- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

PPERSONALITY: In 1993, shortly after finishing Oxford University with the highest honors, Alain de Botton burst onto the literary scene with “Essays in Love” (“On Love” in the United States), the first of a trio of well-received novels on romantic love and relationships. Next, the Swiss-born wunderkind turned his formidable intellect and self-deprecating humor to demystifying the works of Marcel Proust (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), which was followed by two more “literary self-help” guides: “The Consolations of Philosophy” and “The Art of Travel.”

The combination of quirky photos, cartoons, charts and graphs with charmingly edifying prose thrust him onto international best-seller lists and paved the way for his latest effort, “Status Anxiety” (Pantheon), a study of our fixation on social status, a worry “so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives.”

Now, those obsessed with the win-or-lose struggle for fame, fortune and power, or merely keeping up with the Joneses, can ponder in the book’s first half — with the help of the world’s most famous artists and philosophers — just how pernicious the sorrowful epidemic of snobbery and sycophancy can be.

Mr. de Botton believes “status anxiety is like death, there is no solution that is going to make it go away forever.” He does, however, offer suggestions in his treatise to break its viselike grip. The malady can be managed effectively with long-term care, he suggests, but only if we contemplate “solutions” in philosophy, art, religion, politics and the “bohemian” lifestyle that will help us formulate a competitive value system all our own.

Q: When did you first recognize your own status anxiety?

A: I went to an uncongenial British public school, and I accepted I was of low status because I wasn’t good at sports. I didn’t even aspire to it and was resigned to being a nerd. Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I just thought, “These guys are jerks. They happen be ruling the show at the moment. Let’s just hope this gets over and done with quickly.”

Q: Your late father, Gilbert de Botton, was a noted financier, but you decided to become a writer.

A: This was something I wrestled with. … The message is, “Real men aren’t really writers, they’re in business.”

Q: Ernest Hemingway might have disagreed.

A: He was trying to compensate. He thought writing was for girls — which is why he was so macho about the whole thing. Many male writers feel this way. They feel they are stuck at home with the wives, writing.

Q: Writers are a status-anxious lot?

A: They are ambitious. They compare themselves to the greats and are always in danger of feeling inadequate next to the role models who inspire them.

Q: You say people are unhappy without romantic love in the earlier part of their lives, but when they get older, they are unhappy about their status in the world.

A: After 20, no one cares if you are nice. It only matters what you do. … When people meet for they first time, they ask what you do. If your answer is impressive, they will be delighted to see you. … If not, their eyes glaze over, and you just sense they are desperate to get away and use their time more productively.

Q: In Washington they ask about your job immediately to find out if they should bother with you.

A: The crudity of the judgment, the lack of imagination can be quite shocking. You really have to tick the right boxes immediately, or you’re out. If you are not in the right grouping, there’s nothing you can do to convince the other person you are special and interesting, too. But I can be a bit sympathetic. It’s not wrong to discriminate — there are some people you want to spend more time with; others less. You can’t blame people for that.

Q: Your book has a great cartoon of a snobbish woman telling her daughter, “The only people worth our knowing are the people who don’t want to know us.”

A: At the heart of it all is fear, of course. It’s not a sense of adequacy that drives you to that behavior. I suppose a city like Washington is a fearful place because people are not secure. The terrible thing is that it’s a vicious circle. The more snobbish people get, the more there’s an incentive to acquire the right badges and titles so that people will be nice to you.

Q: In olden days, people were born into a particular class, and most didn’t aspire to go above it. Later, in a more egalitarian era, they believed they were born equal but succeeded or failed on their own merits.

A: Meritocracy is a lovely idea, but there is a dark side. If you truly believe those at the top are wholly responsible for their success, the downside is that you must blame those at the bottom for their failure. In England two hundred years ago, those at the bottom of society were called “unfortunates”; now they are called “losers.” In the United States, people talk about “trailer trash.”

Q: There is a huge publicity machine that hypes the “you, too, can be rich” dream in its various forms.

A: If you look in large American bookshops, there are basically two kinds of self-help books: how to be a billionaire by Friday and those that tell you how to cope with low self-esteem. It’s almost as though the two genres are related. By the time it’s Saturday and you’ve failed to make your billion, then you’ll be reaching out for something to tell you how to befriend yourself.

Q: A Marxist might say such false hopes are meant to anesthetize the masses into submission.

A: If you read accounts of why the communist left never really took off here, the explanation is that the American working man and woman always felt a change in fortunes was possible and around the corner.

Q: And nearly everyone knew someone who had succeeded: the poor neighbor who went to medical school, my cousin the millionaire, etc.

A: But the perception always has an advance on the reality. A recent report in the New York Times said that 60 percent of Americans expected to die millionaires, whereas the real figure is actually tiny.

Q: You really think people are going to turn from the Internet and 175 cable television channels to embrace the pleasures and consolations of philosophy, art, religion, etc.?

A: We are surrounded by … human achievement, technology, media, celebrity. … It’s harder and harder to be alone. Anything which gives you perspective can be terrifically helpful. Nature, for example. Getting out into the natural world and seeing something which is bigger, older, nobler than other human beings. … That’s why the thought of death is helpful. Putting a skull on your table and thinking, “I’m going to be like that quite soon.”

Q: So if Madonna gets upset over an unsuccessful concert tour, she should contemplate a skull?

A: She should. Or the night sky.

Q: How would you ease a terribly status-anxious person into your five areas?

A: Waving a skeleton at such a person might not go down so well. Maybe picking them up outside the clinic after their breakdown and taking them to the country. [Laughs]

Q: Tuning out the constant barrage of stressful messages from the media, status-driven friends, etc.?

A: One should be more careful about shows on TV, what one reads, who one hangs out with. You come home after certain parties and you want to jump out a window because it’s all so mean and nasty.

Q: Has the physician healed himself?

A: In part. I’m not looking for a permanent solution because there isn’t one. I don’t read the Sunday papers until late evening, for example, because they send out all sorts of signals, and I don’t want my day ruined by these images.

Q: What else?

A: I do think about death — a lot. I’ve been looking for a skull to put on my desk, but it’s hard to find one nowadays. And I’m interested in nature, the nonhuman world. I go out in the fields and wander around outside of the city.

Q: Anything you avoid?

A: Certain people. Recognizing snobbery and keeping clear of it.

Q: Having more elevated conversation?

A: I went to a party the other day where someone did say, “Let’s not talk about work.” It was fascinating because there was this one guy who clearly had an important job, and he was desperate and also angry because his whole status, his entire sense of being, was dependent on it.

Q: I’ve noticed at parties that the three billionaires present, or the group of gorgeous models, or the high-tech big shots, will all keep to themselves in a corner of the room.

A: They can’t talk to anybody else. Look at the story of [press tycoon] Conrad Black. He really wanted to make it in New York society, but he wasn’t all that rich. He only had $2 billion, not $10 billion, and his company plane was a bit small. The idea that this man surrounded himself with a group of people who managed to make him feel poor is tragicomic.

Q: There is a lesson here.

A: The feeling of being poor, of deprivation, can be felt at any level. … People are incredibly richer than they were 300 years ago, but no one feels that because they never compare themselves to their great-great grandparents or someone in sub-Saharan Africa.

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