Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Travel and Literature

Here you can find a long, loping discussion of the relationship between travel and philosophy, and in that discussion you can also find some thoughts about why I think travel is a worthwhile thing to do. In this post I want to go for a short sprint through some thoughts about travel and literature. My hope is that this post will be more readable than my previous one, and convey the spirit of my travel writings more clearly; though I can’t promise that this one will be as detailed or as earnest as the former.

For a person who wants to write descriptively about people and the world, in plays or in novels or in poems, travel looks like a very worthwhile thing indeed. What writers thrive upon, one might think, are new and interesting forms of life: people who are peculiar enough and vivid enough to be turned into characters; events that are dramatic and instructive enough to be turned into stories; objects and actions that have the bulk and breadth to make it as symbols; cultures and landscapes that are rich enough, full enough with the strange and the engaging, to function as settings. And one consequence of travel, one might think, is that a person is brought into contact with all these new and interesting forms of life. Hence travel looks to be just the sort of thing that a writer would want to do.

The subjunctive padding in the last paragraph is placed there to protect me from people who will immediately point out that a number of great writers have written great books about their own town or their own city, apparently without doing any travelling at all. Look at Dickens, with his London masterpieces; at Jane Austen, with her beautifully turned engravings of a highly localised culture; if you are a New Zealander, look at Frank Sargeson sitting in his shack on Takapuna beach, almost as well-hidden as Descartes in his oven. And looking at these books and these writers, what can one do with the theory outlined in the above paragraph, except paint it purple and call it a turnip?

Well, I think one can do a bit more than that. To be sure, the theory is defective. But it also has its merits, and even its defects can shed a little bit of light on the nature of travel and of writing. I will leave the merits to last. In the meantime, let me do what the previous paragraph invites me to do, and explain why the theory is defective, which means identifying its faulty assumptions. It assumes, firstly, that new and interesting forms of life can only be found through travelling. This is false, since they can be found in the mind as well, in the perpetual adventure of the imagination. Imagination does not render travel redundant, but it does make it less urgently necessary. The theory assumes, secondly, that the key to good novels, and the key to good novel-writing, is to uncover new and interesting forms of life. This is false with regards to good novels, since we often value novels for their ability to uncover something that is new and interesting about our ordinary, local forms of life. And it is false with regards to good novel-writing, since this uncovering of the new in the familiar requires a certain kind of sensitivity to the world; and this sensitivity is best cultivated, one might think, not by making it easy for oneself and letting oneself be assaulted by exotic species of nature and of humankind, but by making it hard for oneself, and looking with care and discipline for signs of the exotic in the quiet habits of ordinary life.

Now I see that this subjunctive buffer has again crept in between my prose and my beliefs. But I think that, in the final sentence of the previous paragraph, the buffer is justified. For I do not think that it is quite correct to say that, in order to cultivate the required sensitivity, it is best to make things hard for oneself. When we start to cultivate an ear for French, we make things easier for ourselves. We get people to speak slowly, so we can learn to catch the rhythms and the patterns in their speech that we must catch in their normal, skittering conversation, if we are to understand them properly. Likewise, we start writing by describing things that present their distinctive characteristics very clearly to the ear and eye and touch: we write about wonderfully high mountains and exotic plants and eccentric people. And, once we have caught the rhythm of the world in this way, when it is played very loudly to us, we can more easily catch that rhythm when it is played more softly; and when we have followed it into the soft sounds of ordinary life, so soft that they are inaudible to most people, then we can say that we have understood properly the language of the world.

Furthermore, this way of proceeding, from the easy to the hard, is likely to stimulate the will just as well as it stimulates the other faculties. We are less likely to become disheartened by a discipline if we do not find things horribly difficult at first; and we are more likely to be excited by a discipline if it brings us into contact with things that are, on the surface at least, much more new and interesting than our ordinary life.

And, to finish things off, I should observe that a knowledge of the local cannot be very easily attained without some knowledge of the foreign. For, a knowledge of the local does not really deserve that name unless it involves some knowledge of how the local is distinctive from everything else; and that knowledge is surely easier to come by when one has some knowledge of everything else. I cannot say that I know myself if I know only that I have ten fingers and toes, one heart, and any other attribute of body or mind that applies equally well to all other human beings as it does to myself; and a good way to extend my knowledge beyond this anonymous state, is to learn something more about other people. And as with knowledge of self, so with knowledge of country and of town and of family.

This point about self-knowledge is less apt to my travel writings than are the points about starting easy and about getting excited. Most of my travel writings are cluttered, excited, and somewhat lavish descriptions of the places and people that I come across as I go along my way. At least, this is how my travel writings have gone up to this point, and that seems like a good reason to assume that they will carry on in the same fashion. I could go on to discuss my reasons for choosing to report on my travels at all, and my reasons for choosing the written word as my medium of reportage (rather than photography, say) but this time I will spare the reader any more ponderousness, and invite them, if they are suitably inclined, to read the things I write about my travels.