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Desire me, admire me

Status Anxiety Alain de Botton Pantheon: 306 pp., $24

August 01, 2004|Adam Bresnick | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

According to Alain de Botton, human beings are beset with two essential desires: the desire for sexual love, or the romantic attention of others; and the desire for status, or the esteem of others. Though De Botton admits early on that these may well amount to the same thing, this does not impede his headlong rush to build a book-length argument on what turns out to have been a rather spindly conceptual opposition to begin with.

His new book, "Status Anxiety," reads like a lengthy banalizing footnote to the signal Hegelian notion that what the individual desires above all is the other's desire, a concept that drove mid-20th century French psychoanalysis under the mandarin stewardship of the always arcane Jacques Lacan. What we want, Lacan said by way of a lovely pun made possible by the French tongue, is "le regard de l'autre," the other's gaze and the other's esteem. Indeed, it is only by way of our reflection in and through others that we may know we exist at all. To update Descartes: "I am regarded; therefore I am."

For readers looking for original thought, this volume will prove a disappointment, as there is none to be found in its pages, or at least none offered by the book's author, though he does cite magnificent passages from Adam Smith, William James, Friedrich Engels et al. In fact, De Botton has never set out to break new ground; rather, in his previous volumes on topics ranging from the consolations of philosophy to the uses of Proust for everyday life, he has always been a popularizer, one who seeks to introduce the lay reader to the great ideas in a soothing manner neither too challenging nor too ingratiating.

No doubt there ought to be a place in the culture for such a writer, since not everyone has had the opportunity to learn the trade idioms of French phenomenology and German political philosophy by way of university courses. Unfortunately, in De Botton's hands, the great ideas are rubbed thin and too often the reader is left with the crumbs of thought, a paltry repast for the hungry mind.

This is not to say that "Status Anxiety" is not thought-provoking, for De Botton is a man of excellent taste, and when he quotes the masters, he usually chooses flavorsome tidbits. Take, for example, De Botton's presentation of Alexis de Tocqueville, for whom the newfangled American democracy of the 19th century offered astonishing possibilities for middle-class mobility. As we all know, the American Dream that has shimmered on the horizon encircling our shining city on a hill would never have existed were it not possible to pursue happiness in the form of dollars, as our Lockean Declaration of Independence quietly insists we must do. No doubt more Americans have exercised this right to class mobility than have citizens of any other country in the history of the human race.

As De Tocqueville presciently saw, the flip side of this movement is a kind of quiet despair on the part of those whose status is not rising, those who are not anxious about losing their status but merely resentful at not having any to lose. "That is the reason," writes De Tocqueville, "for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and of that disgust for life sometimes gripping them even in calm and easy circumstances."

As De Botton notes, when "we" (and this recourse to the first person plural is only one of a number of significant stylistic irritants here) see others pursuing and capturing happiness in the form of social status (i.e., money), we perceive this as an affront to our dignity and are lacerated by it. If the German word "schadenfreude" denotes that secret joy in the suffering of others, why not coin a new German word, "glucktrauer," to describe the misery of being surpassed by others?

In the volume's second section, De Botton briskly takes the reader on a tour through the various disciplines and/or lifestyles (I use the word advisedly) that work to allay the status anxiety that riles us as we grunt our way through this weary life, among them art, philosophy, politics, religion and "bohemia."

As Nietzsche knew perhaps better than any other, tragedy provides a sacrificial pleasure for the trembling onlooker, only to usher her out of the theater, counting her blessings on all 10 fingers. Similarly, Stoic philosophy seeks to soothe the savage beast by inculcating an inward renunciation of worldly power and desire. Politics allows people to band together for a common cause, just as religion ties the believer into a sacramental community often based on faith in the hereafter. Bohemian success, according to De Botton, is merely another version of success in the world of high commerce, with hipness replacing money as the arbiter of value.

These observations are fair and good, but finally they are bromides, only confirming what we already think. Because De Botton does not linger long enough over any individual work of philosophy or art to glimpse its essential strangeness, because he does not stick his neck far enough into any idea to see how it disconfirms a prior assumption, his commentary does not stick, and the book sifts through the reader's hands.

Maybe the real anxiety driving the book is De Botton's own: When it comes to gaining status by writing books, one can only subsist for so long by cataloging the imaginings of others. *

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