I’m going to be writing a series of short articles on Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, prescribed as the Representing People & Landscape text for HSC Advanced English Module C. It’s not a difficult book to grasp, and can actually be enjoyable if you remember that de Botton doesn’t really pretend it is anything other than pop philosophy.
With the key requirement of the HSC Module C rubric in mind – that we think about the interplay between people and landscape when reading de Botton’s book – let’s take a look at the extract from the second chapter, On Travelling Places:
As the car slips along a winding road through the woods at dusk, its powerful headlamps momentarily light up whole sections of meadow and tree trunks, so brightly that the texture of the bark and individual stalks of grass can be made out in a clinical white light better suited to a hospital ward than woodland, and then dip them back into the undifferentiated murkiness as the car rounds the corner and the beams turn their attention to another patch of slumbering ground.
There are few other cars on the road, only an occasional set of lights moving in the opposite direction, away from the night. The car’s instrument panel casts a purple glow over the darkened interior. Suddenly, in a clearing ahead, a floodlit expanse appears: a petrol station, the last before the road heads off into the longest, densest stretch of forest and night completes its hold over the land – Gas (1940). The manager has left his cabin to check the level on a pump. It is warm inside and light as brilliant as that of the midday sun washes across the forecourt.
A radio may be playing. There may be cans of oil neatly lined up against one wall, along with sweets, magazines, maps and window cloths.
Like Automat, painted thirteen years before it, Gas is a picture of isolation. A petrol station stands on its own in the impending darkness. But in Hopper’s hands, the isolation is once again made poignant and enticing. The darkness that spreads like a fog from the right of the canvas, a harbinger of fear, contrasts with the security of the station. Against the backdrop of night and wild woods, in this last outpost of humanity, a sense of kinship may be easier to develop than in daylight in the city. The coffee machine and magazines, tokens of small human desires and vanities, stand in opposition to the wide non-human world outside, to the miles of forest in which branches crack occasionally under the footfall of bears and foxes. There is something touching in the suggestion – made in bold pink on the cover of one magazine – that we paint our nails purple this summer and in the invocation about the coffee machine to sample the aroma of freshly roasted beans. In this last stop before the road enters the endless forest, it is what we have in common with others that looms larger than what separates us. (pp.55-56)
The theme of this second section in the chapter On Travelling Places is solitude within spaces of transit, and de Botton is interested most in the solidarity that strangers feel in their solitude, and those places where familiar urban landscapes taper into the mysterious and unknown. In this part of the journey, de Botton turns to Edward Hopper’s life and work to frame his observations on the dynamics between people in service stations and roadside diners. The pictorial nature of de Botton’s book is brought into relief here, as the paintings trigger de Botton’s observations on the relationship between landscape, society, and the individual. Visual stimuli in this chapter become a vehicle for looking at reality from a different perspective, rather than something that distorts reality, as the travel brochures in the last chapter On Anticipation do.
In de Botton’s interpretation of the painting, the contrast between the forest as a metaphor for the strange and unfathomable, and the gas station’s coffee machines and magazines as metaphors for the familiar, highlights desires and fears common to the experience of being human (or of any sentient being, really). Apprehension of the unknown and unmeasurable, and desire for the familiar are feelings which ultimately serve to remind these solitary travellers that they are more alike than they are different.
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