An airport is a philosophical question it can take a transatlantic flight to answer.
I went on holiday with my boyfriend to the USA a couple of years ago. We’d only been going out a few months. As the plane took off, I watched Heathrow dwindle away below us. The chaotic specifics of baggage check-in and Starbucks concessions coalesced into a pattern of geometric shapes on a green background.
I experienced a sudden shuddering sense of the uncanny. How had this huge, infinitely complex mass of tarmac, technology and the travel branch of WH Smith come into being? Its function, to send planes full of people roaring into the sky, was achieved by a mesh of individuals, each doing their job, unaware of the humming, glittering whole.
It was like one of those creatures that look like a jellyfish but if you peer closer are made up of thousands of tiny organisms living their little lives while the colony drifts through the sea.
I grasped my boyfriend’s arm. “Why is the airport there?”
“It’s handy for the M4 corridor.” He didn’t look up from his game of Puzzle Bobble on the seat-back screen.
“I mean, why does is exist? No one ever designed… that.” I flapped my hand at the scene below us.
“Well, someone thought a flat bit of land would be good for an airfield.”
“No, right, it’s like the universe. It’s just happened. There is no god.”
“Fuck!” There was a tinny explosion from his headphones as the bubbles filled his screen.
I’ll gloss over the rest of the discussion from this point until my boyfriend marched, glassy-eyed, towards the baggage carousel at JFK, shouting, “Maybe we should ask someone in charge. Excuse me, WHY IS A FUCKING AIRPORT?”
I now realize that if only I’d gone on holiday with Alain de Botton, the flight would have been more relaxed. Alain would have been happy to dissect the philosophical implications of an airport all the way to Brooklyn.
De Botton, the best-selling popular philosopher, is fascinated by what motivates our working lives, and how this leads to the existence of places like Terminal 4. His 2009 book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, sets out to be “a hymn to the modern workplace”. In ten essays, each on a different profession, from career counseling to transmission engineering, De Botton explores the working world, visiting logistics parks and artist studios, accountancy firms and airplane graveyards.
It’s often a beautiful book. De Botton writes hauntingly about industrial landscapes, arguing that a factory or office deserves the attention of philosophers, writers and artists as much as a daffodil-strewn meadow or a Greek temple. He celebrates a “river-side factory, with tubes like a hydra’s tentacles snaking around its midriff” or the “balletic agility” of a fork-lift truck, then soars upwards to take in the docks of East London, where “the waters are coloured a dirty brown and the banks are gnawed by jetties and warehouses”.
When De Botton talks to the workers themselves, however, the results are less satisfying. He asks an employee in the branding department of a biscuit manufacturer why she thinks it is that “in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things”, and why “our robots and engines were delivering the lion’s share of their benefits at the base of our pyramid of needs“.
The worker is unsurprisingly baffled. “A terrified expression spread across her features and she asked if I might excuse her,” De Botton writes.
De Botton mildly pokes fun at his own pretentions in such passages, but I’d rather his questions succeeded in actually prompting the people he meets to talk. For a popular philosopher, he doesn’t show much confidence in the general public’s ability to think philosophically.
But this failure to engage on a human level, a flaw that has been picked up by many other reviewers, is one I’m prepared to forgive. The book is at its best when dealing with the systems and architecture that grow up around our working lives like a thick carapace, built by an ever more specialised workforce performing jobs incomprehensible to the rest of us.
De Botton’s 2004 book Status Anxiety is perhaps more successful at addressing the question of why we work.
Status anxiety, according to De Botton, is the gnawing fear that we’re not doing as well as our friends and contemporaries, “a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect.”
The upshot is that many of us slog away in jobs we don’t enjoy, trapped by our own desire to succeed. It’s a phenomenon I can vouch for myself. In 2005, I was ten years into a promising career in television. I’d worked my way up from runner to assistant producer, and was all set to keep climbing. The only trouble was, I hated my job. But admitting that publicly felt like I would be admitting to a serious weakness of character.
Status anxiety motivates us to get out of bed and drag ourselves to the office every day, but it also causes bitterness and despair. De Botton runs through philosophy’s take on the subject – David Hume on envying our contemporaries, Alexis de Tocqueville on why we have so much and yet are so miserable, and so on.
The book argues that the privileges and freedoms we pride ourselves on in Western society – education for all, equal opportunities, justice, social mobility – are actually making us more unhappy. With all that on our side, society tells us, the only people we have to blame for not achieving the riches, recognition or lifestyle we want is ourselves.
It’s a depressing thesis, and I was therefore rather relieved to reach the section in the book titled “Solutions”. De Botton’s suggestions for keeping status anxiety in check are the most compelling part of the book. His course of treatment includes philosophy (following Socrates’s example of not letting what others think of us dictate what we think of ourselves), literature (a little Jane Austen for some delicate ridiculing of the status-obsessed), art (a dose of Chardin to big-up the beauty of quiet domesticity) and Bohemianism (a decision to side-step normal social expectations and move to Hoxton.)
I probably could have done with reading a bit of De Botton at the time of my own career crisis. In the end, it was literature that came to my rescue anyway. After an evening in the pub where a friend and I drunkenly came to the conclusion that we should “just tell the bastards to sod off, jack it all in and go and work in a secondhand bookshop”, I decided to jack it all in and go and work in a secondhand bookshop.
Once I’d admitted to myself that despite what the world might think, I’d be happier to see my name on a shift rota than in the end credits, I was happier. Suggesting ways of gaining the perspective and self-knowledge necessary to make such choices is De Botton’s aim with Status Anxiety.
De Botton is like Marmite. While he sells books by the million, many critics loathe him. Charlie Brooker wrote that he has “forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books”. But perhaps lighter-than-air ponciness is really the attraction. And reading him does not preclude you from also reading Proust or Schopenhauer. In fact, it probably makes it more likely that you will do so. His writing is light like an appetizer, something to send you looking for the Essays of Montaigne or some Henry David Thoreau. It’s the literary equivalent of sticking a post-it note above your desk with a pithy quote to inspire you.
Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work have sent me back to the work of German artist Andreas Gursky, whose giant photographs record the landscapes and macro patterns of modern workplaces like the New York Stock Exchange, the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank and the Kamiokande neutrino observatory.
De Botton says that works of art can “function as vehicles to explain our condition to us.” Gursky’s 1994 photograph Hong Kong Airport is an answer to my question: “Why is an airport?”
Heathrow is a pattern formed from chaos, and one of the forces that drives our working lives is the desire to impose an order on the uncaring universe. That order might often be mundane or stark, but it is also occasionally beautiful.
Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and Status Anxiety are published by Penguin. Available in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.