Thus far this holiday I’ve read Dune by Frank Herbert (there’s nothing like an imaginary desert world for a little escapism); The Lion and the Unicorn, on Gladstone and Disraeli and a multi decade rivalry; the illustrations and life of Osbert Lancaster; and am about a halfway through Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu, Patrick Lee Fermour’s Between the Woods and the Water (the follow up to A Time of Gifts) and (thanks to a commenter here) the John Campbell biography of Roy Jenkins.
I have also polished off Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. I have never failed to enjoy his books and this is no exception -but I found it curiously unsatisfactory, despite being as chock full of references and illustrations as usual. The first half ably describes the disease and its proximate causes – crude snobbery, native belief in meritocracy, the fickleness of fate that leaves one’s status dependent on much beyond our control, and above all bourgeois expectation and the inanity of the consumer culture that was definitively eviscerated by Veblen a century ago. To very little surprise we are given such insights as: newspapers make this worse: equating riches with merit induces anxiety, and so on.
In the solutions section he reminds us that philosophy, Art, some political impulses and religion can dissolve the self harming mental damage caused by these sources of status anxiety. There are pleasing excerpts from Tolstoy and Bach to illustrate this, alongside some fairly obvious analysis of what Mansfield Park is teaching us about real nobility. It is nice to be reminded of how exposure to the vastness of nature, glorious medieval cathedrals or pleasant town centres can put our petty rivalries into perspective.
I was surprised there was not more anthropology in the book; a greater exploration of how irreducible status anxiety really is regardless of context. This irreducibility is best illustrated by the unconvincing argument in the very last pages, which offer Bohemian groups as examples of how conventional status anxiety has been evaded. No doubt the various countercultures he entertains us with were very successful in cocking a snook at the stuffy bourgeoisie of their day. But it’s immediately apparent that these bands of Dadaists, hippies or beat poets themselves would have struggled under their own hierarchies of status. What advice is there for the incompetent, ugly Bohemian who still can’t get a girl or a round of applause for his sonnet? Rejection by the bourgeoisie is only part of the problem -counter cultures will be riven with rivalries and anxieties just as painful for the losers.
In the end I felt that de Botton illustrated and discussed something interesting but offered solutions that probably work best for people as erudite and clever as he is. Most others are probably still condemned to status anxiety and bourgeois values whether they agree or not.
Written on a phone so forgive grammar.