Tag Archives: decadence

On Travel

13 May

Liking travel is among the most generic interests possible. Say you like to “travel” in your dating profile and I will find you basic, only a half-step higher than those who say they value “faith, family, and friends.” Of course you like to travel, but travel is a vehicle for other activities, and if your idea of fun travel means standing in a line at Disney World, it means something very different from clambering up peaks in the Sierras or blissing out at a Mexican beach resort or following an Egyptologist around the ruins of Luxor or sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas or—you get the idea. Travel can take many forms: fast or slow, repeated trips to the same destination or somewhere new every time, or themed trips like quests to knock out all of the national parks or ballparks or theme parks. The mere act tells me nothing about you.

When you say you like to travel, you are really trying to say something else: something about what you value, that you are not closed-minded or narrow person, potentially possessed of certain adventurousness or language skills or general competence in life. It’s also an easy conversation-starter, a likely source of an interesting story that may or may not reveal something interesting about the teller. We travel to say we’ve seen things that other people in our circles have seen (or, even better, have not seen) and make ourselves sound interesting at cocktail parties.

For the most cliched of reasons, we travel to expand our horizons. We go to gawk at beauty: the Grand Canyon, the California coast, the rawness of the Badlands, Lake Superior shores. We go to eat things and meet people, and sometimes we take instrumental travel, like extending a business trip by a day to drink in some local culture. Travel can test us, tell us new things about ourselves, whether we want it to or not. A friend of mine likes to draw a distinction between first-order fun, which is fun that is enjoyable in the moment, and second-order fun, which is not fun in the moment but does appear fun in retrospect. Because travel has a habit of committing itself to one’s memory, it comes to include not only frequent experience in the first category but also plenty in the second. If one is apt to spend one’s time thinking, it may give us some idea of who we are and where we come from, and distance from our mundane day-to-day reality may lead us to see things in new lights, ponder new courses, seek out other new destinations.

Sure, one can also achieve enlightenment in one’s own living room, as is necessary more often than not these days, but newness and difference and sensory overload are far more apt to inspire original thought than the same old drudgery over and over again. I have forgotten the happenings of probably about 350 days of 2018, but the remaining 15 all probably involve sports, travel, or both. Angel’s Landing has a way of lingering in one’s memory. If we’re the sort to record our daily thoughts in some form or another, it is these days that we’ll revisit most often, because the odds of it seeming interesting in retrospect are several orders higher than that of the random Tuesday in April when we went to the gym after work, went home, cooked some dinner, and binged a bit of TV before crashing.

Why this reflection now? Well, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Aside from one drive up to Silver Bay and back, I haven’t gone more than twenty miles since one last work trip up to Aurora two months ago. Even on that venture, we knew it was all going awry: “Everything is going to shit!” one of the younger employees of The Hive, Aurora’s superb coffee shop, declared as she reported for work. One elaborate planned vacation went down the tubes, while I nervously check the latest on my scheduled July destinations for updates on openings and campground regulations. Postponed vacations are among the least sad consequences of the coronavirus, but their loss still diminishes the glow of life.

I am fortunate to live in a picturesque city equipped with enough green space that only in certain locations does it feel uncomfortable to recreate outside, even in the midst of a pandemic. Plenty of other scenic attractions are just a short drive away, and I have no worries of exhausting the list of good hiking destinations for each weekend. Travel, paradoxically, can make one more observant of one’s home: more apt to notice how something compares, how there are interesting details in every little neighborhood or jog of coastline. Those skills come in handy during a pandemic.

Even when not traveling, vicarious travel can help fill the void, if imperfectly. I buy the theory that planning a trip can be as much fun as taking one, especially with the resources now at the disposal of us hyper-planners who take care to nail down our locations in each campground or our cultural destinations in each city we visit and take a twisted pleasure in filling every second of every day with something. The key, then, is making sure we can adapt when expectations and reality do not align. A novice traveler plans everything and expects it all to happen that way; a real traveler sets plans knowing it will all go wrong but still loves it anyway.

Travel can also be metaphorical. Anyone who has been somewhere I’ve called home knows that, once I run out of other decorations, I just paper walls with maps. Maps are symbols, fictional representations of a complex reality, an attempt to capture a few useful aspects for useful human consumption. I like maps because they are attempts to understand a slice of the world, to transport and inspire some imagination without any of the cost or hassles of actual travel, and at their best are a form of art as well. But they also put up some guardrails. They tell us what is important and what is not. Some have edges and blank spaces that invite us to see what they hold, and even if we can now go into street view to see what things look like there, the sensory experience is still far short of reality. A good map invites more questions than it provides answers.

Digital versions of maps both expand and constrict our understanding of what they capture. We can zoom in and out endlessly, toggle on and off features that interest us much more easily than on the analog kind. But digital maps are also a crutch, a replacement for situational awareness if one chooses to rely on them for directions, and I am not infrequently stunned by the complete inability of people in my generation to know where anything is without first looking it up. Even for a rigid planner, travel is at its best when it allows for sensory awareness, the ability to drink in the entirety of our surroundings and react to them, to become one with them instead of flailing one’s way through them. Virtual reality can’t come close to that.

Travel for leisure is, effectively, a modern invention. Sure, Herodotus and Marco Polo went on epic journeys, but most of their ilk had ulterior motives, not discovery for its own sake. The very notion that there were new lands out there to discover was somewhat foreign for the medieval mind. Yuval Noah Harari calls Amerigo Vespucci, the man who got a few continents named after him, “the first modern man,” as he was the first explorer who had the courage to say he didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t in the East Indies; he’d found something entirely new, and the maps that followed his travels contained blank spaces for the first time. That willingness to admit uncertainty and go out and try to figure it out, so natural to us moderns, was a radical notion that emerged from the Renaissance, and while it is certainly tied up in all of the imperial and colonial adventures that followed, it is hard not to see it as a stunning human achievement.

For us late moderns, it’s become fashionable to doubt the idea of travel and discovery as something transformative: between technology and the relative ease with which one can (in normal times) penetrate every corner of the globe, it’s easy to presume we have no great discoveries left. We’ve reached the logical extent in the frontier theory of American history, and are now consigned to decadence and ennui. Travel has become a source of Instagram photos, a form of conspicuous consumption and privilege, subtle and not so subtle. Why deal with all the hassle?

Roger Cohen thinks we can still find that edge in our travels, though, and I tend to agree, and hope this virus will remind a few more people of the power of getting lost. Some of us are just plagued by wanderlust, hungry for new answers even though we know the new ones will probably just invite yet more questions and set us off down a spiral of discovery that Vespucci and his contemporaries kicked off over 500 years ago. This is a feature, not a bug: the quest is endless, and that hunger for discovery can continue to be a fountain of the creative thought we need to avoid tautological lives. May we soon be free to travel again, even if it means fewer crowded stadiums or bazaars and more idle strolls down cobblestone streets or nights in lonely tents. There is still more to see.

Sweet, Sweet Decadence

1 Apr

A coronavirus outbreak seems an appropriate time to read a book about the fate of the human race, and so I dove right in with the latest from Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lonely religious conservative opinion columnist. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is peak Douthat: a widely roving history of late modernity and its seeming stasis, one that touches on a dozen themes that this blog has also featured over the years because his concerns tend to nibble at me as well, to greater and lesser degrees.

Douthat’s strength as a social commentator is his refusal to accept easy explanations. He makes good cases for how a variety of factors can come together, and he is often among the most original analysts of contemporary American life. Agree or disagree, he can pull out unexpected theories while at the same time resisting the temptation to claim he’s found the answer to everything. He can imagine a variety of different outcomes and explain, succinctly, why each of them might be true. This new book follows in the same tradition as it pulls together all of the possible causes of decadence and explains that decadence may in fact be stable, and then imagines every possible way out of this stable decadence, from environmental catastrophe to the socialist international to a religious revival to aliens, and imagines how they can all work together in feedback loops that reinforce each other. (Well, except maybe for the aliens.)

Jacques Barzun, a French-American historian, supplies Douthat’s definition of decadence:

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Douthat is also careful to acknowledge that this version of decadence gets a lot right. Modern society is rich, stable, and has eliminated a lot of past prejudices. Despite the seeming political unrest of Trump era America, most of the violence is rhetorical; when someone actually did die in Charlottesville, the right-wing marches did not continue to surge but instead mostly retreated back to a world of online cosplay. The appetite for actual confrontation is low.

But, then, it also features stagnant income growth, lurching political institutions, and general ennui. It offers potential ecological ruin, though we will likely muddle through in ways that are problematic for poor people at lower lines of latitude but bearable for affluent Westerners. Aside from the world of tech, which Douthat convincingly skewers for its minimal meaningful progress and lack of profitability outside of communication platforms and Amazon, human technological innovation is flatlining. Even popular culture is stuck in an endless loop of Star Wars and comic book movie reboots, and now we’re trapped in an algorithmic death spiral in which few unique things can break out into the mainstream.

More worryingly, The Decadent Society shows how the cultural arbiters of an aging society lock in to place attitudes of risk reduction and dull, safe choices in place of youthful dynamism. Here, Douthat makes his most interesting critiques of liberal society: we’re not reproducing much, we’re having less sex, and we’re giving up on shaping our own future. Workforce participation has declined, and a large swath of the population is now more interested in self-medicating through drugs and video games, with the most extreme cases lurching toward deaths of despair. Porn has not driven young men to pursue elaborate sexual feats, but desensitized them to feeling. Our dystopia comes to resemble Brave New World, perhaps not as clean in its horrors but amounting to the same end: numbed to old life-giving forces and subjected to the soft totalitarianism of norm enforcement by a privacy-free online world. What fun.

Douthat’s other useful point is that decadence can be a very stable state of affairs, even if certain moralistic narratives would prefer to predict its imminent demise. Rome endured for 400 years between Nero and the Visigoth sack, and Douthat sees no reason the American empire can’t lurch along for a similar period of time, dull and uncreative but still the clear colossus bestride the world. Our world is neither on the march toward a liberal dream nor (pandemic horrors aside) headed toward the demise prophesied conservative prophets of woe. It plods along, its most obvious alternatives fundamentally flawed, and some anti-decadent responses to this era run the risk of being very bloody or unequal or just subject to a lot of unintended consequences. Perhaps we should just carry on, elect Joe Biden, and keep trying to make people’s lives marginally better.

Douthat rambles on a tour of geopolitics in the book but gives some valuable international context to what is unique, or mostly not unique, about the American condition. He necessarily oversimplifies but points at some trends that will no doubt shape the next century, from the effects of mass immigration on Europe to the African population boom to the question of whether China is an authoritarian, and perhaps eugenicist, threat to the world order or an aging, poor society with a rickety economy propped up by a corrupt regime desperately trying to put on a good face. Japan, for Douthat, is the canary in the coal mine, a step ahead in reaching flat economic growth and political gridlock and weird, tech-abetted sexual fantasylands instead of the real thing. (It has also made some progress in reversing some of these trends under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in recent years, though his marginal success shows the limits in how far a decadent society can move even with skilled leadership.) By and large, the world is converging on its decadent destiny, no matter where we come from or what we believe in our politics or our faith.

The Decadent Society became rather, well, decadent as it went along. Part of the trouble comes from the inherent challenge in trying to predict the future, especially in a broad and yet merely 240-page book that pays lip service to all answers rather than making a concerted case for a handful. The diagnosis is convincing, but the tale of what comes next is so sweeping and eager to check every possible box that I don’t feel any more enlightened as to what may come next. Symbolically, I enjoy Douthat’s riff on the closing of the frontier with the end of the Apollo missions, but as one with a weak interest in science fiction, I don’t buy that shift as a source of existential dread for any but a narrow, nerdy subset of society. There is no shortage of earthly frontiers available to us, if we choose to pursue them; the societal upheaval of the 1960s may well have ushered in some decadence, but they were baked into the cake long before the U.S. began to ratchet down its space program.

I’ve been fumbling over the end of this review for a week now, so I might as well lay out my writer’s block for the world to see. One false start explored Douthat’s religious aspirations for a non-catastrophic escape from decadence, a conservative Catholic’s probably-not-wrong view that a concerted movement will take some surge of faith, in some unknown form, to give enough lives added meaning to flip the script. I don’t have good answers here, but the secular world’s general inability to grapple with that need for myth and wonder at the core of the human psyche is one of its great analytical failures. Another ending took the opposite tack and riffed on Joan Didion, who I’ve read extensively in recent weeks. She gets a passing mention in The Decadent Society as an exemplar of how stuck our culture is, as her 1960s prose still seems strikingly contemporary. Maybe Didion and her generation set a high bar for us in their incredible detachment, and there’s no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants as we reach for the stars.

In a way, I think both are right: flawed as a decadent society may be, anything that breaks through its comforts should have to answer all those droll and rationalist critiques, should have to inspire a deeper sense of faith and mission. You want an Apollo-level mission, Ross? Well, there it is, right there in front of you. Go a bit further, take that argument you make for twinning faith and reason and beef it up into something serious. Make us believe.