Journeys

"Once the world sticks a label on you, it takes great effort to resist conforming to it.† Reality takes on the shape of a fish trap and if you are not constantly vigilant, down the funnel you go.† I yielded.† I went to India and lived with nomads.† My intention was genuine enough – I was interested in transhumance and I did want to write something resembling ethnography.† I would select one group, live with them over a long period of time and study them in isolation from their wider context.† When it came time to write it all up, I would edit myself out of the account.

That intention was rendered ludicrous from the word go.† There is no such thing as a disinterested observer, just as there is no such thing as a community isolated, spatially or temporally, from the greater society in which it is embedded.† I also carried my own time with me – post-industrial time.† I could get into a jeep and in a few hours be at a telephone booth, or in a large city – a journey which would take my companions weeks, and involve them in many physical hardships.† It was not possible for me to live with them in the way I had envisaged, because I embodied that other version of time.

Commerce has its own laws.† The travel book was packaged according to the exigencies of the market – exotic travel: subsection, female.

I found I could not pass that section of bookshops without feeling obscure irritation towards the browsers I saw there, and sorry for he various books I knew were stranded in the stacks like guests fetch up at the wrong party and forbidden to leave.† Nor was I alone in my aversion.† To the best of my knowledge, no other genre suffered this weird allergy to itself.† What is travel writing, and who gets to say so?

All taxonomies are fuzzy sets.† That is, boundaries imposed on something that is really a continuum – and in these post-modern days of genre bending they are getting even fuzzier.† Literary borders are permeable; books migrate.† But this tendency to escape standard classification is countered by a more powerful restringing force, as if ambivalence – the space in which we can make up our own minds – is antithetical of the laws of the marketplace.† Readers (or rather, buyers) are encouraged to use the travel section much as tourists are encouraged to experience holiday destinations – herded along the usual routes, all wayward peregrinations discouraged.

But the literature of movement covers a vastly more rich and complex range of experiences, and far from being capacious, that section of a bookshop is impoverished by omission.† Out in the genre’s fuzziest borders, away from its predictable destinations, you can come across all kinds of characters you would never think of as travel writers.† What about the less fortunate travelers, tugged around the world by circumstances over which they have no control – slaves, solders and the victims of war?

What makes them different from the commissioned travelogues is that they set out because of an inner compulsion to do so, or are driven by some form of necessity, and their tales, therefore, have the power to reconnect us with the essential.† Virginia Woolf said that the art of writing “has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea…something believed in with conviction or seen with precision and thus compelling words to this shape…”† If we accept that view, then it has to be said that the bulk of contemporary travel writing is pretty spineless.

Describing what lies beyond must be one of the oldest compulsions to story telling.† Certainly it was already there at the inception of writing, and the prototype must have existed since human self-consciousness began.† The metaphor of the journey is embedded in the very way in which we conceive of life – a movement from birth to death, from this world to the next, from ignorance to wisdom.† In Aboriginal philosophy, its metaphorical possibilities extended to include the earth itself – Australia is a travel narrative.† The desire or necessity to move on, has given and continues to give our world its shape.

Each epoch has reinvented its means of and reasons for traveling, and each has its own distinctive way of speaking about it.† From pilgrimage to package tour; holy days to holidays.† From the eighteenth-century grand tour, available only to the upper classes, to Thomas Cook and Baedeker – caterers to the masses.† From the Homeric mixture of fact and fantasy, to the Enlightenment’s project to collect rigorously accurate information about the new world – all have created characteristic accounts of Elsewhere.

But whatever its varying motivations and styles, the value of the literature of restlessness is located as much in the sociological – the unique insights it affords into the disruptive, restructuring activity that is history – as in the literary.† Each aims for a different kind of truth, and achieves a different greatness.

The genre’s most recent apogee – its great age, if you like – was the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the high moment of Western imperialism.† These days, things look pretty slumped and irrelevant there at the core.† Bill Buford said that recent travel writing reflects a, “wonderful ambiguity, somewhere between fiction and fact” – a sad reflection of the confusion of our times, in which veracity is less important than the need to show-off.† Nothing happening out there in travel land?† Make it up!† What could be more post-modern?†

There are exceptions of course.† But the exceptions are prominent because of the lowlands surround them.

There are manifold and complex reasons for this decay.

The slaughter of the First World War shattered confidence in Western civilization.† A more uneasy traveler emerges after that.† One begins to hear a tone of lament, for lost places, lost times.† Ways of life that were thought primitive by the Victorians, were now seen to possess their own validity, might even be sources of moral or spiritual regeneration.† But they were being threatened by the corruptions of the twentieth century, and there was an urgent need to record and preserve them before they all went down the drain of modernity.† The empire was fraying, scientific rationalism was being questioned and there was a gathering awareness of the political implications of who gets to describe ‘Other’.

To quote Levi-Strauss:† “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.”† He wrote that when ideas of here and elsewhere, self and other were less fraught with anxiety.† Now, in a world in which African nomadical camel herders use mobile phones, we can no longer pretend that our time hasn’t penetrated every chink of previousness.

The blame is often laid at the foot of tourism (masses obliterating classes), but it seems to me that tourism is a symptom, not the disease. †It is an irony that just when the ability to both travel and publish has penetrated the boundaries of class, race and sex, there should be nowhere left to ‘discover’.

Today’s tourism is likely to take the form of a transferal of ‘here’ to ‘there’ – chunks of home chopped off and deposited somewhere under a foreign sun, yet happily divested of foreigners.

Meanwhile ‘abroad' is now situationed at the very core of the familiar.† Why go all the way to Egypt to see a souk when there is a perfectly good souk just down a London high street?† In this souk, it is no longer the white man looking and Other.† Here, the Other looks defiantly back.

Yet all that social upheaval, the mixing and moving, crossing and re-crossing, has been little reflected in travel writing.† It’s as if the genre has not caught up with the post-colonial reality from which it springs.† One would think it should collapse under the weight of its paradoxes, but quite the opposite is happening.† They create the illusion that there is still an uncontaminated Elsewhere to discover, a place that no longer exists, located, indeed, somewhere between ‘fiction and fact’.

The nineteenth century also saw the entry of women into the genre, who co=opted it for their own purposes – usually an exultation in a new-found freedom.† The new conditions of the Victorian era allowed their numbers to increase exponentially, like mammals at the end of the dinosaur age.† They set the tone for what came to be seen as a strongly bounded sub-genre.

A woman sets out into a world whose public domain is†organised†by and for men.† How far can she claim a freedom of action taken for granted by her male counterparts, knowing that she is always, and everywhere, potentially prey?† Isabelle Eberhardt solved the problem by dressing as a man.† Others waited to reach an age when their sex was no longer so desirable, when they could become, as it were honorary men.† Some took companions or servants with them.† Most just took their chances.† But it is internalized fear that is most crippling to spontaneity – the necessary reining-in, the ceaseless attention to modesty, to the body, and therefore, to the self.†

Travel literature was always predicted on privilege; it may always have had at least one of its roots in a desire to escape the real world rather than apprehend it better, and it has always reflected the movement of world history as seen from the perspective of the centre.† But surely never before has it risked floating free of its own ground.

At the moment the ‘travel’ section of our bookshops is swamped by books written by a Centre describing its Antipodes.† However, already that Periphery is beginning to describe itself to itself without reference to the Centre, and it will eventually journey to what was once the hub and describe that too.

But whether it survives as a coherent category or not, as long as we are all travelers in ‘this wilderness of the world’, we will need to find authentic ways of telling each other what we discover there."

~Robyn Davidson, excerpt from 'Journeys: an anthology'

© Zoe Demery 2012