The pleasures of the electrophilic Alain de Botton

THE critics have not always been kind to British pop philosopher Alain de Botton. In one review, Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker performed the literary equivalent of a high school head flushing, calling de Botton a slapheaded ponce and an “absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man” whose books were the toast of aspirational tosspots.

Brooker followed this with a take-no-prisoners parsing of the author’s appearance, triumphantly revealing (as if on conclusion of months of investigative journalism) that his subject’s head was bald, his eyes were
slit-like and his ruby-red smacker was all wrong. “They really are dark,” Brooker wrote on his third, agitated return to the colour of de Botton’s lips, “like he’s been suckling cranberry juice from a teat.”

Ooo-er. The lady doth protest too much.

While recent reviews have focused less on de Botton’s (admittedly cardigan-ish) externals and more on the words he’s written in actual books, many critiques are equally slice and dice-like. This is because the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy has been outrageous enough to write about work, a subject celebrity book reviewers (none of whom would ever be members of the tosspotocracy) have decided he knows nothing about.

Fellow scribe Naomi Wolf became so enraged with de Botton’s latest offering, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, that she formally announced she could no longer bear to hold the turmoil decently within. Her complaint was that de Botton did not progress beyond poking at the idea of work with a gentlemanly stick or peering at it under a bell jar, a theme picked up by the British press which complained that, as the son of a deceased zillionaire, working, for de Botton, was very much a hobby.

While The Australian has on several occasions explained that the de Botton family millions actually inhabit a charitable trust fund, it is precisely the writer’s distance from his subjects that renders his wide-eyed reflections on the obscure life cycles of supermarket tuna and “me-time” chocolate biscuits so delightful.

At one point, de Botton, a neurotic double PhD dropout, compares the gaze of a recreational cargo ship watcher to that of a small child “who comes to a halt in the centre of a crowded shopping street and, while passers-by swerve to avoid her, bends down to examine, with the care of a biblical scholar poring over the pages of a vellum-bound book, a piece of chewing gum impressed on the pavement, or the closing mechanism of her coat pocket”.

His fascination with industrial minutia is the same. Whimsical and apologetically self-obsessed, he marvels at the hidden lubricants that ensure the smooth functioning of a utilitarian civilisation: the citric acids stabilising laundry detergent and the xanthan gums safeguarding the viscosity of gravy.

The furious passers-by who must swerve to avoid this squatting scholar are those convinced that labour, manufacturing and voracious consumption should be viewed only through the ideological equivalent of clunky 3-D eyewear.

De Botton, you see, flagrantly ignores the agendas of the Right and the Left, dismissing as a sadistic hoax the meritocracy’s passing off of self-made commercial success as the rule rather than the freakish exception, yet showing no interest in banging on about oppressed proletariats, either.

Also missing are the hectoring lectures of the affluenza crowd and — much to Wolf’s chagrin — the news-driven focus of the journalist. De Botton overlooks, for instance, the unexpected detention of an Iranian interviewee on suspicion of importing bomb-making equipment, in favour of chatting with a young mum who has invented a way to compress potato chips into an oleaginous ingot so they can be more easily ingested.

What the critics should remember is that we are in no danger of running out of worthy texts analysing the ideological implications of industry or tracking the fates of detained immigrants.
Compassionate, literary meanders which expose and elevate the quotidian surreality of the human condition remain, however, a precious commodity (especially ones which also reveal that the mysterious world of power pylons contains a 150-kilovolt Finnish model with a coquettish sexuality).

The odd, endearing and electrophilic de Botton begins a speaking tour of Australia next week.


- originally published in The Australian on 09-04-2009.

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