Art Pitted Against Travel
Mode and Means of Travel Writing 101
By Barnard Turner
The Art of Travel
The title, in a way, says it all: “art” — something static, framed — pitted against “travel,” movement, sometimes arduous, exacting, belaboured. And yet the title says nothing, as this is not a book about artists — even though painters as varied as Van Gogh, Hopper and Bierstadt illustrate its pages (as well as art critics like John Ruskin and Edmund Burke) — nor is it about the bold voyage into the unknown. Indeed, part of the instruction of this book is in training the eye to detail, to one’s own environment, and to the little, inner differences which one sees between places rather than the externalities of climate, culture and language. Even with occasional long-haul flights from its centre, London (and yet the only ‘wild place’ is the Sinai Desert and this is apparently on a tour), this is not a guidebook to the exotic or to the distant. What is characteristic are trips to other European destinations: Madrid, Provence, the Lake District, and even as prosaic and bourgeois a place as Amsterdam (but not, surprisingly enough for a book with a chapter on Ruskin, Venice). In the Madrid section, de Botton speculates about the value of guidebooks, and one wonders whether for his readers in England at least (and these days for many Singaporeans also) such guides are indeed necessary to these destinations, beyond their functions of orientation and basic practical information; so this book is a welcome, more reflective change, and more valuable in the long run (or long haul, if you prefer).
De Botton then visits places where the disparity between the given and the new is close enough for differences to strike with productive force, where one knows the codes — sort of — but not exactly enough to be immune from minor apocalypses of defamiliarization; such is the real territory of the uncanny, of course, be this in Freud’s sense or in that of the rhetoric of the sublime. He reflects on a sign at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, highlighting its colour (the typical Dutch yellow used for their trains, etc.) and font, and talks well about John Ruskin’s desire to train people to draw in order to observe more clearly, lucidly, exact[ing]ly. De Botton’s viable contention here is that if travel broadens the mind, it does so by deepening our qualities of attention, so that the local and the known can be better compared with the foreign and unknown.
The end of travel, then, is literally and metaphorically to resuscitate an awareness of our familiar environment by contrasting it to the visited, an act of defamiliarisation perhaps. Such a process de Botton maps here as he starts with a journey from Hammersmith, London, to Barbados, and returns to the London borough at the end. Tellingly, the book begins and ends with references to the author’s bedroom — not for nothing has de Botton written about Proust! In the final section, however, the more precise reference is to Xavier de Maistre’s late-18th-century journey around his bedroom, and this allows for reflections upon the nature of human restlessness, the point of travel, and the desire for the voyage out, however humble this might be. In the de Maistre section, with its implicit parody of the accounts of the second age of discovery, a chance is perhaps lost for de Botton to lighten his tone a little, as the guise of a well-meaning but rather diffident and sombre companion (a chaperone even) pervades the book. There are touches of humour, but a companion volume like Alexei Sayle’s Great Bus Journeys of the World, or Malcolm Bradbury’s Why Come to Slaka? might lighten the reader’s mood and provide a greater counterbalance than would more obvious companion texts by Pico Iyer and Bruce Chatwin.
It is in fact, difficult to say what, generically, is being attempted here, beyond an account of what the author thought on his holidays (but even this is relatively interesting, and a welcome change from the superflux and instant obsolescence of many more traditional guidebooks). Episodic in its structure, and intermingling personal experience with some (often quite commonplace) remarks about major writers, this would be a good book to take on a long plane ride, where one doesn’t mind being distracted and wants a variety of such distractions. Indeed, while reading it I was often reminded of people next to whom I have sat on planes, whose conversation (and no doubt, conversely, to them my own) was a pleasant distraction for a while but who rarely produced a lasting impression. While the book interests in its several parts, and its learning is sufficient for its task (but dare I say not much more), I would have liked more in each section, as at moments when the argument starts to get interesting, de Botton moves on to something else. He has distilled his information from a wide variety of sources, but sometimes I feel this leads to adulterating it to make it apply to his notion of the common or the general.
Perhaps such a narrative strategy is consistent with the implication throughout, that “we” (a kind of populism which sits rather uneasily) travel for pleasure (something many readers of this review might find erroneous), and that we are born hedonists, never satisfied with what we have (and there is a telling sentence from Pascal to this effect). “We” live our lives in a vain pursuit of happiness, and, to paraphrase Mme Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, instead of going to the theatre of the travel agency to find this, should have a good hard look at ourselves. Or rather, we should look inside ourselves while we are ostensibly traveling out from what we too superficially call our centre. In this, de Botton stands in the tradition of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and certain of Philip Larkin’s poems (“Home” comes to mind) as he charts — to quote the former — how, in travel, “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” We are too quick to place ourselves back in our familiar context after the journey, to narrate to friends and family what we have seen (and confirm that we did indeed have the experience they had expected we would have) that we overlook or bypass the potential of the event. Even before and on our journeys, and then of course after our return, we bracket out the detail, be this the effects of light on a tree limb or the line at a booking office, and we are too quick to see pictorial representations of a place as the place itself — one extreme example is that of the tourists who were disappointed that present-day Provence did not sufficiently resemble the “Provence” depicted by Van Gogh. One increasing sub-branch of tourism is apparently for art lovers to travel through certain parts of Europe and compare sights depicted by grand masters with the contemporary: Delft or Dresden (before the recent floods) perhaps; this would be a combination of art and travel which de Botton does not describe but which I assume he would approve.
And yet sometimes I wonder about the value of that which de Botton permits us to see (experience) of his material. There are some rather speculative, affective comments about some Edward Hopper paintings, the concoction of a little narrative around one, and generous helpings of the pathetic fallacy in descriptions of place and weather; greater reflection here on resultant issues of ekphrasis and anthropocentrism would be welcome. While one can only endorse his approval of John Ruskin’s attempts to make sketchers and thus better observers of us all, I wonder about his easy dismissal of technical reproduction through the camera lens in this pursuit, to frame a place we have not yet truly seen. While it is a sad occurrence of much contemporary tourism that, to quote German dramatist Heiner Müller, much is photographed but little is seen, and that this is a trend almost as bogus as sending friends postcards of places we never even visited, one might add to his discussion of guidebooks in the Madrid section, in the light of his subsequent remarks about photography, that the visual in general (artworks, reproductions in brochures) and the camera in particular have become our protection against the absolute novelty of the never-before-experienced, in that we use them to frame and thus delimit the capacity of the unfamiliar to unsettle us. Even if he is therefore perhaps rightly critical of the facility of snapshots, it is from innovative extended (book-length) photo-essays, like Secrets from the Center of the World, by photographer Stephen Strom and poet Joy Harjo (Tucson 1989) or director Wim Wenders’ critically acclaimed Once (original Italian edition 1993), that the intersections of site, sight (framing) and narrative can be projected and realized. De Botton does refer to one of Wenders’ movies, saying that he had once gone to Germany to get into its setting. Here, Kierkegaard’s ideas about certification of a place through fiction (admirably projected in Walker Percy’s seminal 1961 novel The Moviegoer) could be summoned to interrogate the issues more profoundly. While it seems pointless to criticize the book for its clear Eurocentricism (we all start from somewhere, and the issue is to be clear about where this is), this is in some ways a curious book to read in Singapore, since a trip to wintry London can inspire that sentiment of the exotic which he finds ascribes to Barbados; the need for such clarity remains valid, however, even with the poles of the equation reversed. Yet another distinction, that between the ordinary and the liminal, which underpins the volume and which is particularly apparent in his discussion of Hopper’s paintings, surely needs to be redefined if one accepts that such liminality and transience — Marc Augé’s “Non-places” — are hallmarks of the contemporary, and thus the norm. In all, I felt as if this were a survey course on the mode and means of travel writing, rather than — as de Botton’s ascription of the “traveling mindset” to a heightened “receptivity” might suggest — an exercise in the application of its avowed principles.
We cannot stay still — as Pascal pointed out (quoted by de Botton in his conclusion). Yet, as the narrator finds early on, Milton is right in suggesting that neither can we fly from ourselves — our heaven or our hell — by change of place. So why travel? It is a good question, but one which here needs to be supplemented by the further inquiry: why write of our travels? What we have experienced — so the implication from de Botton — is in the details, and these do not let themselves be recaptured easily for others, or even for ourselves (again, Proust comes to mind). The strength of this book then is in its contradictory vectors: the joy of “leaving for leaving’s sake” (a paraphrase of one of Baudelaire’s last poems to which de Botton refers) pitted against the understanding that such a voyage is undertaken — to close with a paraphrase from T. S. Eliot, himself much influenced by the former — in order to return and, in a sense, see our native place for the first time. It is a valuable lesson, and one which as this book presents it withstands the passage of miles.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002