- The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
- Pantheon, 336 pp.
A Philosopher at Work
Alain de Botton has a misleading face. It holds a sweet and innocent smile, sleepy eyes, the smooth skin of a prepubescent boy. Be forewarned, however. The big brain behind the high forehead is always on the job.
Not that I should be focusing on the author when the subject of this review is The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, a philosophical study of occupation.
But it is hard to get around the fact that de Botton is the cultural heir to a breed I thought had gone the way of the mastodon: the Victorian essayist.
As such, he has one of the most irritating and high-faluting styles in the known universe. If he ever runs out of subjects, he could sell his services to struggling students – “no paragraph too short, no phrase too small, no word too simple that can’t be poshed up!”
Equally as such, once you’ve macheted your way through the verbiage, you’re rewarded with intelligent and thought-provoking ideas. Plus a disturbing account of de Botton gyrating to Abba’s “Super Trouper.”
The concept of Pleasures and Sorrows is a good one. De Botton sets out on a quest to explore a wide range of professions – biscuit manufacturing, rocket science, career counseling – and reflect on modern work.
This idea leads him from the jungles of French Guiana to the wilds of suburban South London. He follows the journey of an African fish to the plate of an English boy. He sits under a tree that an artist has spent his lifetime painting. He devotes a page to the alluring sight of an office worker’s knee.
And through it all, like a lone guard at the gates of Rome, he makes one last stand against the barbarians of Strunk and White:
And yet, as a non-scientist examining the rocket-assembly building, gazing at a needle of solid propellant nine storeys tall, one felt that a most unmagical of approaches had nevertheless succeeded in producing a device which was not entirely free of supernatural associations. Living with science without understanding it forced one to consider machines in the same quasi-mystical way in which a sparsely-clothed Waiwai might have contemplated the phenomena of the heavens. What talent and insolence it was on the part of the white-coated fraternity to have succeeded in generating an impression of mystical awe with the help only of an ammonium perchlorate composite.
What talent and insolence indeed.
De Botton is Swiss, though he was educated in England at public schools, Cambridge and King’s College London. He studied philosophy, usually a discipline devoted to the joys of unemployment. Yet in de Botton’s case, I think it has helped him to spot the strange in the familiar – a key skill for any writer.
Take his observations on the daily commute. While riding the train (ah, Europe), he observes how newspapers create a consoling space for passengers. Isolated in their private pockets of air, readers can skim the paper’s gory headlines and somehow be comforted:
We can turn away from them and experience a new sense of relief at our predictable routines; we can be grateful for how tightly bound we have kept our desires, and proud of the restraint we have shown in not poisoning our colleagues or entombing our relations under the patio.
He’s sharp, is de Botton, and willing to look hard into any neglected corner of industry. One of the most entertaining essays, if only for the pithy observations, details a walk with Ian, founding member of the Pylon Appreciation Society, from a nuclear power plant on Dungeness beach to the city of London.
Along the way, as an example, we learn that the thicknesses of cables are named after different flowers (a 7-strand aluminum cable is called a poppy, a 37-strand a hyacinth). That Ian hopes that pylons might one day be thought as beautiful as the windmills. And, in an another instance of de Botton’s dry perception, that pumpkin soup and carrot cake are “staples of cafeterias in high-minded institutions the world over.”
Nevertheless, I would think twice about opening the door if I ever saw his seraphic face gleaming through the window. For de Botton seems to be, to use my mother’s damning indictment, not very kind.
It is here I should note, as a type of proof, that Pleasures and Sorrows contains a great deal of excellent photos to accompany the narrative, photos that could have formed a book on their own. It may say something about de Botton that he thanks the photographer, Richard Baker, warmly in his picture acknowledgments at the back but neglected to insist the publisher include any information on the dust jacket.
I wonder too, whether he told the small business entrepreneurs who pose proudly in Pleasures and Sorrows with their inventions – 1-2-3 STOP FIRE, the Crisp Bar – that he would be recalling their efforts with a mixture of condescension and pity and marketing their smiles for a retail price of US $26.
I’m tempted to blame Oxbridge, which, as a half-English girl who went to Cambridge, I am snottily able to do. Nowhere in the world but there can you find writers with this odd mixture of self-deprecation, wit and entitlement. Nowhere in the world can you find more three- and four-syllable words. We are human like anyone else, we claim, but we dare you to prove it.
Fans of de Botton will say I’m not being fair, and maybe they’re right. After all, it’s a writer’s prerogative to note what he sees, not what his subjects expect him to observe. De Botton was also honest and wise enough to include a number of moments where the laugh is on him.
Plus, if nothing else, Pleasures and Sorrows succeeds in making us think harder about why we get up in the morning and go to work, a minor miracle of introspection in itself.
So I will leave him with the last lines, and the last joke. It begins with a speech he is giving to the supervisor of an aviation graveyard in the Mojave Desert:
‘Ruins pose a direct challenge to our concern with power and rank, with bustle and fame. They puncture the inflated folly of our exhaustive and frenetic pursuit of wealth. It stands to reason, therefore, that a visitor to the United States, this most technologically developed of all modern societies, should take a particular interest in the flip side of the nation’s progress. The disintegrating Continental Airlines 747 visible outside of your window seems the equivalent, for myself, of what the Colosseum in Rome must have been for the young Edward Gibbon.’
There was a silence as my companion took in the eloquence, cultural range and sheer profundity of what I had just said… But the man was evidently disinclined by nature to pay extravagant compliments, for when he finally spoke, it was to say ‘Fuck off’ again with a resolve which his previous riposte had perhaps lacked – to which sentiment he then added, lest there remain any ambiguity, ‘Get the hell out of here before I shoot you in the ass.’