Jean Louis De Botton Essays

Why did you choose to discuss books of essays?

I guess because this is where my heart lies in terms of writing. For me, essays are about brevity and also personality, a feeling that you’re being taken on an intellectual or emotional journey by a particular person who you get to know along the way. Essays root ideas in personal experience.


The Crowded Dance of Modern Life

Virginia Woolf


Why do you recommend The Crowded Dance of Modern Life by Virginia Woolf?

Because she is a very admirable essayist. For me, her essays are better than her novels, which I never got along with. What I particularly like are her essays of description. In “Street Haunting”, she makes a very ordinary subject, such as going for a walk around London, very charming. When you put it down the world seems a more interesting place.

I wondered if the “crowded dance” is meant to imply some sort of futility in modern life?

Not so much. Woolf was like many writers of the early 20th century, such as Joyce or Proust, who were interested in the word “modern” – a word today which we overuse. The traditions of the 19th century had been broken and the modern world was going to be governed by new things, particularly by technology. And it was going to be a predominantly urban, democratic world, dominated by the media. A writer like Woolf was both excited and worried by this. The title for me captures some of those feelings.

Is it a feminist collection?

I think to describe it as such would not be accurate. She never discusses the position or rights of women in these essays. She wrote particularly feminist essays in other books, but not in this one.


Home Is Where We Start From

D W Winnicott


The next collection of essays you recommend is Donald Winnicott’s Home is Where We Start From. I understand Winnicott was the first paediatrician to train as a psychoanalyst. What is it about his work that you admire?

He was one of the most accomplished interpreters of Freud in England. And what is interesting is that he makes psychoanalysis very English, if you like. He takes a body of knowledge that can be very abstract and pretentious at times, and turns it into something much more suited to the English character. By that I mean that he spoke in plain language. He was also eccentric and he had a sense of humour, which we associate with literature in this country.

He was also humane. He worked with children and their mothers and fathers, and he was very aware that life is difficult – and that we are all slightly crazy. Rather than humiliating us and making us feel that certain thoughts are perverted, as some psychoanalysts did, he was generous about it.

Winnicott also came up with the idea of the “good enough mother”. Other psychoanalysts often demanded that the mother be everything, or else the child would be harmed. But Winnicott allowed a greater amount of error for both the mother and father. For anyone who has a family of their own it’s a nice deprecatory starting point.

This collection brings together Winnicott’s most important works about understanding the minds of children, and includes essays such as “Concept of a Healthy Individual”, the “Value of Depression” and “Delinquency as a Sign of Hope.” These sound very intriguing, and indeed controversial, even by today’s standards – would you agree?

Definitely. A lot of his writing involved picking up the broken pieces after the Second World War, when children had endured complicated family arrangements – whether the father was away, or killed, or the children sent to the countryside. He found a ready audience in his ideas about imperfection, and about accepting imperfection while still trying to get better.

Winnicott is praised as being one of the most creative and accessible of all psychoanalysts. Your own work has been described as a “philosophy of everyday life”, and I wondered whether his approach inspired yours?

When I think about the essayists that I like, I realise I have a very low tolerance for complicated writing. There is almost nothing in the humanities that can’t be expressed simply, even if it’s a complicated idea. It’s not rocket science, so the onus is on the writer to provide a charming reading experience.

Why did you choose his collection over better known psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund or Anna Freud?

The Architecture of Happiness
by Alain de Botton
Hamish Hamilton £17.99 , pp280

Alain de Botton is a brave and highly intelligent writer who likes to take big, complex subjects and write about them with thoughtful and deceptive innocence, elucidating the arcane for the layman. He has already done this with Proust, with the idea of travel and with status symbols. Now he has turned to the subject of architecture.

De Botton starts with a dithyramb to the pleasures of a west London suburban house, his own, one suspects. It is all about the accidental pleasures of sunlight and silence, the associations of family life and the recollections of those who might have lived in the house before; not about the experience of architecture, one might think, since a terraced house in Acton might not necessarily be thought to qualify, but, instead, about the pleasures of sympathetic domestic building and of the objects arranged around it.

It is an odd place to start, but as good as any for a walking tour through the history of architecture, beginning with Epictetus and Bernard of Clairvaux and passing rapidly to the essential theme of the book: how architecture influences mood and behaviour, a topic that has preoccupied architectural theorists from Pugin to le Corbusier.

His second chapter is about the meaning of style and is likewise brisk, moving rapidly from the whole history of classicism to Horace Walpole, who, de Botton implies, was the first to use gothic for domestic architecture. Like much of what he writes, this is an over-simplification - what about all those Oxbridge colleges or Vanbrugh's admiration for Woodstock Manor or William Kent? No matter. We zip through the 19th century to the time that really engages his emotional interest and sympathies, namely the period of early modernism and, in particular, Corbusier's Villa Savoye, which he writes about with poetic eloquence.

Unfortunately, to an extent I had not realised, the Savoyes detested their villa because it was so badly built and were on the verge of prosecuting Corbusier when he was saved by the outbreak of the Second World War.

I particularly like de Botton's third chapter, which is a meditation on the meaning of abstract shape, beginning with Adrian Stokes's (Freudian) views of the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, then looking at the language of typefaces and at Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy. He goes on to a contrast between the work of Albert Speer and the architecture of postwar German democracy, although this distinction is slightly complicated by a drawing by Mies van der Rohe in the V&A's current exhibition on Modernism, which shows a building uncannily like the Barcelona pavilion flying swastikas.

De Botton was clearly outraged to be invited to drinks at the official residence of the German ambassador in Washington and to find that the garden fa&ccric;ade, designed in 1995, clearly echoes the work of Speer. This is, once again, not really an issue of architecture or design, but what Geoffrey Scott in his book, The Architecture of Humanism, published in 1914, called the associational fallacy.

By now, I think I am getting the point of the book. It is not about the specifically architectural characteristics of space, plan, volume and design, but much more about the emotions that architecture inspires in the user of buildings. Many people, my wife included, devote huge amounts of time trying to ensure that the interior of their houses is a bulwark against the disorder of the outside world: places of contrived harmony. There is an obvious difference, as de Botton describes, between the harsh strip lighting and angst-ridden atmosphere of a McDonald's on London's Victoria Street, which he describes with eloquent disgust, and the wonderfully empty, dark, numinous spaces of Westminster cathedral on the other side of the road. Yet architects do not normally talk nowadays very much about idealisation, about emotion and beauty. They talk about design and function and technology and shape. They are preoccupied by gesture and material. They have lost an ability to think about more traditional ideas of order, simplicity, balance and harmony.

De Botton's message, then, is fairly simple but valuable precisely because it is simple, readable and cogent. He wants to encourage his readers, and society more generally, to pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture: that architecture should not be treated as an arcane and specialist discipline to be left to professionals, but as something that affects all our lives, our happiness and well-being. He wants us to look more carefully at our architectural surroundings, pay attention to them and develop a language with which to judge them.

De Botton is quite prepared to state why exactly he admires, for example, buildings such as Louis Kahn's Yale Centre for British Art or Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's Stone House in Liguria. He likes the modest aesthetic pleasures of Gustavian manor houses in rural Sweden. He is keen on works of engineering. He doesn't like Quinlan Terry or Poundbury. He is, in fact, a modernist and approvingly quotes Adolf Loos, who wrote: 'Let one building be like another. We won't be published in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration and we won't be made professors of applied art, but we will have served ourselves, our times, our nation and mankind to the best of our ability.'

Just as de Botton has taken philosophy out of the academy and back into the realm of common sense and reflection, where it originally belonged, so he has taken discussion about the characteristics of architecture out of the professional journals, where issues of aesthetics are treated in a language that is wilfully abstruse, away from the offices of the developers and town planners, and back into the drawing room. There it behoves us all to think carefully, as de Botton has done with perceptive clarity, as to what exactly are the qualities that make a good building.

· Charles Saumarez Smith is director of the National Gallery

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