By Colin Marshall
Cast your mind back, if you can, to the internet of the late 2000s, through which blew a fierce blizzard of Stuff White People Like copycats after copywriter Christian Lander’s satirical blog about “the Unique Taste of Millions” blew up and produced not one but two “real” books. None attained anything like Stuff White People Like’s explosive burst-of-the-blog-book-bubble success, but some of them at least cracked a few good ones in the attempt. Even the English-speaking Korean national behind Stuff Koreans Like, a short-lived blog even by these standards, made a few astute observations on his countrymen and their enthusiasm for pictures of food, the Nobel Prize, travel essay books, slapstick, “taking white people too seriously,” Harvard, and the writer Alain de Botton.
“Swiss-born English-language essayist Alain de Botton is the sum of what every Korean essay writer consciously or subconsciously aspires to be,” reads the relevant entry. “Calm and subtle prose, lightly worn erudition, even attended Harvard at one point. Alain de Botton may very well be the Perfect Modern Korean Essayist.” You can see the evidence of de Botton’s large and ever-growing appeal in this country at every major bookstore, from whose shelves dozens of images of his face look sagaciously out from little paper banners wrapped around translated editions of his many books, like Essays in Love (왜 나는 너를 사랑하는가, or “Why I Love You”), The Consolations of Philosophy (젊은 베르테르의 기쁨, or “Young Werther’s Happiness”), and Status Anxiety (불안, or simply “Anxiety”).
Just last weekend, the man himself stopped by Seoul to deliver a lecture at Korea University’s grandest hall, whose attendees snapped photos of themselves beside posters bearing his image for hours beforehand. (Though most bought their tickets early, I found some available at the door — for those who wanted to pay nearly $140 a pair.) Some had registered to attend through Korea University itself, and some through The School of Life Seoul (인생학교 서울), the local branch of the international educational organization co-founded by and closely associated with de Botton (and here run by writer-entrepreneur Mina Sohn), which offers classes on how to be creative, manage stress, relate to your family, travel like a philosopher, and face death.
These topics have, by design, great relevance to most every human being, but it seems they strike an especially resonant chord with Koreans, who by their own admission often feel as if they lead stress-filled lives amid demoralizing buildings (of the kind de Botton diagnosed in The Architecture of Happiness), racked by anxiety about status and much else besides, their relationships complicated by the remains of Confucianism and their minds clouded by the fear that it might all come to nothing in the end. Though as a foreigner I don’t feel quite so afflicted and, perhaps as a result, haven’t attended a School of Life class myself, I do appreciate de Botton’s overall project, which I’ve come to know mostly through his writing and his television documentaries.
(source: The School of Life Seoul)
I even had the chance to express a bit of that to him directly when I interviewed him on The Marketplace of Ideas, a public radio show I did in Santa Barbara few years ago, about his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. (You can download an MP3 of it here.) Though I’d already started studying the Korean language back then, I had no idea yet of his disproportionate readership in this country, and so it surprised me when, talking to a Korean friend in Los Angeles a few years later, I heard her name The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work as one of her favorite books. Doing some follow-up research afterward, I found she wasn’t an outlier.
Still, I realize that not everyone counts themselves as fans of Alain de Botton, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Lisa Levy’s criticism of his work, The School of Life included, in the LARB‘s own pages. It astonishes me that the first School of Life opened in London, the epicenter of a culture seemingly built upon “taking the piss out of” the kind of earnest and undisguised efforts to raise oneself up that it ostensibly encourages in its clientele. When I interviewed Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, here in Seoul, he clearly articulated what he likes better about this country, however impossible it may be, than his native England: “We’ve always been a little bit cynical. We make everything into a joke. It’s socially a crime, almost, to be seen being very ambitious, or trying to be different, trying to do something new. In England, somebody will always laugh at you: ‘Why ya doin’ that? C’mon, mate.’”
But not in Korea, a country that, for one reason or another, doesn’t trade in what we in the West would call irony. According to the author of Stuff Koreans Like, “Irony is the #1 Stuff Koreans Don’t Like,” since “Koreans tend to be bad at understanding irony and all subsets of irony (sarcasm, hypocrisy in politicians and church ministers, etc.),” hence the enduring success of Friends over here and the sinkage of Seinfeld. “This is also why Korean culture is so successful in the global arena: Korean pop music and telenovelas, neither of which are particularly rich in irony, can be easily translated and globally exported.”
I hesitate to say that Korea has nothing resembling irony, and I hesitate even more to say that Korea doesn’t have irony “yet,” as if irony must ultimately arrive everywhere as just another stage of development into modernity as inevitable as skyscrapers or convenience stores. I also understand the richness a certain degree of irony can bring to a culture’s humor — not for nothing does British comedy still count as a species apart from, and often above, the American variety — and what its forms of expression lose without it, as evidenced by all those bland Korean hit songs and interminable melodramas packaged for export. But when in the West, I find it hard to ignore the feeling that irony — the malignant kind, as a friend once put it, whose opposite isn’t gullibility but sincerity — has made real, possibly irreversible progress in eating us alive.
(source: The School of Life Seoul)
Just as I enjoy Korea for its relative lack of irony compared to other developed countries, I enjoy Alain de Botton for his relative lack of irony compared to other living writers. (Not to say that it results in books stripped of humor; his writing in English tends to possess the kind of dry, descriptive wit that gets occasional out-loud laughs from me at surprising moments, though whether it translates effectively into Korean I can’t say.) And a reduced level of irony allows for a higher level of aspiration, a concept criminalized, inadvertently or deliberately, by ironists everywhere; de Botton’s harshest critics tend specifically to condemn this aspect of his project, which not just allows but encourages him to get people taking classes on how to make up their minds, to use works art and philosophy as tools of therapy, and to write books with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life.
Mark Greif, looking back in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the lost America of the 1930s through the 50s in which the Partisan Review thrived, writes of that time, place, and publication’s “aspirational estimation of ‘the public.’ Aspiration in this sense isn’t altogether virtuous or noble. Nor is it grasping and commercial, as we use ‘aspirational’ now, mostly about the branding of luxury goods. It’s something like a neutral idea or expectation that you could, or should, be better than you are — and that naturally you want to be better than you are, and will spend some effort to become capable of growing — and that every worthy person does.”
When American friends ask why I wanted to move to Korea, I often give some variation on the answer that people here still regard the future as a good thing. Longtime Korea observers, well aware of the country’s economic slowdown, bitter generational conflict, low birthrate, and increasingly fearful, heavy-handed government might scoff at that notion, but I still sense on the streets of Seoul that idea, or that expectation, that everyone can, or should, be better than they are. This can manifest, of course, in a variety of unappealing ways, from the nouveau-riche Gangnam garishness so popularly lampooned by Psy to the elective cosmetic surgery industry, from cruder forms of Westernization to the tendency to regard everything (especially school and especially Harvard) as just another brand name with which to label oneself.
But maybe when I say people here still regard the future as a good thing, I just mean many still seem to operate on the notion that they themselves could be better in that future, and understand that doing so requires a certain rethinking of the way they live. “Korea is a wonderful country, but in many areas it’s a country in pain,” says de Botton in a School of Life promotional video, expanding on that in a Time Out Seoul Q&A, calling this “a society that has many of the problems (and pleasures) of the modern world where people are extremely busy, life is crowded and expensive, there is never enough time and there is a tension between tradition and the hyper modern, between loyalty to family and to oneself.” Nobody here has yet figured out a perfectly effective solution to the resulting discomforts, but at least they know it isn’t irony.
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Alain de Botton’s first novel in 23 years – his quirky, autobiographical debut, Essays in Love, was written when he was just 23 – again takes love as its theme. Like its predecessor, it explores the myths and minutiae of courtship and relationships. It charts a couple’s marriage from the first flowering of attraction and the glow of the proposal to the everyday business of life as husband and wife. It maps the small shifts in their sex life and explores the way in which habits and behaviour which once endeared them to one another become sources of irritation and frustration.
Rabih and Kirsten’s story is an intentionally ordinary one. They meet, they fall in love, they marry, they encounter small obstacles in their personal and professional lives, they have children. One of them is unfaithful. The marriage strains but does not crack.
The Course of Love is at its strongest when De Botton steps back and allows the couple to breathe
While the book is being promoted as a novel rather than a work of philosophy, De Botton’s interests as an essayist, in work, sex, happiness, in how we live and what we live for, are still very much to the fore. The narrative is intercut with a series of italicised interjections, unpicking the couple’s motivations and impulses, dissecting their decisions. For example: “Nature imbeds in us insistent dreams of success”; and “The accusations we direct at our lovers make no particular sense. We would utter such unfair things to no one else on earth.”
The contrast between these passages and the world of the characters makes for some appealing juxtapositions. Sometimes the observations are acute and telling – De Botton is good on the politics of laundry, the compromise of domesticity – but there’s an insistence on universality that borders on the smug.
He lays out his thesis, that society builds in us the expectation that our stories will play out in certain ways, that it’s healthy and necessary to document disappointment and disillusionment, that so much of the tension in a marriage is self-generated, a product of the gulf between the life people feel they should be living and the life they are living.
Alain de Botton – your questions answered, on art, God and ugliness
The Course of Love is at its strongest when De Botton steps back and allows the couple to breathe. There’s a lot of truth and humour in his account of the earliest days of their marriage as he highlights the intricate web of pressures, both self-imposed and external, that lead them to make certain choices. Rabih loves Kirsten, but he’s also tired of a life alone. They marry, in part, because they feel it is time to marry, that they are in the marrying stage of their lives, and in the beginning, for both of them, marriage is a kind of performance: they are both playing roles, the choices they make shaped as much by their own emotions as by their family histories, their upbringings, the city in which they live, and the paths their peers are going down.
While Rabih and Kirsten’s story is always engaging and there’s an ease and believability to them as a couple, the outside voice comes to feel grating and intrusive after a while, in its pronouncements and the narrowness of its outlook, in its continual desire to pin down the mess and complexity of the human experience, to bind it and box it.
The Course of Love is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). Click here to buy it for £11.99