I am satisfied with the butterfly in the field; I have no need to see it dead and pinned in a box.
But memory’s sudden release of the genie held captive inside matter, like a spirit bottled by an evil witch, is much more often for me both generator and principle of a happy feverish fugue than the quietism of a Proustian illumination. Resparked, the precious images kept so long in darkness – all of them – ignite and set each other ablaze; a flaming line zig-zags across a dozing world and sows it with light as it travels the secret fissures – an experience, a reading, a decisive encounter that prompts another – that have, year after year, marked it with my initials. The virtue of genuine contact with something that had at one time captivated me is that it awakens, reanimates, and binds with streaks of lightning everything I have ever loved.
– Julien Graqc, The Narrow Waters, p. 33f.
all the baggage
So I was reading Paul Fussell’s book about travel, Abroad. Of course it’s not just about travel, though he does spend some thirty-odd (or more or less, I’ve returned it to the library and cannot refer to it now) pages lamenting the impossibility of true travel1 in this degraded age of tourism, it’s about literary responses to travel and literary traveling between the two World Wars.2 This much one might have gathered from the subtitle. To Fussell this means observing that D.H. Lawrence glimpsed the infinite no matter where he was, Evelyn Waugh probably best traveled solo, and that Robert Byron was very clever and died too young. All this I dare not dispute, nor wish to. It also means mentioning Rebecca West only three times (in passing)3 and rather snottily saying, some two-thirds of the way through, that he would not be discussing Freya Stark because she was insufficiently literary.4
However, I do not want to discuss the false nostalgia for a lost age of the British (imperialist) ‘traveler’, which has all the authenticity and moral clarity of a bus-tour ’round the famed sites of a defunct civilization; well, I do, but I cannot think of a way to do it in which I do not circumnavigate (and circumvent) my own arguments by thinking that after all it is Fussell’s book and that is how he wrote and it’s not his fault if I wanted to read a different one. What I want to get at, though, is that I am glad that The Road to Oxiana is readily available because of it.5
I wish I were rich enough to endow a prize for the sensible traveller: £10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another £10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey. He might not be naturally observant. But at least he would use what eyes he had, and would not think it necessary to dress up the result in thrills that never happened and science no deeper than its own jargon.
What I mean is, that if I had some detective stories instead of Thucydides and some bottles of claret instead of tepid whisky, I should probably settle here for good.
– Robert Byron,
The Road to Oxiana, p. 238f.
- Only possible if you are British and can get by in French but are otherwise linguistically challenged; folks who talk the local lingo are explorers, of course. [↩]
- Somehow that phrase already seems dated and obsure [↩]
- I suppose this can be excused since Black Lamb and Grey Falcon wasn’t published until 1941 and so hardly counts as ‘between the wars’, but since it is such a large book and seems so obviously to do with what he’s writing about, it seems a shame to ignore it and natter on about how elderly men who like little boys and how it’s hard to tell the fiction and travel-writing of D.H. Lawrence apart. [↩]
- That remark is on p. 197, and I know that because it irritated me enough to write down the reference. [↩]
- Of Fussell’s book, I mean. [↩]
There is the fear of exposure (as if one would be exposed as, really, nothing), or the general theme of exposing (the debutante ritual, or the pretense of initiating someone into ‘something’ that isn’t really ‘there’). There is the anxiety of being out of place (an ‘American in Europe’) especially and so the constant wariness about shame, the experience of shame, and then the cycle of revenge and ressentiment so occasioned. There are the bizarre attachments and dependencies, the doubles and twins, the Masters and Slaves, dead authors and living researchers, and other such pathologies of social dependence. There is the constant reality or presence of the unspoken, unsaid because unsayable but nevertheless real (as in Isabel’s final knowledge, or Strether’s), the fascination with secrets and obsessions about hidden, crucial meanings not yet found, the ghosts and the question of their reality, and so on. All these are reflections of this situation, of modernity as the collapse of reliable forms of sense-making, and the beginning of a kind of sociality that reflects precisely this uncertainty and often desperation and paranoia.
– Robert Pippin,
Henry James and Modern Moral Life, p. 58.
hold my coat and snicker
I remember being told by a teacher not to read Jane Eyre, because I would be reading it in her class in the fall. Of course I read it that summer. Propped in bed, or curled in a corner, but finally finishing peripatetic. That’s how I remember it, anyway. I walked the three miles from Vineyard Haven to Oak Bluffs in the summer swelter. I walked slowly and slowly read, turning the thin foxed pages in their sweating dark green cloth, gravel underfoot. I walked and read and didn’t stop except for water and a bookstore. I walked until the road ended in a beach and then I sat on a stone and finished the last few pages. I remember looking at the sunburnt people ruddy against the white sand, the gray concrete, the gray ocean, the gray sky and feeling empty and complete and tired. I sat for some time. I remember looking at my watch. Then I stood and walked back to the ferry, scuffing my feet in the gravel and sand and thinking.
Our ancestors wrote prose in long, beautiful sentences, convoluted like curls; although we still learn to do it that way in school, we write in short sentences that cut more quickly to the heart of the matter; and no one in the world can free his thinking from the manner in which his time wears the cloak of language. Thus no man can know to what extent he actually means what he writes and in writing, it is far less that people twist words than it is that words twist people.
– Robert Musil, ‘The Paintspreader’,
in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, p. 67