Why We Travel

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my winter reading in Duluth often involves adventure stories set in places that are not currently buried in snow. As this winter has been a particularly harsh one, my impulse for vicarious travel has only grown stronger. And so the three works of non-fiction I’ve read over the past month (plus a work of fiction, though I’ll leave that out for now) take place nowhere near an iced-over Lake Superior.

The first book was The Lost City of Z by David Grann, and it’s the sort of book that made me think I was born a hundred years too late. It’s the story of a British explorer who fulfills many of my childhood fantasies in his explorations of the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. It was an era of glamour in mapping and exploration, with genteel Brits trotting about the globe to its empty spaces and painstakingly mapping them, risking life and limb to do ethnographies on previously uncontacted tribes. Nowadays, geographers sit fly over things in planes or around in front of computers, and we’re rather lacking in untouched earthly frontiers. Even as we read the words, it’s hard to process the fact that it isn’t one great big romantic adventure: the hero of the book, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, became consumed by his search for the mythical city of Z, and vanished without a trace into the jungle. We all want to be adventurers, but we also want to be the ones who came back, and it would be nice if we got a book deal out of it, too.

Next, I read a book by the closest thing to a modern-day Fawcett out there: Shadow of the Silk Road, a mid-00s travelogue by Colin Thubron, a Brit who set out to trace the old trade route from China west to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the best travel book I’ve ever read, beautifully crafted and overflowing with sharp insights about the people the author meets on his adventures through Central Asia. Like his predecessors, Thubron aims to see the world as it is, but for entirely different reasons: he has no aspersions of fame and riches, nor does he see himself as the vanguard of the civilized world, venturing into the backlands to establish contact and pave the way for future discovery (or perhaps colonization). While there are a few moments of self-examination, with Thubron speaking to an imagined Sythian trader trying to understand why he has undertaken his journey, his story takes a back seat to his exquisite observation skills.

And so his readers are given windows into the souls of the nations he visits. Central China, modernized in stunning fashion over the previous two decades, with questions emerging as to what comes next. The ethnic Uighur Chinese province of Xinjiang, its people clinging to a fading identity as waves of Han Chinese migrants pour in, with only a few outposts of culture left. The former Soviet Stans, populated by people without a history, their ethnicity invented by the Soviets and new national myths manufactured to hold it all together, uniting all on the surface but failing to pull at the nomadic core beneath. Afghanistan, crippled by war, thus rendered even more fractured and tribal. The Iranians, so fearful of Western smut yet disdainful of their authoritarian regime, the myths of the mullahs long dead. The Kurds, brashly proclaiming their identity at one moment, but beaten into submission when among their Turkish overlords. In the end, Thubron finally comes to the Mediterranean coast near Antioch, alone, and his return to the West is no homecoming: instead, the dark clouds remind him only of his restlessness, his reality as a wandering soul unable to find home in any single place. He can dabble in any place, visit old friends in China or Uzbekistan, share in a delightful night of vodka and yogurt in Kyrgyzstan, but he is still some other, forever the solitary soul on his lonely path.

The lonely path is a theme in my last book as well, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s infectious humor dominates every page, and as an out-of-shape recent returnee to the United States, he’s among the least likely hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Yet he endures long marches up and down mountains through brutal weather, mocking his fellow hikers and Americans in general with his delicious snark. He celebrates the environment preserved along the route, yet maintains a certain distance from the solitude of the Trail, and he captures the contradictory relationship so many wilderness adventurers have with their surroundings. I can relate completely. I go hiking or canoeing just about every summer, and the actual experience usually involves a lot of grumbling about why we’re abandoning our comfy beds to exert ourselves and do all these chores in the woods. I’ll admit it, I’m hardly an outdoorsman; my trips are rarely more than a long weekend, and I possess an unfortunate talent for staying awake all night for no good reason when sequestered in a tent. But yet, somehow, the trips are always a delight in retrospect, and memories of blissful afternoons in a hammock or staring at the stars through a tent screen always overpower those of the sleepless nights.

That’s how travel works. Every now and then, we have moments where we become truly aware of our surroundings—moments when we realize that This Is Water—but for the most part, our perceptions of things are either formed in anticipation or in memory, not in the moment. I’ve read that the process of planning a trip is often more pleasurable than the trip itself; it’s the idea of what is going to happen that captures our minds. After the trip is over, our memories pull out the most distinct moments and give them extra meaning. That’s what makes travel so powerful, for good or ill: it is so obviously a break from the monotony of daily life that it can’t help but be significant, especially for those of us whose minds are often racing into the future or lingering on the past.

There’s an underlying theme in all of these books: a sense of loss, a fear that these places are slowly being stripped of their novelty. Fawcett-esque adventurers would be laughable nowadays, and much of the Amazon he once explored is now open farmland. Thubron watches any number of people try to square their past with the march of modernity and development, whether in Chinese or Western form; most everyone thinks something is being lost, but the material gains are so great and often so necessary that no one is going to stop the process. Despite his love-hate relationship with the wilderness, Bryson fears its destruction at every turn, and is careful to educate his readers about environmental policy decisions on and around the Appalachian Trail. On the most basic level, they all fear the same thing: sameness. They worry that the world will lose some of those contours that interrupt an often numbing plain, a repetition of events that one cannot rise above—or sink below—in order to gain perspective.

That perspective is essential, and it’s why I’ll continue to go on journeys, either on my own or through the words of other people. Some journeys must be undertaken alone, and no two travel companions will come away from an adventure with the exact same conclusions. As the old cliché goes, life is a journey, and there is freedom and power to be found in taking up the mantel of the adventurer: one sets one’s own pace, keeps a record of the sights, and charts a course through the unknown.

It isn’t that easy, though. The best example of that might come from one of the most famous adventurers of all time, Don Quixote. The popular image of Don Quixote celebrates him as a knight errant, boldly going off and chasing the impossible dream. It’s admirable, to an extent. But at the end of the book, the protagonist comes home from his journey, and concedes that he never was the hero he claimed to be. We can only invent so much, and if travel becomes routine, then it too becomes a lie, a false reality from which we cannot see the contours. Life is not a progression from point A to point B; it is a cycle, in and out, forward and back, requiring both spontaneity in the moment and the cold remove of distance. This is why travel stories make such good books: they allow for plenty of both. But it can’t all be vicarious. We need to go live it too, if only for a little while. That little spark makes all the difference.

The Water Freezes Over

A week after my last post about David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, I fished a little book out of a pile of library donations, and started reading it while busing down to Minneapolis for the weekend. The book is called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and it has a cheery-looking whale gamboling across the cover. (A Moby Dick allusion, as I soon learned.) I figured I was in for a pleasant little read about the timeless wisdom of classics that would leave me nodding in agreement but without any lasting insights. To my pleasant surprise, once the authors (a pair of philosophy professors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) dispense with the necessary background information, they head into a chapter entitled “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” in which the Kenyon College address figures prominently.

The authors then proceed to rip DFW’s argument to shreds.

Dreyfus and Kelly use a character in DFW’s The Pale King, Mitchell Drinion, to make their point. Drinion is DFW’s absurd hero: he has the most mind-numbing job imaginable, and he is not only at peace with it, but he is happy. Their critiques are threefold. First, it sets an incredibly high bar for happiness. It says humans need a very intense sense of awareness to be happy, but by adopting that awareness, people naturally become aware of how often they themselves fall short of the ideal. Second, the authors question the value of Drinion’s happiness. If he lives his entire life in a contented haze, can he even know that he is happy, with nothing to compare it to? Is the ideal state really one with no apparent variation in human emotion. Finally, DFW’s “ecstatic bliss” comes about through the careful harnessing of the human will, which is a rather dangerous place to expect to find it. Unless we’re talking to Nietzsche, the odds of success are near zero. The implied conclusion of the chapter is, ‘no wonder DFW killed himself!’

I’m not sure this is entirely fair to DFW. As with most all pop philosophy works (perhaps all philosophy?), the book needs a target; something for the authors to pit their argument against. While useful and often mostly true, this technique can lead the authors to over-simplify the views of their target, and set them up as something of a straw man. The Drinion character is an extreme example, probably deliberately set up to be ridiculous, and we need not accept all of DFW’s nihilistic premises, or go as far as Drinion does on the road to ecstatic bliss, to find something useful in his writing. My takeaway for “This Is Water” can stop at agreement with his views on worship and acknowledge an occasional need for greater awareness for my surroundings and leave it at that. It can still be a profound piece, even if I disagree with DFW’s over-emphasis on the will as opposed to other parts of the human psyche (soul?) and think we need to go through cycles of emotion to truly understand things.

At this point, a disclaimer is probably necessary: I’ve only ever read a few of DFW’s short stories. To be completely honest, I find his prose rather pedantic and filled with a lot of post-modern navel-gazing. It is possible that I am being very unfair to him in my judgments, and for a variety of reasons. He is brilliant, obviously, and if I were to take the effort to read Infinite Jest or The Pale King, I’m sure I’d wrestle with it and get something out of it.

At any rate, Dreyfus and Kelly’s book was a welcome addition to my thoughts on any number of themes, and did a very good job of putting words to the thoughts I’d often had when studying various strains of existential philosophy: “this is all very lovely,  but something about this view of humanity just isn’t quite complete.” I can know throw their views into the cycle and see how they hold up under further scrutiny.

If the rest of the book proves as compelling as this chapter, I’ll have more on it, though I also promise I will have some less esoteric content on the way soon, too.

This Is Water

The Georgetown University Class of 2013 is currently being rained upon on Healy Lawn, listening to a series of commencement speakers who are about to release them into the world after college. This means I’m one year removed from my own graduation, so it seems like a fitting time to reflect on the greatest commencement speech I’ve ever read: David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon College. I’m hardly alone in lauding this one—this partial video of it went viral recently—but I’m not terribly snobbish about this sort of thing, and I suppose it isn’t surprising that people who actually care about commencement addresses often value the same thing.

Here’s a transcript of the full text:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

I first read this a few years ago, but had forgotten it somewhat until last month. Ever since, I cannot count the number of times I’ve repeated that mantra. This is water. This is water. It really isn’t possible to be forever aware of the water around us—and there is such a thing as too much awareness—but Wallace (hereafter ‘DFW’) is dead-on when he notes that blind consideration of our own interests is our default setting.

In my reading, the climax of the piece is here:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

DFW goes on to say that worshipping the divine probably makes the most sense, given the fallibility of everything else. Since I don’t have a particularly rosy view of human nature, I’d certainly agree; the problem here—as most any devout believer will probably tell you—is that logical arguments for faith aren’t especially convincing. Sure, they might sound lovely, but to true belief requires some sort of leap into surrender before a deity or some other supernatural realm. This is a leap many people are quite unwilling to take, including many people who consider themselves religious: acknowledging a God is one thing, but submitting to the teachings of faith as a serious code for life is an entirely different matter. It is also one of my own biggest stumbling blocks: a few fairly minor things aside, I haven’t really chosen to worship anything yet. I take pride in my skepticism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of its downsides. Freedom always has a price.

And DFW is dead-on in his definition of freedom. The freedom we so desperately seek does not come from liberties enshrined in some constitution, though the two can be related. Freedom comes from awareness; from having the wherewithal to embrace our surroundings as they are and find our niche within them. This does not mean blind compliance; instead, I think it means something akin to the old Reinhold Niebuhr prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and its various offshoots—‘God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ That wisdom is freedom. (Though I do have something of a beef with the second clause; surely not everything that we have the power to change should be changed!) It’s all a bit vague, but freedom’s power may be in its vagueness; it isn’t something we pin down, but something we feel.

Looming over this address, of course, is the knowledge that this incredibly insightful man took his own life just three years later. DFW had his mental issues, certainly, but it makes one wonder when he forgot what water was, or if the depth of his mind somehow overwhelmed him. The task is, as he says, “unimaginably hard.” But with the right grounding, with the right object of worship, it is all worth it.

So congratulations, Georgetown Class of 2013, and all of the other graduates who are on their way off to some other stage of their lives. Finding myself largely in the same place I was at this point a year ago, it’s time for me to head out into the world again, too.

But, of course, I cannot forget.

This is water. This is water.