July 21, 2009

Being There

Travel is like adultery: one is always tempted to be unfaithful to one's own country. To have imagination is inevitably to be dissatisfied with where you live. There is in men, as Peter Quennell said, "a centrifugal tendency." In our wanderlust, we are lovers looking for consummation.

It is our best selves that travel. Only our passport reminds us who we actually are. We go abroad to meet our foreign persona, that thrilling stranger born on the plane. We're going to see everything we have eliminated or edited out of our own culture in the name of convenience: religion, royalty, picturesqueness, otherness and passion.

There's an impostor in each of us why else would we put on dark glasses and try to speak and look like the natives of another place? At home, we impersonate ourselves; when we're abroad, we can try to be what we've always wanted to be. In spite of all the recent talk about roots, many of us are tired of our roots, which may be shallow anyway, and so we travel in search of rootlessness.

Traveling began when men grew curious. The influence of the church, the traditional pattern of life, the lack of money and leisure had all restrained curiosity until the seventeenth century, when under pressure of scientific discoveries, the physical world began to gape open. It was then that people began to travel in search of the profane.

Travel arrived together with sophistication, with the ability to see through or beyond one's own culture, with the modern faculty of boredom. Something of the Crusades survive in the modern traveler only his is a personal crusade, an impulse to go off and fight certain obscure battles of his own spirit.

Of course, one of the most common reasons for traveling is simply to get away. There is a recurrent desire to drop our lives, to simply walk out of them. Expatriates try to do this: they live in a kind of counterpoint "between operetta and quarantine,'" to borrow a phrase from Celine.

When we travel, we are on vacation vacant, waiting to be filled. To get away to a strange place produces a luxurious feeling of disengagement, of irresponsible free association.

And language what a pleasure to leave our own language, with its clichés stuck in our teeth. How much better things sound in another tongue! It's like having our ears cleaned out. So long as we don't understand it too well, every other language is poetry.

Because we travel for so many reasons, some of the contradictory travel writing is like a suitcase into which the writer tries to cram everything. At its most interesting, it's a continual tasting, the expression of a nostalgia for the particular. Travel writing has become a quintessentially modern thing, the present regretting the past.

"I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future," Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1946. Like Claude Levi-Strauss, he saw the world turning into a "monoculture," the sense of place giving way to placelessness. What Waugh didn't foresee was that travel books would change as novels and poetry has, that every slippage of culture would provoke its peculiar literature. He underestimated the variousness of our reasons for traveling.

Bowles said that a country loses interest for him when it no longer has a traditional life of its own and survives only as an attraction for tourists. But this kind of survival breeds a new culture of entrepreneurs and improvisers that has furnished the travel writer with a different kind of local character.

D.H. Lawrence was one of the last of the great romantic travelers. When his Twilight in Italy was published in 1916, a reviewer complained that Lawrence tried to see more than he really saw, "he preferred the easier course of discovering the Infinite." But as Paul Fussell says in Abroad, what Lawrence saw in things and places was the infinite. Lawrence traveled as if he was gathering material for a generalization so great that he was never able to formulate it.  He ,was one of the first to feel Torschlusspanik, the fear of the closing of the door, the end of culture, Nietzsche's stare into the abyss, which stares back. Travel writing is full of elegies for disappearing cultures. As Jules Laforgue, one of the fathers of modern poetry, said, "How picturesque they are, the missed trains!"

There are travelers who specialize in resisting the foreign, culture-mockers like Peter Fleming and Eric Newby. In a poem in her Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop asks, "Have we room for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?" In another poem, she says, "There are too many waterfalls here," expressing a modern traveler's distrust of gaudy otherness. We can expect minimalist travel books, the kind that Samuel Beckett might write. If it hasn't already, travel writing may eventually succumb to a dreadful sense of déjà vu.

When Americans went to Europe for the first time the cultural and historical passion of older countries used to stun them, filling them with sadness, envy, fear, and love. But now we can also see what the inverse can do when other countries no longer have any passionate internal life.

Henri Michaux's Barbarian in Asia, which was published in 1932, opens with an astonishing line: "Imagine a city exclusively composed of ecclesiastics." But now there is little astonishment or naive traveling. As sameness spreads over entire continents, travel writing moves from literary anthropology to ontology-pure being-or to what Raymond Queneau called "ontalgia," a pain in the joints of being. In Susan Sontag's story, "Unguided Tour," her traveler says, "I don't want to satisfy my desire; I want to exasperate it."

Perhaps in the future we shall have to travel like James Holman, who, after being invalided out of the British navy because he had gone blind, set out in 1819 to see the world. Traveling mostly alone, speaking no foreign languages, using only public transport, Holman got as far as Siberia and returned home to publish in several thick volumes all that he had experienced. He rarely felt, he said, that he had missed anything through being blind. (At one point, he met a deaf man and they traveled together.) Since he could not see, people often invited Holman to squeeze things as a way of perceiving them-and this is what today's traveler has to do. He has to squeeze the places he visits, until they yield something, anything.


a traveller said...

Thank you, you have expressed what I have experienced, but never was able to put in words.

UCLA said...

My saving early morning read. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Different read fer sure

blogger said...

yes i have felt this. but never was able to vocalize. now you have. thanks

Anonymous said...

very interesting post

a blog fan said...

indeed, keep on...

a reader said...

very nice, thanks

a fan said...

ms edna
i will go to the movies with you anytime. thanks for the imdb link. love your postings here and there.

Branco said...

well, friends it has been an adventure. First we could not land into LV, the tarmac was to HOT 120F. Then we could not take of because of thunder and lightning.

Ms Edna said...

I should have warned you.
When Frances travels, the sky will fall.
Proven mantra.
I just always picture you above the weather.
Forgot about take-offs and landings.
You two would make an awesome duo.