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Care of the Self: Alain de Botton in context

Enter a large chain bookshop and the self-help shelves loom before you, vast obstacles you need to negotiate in order to get anywhere else in the shop. Here are books with glossy covers, bristling with images of ageless authors, impossibly white teeth, wrinkles smoothed out – all speaking of the value of precisely the book in question. If you follow my advice, the image wants to say, you can be just like me – youthful, successful, happy, with internal plumbing like a twelve-year-old and a libido like a woman of forty.

To my dismay, I find them broken down into ever more subgenres, such as the spirituality section with its formulae for inner peace, happiness and endless orgasms; or the fitness books, packed with advertisements for plastic tubs of brown powder with all those supplements necessary for bulging muscles, popping veins, paper-thin skin and shrunken libidos; or the cookbooks for cleansing one’s liver, or weaning oneself off carbohydrates, or perhaps curing everything from the common cold to AIDS by drinking copious amounts of water; or books full of advice on how to repair relationships, become a loving, trusting and randy partner; not to speak of that trusty line of works for whom the cursed Dale Carnegie is responsible, namely, how to win friends and influence people.

It should come as no surprise whatsoever that our bookshops are crammed with such self-help works, for if we turn on the television every now and then or have children to send to school, then we are bombarded with graphic and gruesome advice that smoking is bad for you (a man with tubes in his nose talks about seeing his grandchildren but then dies soon afterwards); or that driving while under the influence puts your life in grave danger (a teenager relates through sobs that he has just killed his best friend); or that obesity is at epidemic proportions (so coin-shaped contestants with slabs of fat larger than the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica compete to see who can lose the most weight); or that we really should exercise more to keep us trim and taut for that unexpected moment when the clothes must come off (three women – for these television shows come on mid-morning when the men have gone to work – of different sizes, graded from bulbous to trim offer an aerobic routine to help you move from one to the other, hopefully trim rather than bulbous); or the need to watch that cursed sun and its rays, slipping on a shirt, slopping on sunscreen and slapping on a hat.

But let us return to our bookshop, where we will find, sadly, that one or two philosophers may be found on the self-help shelves too … such as Alain de Botton, with his cute books (transformed into audio books, DVDs and television shows), on love, status, travel, happiness, work and, of course, religion.[1] Alongside his own smooth and self-indulgent reflections, he rips out chunks of text from their contexts, dripping blood and gore and odd pieces of gristle, from philosophers, artists and writers in order to offer advice as to how to make life more pleasant and … nice. So we find Van Gogh, Ruskin, Huysmans, Wordsworth and Flaubert on travel, Christopher Wren, Le Corbusier and Norman Foster on the architecture of home, and Socrates (on unpopularity), Epicurus (on lack of money), Seneca (on frustrations), Montaigne (on inadequacy), Schopenhauer (on broken hearts) and Nietzsche (on difficulties). Most recently, one may dip into his wisdom concerning the usefulness – in terms of community, kindness, tenderness, etc. – of religion, despite the assertion that the claims to anything beyond this world are delusional. Self-help for the thinking woman and man, philosophical soufflé, philosophy as a ‘school of life’ – the actual name for de Botton’s institution, which teaches courses on careers, relationships, politics, travels, families, offers psychotherapy in a way that one might get a haircut and has – no surprise here – a shop selling the necessary accoutrements of a soothed life (one has indeed opened in Melbourne, as well as in Brazil and the USA).

Not quite so banal but of the same ilk was the later Foucault …

[1] Alain de Botton, 1994, Essays in Love, London: Picador; 2001, The Consolations of Philosophy, Harmondsworth: Penguin; 2003, The Art of Travel, Harmondsworth: Penguin; 2005, Status Anxiety, Harmondsworth: Penguin; 2006, The Architecture of Happiness, London: Hamish Hamilton; 2009, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, London: Hamish Hamilton; 2013, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Harmondsworth: Penguin. And so on.

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