Dissecting our craving for status
Seattle Times book critic
Over the past seven years, British writer Alain de Botton has cunningly latched onto our eagerness to improve or understand ourselves, and redirected our bromide-susceptible self-help energies back toward the classics.
In "How Proust Can Change Your Life," he browsed Marcel Proust's massive novel, "In Search of Lost Time," for clues as to how we can get get along a bit more easily in life. In "The Consolation of Philosophy," with the same purpose in mind, he revisited the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and their successors. "The Art of Travel" found him parsing the writings of Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Ruskin and others for vacation advice.
Now comes "Status Anxiety," his richest, funniest, most heartfelt work yet, packed with erudition and brimming with an elegant originality of mind. (Has anyone else drawn such strong parallels between the status-quo-subverting characteristics of New Testament Christianity and artist-in-a-garret bohemianism? Not that I know of.)
"Status Anxiety" is divided into two parts. The first shrewdly analyzes what contributes to and detracts from one's status in society. Power, rank, reputation, appearance — unless you're extraordinarily self-sufficient, you care about these things. Even if you don't, you're aware of them.
In feudal societies, de Botton suggests, social rank was viewed as predestined, and changes of rank were rare. But with the emergence of a meritocratic ideal in the 18th century, all of that changed. The dream of extending equal opportunity to every member of society was a good thing, of course. But it came with a sting in its tail.
"The rigid hierarchy that had been in place," de Botton writes, "was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways, but it offered those on the lowest rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to have to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points — and so find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result."
That shadow side of meritocracy, in short, was that those who got stuck at the bottom would get the message, subliminally or overtly, that they had only themselves to blame. And in a money-oriented society like ours, 90 percent of us can't help but feel we're at or near the bottom.
The second half of the book proposes five realms of activity that challenge this mainstream status-standard: philosophy, art, politics, religion and "bohemia." In the book's funniest passage, de Botton imagines what mainstream tabloid headline writers might make of the failed lives depicted in tragic literature. "Oedipus the King," for example, is reduced to "Royal in Incest Shocker."
"Reduced" is the key word here. De Botton's point is that a great tragedy, on stage or in fiction, can lend dignity and humanity to a life where all status has been lost or forfeited. Indeed, he argues, the subversive purpose of much art — including comedy — is to discover the true worth of humble(d) lives and to lampoon the overinflated status of society's pillars.
How does politics challenge mainstream notions of status? De Botton cites women as "the segment of Western society that perhaps most successfully altered its status over the course of the twentieth century." Take, he says, Virginia Woolf's reaction when she was denied entrance into a Cambridge University library. Instead of wondering what was wrong with women's status that prohibited them from entering that library, she performed "the quintessential political manoeuvre" by asking what was wrong with the library.
At a time when politically powerful fundamentalist Christianity threatens to become synonymous with "religion" in this country, de Botton's reminder to us of the status-challenging tenets of New Testament Christianity is especially refreshing. So is his argument that artists often operate, like true Christians, as "saboteurs of the economic meritocracy."
The clarity of his phrasing, the range of his learning and the sheer good humor with which he engages his subject make "Status Anxiety" an informative joy to read. The mind at work here is lithe, sharp and always intelligible, however unexpected the connections it makes. And as always, de Botton peppers his text with droll or revealing illustrations, varying from New Yorker cartoons to goofy graphs to reproductions of sublime works of art. The result is a genial yet trenchant look at how we live — and what we think of how we live.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company