The tradition of the uncomfortable intellectual aboard a cruise ship, while not a particularly long or wide one, has produced a few intriguing works. You may well know — and, if you’re anything like me, know very well indeed from countless rereadings — David Foster Wallace’s essay about his seven-night Caribbean cruise, known as it first ran in Harper’s as “Shipping Out,” and later in full form as the title piece of the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In this environment of constantly replenished amenities and unceasing “pampering” (a word that generates an essay’s worth of exegesis by itself), Wallace comes up against the inevitable question: can a cruise line, or any other form of human effort, really guarantee our happiness?
This question has also proven central to the career of another writer and thinker, Alain de Botton. No matter the subject on which his focus may come to rest — architecture, Proust, ancient philosophy, work — his mind never strays far from the issue of what makes us happy, and whether anything can keep us that way. The 2005 documentary The Art of Travel, a companion to his book of the same name, finds de Botton aboard a cruise liner, fully equipped with fine wines and line-dancing classes, bound for Spain. Will he disembark in the Barcelona of which he has dreamed, or will an obscure French novelist convince him of the foolishness of actually experiencing the very places you’ve long wanted to? (The answer may not come as a surprise to those familiar with de Botton’s professional temperament.)
But our intrepid host doesn’t stop at cruising: he takes a weekend “city break” in Amsterdam, follows around a World War II bunker enthusiast, goes for a road trip through east Germany, ponders the distinctive loneliness found only in Edward Hopper paintings; gets the grand tour of a “swingers’ hotel,” boards an all-Japanese Cotswolds tour bus (and teaches his fellow passengers about John Ruskin); and wonders, finally, whether the definition of a traveler comes not from the distance and frequency of the movement, but from the “attitude of curiosity and receptivity” to whatever captures the imagination. Having found myself in a career that involves more and more travel each year, I can’t ask myself these questions too often. Whether you care about getting to far-off places or richly experiencing the ones nearby, perhaps de Botton will get you asking them too. At the very least, he’ll save you a cruise.
More films by de Botton can be found in our collection, 265 Free Documentaries Online.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.