An email from Alain de Botton

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton is a well-known commentator on our modern world. He’s written and presented on a vast range of subjects, from art and religion to literature and travel.

His work is loved by many, but less so by others, and his Twitter account, in which he tweets thoughts for our preponderance, comes in for particular criticism. Search for his name on Twitter, for instance, and you’ll find that opinion on him is divided. Some view his words as pithy platitudes, but others clearly find help and inspiration – his tweets receive hundreds of favourites and retweets by other users.

He has unintentionally triggered some rather amusing stuff on the web, too.  The blog Alain de Bottom pairs up pearls of wisdom from the philosopher with images from 1990s comedy show Bottom, which starred Rick Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. I can’t quite decide whether the blog is affectionate or mocking.

Personally, I do struggle to “get” the little I’ve read by him. I find, for instance, that his tweets tend to state the obvious. I also fail to understand the premise behind a book called The Art of Travel when clearly, objectively, there is no such thing – at least, any more than there is an “art of life” or an “art of thinking”.

The other day, a tweet by Alain de Botton was retweeted by someone else into my timeline.

To which I could not help but wonder aloud:

About an hour later, I received an email.

Dear Simon,
Thanks for your tweet. If you’d like me to explain more closely, I’d be happy to try to shed some light.
Congratulations on your website and all good wishes,
Alain

Instantly, I was suspicious. It came from what an email address that contained his website domain, but such things are easy to fake if you know how. My suspicions were directed towards good friends Niall and Justin, both of whom have been known to play such pranks in the past (Justin, for instance, once wrote to me pretending to be David Icke). I challenged them and they both denied it.

This left me with the assumption that perhaps, it really was him. That he’d searched for himself on Twitter, seen the tweets where people had used his name, saw mine, and decided to respond to it. Was it just mine? Did he regularly do vanity searches, and did he reply to everyone who mentioned him? If so, he could be a busy man.

It was odd.  But I figured that replying with honesty and frankness (offering neither rudeness nor a grovelling retraction) was the only way to get to the botton bottom of it.

Hello Alain

Thanks for your email. It was an obvious surprise to receive it as you might imagine. I thought that friends had sent it as a spoof, hence the delay while I obtained denials from likely suspects.

My tweet – and apologies if it sounded rude – expressed a mild degree of wonder at the nature of your work. It’s like the old joke which I’m sure you’ve heard of philosophy graduates never seeing a job advert that says “Wanted: Philosopher”.

The tweet that particularly sparked my reaction was the one that said “It isn’t disrespectful to the complexity of existence to point out that despair is, often, just low blood sugar and exhaustion.” While I can’t fault your logic here, and indeed I can testify to it personally, my curiosity stems from the fact that it seems so obvious as to not be worth stating.

And this is a theme I feel that runs through your offerings on Twitter. Maybe I’m a cold-hearted pragmatist (I tried reading Paul Coelho but gave up after a few pages), but isn’t much of what you tweet pretty obvious? Or alternatively is there no harm in sometimes stating the obvious, if certain people thrive on the reassurance that it provides or if they can’t see the clarity in life through the fog that sometimes descends?

Who, I suppose I am wondering, is the “target” or likely constituency for your writing? Maybe it’s hard for any writer to answer that question, so if it is an unfair one I apologise.

Thanks again for dropping a line, and all the best in your work. May others “get” it more than I do!

Best wishes

Simon

Very quickly, a reply came back.

Dear Simon,

Thanks for your gracious note, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Only to learn.

I believe you’re clearly a highly intelligent, reflexive person for whom many ‘truths’ aren’t any kind of revelations, they are just your obvious common sense. Sadly, for me, and for many others, less well endowed intellectually, we like to be reminded of obvious things, which while they aren’t complete revelations, can be crisply said and therefore gain a place in our distracted and weak minds.

What most bothers me is people’s routine assumption that Twitter is an innocent medium in which one can be as rude as one likes about pretty much anyone without consequence. Rudeness always hurts someone – and if there’s space for one truth that isn’t yet common sense to you, it is to remember to be kind towards those perhaps less intellectually blessed than you’ve been.

With good wishes,
Alain

It was a striking reply. Firstly, I don’t know why he thought me as intellectually superior (or thought it was valid to make me feel that I was). But secondly, his words at the very least showed a humanity. It was a reminder, as if we needed it, that famous people are just ordinary human beings and are capable of being hurt or offended with the rest of us. It’s an acute issue in this age of instant communication where, through social media, once-remote public figures can be put in direct contact with ordinary people.

You don’t have to rummage deeply online to find a controversy about personal abuse of famous people, often masked behind the cowardly cloak of anonymity. This article by radio presenter Richard Bacon is a sobering exploration of the effect it can have, while the often surreal events at the Leveson Inquiry highlighted the terrible abuse and violation of well-known people that can emanate from society’s obsession with celebrity.

Not to say that my original tweet about Alain de Botton was remotely comparable with the evils of the gutter press or the deranged hate-spouting of online trolls. I don’t even think my tweet was particularly rude. Critical, yes, and probably unChristian, but certainly not what you’d classify as offensive. And I’m perfectly entitled to a less than stellar opinion of de Botton’s work, despite the fact he came over as charming and thoughtful in his emails. But all that said, I could have phrased my original tweet more politely, and I could have tweeted directly at him rather than referring to him in the third person with no consideration that he’d “overhear”.

Not wishing to protract a conversation unnecessarily, I wrapped things up with Alain de Botton with one short, final email.

Hi again Alain

I’d respectfully dispute your assessment that I’m especially highly intelligent or somehow more intellectually endowed.  A bit rude in my tweet, perhaps, yes, for which I apologise again.  There are lots of cases out there of famous people being badly hurt by abuse on Twitter.  I’d hate to think I could contribute to that.

Best wishes
Simon

Twitter is rather like a large room where everyone is capable of hearing and reacting to everything that’s said about them. It seems to be a good rule of Twitter that if you wouldn’t say something about someone to their face, don’t say it at all.

It’s probably a good rule for life, too.

In fact, if it could fit into 140 characters, it’s the sort of thing Alain de Botton himself might tweet.

5 thoughts on “An email from Alain de Botton

  1. Fascinating story. For what it’s worth, I think Mr. de Botton was a tad thin-skinned in finding your tweet offensive. To my mind, the phrasing you used indicated you intended it as a humourous remark.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Ewan. To be fair to AdB, he didn’t explicitly say that he found my tweet offensive (though it’s a reasonable extrapolation from the fact he wrote to me and the words in his second email that he wasn’t exactly enamoured).

    Maybe he was being thin-skinned, but doesn’t he have the right to be? It’s a probably unanswerable ethical dilemma.

  3. I don’t think he was being thin-skinned, but rather curious to know the reasoning behind your statement.

    If someone made a similar comment about why I get paid for the job I do, I would be keen to find out why they thought that way and try to provide some explanation.

    The same question could be asked about why people would pay you to read about your mullet odyssey 😉

    Although his statements may seem obvious or plain common sense to you, there are others who may (for what ever reason) be caught up in their current situation and aren’t able to see clearly enough to work their way out of it. Sometimes a comment or action from an external source is required to help break the thought cycle and allow for change to occur.

  4. Ha, loved this. He used to annoy/depress me a little on twitter and pretty sure I must’ve fired off a few sardonic tweets about him myself, but I’d be honoured to get a reply – and not just a tweet but an actual email! He clearly does respect you. More recently I’ve come to appreciate his tweets actually. I even find them thought provoking and oddly comforting sometimes. I’m going to posit an only slightly tongue in cheek theory here. I think your avatar possibly intimidated him a fraction. You somehow look a little more imposing, mercurial even, than the smiley, genial chap I have met in the real world! I suppose a philosopher is likely to be a little sensitive to online criticism too. Not a thought that’s occurred to me before , to be honest!

  5. Thanks Jools – maybe I need to reassess the Twitter avatar!

    Yes it is odd that he wrote to me because as you say I was not the only one to mention him on Twitter. I’ve seen a lot worse about him and his musings on Twitter, but I suppose the point about my original tweet was that it was a question/ponderance that was arguably more interesting/inviting to him than mere abuse.

    As you rightly say in your comment just above, Lara, it was one that was invited curiosity because it was rather framed as an open question.

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