Thursday, 1 September 2011

Travel and the mind

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It narrows it, of course!

Or more exactly, travel amplifies existing tendencies to shallowness, distractability and alienation.

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I have always had something of an aversion to travel - except by foot; but this was, for the years of youth, overcome by the craving for novelty and the wish to visit people.

But the ill effects of travel were obvious in myself, and in others who did a lot more of it.

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Travel powerfully provides that distraction which the modern mind craves, perhaps above all else. And it brings intrinsic status - one is allowed, indeed encouraged, to boast about the conspicuous consumption of travel in a way not permitted for other luxuries.

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The problem is often worst for the best holidays - a good holiday in a good place can be an intoxication, a glimpse of how life ought to be, a time when an animistic spell descends and all manner of synchronicities occur.

Yet, somehow, this happens at the expense of ordinary working life, reciprocally with real life.

Too often, life becomes polarised between magical holidays and mundane reality - people live in daydreams of elsewhere, the be rescued by travel. Yet these daydreams are unrealistic, untrue; and the whole process is one of addiction - craving, tolerance, escalating doses...

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Of my favourite authors, several were famous non-travellers.

The most notorious of non-travellers was Thoreau, and it is likely that reading Walden at a formative age was a factor in my ideas, or at least my ideals.

Fr Seraphim (Eugene) Rose seems never to have left California, except once to lecture.

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But The Inklings were the most serious serious non-travellers.

Tolkien, C.S Lewis and Charles Williams stayed in the British Isles their whole lives, by choice.

To be precise, C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien did military service in France in their youth, and Lewis went to Greece for a holiday with his dying wife; while Charles Williams was unfit for the Army and stayed in Britain except when he spent a day lecturing in Paris.

Warnie Lewis, a leading expert on Versailles, never visited Versailles.

Indeed, the Inklings were generally pretty averse even to local travel, in some respects: Lewis thoroughly disliked visiting London (less than two hours from Oxford), Williams profoundly disliked leaving London.

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Contrast this with the frequent, compulsive and wide-ranged globe-trotting of modern day equivalents among high flying academics and editors...

Contrast the quality and scope of the work...

Consider that 'travel writers' are, with no exceptions, shallow and glib poseurs. Yet if travel really did what it pretends to do, the best travel writers would be the best of men.

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What we see with Tolkien, Lewis and Williams is a focused power of active and animistic imagination, a power which is to some extent spontaneous and natural - yet a power which is apparently diverted or dissipated by the distractions of modern life, among which travel is one of the most potent.

Travel is not real life; and travel the most unreal of fantasies.

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For most people travel means holidays.

It is not so much that holidays literally vampirize life; but that the relation of holidays and life is itself a product of a characteristic modern mind-set, an activity whereby the admittedly-unreal (the holiday) is made experiential.

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Travel is a literalized fantasy that - because literalized - sucks from real life.

Travel takes the actual world and makes a fantasy of it; the more convincing the operation, the greater its dangers.

But fantasy - such as Tolkien's and Lewis's - makes another real world.

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Or, fantasy is not so much an escape from the real world as an escape into an un-real world.

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The error is to suppose that the holiday world is real and the fantasy world un-real; the danger is the pretension of travel that we can actually experience another world by moving our bodies. 

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The world is not enough: we know this as datum.

Travel - especially holiday - is a more or less successful denial of the fact that the world is not enough; successful fantasy is an acknowledgment that the world is not enough - a compensation and an en-courage-ment.

The wisest perhaps never travel; although they may sometimes need to move across the world, or visit, or go on pilgrimages.

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