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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18 comments:

  1. Goethe and Sterne both published travelogues. Robert Frost also traveled a great deal, as I recall.

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  2. I traveled extensively when I was younger. But never, ever, as a "tourist". Carrying what little I owned, with me: wherever I was, was where I lived.
    Meeting my future wife, I experienced my first "holidays". These were, as you say, weird and surreal events. Completely disconnected from reality.
    Later, amid contentment, both wife and I, feel no need at all, to travel.
    Lao Tzu refers to sages as those content to never see a nearby foreign land.
    One may travel anywhere, without actually traveling.

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  3. @WmJas - three points: first, these were not, of course, travel writers.

    Second, the best work may have been essentially unrelated to their travel - certainly this was the case for Frost, most of whose best work was done up to age forty in obscurity and geographic stability.

    Thirdly - wouldn't you agree that the less admirable or even bad aspects of Frost (a genius) was related to his extensive travels and the reasons for these travels - his aspects of shallowness and glibness and prickly pride?

    That Goethe (a genius) was morally highly ambiguous both in his nature and his influence - think of the influence of Werther, to name but one example.

    And that Sterne was a highly-talented but essentially bad man, whose effect on morals and art has been mostly malign?

    But I am not talking of the necessities for artistic genius: many geniuses were horrible men with horrendous legacies. I am talking about what is Good - but also pointing-out that geographical statis is certainly compatible with genius, and lends it a quality lacking in globetrotters.

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  4. I wasn't thinking about morality, but about your theory that travel narrows the mind and leads to shallowness. Say what you will about Goethe, I don't think anyone could accuse him of being narrow-minded or shallow.

    Kipling, I think, is a clear example of someone whose mind was broadened and deepened by his very extensive travels. He could even be considered a "travel writer," I suppose, in the sense that many of his works were highly autobiographical accounts of exotic lands.

    Emerson also traveled extensively, as did many of the saints, beginning with Paul.

    I think you get closer to the truth when you suggest that Frost's less admirable characteristics were related to "his extensive travels and the reasons for these travels." Travel is much like reading, in that it can be undertaken for any number of different reasons, some admirable and others less so, and its effects on the mind depend to a great extent on what those reasons are. Many people travel in the same spirit that Emma Bovary read novels.

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    I sometimes wonder what Lord Byron or James Joyce would have been like if they had never gone abroad. I think Joyce may well have been a better man and a better writer if he had stayed in Ireland. But I am unable to imagine a Byron who never left England; his need to travel was too central to who he was: mad, bad, shallow, and absolutely brilliant.

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  5. Late in his life, C. S. Lewis traveled to Greece with his wife and Lewis's future biographer Roger Lancelyn Green. I imagine that he would not have done so on his own. He felt that it was a good experience for both of them.

    As a young man Tolkien toured Alps and it seems that he drew on the experience in writing Bilbo's journey through the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit.

    Earlier, William Morris voyaged to Iceland. I really would urge you to look up his Icelandic Journals in the Praeger reprint (or the original Longmans [?] edition), but not a paperback edition of a few years ago.

    With your sympathy for the Orthodox tradition, I wonder what you would like to say about the Russian tradition of holy wanderers and pilgrims, conveniently expressed in the famous book on hesychastic prayer, The Way of a Pilgrim?

    Having said all this, I'll say that I do sympathize with much that you say.

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  6. The Continental Op1 September 2011 at 21:34

    I've done a bit of travelling, on business mainly. Other travel is to see family.

    When I go to a place I haven't been I might take a day or two and look around. If I'm in Europe, I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and end up thinking, "I wish American cities were more like this", because American cities are dumps. If I'm just somewhere else in the USA, I just end up wishing I were back home where things are comfortable.

    When I have time off, I'm happy to stay home and trim shrubs and bushes and trees. I must be a Hobbit.

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  7. Most travel literature does seem to be incredibly shallow.

    The best of all travel books may be Dr. Johnson's book on his trip to Scotland. Johnson was, of course, also famously a non-traveller for most of his life. V.S. Naipaul's books on India have a good reputation, though I haven't read them. Goethe did a book on his journey to Italy that seems to be well regarded. I haven't read that one either. Tocqueville is known for being quite insightful. Parkman's travels to the Western U.S. also seem to have been very fruitful. Come to think of it though, a lot of the best of this kind of literature seems to be when an author just goes to one place and tries to understand it in a fair amount of depth. But that seems to be almost more ethnography than travel literature.

    The only counter examples I can think of are Herodotus and Paul Theroux, neither of which I have read.

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  8. Another book I'll mention in connection with this topic is Hilaire Belloc's The Path to Rome.

    Much of the issue may come down to this, the innocency or not of curiosity about the world of men, their languages and ways, and the manifold forms of terrene nature; also the innocency or not of the pleasure that comes when the senses are focused on such things.

    I myself tend to think it would be "puritanical" in the bad sense of that adjective to be highly suspicious, right off the bat, about that kind of curiosity and pleasure. I admit I'm tending to think of long walks, though, not riding around in tour buses and so on...

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  9. Chesterton, in Heretics says:

    The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.

    The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men — diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men — hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.

    [...]

    The truth is that exploration and enlargement make the world smaller. [...] It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them. The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motor-car stupidly destroys it.

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  10. I'd note that perhaps the man alive today with the deepest understanding of other cultures is Steve Sailer, who doesn't seem venture much beyond Los Angeles, though he does seem to have taken a couple of vacations in Mexico and gone to a couple conferences in Turkey.

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  11. Hi Dr. Charlton,

    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.

    What about H.V. Morton?

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  12. Nobody commented on the fact that this rant was posted above my travelogue photos - shame on you all!

    I'm impressed with Dale's counter example of Belloc's Path to Rome: many think this is his best book, and he was a very significant writer. OTOH The Way of a Pilgrim is indeed first rate, but I would not regard it as remotely like travel literature.

    JO'C - for information of others, HV Morton was author of the 'In Search of...' series, which have spawned hundreds of imitators. I have read England and Scotland - he (ahem) "stumbles across" remnants of the 'real' or 'old' country, tucked away among modernity; they struck me as deft, diverting but unserious nostalgia.

    Thursday - I think I tried to read Theroux a while ago and felt an unreasoning hatred towards it - the same applied to other alleged heavy-weights of the genre like Jan/ John Morris and Eric Newby. As for my near-namesake Bruce Chatwin, hatred is too mild a word...

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  13. Your musings inevitably remind me of the Proverbs 17:24 "Wisdom is before him that hath understanding; but the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth." (King James version).

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  14. Interesting, though, that (if I'm not mistaken) Bruce Chatwin died Orthodox enough to have an Orthodox funeral.....

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  15. Especially with regards to the Chesterton quote, I can't help but noting that he (and the Inklings!) received nourishment from a relatively stable and long-lasting culture which has since dissolved.

    Had they grown up in, say, Lancaster, California in the present day, or another place built too late to benefit from any vestiges of Western culture, they would not have had even an echo of the experience of Chesterton's man in the cabbage field. No babies, because nobody's having any. No fields, because you get your food pre-packaged. No deep ancient culture to run away from and see the world, unless you count aimless shopping. Even the beauty of women has been reduced to a meaningless commodity.

    In my case, I had to travel before I was even aware of the normal state of humans - Chesterton's cabbage field was what I unconsciously sought out, not what I was running away from. Would I give away my travel adventures a thousand times over in exchange for having had a culture of my own? Definitely.

    I should add that I, too, hate 'holidays' - just transportable anti-culture.

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  16. @Catherine - excellent comment, thanks.

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  17. Catherine, John Senior wrote this in The Restoration of Christian Culture:

    There are still some [European] villages left where you can see direct, visible proof that the human race can live in harmony with nature on a human scale, decently in ‘glad poverty,’ not in destitution but with a snug, hard-working frugality …. [T]here is no inevitability in the suicide of civilization. If America had been governed by its farmers and craftsmen supplying their real needs and nothing more, as Jefferson hoped, not catering to lust and the agitated sloth which masquerades as lust, [and had been] obedient to the Christian religion and the rough philosophy of frontier common sense, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would be as beautiful as Assisi, Chartres and Salamanca.

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  18. Nearly all the travel I've done has been for work. Almost always I couldn't wait to get home. I have no strong desire to travel to far away places. I always felt like bit of a freak among my jet setting friends who head to resorts in Mexico/Caribbean every chance they get. These places are the ultimate fantasy when just behind the facade of luxury in the 5 star resorts is the reality of poverty, squalor and corruption.

    Perhaps my aversion to exotic travel is not a character flaw but a clear view of whats real about my own life... Thanks for this post Bruce!

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