The School of Life, which just opened in London, is the sort of place that would welcome the news out of Bari, Italy, the other day. A certain Marina de Tommaso, leading a team of Italian colleagues, recently asked a dozen young men and women to choose 20 attractive pictures and 20 ugly ones from several hundred works of art. The volunteers stared at said images while being zapped with a laser beam that caused them mild pain.
The intensity of their suffering, it turned out, diminished while they gazed at a Leonardo or a Botticelli or at van Gogh’s Starry Night. It persisted before Picasso and Fernando Botero.
Beauty makes you feel better, de Tommaso concluded, notwithstanding that Edvard Munch’s Scream muddied the results: Some volunteers found it beautiful, others not so much, proving the different scientific point that everyone’s an art critic.
Sophie Howarth is director of the School of Life. She likes to call this storefront school in Bloomsbury “an apothecary of the mind.” Adults enroll in courses on love, politics, family and play. They may take an instructional tour of the M1 motorway or spend an overnight snooping around Heathrow Airport (staying in a Japanese capsule hotel) with the best-selling author Alain de Botton as guide, lecturing about the art of travel.
There are also bibliotherapists on call, dispensing literary advice; consultants to recommend the most agreeable route for a nighttime walk through the London neighborhood of Brixton; and group meals to enhance conversational skills.
One recent afternoon a line formed on the sidewalk outside the school. Dozens of people were waiting for impromptu private therapy sessions, on a leopard-spotted chaise lounge, with David Gale, an actor who described himself as a “nonpsychotherapist.” Strangers revealed their secrets to him anyway.
It may all sound like a big metaprank, but the school is perfectly sincere. The ambition is to offer a road map to a fuller life — secular and interior, not religious — toward which end a sense of humor helps. For reticent Britons, disinclined to emote in public, it’s a kind of lubricant.
Whimsy being in short supply these days, every little bit helps, especially here. The US$200 million Damien Hirst auction at Sotheby’s last month, when the world financial markets imploded, summed up the local climate. London has become a greedy city.
The school, too, is looking to turn a profit (courses cost about US$350 each). But it’s the earnest brainchild of various London writers, artists and friends — Geoff Dyer, the writer, among them. Like de Botton, he belongs to the faculty, and is scheduled to deliver a lecture (“sermon” in school speak) this fall on punctuality.
The other day, apropos of the Esalen Institute in California and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado, he said the School of Life, by contrast, existed “in a postideological vacuum, in the wake of the thing that Margaret Thatcher said didn’t exist: society.”
“It’s maybe part of the attempt to rebuild a notion of society,” Dyer said.
Howarth, the school’s 33-year-old director, frowned when a visitor wondered aloud if it were instead a kind of twee Learning Annex for those who wouldn’t be caught dead at the Learning Annex. McSweeney’s, the American literary enterprise with an educational component, was the comparison she preferred.