"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Foreign Travel, An Illusion Of Discovery –Nabokov, Thomas Wolfe And Thornton Wilder

Paul Theroux writing in his book The Tao of Travel quotes travel writers from Ibn Battuta (1304-68) to Bruce Chatwin, all of whom found it culturally, emotionally, and even spiritually meaningful. 
Theroux wrote of the existential dimensions of travel – why we travel; how we react to danger, loneliness, foreign places, uncertain circumstances, and a lack of any familiar context; and most importantly about travel as a means of personal and objective discovery. 

Travel for Theroux never incidental, but central.  Travelling alone, removed from family, friends, and responsibility with no one to turn to, no one to trust, and no one to provide support, confidence, or simple help - jettisoning every piece of personal baggage, cutting all social, cultural, and intimate ties - is the only way in a prescribed and predictable life to allow for discovery if not epiphany.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.
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Most serious travel writers have shared Theroux's  view that travel is at best epiphanic and even at its most ordinary insightful and revealing.  The accounts of Doughty's travels in Arabia's Empty Quarter, T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Moorehouse's stories of Africa, and Chatwin's reflections on Australia, are all in the same vein.

In Reclaiming Travel, an article in the New York Times (7.8.12) the authors Stavans and Ellison talk about how travel has become commonplace and mundane, far from the voyages of discovery of travelers past:
For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.
We should return to travel with a serious purpose, the authors write, force ourselves out of the complacent apathy of convenient travel, and discover what Theroux, Matthiessen, Nabokov, Greene, and so many others have found:
St. Augustine believed that “because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” We often think of restlessness as a malady. Thus, we urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
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Yet Theroux's 'magical possibility of reinvention' is only that. Changing even the most insignificant habit or attitude is troublesome, difficult, and near impossible.  Anything more elemental is indeed fantasy.  Travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive.
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)
One can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible.  Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted, we think.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life. 

No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.  The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.” 

Yet this reinvention is at best temporary and at worst illusory.  Travelers may leave everything behind, but always return in hopes of finding it just as it was.

Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again wrote of the natural desire to explore, the natural tendency to question, to ponder, and hopefully to understand why things are the way they are. 
Even at his most elegiac, however, Wolfe senses a great human paradox – the incessant need to explore but the inability to comprehend.  Yet he will die defeated but unapologetic and defiant.

There came to him an image of man’s whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of all-engulfing night.
Wolfe however understood the unexplained but ineluctable pull of home.  No matter how defiant the search for new things and deeper understanding of the unknown, man would always long for the familiar.
But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.
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Is travel, then, any different than an acid trip, both filled with insights, new perceptions about self and environment; both with some spiritual dimension? And both leaving the traveler with only residual memories of them? Is it ever anything more than a pleasurable high, a vacation, a welcome respite from judgment, responsibility, and concern? While the philosophical insights of Theroux, Wolfe, Nabokov, and others may be valid, is anything so temporally confined and passing of any real value?

Foreign travel is attractive because of its exaggerated differences.  India feels philosophically important and Ohio does not.  How can India’s mysticism, religious carnival, abject poverty, billions of people, and bourgeois vitality be anything but meaningful?

Ohio is more nuanced.  Epiphanies there are hard to come by.  The residents of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town only see its value when they are dead and looking down on what they lost.  Grover’s Corners had everything, and they missed it.

There is no culture in the town, says Mr. Webb.  It is just a plain, practical, hardworking place with nothing in particular to distinguish it.
No, ma'am, there isn't much culture; but maybe this is the place to tell you that we've got a lot of pleasures of a kind here. We like the sun comin' up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them.
Before you know it, says Wilder, life has come and gone.  We remember only shards and fragments of “the row of stores, hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them…the grocery store…and Mr. Morgan’s drugstore.  Most everyone in town manages to look in those stores once a day.”

Wilder is far from a cynic or nihilist.  Despite this passage of time and the seeming indifference of people to it, there is hope:
Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.
“Once in a thousand times [a story] is interesting” the Stage Manager says in Act II – someone has recognized the eternal.

There are few travelers today like Chatwin, Theroux, Doughty, or Moorehouse. Not only has travel become routine and matter-of-fact but the sheer difficulty of it makes openness and vulnerability almost impossible.  As tourism becomes big business it must necessarily focus on things and not ideas.  Tourists are not looking for the meaning behind India’s kaleidoscope – the brilliant, fragmented glass is more than enough.

Few people have the time to stay for a month in Grover’s Corners and to return every year. A life led so slowly and predictably cannot possibly be worth it.  There can be no subtleties or excitement in a farmer.

The end of Act III is one of the most moving and powerful in modern drama.  Emily, who has just died and greeted the dead members of Our Town is reluctant to leave the living.  She begs for permission just to go back for a day.  She is warned against it, but she persists. She is unsettled to see “how troubled and how….in the dark live persons are…Look at [Father Gibbs].  I loved him so. From morning till night, that’s all they are – troubled.” But the worst part of her return is to see the past and people as they were – young, optimistic, and full of promise – but from a time when she and they are dead.
I can’t bear it.  They’re so young and beautiful.  Why did they ever have to get old?  Mama, I’m here.  I’m grown up.  I love you all, everything – I can’t look at everything hard enough.
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally's dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another.
At the end of the Act, Emily says, “They don’t understand, do they?”; and her mother replies, “No, dear, they don’t understand”.  The Stage Manager then describes the town going to sleep.  No one can figure out the universe, he says, but one thing is sure, here on earth everybody is straining so hard to make something of themselves for sixteen hours a day, that they have to lie down and sleep.

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