Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Put on Your Traveling Shoes

On a whim at the used bookstore a month or so ago I bought The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Judging by the clicking noise the book makes from all the page points when I pick it up, I liked the book quite a bit. Not only did it provide me with a cross-pollination moment with Alexander von Humboldt, it also provided me with much to think about in relation to traveling. The book is a series of essays. In each essay Botton travels somewhere and "brings along" a guide. So we have an essay such as "On Anticipation" where the places are Hammersmith, London and Barbados and the guide is J.K. Huysmans. Other essays include "On the Exotic", "On the Country and the City", "On the Sublime" and "On Possessing Beauty". My favorite essay is "On Eye-Opening Art". The place is Provence and the guide is Vincent Van Gogh. I had never considered Provence a place I wanted to visit, but after this essay I will have to go there someday. Supposedly the colors there are quite intense and vivid and are what inspired Van Gogh's delightfully wild and bold use of it in his painting. I also want to read more about Van Gogh (if anyone can recommend a good biography I'd appreciate it). The idea discussed in this essay is about how art--painting in particular--helps us see and notice things about a place that we have not paid attention to before. Who really noticed the myriad of colors in a night sky until Van Gogh painted his starry night? Or, as Botton says, "no one paid any attention to fog in London before Whistler." It is an interesting idea that plays into the next essay, "On Possessing Beauty", in which Botton considers John Ruskin and his belief that learning to draw, even badly, helps a person to understand beauty and thereby possess it. Botton states is nicely when he writes, "We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty will survive in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it." For those who refuse to try and draw anything, Ruskin also encouraged the use of "word pictures." Instead of saying "the sky was blue" Ruskin wants us to really look at the sky and find the most precise words and feelings we can to describe it. Traveling to distant lands is not a requirement of travel. It is a mindset which Botton is exploring and so his final essay, "On Habit", uses Xavier de Maistre as a guide. De Maistre wrote a very popular book called Journey around My Bedroom in 1790 at the age of 27. In it he recommends that you put on your pajamas, his were pink and blue, lock your door, recline in a chair and start looking, really looking around the room. Notice the way the light comes in through the window and what it illuminates, admire a curve on the leg of your bed, the bed linens, the pleasing plumpness of your pillows. Perhaps we don't have to take our traveling to such a detailed level, but it couldn't hurt to approach our own neighborhoods or cities as though we were tourists. It is so easy to get into the habit of going to the usual places or even taking the things for granted. I do it all the time. The art that Botton writes about can be employed at home and away. The book has prompted me to think about where I live and to appreciate what it has to offer. And next time I should travel away from Minneapolis, it will be with curiosity and a desire to truly see.