Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Yesterday, July 1, marked for me three years on the road.
Three years. That’s as long as Jesus spent preaching.
It so happens that I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s strange 1987 masterpiece of travel writing, The Songlines. The book begins and ends with Chatwin’s investigations in Australia into the Aboriginal practice of “the walkabout,” in which one would go walk and sing along paths or “songlines” that totemic ancestors once followed, sometimes for months at a stretch or even years. But halfway in, the book turns ruminative and begins to reflect on the meaning of travel itself and what it says about human nature. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes Pascal’s Pensées, “complete calm is death.”
Chatwin explains what might have prompted him to such reflection: “I had a presentiment that the ‘traveling’ phase of my life might be passing.” Knowing that Chatwin would die of AIDS just a couple of years later in 1989, I can’t help but wonder whether the presentiment he wrote of was not of the end of his traveling days but simply days. But of course that is his point as he continues to ruminate about Pascal: “Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?”
Or as Melville had Ishmael say:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
“All the Great Teachers,” Chatwin writes, “have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world,’” so that “to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.”
Travel, in this view, is life itself.
Odysseus would agree. Though The Odyssey is ostensibly about a man coming home, it is really about a man who could only just barely bring himself to do so. And as Tiresias foretold in the text, the king of Ithaca would not be able to stay in Ithaca, and he would set sail once more so as to die a “seaborne death.”
Or as Tennyson spelled out on Odysseus’s behalf:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Like Chatwin, I also have a presentiment that the traveling phase of my life might be passing. I fret that, with 102 countries under my belt, the number of destinations that truly excite me dwindles like “that untravell’d world whose margin fades.” I fret about each passing day and each gray hair I find on my head. Can I really just keep doing this? What happened to family and house and mortgage and steady job and all those other trappings of a “normal” adult life?
And then I remember what a ridiculous notion it is that we all ought to borrow money from a bank for the sake of a house that we only sort of own and then pay the money back over the next thirty years. Thirty is a lot more than three. “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use.”
Chatwin points out that, biologically, the human body is adapted for long-distance walking. We have arched feet for that, whereas our primate cousins have flat feet. Scientists tell us that our ancestors walked out of Africa. The Bible tells us that Cain was commanded to walk the earth. Australian Aborigines walk the length of their continent singing the songs of their forefathers. In The Odyssey, the gravest breach of social protocol was to fail to treat strangers with courtesy and hospitality — a reflection, no doubt, of the paramount role that traveling played at the dawn of humanity. Jesus was literally born a traveler on the road — as well as a migrant and a refugee.
Speaking of migrants and refugees, while I’ve been gone, the original cause of my peregrinations — problems of immigration to the U.S. — have only grown worse. (I am reminded here that, that other great epic of Western civilization, The Aeneid, is about a group of refugees escaping their war-torn country and seeking a new home.) Indeed, the general state of the world seems to be ever deteriorating. There is an east wind coming, such a wind as never blew on America, and therefore the world, yet. If it seems absurd to me to take out a mortgage now, how absurd it must seem then. And yet everything I do now must seem silly by then.
Travel is life. And we only get to live the life fated to us, in the epoch of history allotted to us. If fate should send us fugitive to some distant shore, then that’s our life. If history should bring us struggle and strife, then that also is our life. There is an east wind coming, and I won’t be the only fallen leaf dancing in its wake.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."