The Art of Travel.
Alain de Botton
2001. Pantheon, NY. ISBN 0-375-725342
The longing provoked by the [travel] brochure was an example, at once touching and bathetic, of how projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness, of how a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set into motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.
If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest - in all its ardour and paradoxes - than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems - that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or "human flourishing".
The pessimistic school … argues that reality must always be disappointing. It may be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different.
If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination.
… memory is in this respect similar to anticipation: an instrument of simplification and selection.
[Huysman's] Des Esseintes thus ended up in the paradoxical position of feeling more in Holland - that is, more intensely in contact with the elements he loved in Dutch culture - when looking at selected images of Holland in a museum than when traveling with sixteen pieces of luggage and two servants through the country itself.
A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent. I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.
My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination. The body found it hard to sleep and complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.
I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.
… it seems we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.
Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect. Thus we will not enjoy - we are not able to enjoy - sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment.
We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.
It was the fate of poets, like Christian pilgrims, to live in a fallen world while refusing to surrender their vision of an alternative, less compromised realm.
The clouds usher in tranquility.
Below us are enemies and colleagues, the sites of our terrors and our griefs,
all of them now infinitesimal, mere scratches on the earth. We may know this
old lesson in perspective well enough, but rarely does it seem as true as when
we are pressed against the cold plane window, our craft a teacher of profound
philosophy and a faithful disciple of Baudelairen command:
Carriage, take me with you! Ship, steal me away from here!
Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!
The twenty-four-hour diner, the station waiting room and the motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a home in the ordinary world - those whom Baudelaire might have dignified with the honorific poets.
Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains.
At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves - that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.
… the process of traveling, to wandering without reference to a destination …
… we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.
In one street lined with uniform apartment buildings, I stopped by a red front door and felt an intense longing to spend the rest of my life there.
We are all of us, without ever having any say in the matter, scattered at birth by the wind onto various countries, but like Flaubert, we are in adulthood granted the freedom imaginatively to re-create our identity in line with our true allegiances.
Anything I learnt would have to be justified by private benefit rather than by the interest of others. My discoveries would have to enliven me; they would have in some way to prove "life-enhancing".
Few Europeans before him had crossed the regions through which he traveled, and this absence offered him an imaginative freedom. He could unselfconsciously decide what interested him. He could create his own categories of value without either following or deliberately rebelling against the hierarchies of others.
A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.
Travel twists our curiosity according to a superficial geographical logic, as superficial as if a university course were to prescribe books according to their size rather than subject matter.
[Wordsworth] accused cities of fostering a family of life-destroying emotions: anxiety about our position in the social hierarchy, envy at the success of others, pride and a desire to shine in the eyes of strangers.
One of Wordsworth's poetic ambitions was to induce us to see the many animals living alongside us that we typically ignore, registering them only out of the corner of our eyes and feeling no appreciation for what they are up to and want: shadowy, generic presences such as the bird up on the steeple and the rustling creature in the bush. He invited his readers to abandon their usual perspectives and to consider for a time how the world might look through other eyes, to shuttle between the human and the natural perspective. Why might this be interesting, or even inspiring? Perhaps because unhappiness can stem from having only one perspective to play with.
There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist; we are forced to make awkward piles of words to convey what we feel as we watch the light fade on an early-autumn evening, or when we encounter a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing.
But why the pleasure? Why seek out this feeling of smallness - delight in it, even?
Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.
It is no coincidence that the Western attraction to sublime landscapes developed at precisely the moment when traditional beliefs in God began to wane. It is as if these landscape allowed travelers to experience transcendent feelings that they no longer felt in cities and the cultivated countryside. The landscapes offered them an emotional connection to a greater power, even as they freed them of the need to subscribe to the more specific and now less plausible claims of biblical texts and organised religions.
But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.
My motive was simple and hedonistic: I was looking for beauty. "Delight and enliven me", was my implicit challenge to the olive trees, cypresses and skies of Provence.
Because we find places to be beautiful as immediately and as apparently spontaneously as we find snow to be cold or sugar sweet, it is hard to imagine that there is anything we might do to alter or expand our attractions.
Bad art might thus be defined as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out.
… choosing which aspects of reality to include in a work and which to leave out. As Nietzsche knew, reality itself is infinite and can never be wholly represented in art.
Admiring a painting that depicts a place we know but don't like seems absurd and pretentious if we imagine that painters do nothing but reproduce exactly what lies before them.
… a trend that seems perfectly to confirm the contention that we tend to seek out corners of the world only after they have been painted and written about by artists.
Ruskin was distressed by how seldom people noticed details. He deplored the blindness and haste of modern tourists, especially those who prided themselves on covering Europe in a week by train …
Attractive places typically render us aware of our inadequacies in the area of language. In the Lake District, for example, writing a postcard to a friend, I explained - in some despair and haste - that the scenery was pretty and the weather wet and windy. Ruskin would have ascribed such prose more to laziness than to incapacity. We are all, he argued, able to turn out adequate word paintings; our failure to do so is the result merely of our not asking ourselves enough questions and not being precise enough in analyzing what we have seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake is pretty, we must ask ourselves more vigorously, "What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What might be a better word for it than big?" The finished product may not be marked by genius, but at least it will have been motivated by a search for an authentic representation of an experience.
The effectiveness of Ruskin's word-painting derived from his method of not only describing what places looked like ("the grass was green, the earth was grey-brown") but also analyzing their effect on us in psychological language ("the grass seemed expansive, the earth timid"). He recognized that many places strike us as beautiful not on the basis of aesthetic criteria - because the colours match or symmetry and proportion are present - but on the basis of psychological criteria, inasmuch as they embody a value or mood of importance to us.
I returned to London from Barbados to find that the city had stubbornly refused to change. I had seen azure skies and giant sea anemones, I had slept in raffia bungalow and eaten a kingfish, I had swum beside baby turtles and read in the shade of coconut trees. But my hometown was unimpressed. It was still raining. The park was still a pond; the skies were still funereal. When we are in a good mood and it is sunny, we may be tempted to impute a connection between what happens inside and outside of us, but the appearance of London on my return was a reminder of the indifference of the world to any of the events unfolding in the lives of its inhabitants. I felt despair at being home. I felt there could be few worse places on Earth than the one I had been fated to spend my existence in.
What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details … We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.
The reason people were not looking was that they had never done so before. They had fallen into the habit of considering their universe to be boring - and their universe had duly fallen into line with their expectations.
My walks along the street had been excised of any attentiveness to beauty, any associative thoughts, any sense of wonder or gratitude, any philosophical digressions sparked by visual elements. In their place, there was simply an insistent call to reach the Underground posthaste.
It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others. They may have particular visions of who we are and hence may subtly prevent certain sides of us from emerging: "I hadn't thought of you as someone who was interested in flyovers," they may intimidatingly suggest. Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion's questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity. But alone in Hammersmith in the middle of a March afternoon, I had no such concerns. I had the freedom to act a little weirdly. I sketched the window of a hardware shop and word-painted a flyover.
There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their way through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed.
Alexander von Humboldt
I was spurred on by an uncertain longing to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvelous world.
J.K. Huysman [Duc des Esseintes:]
I must have been suffering from some mental aberration to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination and to have believed like any old ninny that it was necessary, interesting, and useful to travel abroad.
Vincent van Gogh
How vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things of which we do not admire the originals.