Watch The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton’s Philosophical Look at Our Wanderlust Tendencies (2005)

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, 285 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Ques­tions in Art as Ther­a­py

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Socrates on TV, Cour­tesy of Alain de Bot­ton (2000)

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.

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