Alain de Botton on Plane Crashes and the Meaning of Life*

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  03.07.14 | 4:14 PM ET

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*Note: This post was written and published before reports that a Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 people had disappeared Friday.

Last night at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, philosopher Alain de Botton deconstructed the news: how we consume it, how it informs us, and how, ultimately, it fails us—all topics addressed in his new book, The News: A User’s Manual.

Among the highlights of his talk, he touched on the popularity of news reports of plane crashes. An image of last year’s Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco appeared behind him as he spoke:

The other thing we love, most of all, is plane crashes. Absolutely amazing. Especially when it’s a wide-bodied airliner, many dead, sudden conflagration and a first-world airline. Again, are we crazy? No, we’re looking for the meaning of life.

De Botton noted that many people in the early modern era kept a human skull—a memento mori—on a table at home to remind them of their own mortality. Why?

There is something about the thought of death that clarifies what is most meaningful in life. We’re constantly, as creatures, losing our sense of priorities. To focus on the fact that we’re constantly at risk of accident [reminds us] therefore we need to focus on what our priorities are. This is something that happens with the memento mori of the skull. And in a way, it’s trying to poke through our interest in these sorts of scenes. These are, in many ways, the memento mori of the age. The problem, again, as is so often the case, is the news takes us to something very interesting and then doesn’t tie it up properly, doesn’t do the final thing, which is why it leaves us, very often, with a background sense of unresolved dread and anxiety. These are the emotions that have been unleashed and not closed properly, as art does.

In other words, all too often, the news media fail to provide meaning or a provoke any kind of catharsis.

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You can watch this at 21:30 in the video of his talk below.

Tags: Media Addict

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