‘It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States.’ – Lolita
Disclaimer: The inevitable Moleskine accompanied me in my bag along with three novels of which I read maybe twenty pages before dropping the pretense and abandoning myself to reality; the Moleskine, similarly, remained virgin, and I only used my pen once, to poke something out of something, I think, I’m not sure. So I’m getting all this information second-hand from my own organism. Which is a creepy way of putting it, but sort of true: remembering is only the act of extracting data from the same flabby suspension that wants to know, like an autocannabalistic meat-jelly picking ham out of itself. These are my choicest scraps.
By the way, it seems that what’s happening here is travel writing. Travel writing will be happening here now in a minute. Why, though? Why will it be happening? Why can’t the travel have been enough? Why the need to adopt a particular tone and register and write the travel down in such a way that much more will probably get expressed about the writer than the travel? Why does anyone read travel writing at all? Certainly not for the facts about X location or Y historical point of interest or Z group of humans living by chance on a different section of planetary crust to you, because we have Wikipedia for that. Presumably the genre traces its origins back to when travel was expensive and perilous enough to be, itself, a worthy subject: the writing served as both genuinely informative dispatch from the exterior and vicarious window onto an experience the reader could likely never have (for an extended parody of which, cf Vol VII of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). But now travel is easy and cheap and Google Street View even lets you do it without having to wash yourself beforehand or talk to anyone for the duration. Bliss. So what’s the point?
I suppose it’s to do with the cult of personality and its antecedent chapter, the cult of experience. Because of its very efficiency and affordability, everyone is travelling, and because everyone is travelling, no-one is travelling. Everywhere is already mapped, everything already photographed, everyone already encountered, every experience already experienced. The sun shines, having no alternative, on Machu Picchu as on the Russian steppe – on the nothing-new. That’s Beckett there, and here’s Joyce: ‘We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.’ As succinct a summary of the agony of travel as any I’ve heard. Travel as a mode of release, of ‘getting away’, is a myth. We never fall more inescapably into the company of our own ghosts than in strange places. We fail, immediately, at the experiential level, and need the travel writer to be our scapegoat, an alchemical crucible transmuting our shit times into pithy observations and the kind of anecdotes we wish we had to tell. It’s about the writer, not the travel, and hence the proliferation of the genre as an industry of personages, of Chatwins and Brysons and Rabans. And hence idiots like me stumbling down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States clutching Moleskines like talismans, not writing anything down for fear of missing an experience, not experiencing anything for fear of being unable to write it down.
That said, I’ll post again in the near future doing the travel writing I’ve failed at here. There will be pithy observations and diverting anecdotes. It might be all bullshit, but that’s only in the spirit of the game.
I should furthermore change the epigraph to Lévi-Strauss, who begins Tristes Tropiques thus: ‘I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions…Why, I asked myself, should I give a detailed account of so many trivial circumstances and insignificant happenings?’
Yes, Claude, why? WHY?