Interview with Alain de Botton
Not long ago my friend Josh sat at the bar reading a book in the vegetarian restaurant where we work as we waited for the evening’s dinner crowd to arrive. I had to ask and so, turning the book toward me cover-first, he presented me with a fresh, unmarked trade paper edition of On Love, Alain de Botton’s novel in which readers find themselves stumbling upon a curious mixture: the pleasures and pains of one’s heart and the philosophies that define and drive such equally explicit yet disparate sensations.
I remembered being that novice Botton reader and following the novel’s love pilgrim in and out of the texture of the story’s events and wondered what Josh was experiencing as he read, his eyes flying along with the sentences. Their impressions plunge the reader deep into the narrative, into the heart and mind. Josh turned a page.
I realized how satiated I was from recently interviewing the man who now put my friend through the paces of amorous life.
Literature brings us back and forward in time.
And there I was, instantly, back in the Pacific Northwest twelve years earlier inside a small independent bookseller where I was employed wondering how I would afford dinner that night and picking up a book I had not seen before, a trade paper edition of On Love, which upon reading would set me out on an adventure, a incomparable high―all with a book that came from a tree but started with a man in a country across an ocean, a man who started in a country separate from there, who I did not dream I would ever contact (the world seemed larger in a more concrete sense then). A man who was a writer I would come to admire and look forward to reading, whom I contacted three months before seeing Josh reading his book, before seeing Josh hesitate to put the novel aside but gracefully doing so as a customer entered our establishment for a meal.
How to think (or feel) about Alain de Botton is to read him. His answers to Marco Polo’s questions enlighten and delight with their poignancy and perception.
Alain de Botton’s latest book is A Week at the Airport (Vintage, 2010).
What was your childhood like?
How did it shape you?
You have a sister. You were both very young when you lived in Switzerland. How did the two of you celebrate your life? Were you overwhelmed by the adult world spinning around you?
What do you remember fondly about your home life and schooling?
What was your first exposure to literature?
Were certain books great guides growing up?
Your family left Switzerland for London when you were eight years old, right? That would have been 1977. A lot was happening in London then. What memories do you have of what was in the air, like the punk scene that was transforming the city? How was London different from Switzerland and were you allowed to experience the city or did you go straight to boarding schools or was it a mixture of both?
What were your impressions of Margaret Thatcher’s reign and the effects of her government on your family, friends and fellow citizens?
Was England a good place to be coming of age in the 1980's?
How do you remember yourself changing in response to the ever-changing rules of a metropolitan city and the customs expected of one while attending prestigious schools?
Were you already writing?
The desire to record experience never left me, but as I matured, my technical skills slowly improved. I learnt that wanting to say something very badly doesn’t always mean that one has managed to do so. Writing is about capturing experience. Behind the desire to write is a wish to gain mastery over beautiful as well as painful feelings. Inspiration comes in many forms: a fine weathered brick wall, a humiliation, a painting, a face glimpsed in the street. For me, the finest books are those where an author has put his or her finger on emotions which we recognise as our own, but which we could not have formulated on our own. We have a feeling that the author knows us – perhaps better than we know ourselves. I aspire to write books that offer a feeling of recognition, and ultimately, of friendship.
The task isn’t easy. The writer’s life is suffused with anxiety. In a highly productive, entrepreneurial age, it seems odd, even insane, to be locked away in a room, trying to hammer words into their correct places. I often have intense longings to go to an office–in order to share the burdens of my work with other people, as workers in offices can. Currently, I am overwhelmed by a desire to become an architect. I have always been marked by how much the buildings we inhabit shape us and I would love the chance to improve (in my eyes) the environment around me. I have a running dialogue with myself about what is right and wrong with the buildings I pass daily. I admire the ability of architects to be artists and at the same time, practical people of the world, whose visions translate into a solid mass. I don’t only want to interpret the world, I also want to change it and there are days when I am painfully struck by what a modest object a book is as an instrument with which to make a difference, compared that is, to the power of a government, a university or a business.
I worry constantly about my future. Few writers are able to turn out a decent book a year, three or four years is more typically necessary, and even this rate is unlikely to go on over an entire working life. The idea of a Muse may be fanciful and sexually-incorrect, but the lady evokes well enough the insecurity of the hold most writers have on their creative faculties. An element of chance lurks behind the birth of masterpieces, which aggravates financial anxieties: it is one thing to be poor and convinced of the worth of one's work, far harder to combine poverty with an awareness a book isn't going well.
What was the best writing advice you were given?
What was life like before your first book was published?
Who were your role models?
Then I discovered a Frenchman who showed me a new way of writing non-fiction. Roland Barthes spent much of his career writing about the most ordinary things: washing powder, the Eiffel Tower, falling in love, short and long-hemmed skirts, photographs of his mother. And yet he brought a classical education and a philosophical mind to bear on these subjects. He knew how to connect Racine and beach holidays, Freud and the anticipation of a lover’s phonecall. His work rejected the division between the high and the low, like so many modern artists (Joyce and Beckett, Duchamp and Joseph Cornell), he could see the deeper themes running through supposedly banal things.
Like many modern artists too, he was an innovator at the level of form. His books have pictures in them. He played around with different fonts. He wrote an entire book, S/Z, on a single Balzac short story, analysing every line in playfully manic, encyclopedic detail. At the same time, his writing has a classical sense of poise and restraint. He looked back to the tradition of the French ‘moralistes’ (I’d never heard of them before Barthes), people like La Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, La Bruyere, Chamfort.
Barthes’s next to last book, A Lover’s Discourse, helped me to shape my first book, On Love. His On Racine and Michelet were godfathers to How Proust Can Change Your Life. The debt wasn’t at the level of ideas, it was a question of style and approach.
Our bodies are as powerful as our minds. How do you experience your physical self while writing? Does your body affect your writing?
Is it possible to be a writer without being selfish?
When your career began you were publishing novels. You seemed to be on the look-out for finding love or finding love and losing it. Did you experience a lot of growth as a person while you were expanding your themes of love and its ups and downs?
As a writer, have you ever hit the bottom?
How Proust Can Change Your Life arrived in bookstores and appeared in reviews and you became an international sensation. How did you respond to this? Did your life change in a way where your responses were something new, as if almost confronting a stranger on the first waking days of this experience?
Does writing fiction still appeal to you?
What kind of art do you seek out?
What militates against this effort are all manner of visual clichés. The difficulty with the ideas that underlie compassion is not that they are surprising or peculiar, but that they seem far too easily true. Their ubiquity and reasonableness strips them of their power. We know well enough that we should love our neighbours but the phrase has come to mean nothing through rote repetition.
So artists must prize open our eyes to a succession of critical yet tiresomely familiar ideas. The history of Christian art comprises waves of assaults on the old truths by geniuses who try to ensure that we will once more be astonished and provoked to inner amendment by the sight of the humility of the Virgin Mary, the fidelity of Joseph, the wisdom of Jesus or the legalistic cruelty of the Jewish authorities.
In terms of the ultimate purpose of these efforts, Christianity posits a basic and twofold assignment: to stoke a revulsion towards evil and to excite a love of goodness.
In both cases, inferior art is problematic not for aesthetic reasons, but because it impedes the origination of appropriate emotion and action. It is not easy to keep making hell vivid. The attempt easily degenerates into repetitive depictions of vats of burning flesh – which in their formulaic ghastliness, end up touching no one. It takes more than bloodthirstyness to reanimate our disgust of cruelty. One can get bored of yet more paintings of the seventh circle and of photographs from the plain of Judea – until the day when an skilful artist stops us in our tracks with an image whose ethical import it is no longer possible to ignore.
Similarly, Christian art tirelessly attempts to make goodness attractive, to pierce through our layers of cynicism and world-weariness in order to stir us with depictions of human virtue: to present us with people we should aim to be a little bit more like.
Do you like fiction which breaks boundaries and challenges its readers? If so, can you name a few books which do this?
Behind almost every one of these maxims or as we might say aphorisms, there lies a challenge to an ordinary, flattering view of ourselves. La Rochefoucauld repeatedly reveals the debt that nice behaviour owes to its evil shadow. He shows that we are never far from being vain, arrogant, selfish and petty – and in fact, never nearer than when we trust in our own goodness.
For example, we might believe that we’re kind to be concerned about the worries of our friends. Nothing of the sort, mocks La Rochefoucauld, writing a century before the Germans had even thought up the notion of Schadenfreude: ‘We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.’ The real challenge, he might have added, is to find enough strength to endure others when they have the temerity not to have too many misfortunes: in other words, to succeed.
What La Rochefoucauld hates above all is sentimentality, and because there are few more sentimental periods than our own, the maxim of his that is most quoted today concerns romantic love: 'There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had never heard that there was such a thing'.
La Rochefoucauld is modern in another way: he recognises the importance of writing his truths in a way that will help them to stick in the mind, in beautifully balanced phrases. If most philosophers feel no need to write like this, it is because they trust that, so long as an argument is logical, the style in which it is presented to the reader will not determine its effectiveness. La Rochefoucauld believed in a different picture of the mind. Arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the mind's weak grasp unless fixed there by beautiful sentences. La Rochefould is therefore an inspiration to anyone who feels divided between the role of a philosopher and a writer: he suggests that you can have the best of both worlds, and indeed went on to inspire some of the greastest of philosophers. It isn’t accidental that he turns out to have been dearly loved by, among others, Kierkegaard, Leopardi, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Cioran.
La Rochefoucauld reminds us that great pessimism doesn't have to be depressing: to read him is like sucking the juice from the bitterest lime, and enjoying it.
How does art encourage writers to see?
Foremost among these is the idea that art should be allowed to exist for its own sake, in an isolated aesthetic realm, and not be burdened with any need to serve a simply stated purpose, for example, that of helping us to stay sane, endure or be good. To have any agenda feels naive, propagandist and, in the worst sense, religious.
From the mid-nineteenth century, secular artists have argued, in a Romantic spirit of self-determination, that art should not debase itself through allegiances with political or spiritual sponsors. It is not to be branch of government, an organ for religious instruction or a tool for self-improvement.
What it is to be for has been left less clear. Contemporary art displays an extreme diffidence about what it wishes of its viewers. Captions are kept to a minimum. Catalogues are enigmatically written. To ask directly what a work intends to do with us is to display a suspect, vulgar and ecclesiastical curiosity. Artists have shown no wish to arrive at a collective decision as to the purpose of their calling. Radical individuality has become central to their self-conception. They have been educated to believe in the need always to be original in order to lay claim to greatness, to break with all that has come before them and relentlessly to mine the idiosyncracies of their personal imaginations. There are few greater insults one could level at a work of modern art than to describe it as derivative.
To remain independent, elusive, ironic, detached, perhaps a little strange, these have come to seem like the hallmarks of the maturity of art; proof of its autonomy from the reviled spheres of propaganda, advertising, evangelism and self-help.
It is because Christian art so blithely and provocatively contradicts all of these aesthetic assumptions that it rewards our attention and, despite its surface conservatism, hints at a revolutionary and shocking agenda, far exceeding the efforts of the most incendiary secular enfant terrible.
Unlike its atheistic counterpart, Christian art could not be clearer about its ends, however complex are the means which it employs to reach them. There has never been any mystery about what it is for. It is an instrument designed to facilitate salvation and to remind us of a set of beliefs about being good, moral, wise and grateful.
Christianity never expected that artists themselves would decide that this is what art was for. The religion left it to the theologians and doctors of divinity to pick out salient points of doctrine, and then handed these down to artists to be turned into convincing aesthetic phenomena. The church rhetorically asked why a mastery of the technical sides of art – a skill at making pigment look like an elbow or stone like hair – should be compatible with a power to work out the meaning of life. The religion did not, on top of everything else, expect Titian to be a philosopher.
So it was Christianity's holy figures, thinkers, priests, prophets and saints who provided its art with its intellectual structure, without which there would merely have been meaningless canvases showing bearded men standing in rivers having water poured over their heads, or groups of fellows having solemn-looking evenings at long tables.
Christian art was never troubled by the idea of having an ethical goal. It was from the first committed to trying to educate us, save us and make us good. It willingly aspired to the condition of propaganda. Though the word is one of the more frightening in our lexicon, coloured by the sinister ends towards which certain regimes have historically put it to work, propoganda is in essence a neutral concept, suggesting influence rather than any particular direction for it. We might associate it with corruption and tasteless posters; Christianity imagined an alternative artistic form, compatible with the highest aesthetic talent, and working to enhance our receptivity to such ingredients as kindness, flowers in the field, vulnerability, trust and empathy.
If we are unlikely ever to be puzzled by works of Christian art, it is because they belong to a collective, trans-generational project, in which the talents and particularities of individual artists have always been subsumed beneath a greater, older and better-known cause. The topics do not change, their constituent parts are repeated down the centuries and across continents with near uniformity. Derivativeness is the norm. In so far as Christian artists have ever achieved greatness, it has been through their skill at interpreting a predefined roster of topics rather than through any originality at formulating them.
From the fourteenth to the the end of the nineteenth century, a brotherhood in Rome was reknown for tracking down condemned prisoners on their way to the gallows and placing before their eyes tavolette, small boards bearing images drawn from the Christian story, in the hope that these representations of Christ on the Cross or the Virgin and Child would bring them solace in their final minutes.
There can be few more extreme examples of a belief in the redemptive capacities of pictures and yet the brotherhood was only carrying out a mission to which Christian art has always been drawn: that of putting representations of the most important ideas in front of us at difficult moments, to help us to live and to die.
What is home life like?
In the spring of 1137, the Cicestercian monk St Bernard of Clairvaux went around the Lake of Geneva without noticing it was there, so absorbed was he in divine questions. After four years in his monastery, St Bernard could not tell whether the dining area had a vaulted ceiling (it does), or how many windows there were in sanctuary of the church (three). On a visit to the Charterhouse of Dauphiné, St Bernard surprised his hosts by arriving on a white horse whose magnificence was sharply at odds with his professed values, but he explained that he had borrowed the animal from a wealthy uncle and had simply failed to register its appearance on a four day journey across France.
These efforts to grow numb to the world have nevertheless occurred alongside some extraordinary attempts, practical and financial, to shape our surroundings according to aesthetic ends: to align orange trees along a path, to mould ironwork to resemble flowers, to arrange pieces of coloured glass into a rosette, to chisel stone into the shapes of animals.
We seem divided between an urge to override our senses and become impermeable to the things around us and a contradictary pull to accept that we are painfully and yet rewardingly open to visual influences, able both to detect and delight in the differences between a plank of oak and of beech, a primrose and a daisy, an Ionic and a Corinthian column. In this second account, our identities are pegged to, and will shift along with our locations. Places will bring out distinct sides of us: a run-down street will coagulate any loose suspicions we might have about the incompleteness of life, while a walk down a sun-lit corridor of honey-hued limestone tiles can lend support to what is most hopeful and serene within us. We may change our religious denomination according to how the ceiling is painted. Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better and for worse, different people in different places – and that architecture’s task is to make vivid to us who we might ideally be.
We are sometimes eager to celebrate the influence that our surroundings can have on us. We recognise that our priorities can be significantly and beneficially altered by contact with a painting in a museum showing two eggs in a bowl or one of a young woman standing in a green dress looking out at a field and the setting sun. We are happy to accord power to a few inches of paint. We leave the museum awakened, we notice the reflections of the grey-orange clouds in a puddle and the broach on the cardigan of a girl opposite us on the train home.
And yet there are at the same time less acceptable implications to our sensitivity. If a small canvas can alter our mindsets, it must follow that we will be affected by the range of things we see around us: that we will be different people too in contact with the motorway underpass and the wood-laminate desks in the office, the litter strewn-streets and the prison-like windows of a block of flats. Our usual environments give us grounds for attempting to deny our pourousness. Echoing the attitude of St Bernard around the Lake of Geneva, we may find ourselves arguing that it doesn’t perhaps in the end much matter what things look like – an indifference that stems not so much from an insensitivity to beauty, as from an awareness of the difficulties we would face if we remained open to all of beauty’s many absences. Small children, who rarely let ten minutes pass without bursting into tears, are perhaps the best examples of what could occur if we didn’t coarsen ourselves. We might cry because a freshly painted wall had been defaced or a window broken. If we noticed and gave each visual ill its due, the world would swiftly sound like a giant nursery.
A reluctance to engage with beauty stems not only from its dearth, but also its fragility and cost. To fall a little in love with anything material is to allow for a dangerous expansion of our sense of ourselves, we risk being heart-broken by cocoa-coated fingers or barbarian invasion, by the antics of builders and the forces of a hurricane. We are held hostage by everything we care for but do not fully control. Hence the counsel of the Stoic sages, who advised us to construct our hopes for happiness on only the sturdiest of supports, to exclude from our vision of contentment anything material or emotional, anything that could one day leave us or die, acquire an ugly stain or blow an irreparable circuit.
Beautiful things are frustrating too in how unreliable they are at generating the happiness on which their claims to our attention are founded.
While majestic surroundings can at times buoy up an ascending mood, there will be times when we are unable to take pleasure from the finest locations. We can find ourselves cross and envious even though a beautiful floor has been brought from a remote quarry and finely-sculpted window frames have been painted a delicate light grey. Our inner metronome can be unimpressed by a gilded ceiling decorated with angels and clouds or by a serene concrete, steel and glass pavilion. We can be left cold by the efforts of a thousand workmen over twenty years to create an artificial lake and nurture a symmetrical line of oak trees. We (I) can erupt into a domestic argument which ends in threats of divorce in the Villa Savoye in Paris. Places can invite us to join them in a mood which we find ourselves incapable of summoning. The noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin.
As a result, architecture will always compete poorly with utilitarian demands for humanity’s resources. How hard it is to make a case for the cost of rebuilding a mean but serviceable street. How hard it is to lend gravity to the particular discomfort that can be caused by seeing a lamp-post out of line along a road or ill-matching plastic window frames in an apartment block. The unhappiness that stems from ugliness is risible next to most physical and emotional afflictions.
We may in our frustration label an interest in beauty as escapist for it can seem that we are closest to what is true when we are dealing with ugly things. The essential facts of life, as we may recognise in the honest early hours of the morning, are mostly bound up with pain, loneliness, insincerity and fear. Beauty can in this context look close to a sentimental lie. To take an interest in plates with blue flowers around the edges or to design balconies made up of pieces of curling ironwork can look supercilious and naive, the equivalent of keeping our eyes fixed on the head of a daisy while walking across a corpse-strewn battlefield.
Our buildings should be honest reminders of our fallen state. Our buildings should not be any prettier than we are.
And yet, when we speak of being ‘moved’ by beauty, by an old wooden bench or an anglepoise desk lamp, we hint at a surge of emotion which is at some level reliant on an awareness of a contrast: between how things normally are and the qualities written into the object of beauty. A lump rises in our throat at the sight of an Elizabethan walled garden or a white glazed jug from an implicit knowledge of what life is more typically like. To be moved, we must at some level be aware of the anomalous nature of the objects that move us.
It is in dialogue with pain that beauty gains its value. We should be trusted to enjoy a painting of a lemon, melted gold by the afternoon sun, or the graceful curve of a chair without being suspected of having forgotten that these are the exceptions. Our very enjoyment of them is indeed proof that we must be holding bleaker thoughts somewhere in mind.
The suspicion of beauty could in the end be said to center on the painful modesty of the claims that can realistically be made on its behalf.
Reverence for beautiful things does not seem like a high ambition to pin our hopes for happiness on, at least when compared with the results we might initially associate with love or politics, technology or money. To care deeply about something that does so little, and yet lays claim to so many resources, brings us up against a disturbing, even degrading lack of aspiration.
It tends not to be political revolutionaries or young couples in love who stop to admire the careful layering of cement in a brick wall or a plant growing in the crack between two paving stones. Their disregard for such diffident beauty could be said to rest on their implicit belief in the possibility of reaching more significant, all-encompassing forms of happiness. It is only after coming up against some of the sterner compromises of emotional or political life that they may, like Europe’s most famous gardener, Candide, arrive at a more charitable perspective on the virtues of ordinary pursuits: mowing the lawn or studying a pair of cottony clouds being blown across the sky. It is rare to find someone who, by the age of thirty-five, has not started to be touched by certain of the expressions of spring and autumn. Acquaintance with the stubborn obstacles that tend to marr our grander schemes for happiness can be the basis for coming to value smaller islands of perfection, in which we find an echo of an ideal which we once hoped to lay a permanent claim to.
Though beauty in architecture can at times come under mocking attack for its ineffectiveness, our rage would more fairly be directed at those features of existence responsible for leading us to derive such solace from it.
Two years ago you established The School of Life, a street-level school which offers classes about everyday life and provides therapy as well. How did you feel the first time you stepped into the school once the physical space had been realized?
For a start, The School of Life has a passionate belief in making learning relevant - and so runs courses in the important questions of everyday life. Whereas most colleges and universities chop up learning into abstract categories ('agrarian history' 'the 18th century English novel'), The School of Life titles its courses according to things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families. An evening or weekend on one of its courses is likely to be spent reflecting on such matters as your moral responsibilities to an ex partner or how to resolve a career crisis.
The School also has a division offering psychotherapy for individuals, couples or families - and it does so in a completely stigma-free way. For the normally reserved British, it must be a first to have an institution that offers therapy from an ordinary high street location and moreover, treats the idea of having therapy as no more or less strange than having a haircut or pedicure, and perhaps a good deal more useful.
In a culture where anyone who attempts a serious conversation is at once accused of belonging to the 'chattering classes' and where anything too intellectual is in danger of being called pretentious, one has to applaud a place that attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they should always have been - right in the middle of our lives.
In addition to The School of Life, you founded Living Architecture, an organization which builds modern homes for people to rent and live in over holiday periods. How is that going?
A few years ago, I wrote a book about architecture critical of our nostalgia and low expectations. It got a healthy amount of attention, on the back of which I was invited to a stream of conferences about the future of architecture. But one night, returning from one such conference in Bristol, I had a dark moment of the soul. I realised that however pleasing it is to write a book about an issue one feels passionately about, the truth is that - a few exceptions aside - books don't change anything. I realised that if I cared so much about architecture, writing was just a coward's way out; the real challenge was to build.
So on the back of a notepad was born a project which officially launches this summer: Living Architecture is a not-for-profit organisation that puts up houses around the UK designed by some of the world's top architects and makes these available to the public to rent for holidays throughout the year.
Our dream was to allow people to experience what it is like to live and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice. Living Architecture's houses are deliberately varied. One of them by the Dutch firm MVRDV hangs precariously off the edge of a hill in Suffolk. A second by the legendary Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is a secular mini-monastery which aims to bring an ecclesiastical calm and solemnity to the Devon countryside.
The salvation of British housing lies in raising standards of taste. If one considers how rapidly and overwhelmingly this has been achieved in cooking, there is much to be optimistic about. Consumers have learnt to ask probing questions about salt or fat levels which it wouldn’t have occurred to a previous generation to raise. With the right guidance, a similar sensitivity could rapidly be fashioned to the worst features of domestic buildings. My hope is that a holiday in a Living Architecture house will, in a modest but determined way, help to change the debate about what sort of houses we want to live in.
Name three things that delight you.
But let's listen to the great poet William Wordsworth who was notably less pessimistic on this topic. In the autumn of 1790, the poet went on a walking tour of the Alps. In a letter to his sister describing the scenes he had witnessed, he wrote, ‘At this moment when many of these landscapes are floating before my mind, I feel a high enjoyment in reflecting that perhaps scarce a day of my life (my italics) will pass in which I shall not derive some happiness from these images’.
This was no hyperbole. Decades later, the Alps continued to live within him and strengthened him whenever he evoked them. Their survival led him to argue that we can witness in nature certain scenes that stay with us throughout our lives and, every time they enter consciousness, can offer us a contrast to, and relief from present difficulties. He termed such experiences in nature ‘spots of time.’
This belief in small, critical moments in nature explains Wordsworth’s unusually specific way of subtitling many of his poems. Tintern Abbey’s subtitle (On revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798) included the exact day, month and year to suggest that a few moments in the countryside overlooking a valley could number among the most momentous and useful of one’s life, and as worthy of being remembered precisely as a birthday or a wedding.
I've had a few of these special moments, these spots of time. I remember one that happened during a visit to the Lake District a few years ago. I was sitting on a bench and looked out across a field to a clump of trees by a stream. These trees gave off an impression of astonishing health and exuberance. They seemed not to care that the world was old and often sad. I was tempted to bury my face in them so as to be restored by their smell. It seemed extraordinary that nature could on its own, without any concern for the happiness of men and women, have come up with a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion.
My receptivity to the scene lasted only a minute. I was unaware of having fixed the picture in memory, until one mid-afternoon in London, while waiting in a traffic jam, oppressed by cares, the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence, and asserting themselves in consciousness, providing a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts and protecting me from eddies of anxiety.
Wordsworth's idea of 'spots of time' in nature offers the consoling thought that we can all continuously draw on images of nature and with their help, blunt a little the ever-present pressures of our technological lives.
How would you define the perfect party?
What we now know as the Eucharist began as a meal, an occasion when early Christian communities would put aside their work and family commitments and gather together around a table (typically laden with wine, lamb stew and unleavened bread) in order to commemorate the Last Supper. These acquaintances would talk, pray and renew their commitment to Christ and to one another. Like the Jews with their sabbath meal, they understood that it is when we satiate our bodily hunger that we are often readiest to direct our minds to the needs of others. They knew how to connect ambitious ideas to the diffuse feelings of warm satisfaction that follow the ingestion of a well-marinated stew. These gatherings became formalised under the name of Agape (love) Feasts and were regularly held by Christian communities in the period between Jesus's death and the Council of Laodicea in 364AD. It was only complaints about the excessive exuberance of some of the feasts that eventually led the early Church to ban them and suggest that the faithful should eat at home with their families instead and only thereafter gather for a symbolically spiritual rather than literally carnal banquet that we know today as the Eucharist.
Our modern failure to properly connect eating with conviviality is sometimes manifest in restaurants. The noise and activity of restaurants typically suggests a refuge from the anonymity that surrounds them in cities. With people in such close proximity, we can plausibly trust that the barriers between ourselves and others will be eroded. But in reality most restaurants make no moves to present us to one another, they have no mechanisms for dispelling our mutual suspicions or for fracturing the clans into which we are segregated. They never extend the circle of our affections. Like so many venues in the modern city (nightclubs, bars, football matches, art galleries), the restaurant rubs us up against people yet does nothing to connect us to them – as if we had forgotten that real community has precious little to do with just standing in a confined space with others. We must also sing, talk, hold hands – or might as well be on our own.
Sitting down at a communal table with a group of strangers and properly mingling with them has the incomparable benefit of making it a little less likely that will be able to hate them with impunity. The proximity required by a meal – something about passing someone dishes, unfurling your napkin at the same time, having to speak – makes it harder to continue to cling to the belief that the outsiders we'd previously spotted only in the train or shops and who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents are inhuman and deserve to be sent away. For all the large-scale political solutions to ethnic conflict, there are few more effective tools to promote tolerance between suspicious neighbours than to force them to have supper together.
Religions are aware that our minds are unusually receptive to being taught at, and through meals. The moments around the ingestion of food are especially propitious to moral education. It is as if the imminent prospect of a bowl of soup can seduce our normally resistent selves into showing some of the same generosity to others as the table has shown to us. Religions know enough about our sensory, non-intellectual dimensions to be aware that we cannot be kept on a virtuous track simply through the medium of words. They know that aside from reading and thinking, our capacity to be kind-hearted will be significantly enhanced if they also give us something to eat. They know they have a captive audience who are likely to accept a trade-off between ideas and nourishment – and so they turn meals into extended, subtly-disguised ethical lessons. They will stop us just before we have the first sip and insert a thought that can be swilled down with the rich liquid like a tablet. They will make us listen to a homily in the gratified interval between two courses. And they will use foods to represent concepts: telling us not only that the bread is the sacred body, but also, for the Jews at Passover, that the dish of crushed apples and nuts is the mortar used by their enslaved predecessors to build warehouses of the Egyptians or, for Zen Buddhists, that the cups of slowly brewing tea are tokens of the transitory nature of happiness in a floating world.
At its most ambitious, the tradition of sacred eating does not merely drop ideas into our minds between mouthfuls, it also makes sure that what we are eating is itself an agent of communication and that doctrines are aligned with the subterranean sympathies of certain foodstuffs. We may feel closer to ideas of purity when we are eating white rice, and there are promises of new life in thyme-covered roasted lamb.
We should look back at communal feasts like the Christian Feast of Love for lessons in how food could be a gateway to friendship as much as occasions for pure sensory enjoyment.
Author illustration by Tobiah Cole
Interview Darin Beasley