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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The ‘Stability Of Nullification’–Greene, Lawrence, And The Liberation of Indifference

It happened on day on Atchafalaya bayou, far down, almost to the Gulf when a well-known travel writer realized that shrimp boats and the primeval swamps of Louisiana were not going to do it.  Nor were the antebellum homes, the cotton fields, Confederate cemeteries, tarpaper shacks, and catfish.  He had seen enough of the South, Mississippi, ‘the most Southern place on earth’, and had simply worn out from this, his last travelogue. 

It wasn’t so much the South which made him write his final chapter, it was travel itself.  Despite the elegies of Nabokov, Chatwin, Mathiessen, and Doughty who wrote about the mystical, spiritual nature of solitary journeys to the most uncharted parts of the world, anything captured or experienced on his trips was of only temporary value, and informative interest.  A passing show.

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Paul Theroux, who wrote The Tao of Travel, a compendium of travel writing by adventurers not tourists, is one of the best modern observers of the phenomenon of travel.  He is never content with nor interested in places or people themselves, but what confrontation, unpleasantness, or surprising beauty mean to the traveler.  Theroux wrote Dark Star Safari and Last Train to Zona Verde as travel redux.  He retraced his steps first taken as a young man down the east coast of Africa and up the West.  

Sixty when he began his final trip from North Africa to Cape Town, he found that he had changed to such a degree that the trip was neither a re-visitation or a discovery, but a difficult, uncomfortable, and disappointing journey to an Africa which had changed dramatically in over thirty years. 

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Although he was prepared to see the surprising increase in poverty, crime, and inequality, he was unprepared for his old man’s impatience and lack of solicitude.  He had always been a bitchy travel writer and had made his name with The Great Railway Bazaar which told of India from third class – the heat and dust, the flies, the shit, the slums, the stink, and the ugliness of it all.  

He was never as cynical and misanthropic as his former friend and literary mentor, V.S. Naipaul displayed in An Area of Darkness, and after he had made his name and royalties, went on to explore the nature of travel and foreignness. My Secret History and My Other Life blended fiction, personal memoir, and travel writing and expressed the conviction that foreignness was indeed revelatory and important.

The Louisiana travel writer in question had never had any of the philosophical or spiritual revelations of Peter Mathiessen who in his book The Snow Leopard described his unexpected epiphany in the high Himalayas – an epiphany not unlike that of Shelley who wrote
Mont Blanc…Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapor broods
Over the snow. The secret strength of things,
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
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Mathiessen agreed to accompany the naturalist George Schaller in his search for the legendary and elusive animal of the high mountains, the snow leopard.  Mathiessen, an experienced writer of material things – building a birch bark canoe, the life of watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, and the residents of the southwestern Florida swamps – had described places and people as interesting and unique but never impressive let alone spiritually so.

The Louisiana writer was far more like Mathiessen and Theroux than periodical writers; but had never had any of their particularly personal insights.  He had been impressed enough by certain events to have never forgotten them – the coup in Burkina Faso, the tent city of Moorish refugees from the Sahara in Nouakchott,  and the post-civil war brutality of Luanda – nor had he forgotten civilized lunches on Lake Tanganyika, by the sea in Rio, or at the Galle Face in Colombo; but they were uneventful memories.  The events themselves had not changed him nor altered his view of himself, culture, or people. Everything taken in on his travels was information collected and sorted, drawn upon for local color or historical reference, but never recalled in dreams, prayers, or daydreams.  Events had come and gone.

A life of travel had given him a measure financial security, some romance, adventure, and a store of information about the workings of human settlements.  it was a satisfying life of no particular lasting value.  As D.H. Lawrence put it, “Ursula’s Uncle Tom had a stability of nullification” and so had he.
Tom too was at the end of his desires. He had done the things he had wanted to. They had all ended in a disintegrated lifelessness of soul, which he hid under an utterly tolerant good-humour. He no longer cared about anything on earth, neither man nor woman, nor God nor humanity. He had come to a stability of nullification. He did not care any more, neither about his body nor about his soul.
Only he would preserve intact his own life. Only the simple, superficial fact of living persisted. He was still healthy. He lived. Therefore he would fill each moment. That had always been his creed. It was not instinctive easiness: it was the inevitable outcome of his nature. When he was in the absolute privacy of his own life, he did as he pleased, unscrupulous, without any ulterior thought. He believed neither in good nor evil. Each moment was like a separate little island, isolated from time, and blank, unconditioned by time (The Rainbow).
Image result for images cover lawrence the rainbow

Perhaps he was simply like Querry, he wondered, Graham Greene’s main character in A Burnt Out Case.  Querry, a world renowned architect has given up his profession, his family, and his European life for one in a leper colony in equatorial Africa. He explains that he only wants simplicity, anonymity, and the freedom from the demands of a successful, ambitious life. In the words of the medical doctor attending at the leprosarium, Querry is an emotional burnt-out case, the term used to describe lepers whose disease has been cured but who are left with physical mutilation.  They have recovered, but they are next to useless in making their way in a non-leprous world.  Querry, says the doctors, has recovered from the European disease which has afflicted him, but despite his attempts of renewal, he is doomed to live with the mutilations of his past.  His former life has left him without desire, enthusiasm, or spiritual energy. He may have found a kind of Eastern renunciation of life, but cannot fully accept its consequences.

Image result for image cover a burnt out case

Perhaps he was simply wearing out.  Decades of miserable African airports, heat, crime, dysfunction, and delays may have simply taken their toll.  Once the cost of travel exceeds the benefits of what lies at the end, it is time to stop.  Or maybe it was only encroaching old age, a final setting of accounts which have nothing to do with Qutb Minar or the Danube.  Better to poke along at home and contemplate one’s end without distractions rather than see Bordeaux yet again.

Some writers like Phillip Roth simply stop writing, cancel their contracts with publishers and agents, and tell the public that they have read their last book.  Others, never absolutely sure about their conviction just yet years pass until they have been forgotten.  Still others like the Louisiana writer knew only that he was through traveling, not writing.  If he were to continue to write, it would not be about travel, culture, or foreign adventure.  Perhaps, fittingly, it would be about getting old.

In any case for those who knew him, the Louisiana travel writer’s ‘stability of nullification’ was far from it.  ‘Temporality’ could no longer be ignored.  A measure of perspective would cure a lot of self-importance.

He never finished his last book, Journey Down the Atchafalaya, although he was close to the end; but for him the end was not the last page, but the giving out of his last bit of literary breath.  He had simply and finally, had enough.

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