This week, I'll run the rest of the interview. In this second part, we move beyond his book, to the world of psychology. De Botton is writer who's highly interested in psychology, and (as I said last week) in how books change our everyday lives, from how we deal with our moods to whom we marry.
In that light, he started a bookstore-slash-therapy office in London, called The School of Life. There, students can take courses, not on grand topics like "history" or "science," but in how to hold conversation, or how to die. Below, de Botton talks to me about the dangers of being cocky, the stigma of psychotherapy, and how he met his wife.
Like many of your books, your latest contains a strong strain of loneliness. In interviews floating around online, you've said that you've known loneliness all too well for various reasons: your parents sent you to an English boarding school at age 8 when you could not speak English; your Jewishness is a possible source of alienation; you started going bald in your twenties and were undersexed in college. You don't feel at home in any one genre and gravitate toward topics of transience, like airports. Talk to me about loneliness? Sometimes I wonder if you exaggerate the image of your loneliness in certain spots as an aesthetic move--to touch us. It is a move I think works well in books: an author (who's not, when in the stage of editing, in a dire existential crunch) speaks of loneliness, and so touches a reader who's also alone. Can you talk about the aesthetics of an author's self-description, as humble or as lonely?
I do feel that loneliness is one of the great themes of all lives --whether we are objectively on our own or surrounded by friends and family. Our need to be understood is immense, and yet of course, we are rarely able to explain ourselves, to earn the attention of others, or to find people who are interested enough to care. So we end up alone and one of the things we do in this state is both to read and write. It hence feels natural to me that my own tendency to loneliness should surface in books. Writing is for me an act of communication with anonymous strangers-and perhaps the confession of my vulnerability acts like an invitation held out to the reader.
Along the same vein: At several spots in this book, I wanted to hear more about your own relationship to work. You seem to downplay your own story and successes. You did find a career that suits you, and you are an entrepreneur, even if you write that meeting other practical-minded visionaries has "an exceptional capacity to catapult me into spasms of envy and inadequacy." You're often modest in your books. I'd like to see you play with confidence. Comment?
I come from a family of very high achievers, and so tend to feel permanently inadequate next to their greater financial and status prowess. When it comes to my career, I definitely always look at the glass half empty. I feel the dangers of my position acutely: I know what a struggle it is to write each book. Every time I start a new book, I am back to square one, with all the raging insecurities of the novice author. The older I get, the more this insecurity can come to seem humiliating. 'I am almost forty, I have seven books under my belt, surely this feeling shouldn't be there,' I tell myself with frustration.
As for playing with confidence, feeling very confident always seems to me like a prelude to disaster-it's when one is confident that one's senses are dulled, and one starts to miss things. So I feel in my own superstitious way...
You mock a few people in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Has anyone sought revenge?
I feel bad if anyone was hurt by what I wrote. A few times in the text, I poked gentle fun. But my essential motives were always healthy. I don't like relentlessly sarcastic books. I write to praise for the most part. Fortunately, no one has sought direct revenge-but there is still time...
Can you also tell me a little about the psychological services you offer through The School of Life? Why is this context for therapy different than another context?
I know this may sound odd in an American context, but in the UK, there is still an extraordinary amount of prejudice against therapy. The dominant assumption about anyone seeking therapeutic help is that they must be close to madness and disintegration.
So I was very keen that the School of Life offer therapy in a stigma free way, that it treat the idea of having therapy as no more or less strange than having a haircut or pedicure, and perhaps a good deal more useful. We spent a lot of time writing the copy and leaflets for the therapeutic services. The idea is to suggest that therapy should be a part of any educated self-conscious person's repertoire. Also, therapy tends never to be branded. One finds one's way to a therapist through slightly shamed means; one might have to ask one's doctor (as if one had a disease). So the idea with the school was to put therapy on the high street, to offer it as something you could consume like anything else; to normalize it and hence give it a more reliable position in our lives.
We have a huge amount of trouble understanding our motives and feelings. We are too close to the source. Therapy is an arena in which another person can listen to us with extraordinary attention while we describe ourselves - and can help us to make sense, a little sense, of who we are. The results are not always going to be extraordinary. So much depends on the attitude we bring to the process (this isn't like medicine, where a pill will work whatever the attitude of the patient), and of course, on the quality of the therapist. It isn't a magical solution, but it's a hugely intriguing development in the self-understanding and maturity of the race.
Circulating online is a wonderful story about how you met your wife. At a party, you listed your detailed criteria for a love match to some friends ("a doctor's daughter who grew up outside London and works in business or science" ), and you were set up the next weekend. You married her. Can you be your own analyst here? If you'd avoided marriage thus far because of a fatal idealism, how did the idealist in you accept the actual woman?
The dominant assumption we have about love is that we shouldn't have a shopping list: that we should let ourselves be 'surprised' by our love matches, and that there is something controlling and sterile about having too sharp an image of whom one would want to be in love with. I suppose I was playfully challenging this one evening by giving a friend an incredibly detailed list of who I wanted to meet. Miraculously, this description jogged her memory and I was introduced to my now wife as a result. Naturally, the person I have married is complicated and diverse way beyond my necessarily sketchy initial description-but the things I love and admire in her remain those I knew I was seeking in her before I met her. This is a vision of love that would be instantly familiar to an Indian young man or woman - but it can sound odd in the Western context, so imbued is it with notions of the ineffable qualities of the beloved, whom fate will reveal but whom one shouldn't seek out too directly.
Are there organizations in the U.S. that serve similar functions to the School for Life? I'm thinking, perhaps, of Philoctetes or even the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Are you collaborating with any spots here?
I'm not familiar with these two institutions, but they do sound like they have similarities. It's my dream one day to be able to open up branches of The School of Life in NY and perhaps San Francisco-so collaborators and funders are most welcome.
and visit my website, here.
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