Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?
by Sam Kriss
Philosophy means asking difficult questions. Not the questions that actually make up philosophical enquiry – those tend to be quite simple, which is why they can be so easily worked into summer blockbusters – but the tiny, dark questions that swarm around them. The questions that you can never quite get out of your head, even though you know full well that the answers won’t bring you any hope or solace. Questions that form miniature doorways into small tight universes of unrelenting horror. A field philosopher of an earlier century, his brain slow-cooking in his pith helmet, tramping through the sweaty heat of a tropical rainforest with the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him down into the muddy ooze below, trying to discern the mating call of his prey in the jungle’s unending din, might stop and ask himself – if I do manage to track and shoot the synthetic a priori proposition, will that make me happy? These days, the rainforests have mostly been cleared to grow soybeans and palm oil, and the old briery questions that used to hide in their shadows are now everywhere. Why do I keep making such a tit out of myself at parties? Was romantic love really invented by a conspiracy of medieval poets and soft toy manufacturers in collusion against the world? Does Alain de Botton actually fuck? And if he does, then what could that kind of monstrosity actually look like?
Alain de Botton is the most banal man alive and the most banal man to have ever lived, but it’s not enough to just complain about banality as itself, because banality doesn’t exist. Banality isn’t like misery, or ecstasy for that matter, which swallow you up completely, admitting no outside or differentiation, like Badiou’s grey-black that negates even the possibility of a light. Banality is a spectral relation between something real and something that used to be real; it speaks to something that’s been lost. If everything in the world were completely banal and always had been, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it; we’d have nothing to compare it to. There has to be something significant, somewhere. The problem is that most things are pretty dull. Look around you; try to find one non-boring mass-produced object, anything whose existence you could really uphold in the court of eternity. It’s not easy. The sense of banality is the ghost of a significance that has been thoroughly and deliberately wiped out. These concepts are all the products of a particular set of material and historical circumstances: the idea of virtue would be impossible without classical slavery, ennui came out of the stillbirth of modernity, and banality is the cultural logic of colonial genocide. Dig around near the roots of any piece of tritely inspirational advice, and it won’t be long before you unearth the mass graves.
You can see this in the suburb, an urban form so monolithically banal its structural violence rivals that of the temple complexes in Tenochtitlan. The vast bloated suburbs of the western United States could only be built once the native Americans had been completely wiped out and any mystical autonomous connection between humanity and the earth had been eradicated; only then were the hills and the desert reduced to mere land, which could be parcelled out in lots for tract housing and strip malls. In France, meanwhile, the suburb-form appears as a drab concrete prison suffocating the ancient heart of the city, a holding pen for the survivors of the state’s imperial killing sprees abroad. Britain’s commuter belt villages, coma-quiet but for church bells and the dying yelps of the foxes, built their sleepy tedium on the superprofits extracted through the rape of three continents. The strange tendency for acolytes of the supremely boring New Atheism to be from Australia makes a lot of sense in this context: once the songlines have been scrubbed out and the unburdened creativity of the Dreaming has been extinguished – along with the continent’s original inhabitants – the land becomes a flat and empty space for the exercise of instrumental reason. Israel, one of the few actively ongoing colonial projects in the old mould, is fast getting in on the act: it’s official propaganda is now laced with dull affirmatory homilies. Banality is the quiet revenge of the societies we’ve destroyed and the lives we’ve extinguished, its stiflingness is the traumatic echo of the bloody chaos that suddenly descended on them. And Alain de Botton is the most banal person to have ever lived. How many massacres must he have committed?
I’ve mentioned de Botton a few times before in these pages, but only because I find him an object of gruesome fascination and psychotically obsessive hate. According to his own personal website, he is ‘a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.’ He’s also presented a couple of TV series and is the founder of something faintly ominous called the ‘School of Life.’ He is, we’re expected to believe, a philosopher: someone with the same basic job description as Heraclitus or Kant or Hegel. What the site fails to mention is that he looks like nothing of this world. Generally it’s bad form to make fun of someone’s physical appearance; they can’t really help it, after all. (In any case, philosophers shouldn’t really look like normal people. They exist to seek out the strangeness in life: Heraclitus was a ragged he-crone, Kierkegaard was a hunchback, Adorno was an absurd Humpty Dumpty figure; if these people weren’t weirdos they would’ve ended up getting a normal job.) With de Botton it’s different; his bodily strangeness is inseparable from the bland conventionality of his thought. Alain de Botton looks like a human being as designed by HR Giger. His forehead rises high up to a vaulted dome, a tapering lizard’s egg of a cranium. His eyebrows jolt and shudder with his shoulders. His nose has a lubricious gleam; his mouth is a dark stain, red wine or fresh blood, and when he talks his deathly-white teeth seem to slide oilily against each other. His skin is faintly rubbery, and while it mostly seems to fit him there are still a few places where is bunches up or stretches out, like a cutaneous gimp suit. He looks weird, interstellarly weird; half Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, half sentient rock formation. The general impression given is that of a reptilian alien awkwardly stuffed into a human form – not a particularly malevolent alien, just one that in its own unknowable way is making an honest and doomed attempt to fit in among us Earthlings. It’s a lie. He’s evil, and his evil is entirely human.
Alain de Botton specialises in a kind of humdrum potted sagacity, the kind of stuff that has all the outward appearance of insight while managing to avoid saying anything at all. This mushy nothingness can take the form of pointless tautology (‘In a meritocracy, success comes to seem earnt – but failure deserved’), excerpts from the Dictionary of Twee Vacuousness (‘Magnanimity: the one who was right does not say ‘I told you so,’ the one who was wronged does not seek vengeance’), outright untruth (‘Choosing a spouse and choosing a career: the two great decisions for which society refuses to set up institutional guidance’), inspirational pap (‘Our real motivation comes from people who don’t believe in us’), and the final spluttering descent into total incoherency (‘The end logic of our relationship to computers: sincerely asking the search engine “what should I do with the rest of my life?”‘).
These nuggets are all from his inevitable Twitter account; for the really heavy froth you’ll have to turn to his books. To be fair, Alain de Botton is a man of great intellectual breadth. In his many published works he has managed to be boring about Proust, anodyne about art and architecture, tedious about travel, and spend several hundred pages completely failing to understand love, sex, and religion. Aside from the general awfulness of his writing, it’s on these last two subjects (I don’t really like Proust) that his peculiar monstrosity really shines through. In Religion for Atheists (Penguin, 2012) he tries to reconcile the virtues of religious faith with a non-belief in an objectively existing God. That’s perfectly fine; plenty of worthwhile thinkers (Bloch, Althusser, Agamben, Badiou) have tried to do the same. However, for de Botton religion is useful because it ‘teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober’ and because it can help us learn ‘how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper.’ No it’s not. Religion is fire and passion, a point of connection between humanity and the infinite, the cry of the oppressed creature, the foundation of universalism. It’s meant to be vast and terrifying and emancipatory. In the face of the vastness of the Absolute Other all human distinctions are meaningless; that’s why so many radical liberation movements have been religious in nature. What this book does is try to turn six millennia of blazing fervour into a half-baked set of minute consolations. It’s an act of hideous violence.
That’s bad enough, but How To Think More About Sex (Picador, 2012) might be the worst book ever written. It’s not too long, but de Botton manages to squeeze into its pages an entire compendium of some of the most grotesque and ungodly sexual acts ever committed. There are the infamous blood orgies of the Mughal emperors, in which the slit throat of a young harem slave was used as a lubricant; there are the thanatophilic séances of certain Theosophist sects, in which the spirits of the dead were summoned and subjected to days of sexual torture; there’s the story of the medieval Saint Quasivermus of Caenumia, who held that congress with earthworms was the only unsinful carnal activity. His book describes every possible interposition of body parts with orifices: there are toes in nostrils, the practice of ‘elbow-fucking,’ and one instance in which an entire dwarf is inserted into an anus. The whole book is awash in a queasy sea of bodily effluent – blood, vomit, bile, cum, pus, piss. Of course, none of this is in the text itself, but it’s the unvoiced content of de Botton’s continual refusal to follow his title and actually think about sex. What he does is recoil from it. For him, sex is for procreation and to stave off loneliness; it’s always a fundamentally selfish act. Most of the time it’s a case of ‘squandered human energy;’ he continually resorts to the idea of sexuality being somehow base: a vestigal, degrading, primal urge we’d all be better off without. At one point he even upholds impotence as an ‘achievement of the ethical imagination.’ None of which is necessarily objectionable – maybe we would be better off without libidinality, free to concentrate on more important things like compiling spreadsheets of sporting statistics and overthrowing capitalism – except for the fact that de Botton never actually makes any argument for this position; he just presents it as a given. He doesn’t seem to even consider the idea that sexuality might be fundamentally related to how we can conceive of ourselves as people, or even that it might actually be enjoyable.
Alain de Botton doesn’t understand sex or religion because sexual and religious experiences are fundamentally transcendental; they allow people to escape the bounds of the atomised subject. They point, however darkly, to something we can’t quite name or describe. They are experiences that are not yet completely banal, and there’s no room for that kind of thing in his watered-down gruel of a philosophy. Does Alain de Botton fuck? Of course he doesn’t. What happens is the female of the de Botton species releases her eggs in the water, and the male comes along later and fertilises them. But supposing he did?
It’s all very well to make fun of Alain de Botton for being an intellectual lightweight and looking like a monster from a cheap B-movie, but these facts should be immediately obvious to anyone. The point is that his brand of fluffy philosophy-as-self-help isn’t just annoying. It’s an enemy; it’s bloodthirsty and dangerous. The usual charge levied against de Botton is that he ‘isn’t a real philosopher.’ This isn’t true at all; he’s a philosopher in the highest sense, as described by Marx and Nietzsche – in the sense that philosophers are ‘advocates who refuse the name, wily spokesmen for their prejudices,’ or those who try to interpret the world when the point is to change it. Despite his small nods to the idea that maybe the senseless and continual catastrophe of capitalism might not be the best way to run a planet, de Botton isn’t really interested in changing the world. He thinks people should be a little bit more reflective, he thinks he can help people cope with the stresses of the workplace and the perils of romance, he thinks everyone should have a ‘sunlit room set with honey-coloured limestone tiles’ in which to relax – and that’s basically it. No passions, no fury, no grand and wild ideas, just a dull life with a few small pleasures and a few small worries, instantly soothed. He’s standing atop a pile of corpses and suggesting that they might be arranged more pleasingly. Alain de Botton isn’t just banal, he embraces his own banality; he tries to dress vacuousness up as significance. If the sense of the banal is the whispering reminder that there was once something important and our society has since then expended every effort in wiping it out, then de Botton’s achievement is to close up that anxious gap, to make dullness a universal with no horizon. With that achieved, the slaughter can continue. Alain de Botton would see the seas turned to acid slime and the sky filled with iron and smoke. He is directly responsible for every evil act in the world today. He wants us to kill our young.
He’s not alone. De Botton is just the thin edge of an enormous and boring wedge, the Blitzkreig of banality. This stuff is dangerous, and it needs to be fought with every weapon available, with all the puerile and tasteless fury we can muster. What if Alain de Botton actually fucked? What could such a monstrosity actually look like? His tiny, shiny pebble-head gleaming with sweat, his weird lips twisting into a grimace of enjoyment. His flappy, skinny torso heaving, pale as milk, brushed with dark greasy hairs. He’d go too far. He’s coming into contact with something he’s disavowed his entire life; all his symbolic violence is coming into brutal reality. First the blood, then the fragments of bone tossed around the room, a screeching, scrabbling fury. Alain de Botton rears his head and howls – then stops. He looks down at himself. He looks at the carnage he’s responsible for. Finally, he’s come face to face with what he really is.
PS: I might have been a little unkind to Mr. de Botton. He’s not a total stranger to outright fury – after a negative book review, he left a comment on the author’s blog, writing ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’ I await his comments on my own appraisal of his work with anticipation.