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Posts from the ‘Reading as {True) Travel’ Category

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3

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The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2

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Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 1

Dante

in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings

Inferno XXVI

It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:

The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”

Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.

Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.

There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.

Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis

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So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.

The Editors