Anyone who’s ever lost sleep over an unreturned phone call or the neighbor’s Lexus had better read Alain de Botton’s irresistibly clear-headed new book, immediately. For in its pages, a master explicator of our civilization and its discontents turns his attention to the insatiable quest for status, a quest that has less to do with material comfort than with love. To demonstrate his thesis, de Botton ranges through Western history and thought from St. Augustine to Andrew Carnegie and Machiavelli to Anthony Robbins.
Whether it’s assessing the class-consciousness of Christianity or the convulsions of consumer capitalism, dueling or home-furnishing, Status Anxiety is infallibly entertaining. And when it examines the virtues of informed misanthropy, art appreciation, or walking a lobster on a leash, it is not only wise but helpful.
This sophisticated gazebo of a book is the latest dispatch from the Swiss-born, London-based author of the influential handbook How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997). Promising to teach us how to duck the "brutal epithet of 'loser' or 'nobody,' " de Botton notes that status has often been conflated with honor and that the number of men slain while dueling has amounted, over the centuries, to the hundreds of thousands. That conflation is a trap from which de Botton suggests a number of escape routes. We could try philosophy, the "intelligent misanthropy" of Schopenhauer, for who cares what others think if they're all a pack of ninnies anyhow? Art, too, has its consolations, as Marcel found out in Remembrance of Things Past. A novelist such as Jane Austen, with her little painted squares of ivory, can reimagine the world we live in so that we see fully how virtue is actually "distributed without regard to material wealth." De Botton also discusses bohemia, the reaction to status and the attack on bourgeois values, wisely linking this movement to dadaism, whose founder, Tristan Tzara, called for the "idiotic." The phenomenon known as "keeping up with the Joneses" is nothing new, and not much has changed in the 45 years since the late Vance Packard, in The Status Seekers, wrote the definitive analysis of consumer culture and its discontents. But even at the peak of his influence, Packard was never half as suave as de Botton. (A three-part TV documentary, to be shown in the U.K. and in Australia, and hosted by de Botton, has been commissioned to promote the book.) Lively and provocative, de Botton proves once again that originality isn't necessary when one has that continental flair we call "style."