Thursday, November 3, 2011

Alain de Botton on "Status Anxiety" at Tiffany’s

(This interview ran in the Westchester Journal News in April 2004)

By Dylan Foley

With his surprise bestseller “How Prouse Can Change Your Life,”the Swiss writer Alain de Botton has made a career of applying philosophy to solve everyday problems.

In his new book “Status Anxiety”(Pantheon, $24), de Botton tackles the deep, dark shame--we hate our peers when they are doing better than us and we are wracked with anxiety about their position in society, that people do not love us enough.

“It is easier in our society to admit anything other than status anxiety,” says de Botton, on a sweltering summer day walking down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. “You can admit to affairs or talk about your bizarre sexual tastes. The really rude thing to say is ‘This guy I went to college with is doing better than I am and I want to kill him.’”

The Journal News has decided to put de Botton’s philosophical tools for dealing with status anxiety by going to Tiffany’s, on 57th Street, the ground zero of status anxiety. The famous light-blue boxes signify status, acceptance and exclusion. Is your engagement ring from Tiffany’s or is it not? Does your fiancé really love you?

Pushing through the revolving doors into Tiffany’s, past ladies who lunch and tourists in Bermuda shorts, you can almost smell the diamonds and sapphires. Arrayed in cases ruby necklaces costing more than $75,000.

In the new book, de Botton sees the roots of status anxiety as the shameful need for the love of other people. He sees the modern expectation of equality and the requirement of success, tied to media examples of what this success is, as fostering anxiety.

“The question we should be asking ourselves is how much are you going to peg your self-esteem to this possession?” said de Botton, surveying the assembled jewels. “How much should you value this?”

De Botton is a soft-spoken, 34-year-old man with a Ph.D. from the University of London. Though he published his first novel in his early twenties, he still admitted his own status anxieties. “When I first graduated from Cambridge, people I’d gone to school with went into finance and banking. I’d go to gatherings, and people would be saying “’Do you know who own made their first million, who owns a Ferrari?’ I would wonder to myself, why don’t I own a Ferrari?

“Then I realized, I have different priorities.,” he says, with evident relief. “Banking is boring. I was trying to write books. I should be hanging out with people who were saying, did you write a good sentence today?”

Moving smoothly through Tiffany’s, past suited guards with radio earpieces, de Botton discussed how philosophy could ease your yearning for a BMW or a trophy bride. De Botton offers philosophical solutions--to embrace the magnitude of the natural world, where mountains make man insignificant, and to follow the views of the 19th century Bohemian artists, who rejected society’s morality.

“The real way out of status anxiety is to buy yourself a skull,” says de Botton with a sudden passion. “Put it on the sideboard and put things in perspective. If you look at the skull and think, in 1500 A.D. this guy was doing pretty well and now he is a skull, or you go out to the countryside to look at mountains and glaciers, you realize that human beings are not everything.”

Embracing one’s mortality aside, de Botton addressed how Tiffany’s is part of the quest for being loved. “Many people come her because they want to show someone that they like them or are likable people,” says de Botton. “Seeing the Tiffany’s box,people will think “That person does love me.”

But the downside is we can’t establish value by ourselves. “It comes down to fear,” says de Botton. “You don’t know if something is beautiful or not, but then you see that it comes from Tiffany’s, so then it’s beautiful. That’s ridiculous.”

Twenty-first century definitions of poverty amuse de Botton. “There is this weird way that people can feel poor, even is they have an enormous amount of possessions,” he says. “The reason is that no one considers themselves rich by comparing themselves to someone from sub-Saharan Africa. People only consider themselves well off if they have as much or little bit more money than the people they went to school with. That is the paradox--you can feel poor if you don’t have a plasma-screen TV. You can feel deprived if you haven’t got a house in the Hamptons.We are very bad at knowing that makes us feel happy.”

Despite his best-selling books and a new set of documentaries dealing with status anxiety on the BBC, a rude hotel clerk can still batter de Botton’s ego

“It is constantly, ‘How is my ego doing today?’” says de Botton. “When I got to New York and checked into the hotel, the guy at the desk was incredibly rude. “Your publisher didn’t pay for your room,” he said. Suddenly, my ego was bruised and I wanted to challenge him to a duel. I didn’t really do it.”

Moving up from the sapphire necklaces on the ground-floor to the cheap silver on the 6th floor, where the tourists hover around cheap bracelets in a feeding frenzy mode,, de Botton muses on the nature of American shopping. “America is such a democratic society,” he says in awe. “Nobody is going to tell you you can’t come in here. A lorry driver could shop here.”

De Botton’s books--”Pruse,” “the Consolations of Philosophy and now Status Anxiety” have been labeled as philosophical self help. He takes the label in stride.

“I love the idea of self-help--that you can read something and it will change your life,” he says. ”Most self-help books are incredibly shallow. I say yes to self help, but does it always have to be, “Who Moved My Cheese?” You can have Seneca, Montaigne and Schopenhauer. You can make these guys self-help philosophers, and in a way they were. Their goal was to make you feel better. That is a noble tradition. I’d love to be included in that.”

Finally in the flatware section, de Botton and the writer following him become hypnotized by a $120 spoon. The craftsmanship is superb. A manager, who appears to be a former college linebacker, is tired of two men with a tape recorder fondling his spoons. He hisses a nasty “May I help you?” De Botton and the reporter mumble apologies and start to leave.

“There are things I care more about than this,” says de Botton, as he puts down the spoon. “I don’t want to devote my life to forks.”

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