Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travels of a Born Tourist, Chapter I: Emotional and Literary Origins

Long before the revolutions in politics, technology and aviation over the past fifteen years that have made travel to formerly remote and strange nations common and to familiar ones so routine as to hardly constitute the name any longer, I was composing my first lists of cities to visit on a great future tour I intended to take, in anticipation of meeting up with fellow travellers or idle free spirits and beautiful women and having adventures. These adventures were to follow the pattern of the road stories ubiquitous in literature--in my case not so much Kerouac as the Oz books, or perhaps The Pickwick Papers, or Tom Jones, or Humphrey Clinker--in which any dangers would be such as a boy of my origin possessed of a little pluck and genuine good nature would be able to find his way out of, even if they should arise in an alley in Detroit or along the side of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Anyway, such dangers as I might encounter would be requisite for the achievement of the Goal; which it is not hard to imagine was conceived by me as becoming cool enough to get action with girls and to be able to move up to a cleverer and more imaginative and worldly social milieu than I had known theretofore. I thus early on had an intimation that travelling would be for the likes of me a game no less than art was; and in time I came to see that also like art it was a game that I could only have a chance to win if I played against myself. I would never be able to defeat other competitors, living or dead, who sought the same social advantages from these pursuits as I did. Plenty of others might perpetually lose alongside me with varying degrees of ineptitude, it is true; but a shared void in the mind or spirit provides no common ground for meaningful friendships to take root.

I had settled upon the idea of forming my lists of places to go out of associations with authors by the age of 14 or 15, as I had already determined that literature more properly suited my temperament and sensibility than any other serious field, so that such cities and places as had numerous connections to famous writers must appeal to me. That this method was likely to favor long-established and over-touristed cities rather than the newly vibrant, the tumultuous, the exotic or the naturally stunning was not of any concern to me. There is a quote in Boswell's Life which I have looked for but am unable to find (it is a big book) in which Johnson says something along the lines that he would much prefer to walk a hundred miles to encounter one wise or mentally energetic man than to walk 5 to see some glory of nature. My attitude was somewhat similar to this. That tens of millions of people had gone to London or Rome and drunk and made love and commented on the relics of former times already was of no moment, for I had not gone there and done those things, and it was these places of ancient renown and the mythical institutions and monuments of humanity associated with them, as well as the sorts of people I imagined must still go there and live there, and who must have some element of spirit convivial to my own, that fired my imagination.

My earliest list was a simple record of the cities or towns of birth of all the writers with a work featured in the literary supplement in the back of every volume of the Illustrated World Encyclopedia, a 1960s publication aimed, I presume, at adolescents. This list of books, off which I read quite extensively through high school and still experience a little tingle of satisfaction if I come across one of its many out-of-print titles in an antiquarian store, consisted primarily of novels, familiar classics as well as bestsellers of the 1900-1950 era, followed by plays, long poems and autobiographies. It did not have a single black author on it, and its non-Western titles were limited to the Arabian nights and something by Rabindranath Tagore, which I must confess I did not get around to reading. (I do remember that Tagore was born in Calcutta, however, along with Thackeray. Throw in Kipling and Orwell, and I had to plan for a mini-tour of India, at least). The latest book on the list chronologically was Doctor Zhivago, which was published in the U.S. in 1958. On the positive side, this list was stronger, or at least deeper, in good 19th-20th century Continental writers than most comparable lists one finds today, especially in French, German and Scandanavian writers. The list was decidedly light on modernism, with the exception of Ulysses, as the books were supposed to be accessible to earnest Americans trying to supplement their educations alone and in their free time. As with most American-based literary lists based on birthplaces, the cities with the most representatives were London, Paris, Dublin, New York and Boston, with a second team of Moscow, Athens, Edinburgh, Rome and Cambridge, Mass. At one point I expanded the list to include title characters of various works based on real people (Abraham Lincoln, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shakespeare's various kings and Romans) and actual sites that featured in titles of works (the Alhambra, Notre Dame cathedral). Some of the early and abortive adventures I undertook with this list in hand will be recounted in later chapters of this short work.

As I got older and went to college I decided that this list was a little too limited and contained a few too many inferior authors (about many of whom it was difficult even to get basic biographical information). Also as the aimless wanderings and loneliness that proved to be the results of my initial journeys had convinced me that I needed more specificity upon entering even the greatest cities, I decided to collect information on the actual houses or addresses where my subjects were born, as well as the sites of their graves and any museums associated with them. Though this method of touring, particularly among nondescript people, is mocked by the sort of people whose cultural status I aspire to have, it has a long tradition in the West going back at least to Alexander the Great paying homage at the tomb of Achilles, and I have taken some consolation in carrying on in the manner of so many illustrious predecessors. Besides which it is a necessary mechanism for me to direct myself as near as possible to spots that might be expected to possess the atmosphere and people I have forever sought, to many of which I would certainly never have gone to otherwise, apart from the general educational value that I remain in such a state as to be capable of deriving much benefit from. The sites and monuments nonetheless merely constitute a structure; if a troupe of actors or a bewitching woman were to alight on me while I was wandering about looking for Voltaire's birthplace and pull me in some other direction I should naturally deviate from the list until my adventure exhausted itself, at which point I would pick it up again from wherever I should find myself. Time and money, of course, were never taken into consideration in the formation of these plans. They were essential to them and one must have them, but as how to get them is the great mystery of life to most people I did not think it in the proper spirit to allow their lack to hinder my conceptions of what could and should be under ideal circumstances.

As regards the lists, I have always toyed with the idea of doing a compact six-month to year long tour based on the Britannica Great Books series, which is a fairly small number of authors, few of them modern (Freud being the most recent in the original set, though there was an update in 1991). This tour would have a heavy Mediterranean focus, with many sights being in Turkey, Egypt and Israel (though I have never found a satisfactory way to determine which Biblical authors and figures get on the list and which have to be cut. If one includes the whole Old Testament, Amos, Obadiah and such names as this, the list becomes very unwieldy and expansive). In November 1994 I began working through all the books that appear as questions or potential answers in the GRE English literature test guide, because it seemed pretty comprehensive and had a randomness to its order that I liked. After 12 years of continual reading I am about halfway through through the second of the six tests, which leaves me on pace to finish this list in 2045, when I will be 75 years old. This list is very thorough on the English classics, meaning lots of poetry, Restoration plays, belles-lettres like Chesterfield and the Spectator, 18th-century novels. It is fairly light on American writers (who don't come off so well as a group once you read a lot of British lauthors) and anything foreign with the possible exception of the French. The most recent work I have encountered on this list is Nadine Gordimer's A Sport of Nature (1987) (which I must say held my interest and had some definite qualities as literature, though the beating middle class Americans take at the hands of our author, being portrayed as childish, sexually retarded (there is no other word for it) frivolously educated and disgusting in our material security, while African Communist revolutionaries are presented as significant and serious men who know how to make love to beautiful strong-willed white women, was difficult to take sitting down, even if evidence suggests that the sexual part, at least in my case, is true beyond a doubt, though otherwise the book traffics extravagantly in fiction, though it is often no less charming for that. Meanwhile on the subject of serious travel, the heroine Hillela demonstrates how it is done: when she goes to a beach it is untamed, devoid of commercial activity, full of brilliant, gorgeous, politically committed hardbodies antagonistic to the United States and everything it stands for who frequently engage in mind-blowing sex and either don't need money or live for weeks off tiny or infrequent payments for revolutionary newspaper articles, afterwards moving up to such arenas as war, social change, statecraft, economic policy. There is no compelling need to see the Mona Lisa when one leads such a life as this. Her trip to the United States to try to procure money [why else would anyone go there?] for her causes has very much the air of a visit to the regions of the dead. There is nothing for a person of spirit to do there at all. Note: in the print edition we should put this parenthesis in a footnote.)

With regard to the travelling list, I have been adding authors, subjects and places as I read them, which is beginning now to grow a little large, especially since I have only been getting to 2 or 3 sites a year over the past half-decade, while adding 30 or 40 to the list. I have currently 53 things to see in London alone, and over 150 in all of England, though I did make 3 journeys there between 1996-2001 and have "done" maybe 50 sites already. Still, if one had the time and so forth it would not be unmanageable, but as I get older I am not sure that the time for having "adventures" has not passed, unless I adopt a Don Quixote-like persona, nor if this particular list serves any purpose any longer, though for now I am keeping it up to date. But at age 36 one is not likely to be formed much by touring any more, and it becomes a matter of what one has to bring to the places one goes when stripped of youthful energy, beauty and hope, even if I never had excessive quantities of any of these. I have primarily melancholy, emotion and nostalgia, with which reception is certainly to be found in many of the legendary and formerly great sites of Western Europe if one can get nothing else from them, and which certain parts of the U.S.-Maine, Vermont, upstate New York, the old mountain and mill towns in Pennsylvania come to mind--are able to inspire and reciprocate as well. But this is generally accepted to be an inferior way to live as well as motivation to travel. I have nothing more to give at the moment however and the desire, or something like desire, to look at things and feel things--even in an inferior manner--remains.

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