What is representation? Alain de Botton explains
Advanced Module C: Representation and Text
Elective 2: Representing People and Landscapes
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Art of Travel is a unique mix of travel writing, memoir and philosophical treatise on modern life. The first chapter is entitled 'On Anticipation' and it is focused on understanding the relationship between representation and reality, between the world that is created by our cultural experience and the actual experiences we undergo. It is easy to see how it fits with the outcomes of Module C which explores how texts act as representations and help us to construct meaning (not only about the text itself but also about our own lives and the world around us). De Botton starts with an experience that we can all relate to, the feeling of going somewhere in real life that we have previously imagined based solely on representations. It is an experience where the representation usually wins out because real life has two main drawbacks, according to the author. First, wherever you go, you will be there. We cannot escape ourselves no matter how far we travel and we might not always like our own company. Second, the representations we experience through our culture have particular connotations and when it comes to holidays these tend to be idealised. Travel should be the perfect escape from our everyday lives; de Botton uses the weather, for example, to contrast life in grey and dreary London with the imagined tropical paradise of Barbados. “It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived” he begins, making a symbolic reference to the kind of low-grade melancholy of the everyday that gives him the impetus to seek out a holiday escape from “relentless reality” (5). But wherever our intrepid philosopher goes, he takes with him his particular way of seeing the world. It is one where he is brutally honest about his own experiences and failings, such as a fight with his travel partner, so we know our traveling through these ideas won’t be easy. But de Botton has his travel “guides” to help us. These are not the Lonely Planet type of travel guides. Instead, de Botton uses representation (in the form of photography, art and literature) to act as our guides as we begin our journey towards understanding why “valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality” (14).