Thursday, July 22, 2010

Travel and Uncertainty

My senior year in college Paul Fussell published a mind-bending book entitled The Great War in Modern Memory. It was life-changing for me, I now realize, because it ushered into my consciousness the idea of a psycho-emotional world so different than my own and yet one that I could understand. Not only that, the book forced me to start asking questions about how I wanted to live my life that I hadn't thought about before. The book did that fabulous trick of making the strange familiar while simultaneously mystifying the familiar. To do this, is to enter a new world--or to create one yourself. Novelist Toni Morrison and sociologist Peter Berger are two of my favorites in putting this concept to work in powerful ways. The metaphor that I think of is of a window and mirror. If I can clear the pane of glass cleanly enough, I can see into a new world that is a form of the DKDK zone (as a side thought, what do you think are the greatest inhibitors to seeing through that glass? or, put another way, what causes the greatest smudge marks that don't allow us to see through the glass?). But the real trick is to take that window and turn it into a mirror. If you can do that, then you start to see yourself in new ways that you had not before. The tool of "familiarizing the strange and mystifying the familiar" is more directly available to us when we travel, but we sometimes do not take it on--and we settle for pleasant, but not transformative, excursions to foreign lands.

It was not surprising then that only a few years later Fussell published another volume that took up a similar idea in a very different context in a travel book, Abroad. It was this volume, to my knowledge, that sparked the now familiar distinction between the "traveller and the tourist" that one sees in countless travel magazines. Students at CITYterm often obsess about not looking like tourists while they are exploring New York City. But it often takes quite awhile to dispel those fears and replace them with a more authentic "fear"--that they might not be travellers. This kind of fear is what Albert Camus wrote about in his Notebooks,

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.

and while I confess that I do not actively push my students to take on the kind of existential "high stakes fear" that Camus describes, I do love talking with those who stumble into it themselves. You can offer the risk, but you can't make people take it. But Camus is right, part of travel should be about fear, and it is learning to live with the particular kinds of fears that travels induces that makes it experiential. To alleviate the fear is to risk being a tourist.

Being in Jerusalem (perhaps the city that more people have travelled to than any other in world history), I found myself wondering about travel and how it fits into creating an experience-based life. I happened to be at the Kotel with Israeli friends on the day of Tisha B'av (here is another "Americanized" version--though I am not sure where the wall is in this one, other than the wall of the King Solomon hotel) and could not help but be moved by overwhelming sense of how many people have travelled to this place over the millennia. And it led me to wonder about what travel meant to them.

We have a very different conception of travel than people who lived before us. Look at the etymology of the word: Middle English travailen "torment, labor, strive, journe," from the early French travailler "torment, labor" from an unrecorded Latin verb tripaliare "to torture," from Latin tripalium "an instrument of torture." literally "three stakes." Torture--travel is literally an instrument of torture in its earliest forms. If nothing else, this should alert us to the fact that real travel is serious business. Henry David Thoreau, one of my favorite travelers, meant it to be serious business in a different way; he thought "we need travel enough to give our intellects an airing."

So, the question--Why do we not travel very much in the way that Camus and Thoreau are suggesting? What inhibits us? And are the ways we could travel differently that would make our excursions into expeditions of deep discovery? And, lastly, as Thoreau "traveled extensively in Concord," can we travel extensively in our hometowns?

I am wondering whether a major cause of all of this is a fear of uncertainty. We crave certainty on a level that has roots that go back to Descartes mechanistic view of the mind but manifest themselves in our willingness to divorce ourselves from the indeterminacy of primary experiences in exchange the certainty of a secondary experience. (For those of you interested in an interesting philosophical exploration of this you might enjoy Edward S. Reed's The Necessity of Experience.) This detaching from the details of life is precisely what happens to writer Gary Shteyngart (author of Absurdistan and other novels) in his op-ed piece about his new connection to his "i-Telephone." The first thing that happens to him after making his purchase is that
New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof. The city I had tried to set to the page in three novels and counting, the hideously outmoded boulevardier aspect of noticing societal change in the gray asphalt prism of Manhattan’s eye, noticing how the clothes are draping the leg this season, how backsides are getting smaller above 59th Street and larger east of the Bowery, how the singsong of the city is turning slightly less Albanian on this corner and slightly more Fujianese on this one — all of it, finished.
But what does he get in exchange--certainty. He knows where things are, and he knows how to get there the fastest way possible. It is a Faustian bargain, to be sure. The I-phone has removed all the fear of something unexpected, something indeterminate, something surprising from happening.

How has it done this? Writers know the answer to this because real traveling feels a lot like writing. (Most of us don't write, so we don't know what this feels like either, but you may have other things that you do that would give you a clue. I would be curious to know what some of those are.) The wonderful writer Donald Barthelme puts it best for me when he writes, "Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. At best there is a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable." If you are adverse to uncertainty you had better not try to be a writer, or a traveller. How could one learn how to increase one's capacity for not-knowing? What would that curriculum look like?

Enough for right now, I think. One last thought, there is one group that is supremely devoted to certainty, however. It is the foundation of their existence as John Haylock explores in his book, Absolute Certainty: How to Give Your Clients Exactly What They Want.

1 comment:

  1. David, I started practicing a martial art (aikido) in February specifically to get myself out of that zone of certainty on a regular basis. The idea was that if I could train my body to be more comfortable with the unfamiliar, then my brain would follow. I'm only gradually realizing that what I was really looking for was a window into the DKDK zone that I could go back to again and again. Learning something so new to me, in a setting that involves a lot of physical movement--and nothing written--is really kind of terrifying sometimes. I wouldn't necessarily call it "high-stakes fear," but it certainly seems like the kind of experiential "travel" you're talking about, albeit of an internal variety. It is absolutely increasing my capacity for not-knowing, and also teaching me to be ok with NOT being one of the smartest kids in the class.