individuals to become more aware of themselves and enable them to meditate and heal from traumatic experiences. Following the death of her mother, Cheryl hikes over 100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, a physical journey which parallels her emotional growth as she finds emotional healing in the communion with nature, evident at the conclusion of the hike. The challenging landscape she travels through is symbolic of her grief, which she “found [her] own way out of”, provided by meta-reflexive voiceover as she reaches the “Bridge of the gods”. Similarities are made to De Botton’s ‘On The Sublime’ of the power of sublime landscapes to stimulate self-awareness. An extreme long shot of the bridge framing Cheryl, the diegetic natural sounds and the vector road lines symbolise the gateway to a new chapter in her life, possible through the landscape’s rejuvenating qualities. Vallée’s utilisation of slow motion and panning of wide shots as Cheryl walks along the bridge and views the landscape displays her innate connection with the landscape, Vallée expressing the ability of landscapes to ‘redeem’ one after tragedy.
The representations of real and imagined landscapes in De Botton’s collection of essays ‘The Art of Travel’ and Vallée’s film ‘Wild’ sharply explore how interactions with landscape shape awareness of identity. They portray the multidimensional relationships between people and landscapes through examining how real landscapes can provide an escape from the mundane, remind humans of their limitations and help them heal emotionally whilst imagined landscapes can provide strength and hope in difficult times.
Representation of People and Landscapes: De Botton’s Atypical, SubversiveTravel Guide
Through their choice of textual form and features, authors subjectively represent their views on the connection between people and landscapes. This is exemplary of Alain De Botton’s postmodern, multimodal text “The Art of Travel” (2002) which persuasively and powerfully represents how personal connections may be evoked by landscapes through an individual’s imagination, receptivity or identity. To represent these notions, De Botton’s subverts the traditional travel guide to provide a less subjective exploration by utilising anecdotal passages interspersed within essay-style writing, amalgamating personal reflection with cultural analysis.
De Botton didactically portrays the ability of imagined landscapes to limitlessly and enduringly transport one from an inadequate reality into a psychologically desired realm. Subverting the traditional travel guide, De Botton employs philosophical musings and travel anecdotes to assert his own insightful opinion that the key to landscapes evoking personal connections may be through the imagination. He purposely presents the power of the imagination to evoke memories and personal yearnings through the intertextuality of his remembered landscape “William Hodges’ Tahiti revisited”, portraying the serene imagery of “a tropical lagoon”. The synaesthesia of “soft evening light” echoes the exhilarating effect created by his imagination, causing De Botton to declare “I resolved to travel to the island of Barbados.” He further drives the responder to view the supremacy of the imagination, juxtaposing it to the representation of a reality filled with “fresh disappointments” through the underwhelmed tone in “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island”. The inadequacies of reality when compared to the imagination are powerfully reinforced as De Botton includes the anecdotal passage on the famous literary figure Esseintes, who concluded hyperbolically “I must have had mental aberration to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination.” Therefore, De Botton skilfully represents the notion that a true, durable engagement with the landscape can be constructed through one’s vivid and boundless imaginations.
However, De Botton also articulates that powerful, personal connections evoked by landscapes are inextricably linked to our receptivity. He proficiently affirms the certainty of his representation through historical figures as well as cultural analysis. The deliberate inclusion of de Maistre’s exclamation in “How few people are right now taking delight in this sublime spectacle which the sky lays on uselessly for dozing humanity!” emphasises the metaphorical blindness that one may exhibit in ordinary, real landscapes. Instead, De Botton didactically proclaims to the responder the importance of inspecting and enjoying everyday landscapes through the inclusive pronoun “we” coupled with the imperative tone constructed in “We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting.” His decision to be receptive to his hometown leads him to new personal connections which metaphorically “bear fruit”. This allows him to personally connect by ascribing specific “layers of values” to the landscape around him, such as the personified “architectural identity”. The cyclical structure of the book reveals De Botton’s return to the “relentless reality” experienced at the start, but with a new, juxtaposed perception of this landscape. This is ingeniously used to reveal that real landscapes can only evoke personal and enduring responses through the paradoxical ability “to notice what we have already seen”.
De Botton apprises the responder that cultural landscapes can attract an individual through its foreign elements that mirror one’s identity, ideas and values. This is represented through chapter three’s guide, Gustave Flaubert, as well as De Botton’s own personal experience. Gustave Flaubert’s deep and “lifelong relationship with Egypt” depicts how he felt home with the obverse of the accumulative repository of France’s “most extreme prudery, snobbery, smugness, racism and pomposity”. Flaubert’s irritation and contempt of France’s ideologies is further seen through the intertextuality of his personal diary in which he sarcastically asserts “How beautiful are the provinces and how chic are the comfortably off who live there. Their talk is… of taxes and road improvements.” Hence, Egypt attracted Flaubert’s values as it acted as a foil, personified to have “silent strength and humility”. Moreover, Egypt’s visual and auditory chaos synchronized with Flaubert’s belief that “life is fundamentally chaotic” and the province’s attempts to create order imply a censorious denial of the mankind’s moral disposition and condition. Upon returning to his homeland, he reflects “How beautiful are the provinces and how chic are the comfortably off who live there. Their talk is… of taxes and road improvements.” His hyperbole and simile, coupled with expletives powerfully convey his representation of the homeland he cannot connect with due to its differing values and principles that he views as superficial and ostensible. Flaubert cogently supports De Botton’s notion that one’s identity ripens a relationship with a landscape due to his attraction with Amsterdam’s “modesty” and “honesty” and its metropolitan design which is personified as it “spoke of order, cleanliness and light”, in comparison to London’s “lack of modernity and aesthetic simplicity.” This strong attraction is personally represented through his rhetorical question “Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country?” The author thus challenges the audience to ponder upon this intense reaction.
Some of the strong emotion in De Botton’s account, indeed, is due to the landscape mirroring De Botton’s values and what he metaphorically “hungers for in vain at home”. Hence, it is clear that De Botton proficiently represents the inextricable connection between people and landscapes due to one’s identity. Accordingly, De Botton meaningfully and subjectively represents through his choice of textual forms and features how powerful, personal connections may be evoked by landscapes through one’s imagination, receptivity or identity.