The Traveler's Journey: From Departure to Arrival

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Chapter 3 (v.1) - Travel Writing, Arizona 2005

Submitted: May 21, 2007

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Submitted: May 21, 2007



Travel Writing, Arizona 2005

Start with the sky. Everything starts with the sky here.

In the moments before a storm strikes, the clouds gather in the distance and the sky, clear blue in every direction, begins to darken in the west. The falling rain looks like a gray mist rising from the desert and flashes of lightning are followed by thunderclaps echoing weakly among the burnt rocks. The wind blows more fiercely and a pair of electric lines swinging from pole to pole begins to sway, a view reminiscent of a painting by Hopper. The sound of the rain comes first, then the feel of wet drops down your neck. The hot sand turns dark and damp, and for a few minutes the floodgates of Heaven open. Then, as quickly as it comes, the storm goes. The few markers of its passing evaporate, the sand turns bright red again, and the wind settles. Only the double rainbows arcing over the plateaus remain, and even those will disappear in time. Yet a feeling lingers on. One might call such a feeling sublimity. Thomas Gray, while on a walking tour of the Alps in 1739, described it as such: "Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry" (qtd. in Botton 163).

To write about the Arizona sky was to "tell the story of my expeditions" (Levi-Strauss qtd. in MacCannell 9). Such an activity seems straightforward, but the task of a travel writer is fraught with uncertainties. Simply put, travel writing is the product of two activities: the journey to a foreign location and the writing of the events experienced. Yet each act contains its own inherent ambiguities. The traveler, arriving after a long flight, staring at people and objects he does not recognize, must contend with the question: "What am I doing here?" The writer, sitting at home after a long journey, staring at a blank page, must contend with the question: "How do I articulate my experiences?" Hence travel writing is the product of a double anxiety. The first concerns the tensions of traveling to a foreign place. The second concerns issues of representation. Writing about what one understands is difficult enough a task, but writing about that which one does not understand and has only learned about recently, is a different task altogether. The feat is one of translation: representing a foreign culture is to represent an unfamiliar symbolic system in familiar terms. Style influences not only rhetoric but meaning as well. Therefore, in order to write about travel, the travel writer chooses both how to interpret his experience as well as how to represent his interpretation.

To make the distinction between the traveler's interpretation of his experience and his representation of his interpretation, one might call the former the subjectivity of the travel writer and the latter the semiotics of his writing. Such a distinction would be theoretically convenient, but in reality the two acts are often simultaneous. A choice of an interpretation informs the method of representation. The method of representation implies the choice of an interpretation. The subjectivity of the travel writer and the semiotics of his writing are two sides of the same coin. They come from the singular sensibility of the writer.

That singular sensibility is perhaps what defines travel in relation to other genres of writing, such as the novel. In a novel, there exists an implicit separation between author and protagonist. Whether written in the third person or the first person, the protagonist or narrator is rarely the same person as the author and rarely exhibits the same persona. Yet in travel writing the author and the traveler are one and the same: "the writer, the collector of material, the gatherer of the eye" (Naipaul qtd. in Gussow).

To write about the Arizona sky was to write about my travels. Familiar with an austere Northeastern sky often obstructed by skyscrapers and evergreens, I found the vast plateaus of Arizona a strange sight. The fact I could see storms gather and approach was startling, as in the city the tendency was to ignore how a storm arrived, and be aware only that it had, in fact, arrived. Therefore to describe the Arizona sky was to represent impressions that were foreign to me. To create such representations it was necessary to employ certain rhetorical devices. To write about the vastness of the Arizona sky it was necessary to refer to Longinus and his idea of the sublime. To write about the solitude, a painting by Hopper. The force of the storm, a metaphor from Genesis. The passage as a whole was anchored in narrative - a simple story of a storm approaching and passing - and concluded by a quote from an 18th century English poet. In the end, the description began with what was known.

Such rhetorical devices suggest a particular semiotics in the writing. The paragraph was one way to represent the foreign, one particular style of travel writing. To represent the foreign this way was to bring the foreign into a rhetorical mode. For one who may not have been to Arizona, with the help of a Western European education, one might begin to grasp the characteristics of such a place. One might begin to see what makes the Arizona sky sublime. With such a representation, or semiotic, one can immediately see the subjectivity. The writing is for people well versed in Western European thought who might make a similar journey later on. I was writing for the potential tourist.

Yet the act of writing was also an act of appropriation. In writing about the experience, I helped define what constituted that experience. To see sublimity in the passing of a storm in Arizona then was to see what I saw: the approach of the storm, rain falling like gray mist, the brief but potent precipitation, and the subsequent double arcing rainbows. I was delineating the distinctions that the potential tourist could focus on in observing what makes the passing of a storm in Arizona sublime. Those distinctions, MacCannell would suggest, define a particular cultural model. Contrary to popular belief, culture, according to MacCannell, is not one of consensus. "Social structure is differentiation...There has never been a cultural totality" (25). To know these differentiations then would be to be able to better define sublimity with respect to the Arizona sky. In a sense, I was defining knowledge. In defining this knowledge, I added to a particular tradition of knowledge: the tourists who would come after me would have a slightly revised point of departure.

Defining distinctions was simultaneously creating consensus, as MacCannell implies. My writing thus revealed my notion of travel as a social experience binding together a group of people. MacCannell would call such a notion of travel tourism. The salient characteristic of tourism is the bond between tourists. Tourism, as MacCannell defines it, acts in modern society as a process of social unification. Defining knowledge about a particular place leads to the opportunity for agreement or disagreement with such knowledge. In either case, the discourse about that place is set: a consensus is formed on the relevant distinctions. Writing, like the paragraph about the Arizona sky, that possesses such a semiotic might be conveniently called touristic in nature.

Yet if tourism is characterized by the bond between tourists, then tourism has little to do with the usual professed motivation: to understand a particular destination. Tourism has more to do with interpreting first impressions and translating them into familiar terms. The perspective of the tourist is the perspective of one at the point of departure in the journey to understand a particular destination. Though surrounded by the foreign, the tourist is anchored in the social institution of tourism and thus in the realm, and rhetoric, of the familiar.

Social is the significant word. Tourists are anchored because their experiences as described above are inherently social. That is what irritated me about my reactions to the beggars in India. I had stated a personal motivation and had discovered social constraints. I used the term tourist with condescension, but I had acted like one. I had in my mind an ideal: the traveler. A distinction between traveler and tourist can be made along lines of opposition. Tourists travel with a subjectivity shared by other tourists: one can speak of tourism industry and perhaps even a culture of tourism. To speak of a travel industry is more difficult, and the term when used is synonymous with tourism. Travelers are defined by a personal subjectivity implied by personal motivations to travel. Such a distinction between travel and tourism, theoretically convenient, in reality often overlaps: a traveler may act as a tourist one moment and a tourist might have a revelation that is completely personal.

To be a traveler then would be to move away from the point of departure in the realm of the familiar. Tourists are restrained by social constraints, and the traveler, theoretically speaking, would not have those constraints. The rhetoric would no longer need to be one of familiarity, targeted towards a specific audience. The traveler, as a writer, could begin to create a rhetorical mode to describe his or her destination. The writing would move away from an authoritarian and journalistic voice towards something novel and closer to fiction. The subjectivity, and subsequently the semiotics of the writing, would be distinct. The interpretation would no longer revolve around stereotypes but could involve original ideas and analysis. The process would not be formulaic but require insight about the destination. If tourists are restrained to the point of departure, travelers then would be able to take a step in the journey to understand a place.

Travel, however, presents its own problems, which lie within the personal nature of travel. Personal subjectivity leads to fantasy without feedback from reality. A traveler who makes a one month journey to India, as I did, is not forced to accept certain realities of a place. Begging in India is not solely aimed at tourists. Local people give money to beggars, but they understand how to deal with the reality of the situation: how much to give and how to say no. Beggary is part of local society. For me, as a traveler, beggary was not a social reality but a part of a fantasy of myself as a charitable, compassionate person. Only I would be foolish enough to give away all my money and feel better about myself. Such a course of action could not last if I did not carry the implicit ability to return to another place, if I had to wake up the next morning and face the same beggars again.

The people who faced the realities of the situation were local people, not travelers, because they were forced to face and accept those realities. They were forced to accept those realities because they were not travelers: they could not travel to India, India was their home. The acceptance of the realities of a place in some sense marks the end of travel. Simultaneously, the acceptance of those realities meant a greater understanding of the reality of the place. Local people understood how to acknowledge begging as a part of social life in India. If authentic experience is defined, as MacCannell does, by its ability to support a moral sensibility, then with understanding comes authentic experience. The journey of understanding a place comes to a close with the arrival of the traveler at his destination, where arrival is defined by the lack of intent to leave.

The journey of understanding a foreign place is far more complicated than the brief and simplified version given above. Because the way travel writers deal with the inherent tensions of travel are revealed in how they represent their travel experiences, by studying the writing of travelers, one can begin to make distinctions between different perspectives on travel and how different people tackle the experience of being in a foreign place. Gathered here are the writings of three different authors: Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, and V.S. Naipaul. Though the writing of each and each subjectivity is different from the others, together they echo the experience of a person traveling. The arc from Iyer to Chatwin to Naipaul reflects the journey towards understanding a place: from initial impressions, to the attempt to translate foreign experience into familiar terms, to the projection of one's fantasy onto the foreign place, and eventually to a deeper understanding, one hopes, upon arrival.

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