|Status Anxiety - Reviews
Frederic Raphael in The Spectator, 25 March 2004
It’s no surprise that one of Alain de Botton’s favoured sources, in a text well-sprigged with neat citations, should be Matthew Arnold: sweetness and enlightenment are their common contributions to a culture in which anarchy is the liveliest art form. What can Arnold have been complaining about in Victorian England, as compared with what we applaud in multicultural, populist Tony Blairville? Public loutishness is echoed in the decline of grammar and of civility, the collapse of common reference points, and hence of wit and allusion. Literature is bestsellers and sport is watching Becks bend it.
De Botton is a cut, and occasional thrust, above the usual social diagnostics. David Dimbleby introduces him on Question Time as a ‘philosopher’. You what? He has indeed written on grand topics, Proust and Boethius among them, but never grandly: he epitomises culture and - key term! - accessorises it. If irony is his stock-in-trade, it is administered without malice or condescension: today’s dandy wears his learning, which is wide, as lightly as a cartoonist’s balloon. De Botton is a hip physician whose patients can rely on cheerful news: what’s wrong can be remedied without an invasive cut in your quality of life. All you have to do is swallow Doc de B’s prescription.
Status Anxiety is, of course, the sorry symptom of a society in which money’n’celebrity determine fame, but class has been abolished. Our longest- running soap opera is Coronation Street (which celebrates a ‘community’ of the kind which, in practice, becomes ‘close-knit’ only when someone gets murdered and everyone knows who did it, but won’t tell the police), but our most hilarious is Downing Street, in which two evangelical egalitarians live side by side, in secluded command of the country, and the man who is number two is eaten out with envy of number one.
Which reminds me of Alan Clark, with whom Robin Day and I once shared a limo on the way to a publisher’s sales conference. Rumours were current that John Major, preached almost to death by wild Europhobes, was threatening resignation. What - Robin the Question Mark wanted to know - would happen if he did? Clark did his dad’s shut-eyed clairvoyant act and said, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, two senior members of the Conservative party would take him by the elbows into a quiet room and say to him, “Don’t be so fucking stupid. Where else are you going to get a job with a car and a driver?” ’ Street cred is where you park your motor.
De Botton is a personal trainer who sincerely wishes to tone up our moral musculature. His secular sermons are as unaggressively aerated with felicities as eau de Badoit with burp-free bubbles. He eases into his topic by announcing that status is ‘derived from the Latin statum or standing (past participle of the verb stare, to stand)’. So keen was my deference that I had to check in Lewis and Short to confirm that status is, in fact, a perfectly substantial - what else? - Latin noun meaning, well, status, i.e., among other similar things, ‘Condition in regard to public rights, political or civil status.’ If it matters, statum is indeed the accusative case (masculine and neuter) of the past participle of sto, though why that case should be chosen as etymological base-camp, who knows?
And who cares? I was about to say as much myself, but there is a modern tendency - of which A. de B. would be the ideally punctual analyst — to flourish unearned erudition in order to match the academic nobs (who are busy coming down the hill on their high ho