Monday, April 14, 2008

Travel they say improves the mind, an irritating platitude

News that one of the Lonely Planet's writers has admitted to making up large sections of the travel guides, in one case writing about a country he'd never visited, is generally being seen as a blow to the publisher's credibility.

Not so. Quite apart from the winning simplicity of Thomas Kohnstamm's explanation – "They didn't pay me enough to go to Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern at the Colombian consulate" – and the Lonely Planet's response that it had reviewed his guides and "not found any inaccuracies", the whole thing exposes the fallacy peddled by the modern tourist industry that you can, in some way, grasp the essence of a place by dropping in for a few days, weeks or months and feeding off carefully packaged and processed chunks of its history and culture.

In a just world Kohnstamm would be celebrated as the most astute travel writer of our age for he, at least, has grasped the essential fact that the best journeys all take place in the imagination, where sordid reality cannot spoil the experience. It is a philosophy best expressed in Huysmans's À Rebours. There is a fine section in which Des Esseintes decides to visit England, preparing the way by reading English fiction, eating English food and wearing English clothing until, en route to the Chanel, he finds himself amongst English travellers who help to crystalise all his ideas about the country. Then comes the revelation.

In his sedentary life, only two countries had ever attracted him: Holland and England.

He had satisfied the first of his desires. Unable to keep away, one fine day he had left Paris and visited the towns of the Low Lands, one by one.

In short, nothing but cruel disillusions had resulted from this trip… He had to admit that the Dutch paintings at the Louvre had misled him. They had simply served as a springing board for his dreams. He had rushed forward on a false track and had wandered into capricious visions, unable to discover in the land itself, anything of that real and magical country which he had hoped to behold, seeing nothing at all, on the plots of ground strewn with barrels, of the dances of petticoated and stockinged peasants crying for very joy, stamping their feet out of sheer happiness and laughing loudly.

Decidedly nothing of all this was visible. Holland was a country just like any other country, and what was more, a country in no wise primitive, not at all simple, for the Protestant religion with its formal hypocricies and solemn rigidness held sway here.

Recalling this, Des Esseintes decides to abandon his intention of travelling to London. In a memorable passage he concludes:

In fine, I have experienced and seen all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an excursion!

Just so. And when you consider that travel today is almost guaranteed to show you the worst side of human nature – the cattle-like treatment of air passengers; the yobbish behaviour of British tourists abroad; the German, American and Japanese tourists who will live down to every national stereotype going; the greedy locals who will rob you blind in exchange for serving up a vulgarised, ersatz version of their cultures and cuisines – the wisdom of this approach becomes every more apparent.

To journey with high expectations is to invite disappointment. Few will have travelled with such high expectations as the Italian artist Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo, who decided to hitch-hike to the Middle East dressed as a bride to promote world peace. As the BBC puts it: "She had said she wanted to show that she could put her trust in the kindness of local people."

Unfortunately, and those of you who take a somewhat bleak and cynical view of human nature might not be wholly surprised at this, she was found murdered in Turkey.

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Blogger Glamourpuss said...

In the eighteenth century, travel writing was considered as much fiction as novels - few actually travelled to the places they wrote about and many made up places. We suffer a terrible literalism these days - the audio-visual mediums somehow causing us to believe the world should be exactly as it is represented to us.


11:15 am  
Blogger bill said...

Very true.The great travel writers of the past like Marco Polo didn't worry about literalism. There were even people who wondered about Gulliver's Travels: one critic stated confidently that he didn't believe a word of it was true.

The Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf,the Eddas, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote etc are all piece of travel writing too: far better guides to seeing the world than the Lonely Planet if you ask me.

Best modern book about travel is Platforme by Michel Houellebecq; it has some amusing observations about the type of people who produce the French equivalent of Lonely Planets - liberal, humanitarian, Protestant jerks, as I recall.

12:44 pm  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

You're so erudite, Bill. You dazzle me.


1:41 pm  
OpenID rivergirlie said...

but where did the aforementioned chick get her information? was it from a lonely planet guide?

9:58 pm  
Anonymous Venichka said...

One should get the train to Petushki, having read all about the journey in advance, and prepared one's cocktail cabinet accordingly

10:35 pm  
Blogger bill said...

Venichka, surely one should never get on the train and stay in the station bar. Moskva-Petushki is, after all, Dante with Stalin replacing Virgil and an untrustworthy Beatrice.

Rivergirlie, a fine point. For the purposes of this discussion, I'd like to think she'd just read a couple of Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels.

Puss: I'm eduycated. Innit.

12:36 am  
Blogger Nick said...

Re: Marco Polo. He never actually wrote up his travels. In fact, he ended up relating his travels to some bard or other he met in the clink (having been taken as a POW in some war Venice had with another Italian city-state). Consequently, this bard then went on to sing of the travels of Marco Polo at various Italian and European courts, and as the stories spread, they became embellished and mixed-up with other European (mis)conceptions of Asia. So the Travels of Marco Polo are nigh-on useless as a piece of straight reportage, but do contain useful nuggets of information, and don't detract from the fact that Marco Polo almost certainly went to China, regardless of what Frances Wood says.

In fact, better accounts of Western encounters with the Mongols in the 13th century can be found in the writings of Friar William of Rubruck and John of Plano Carpini, who were acting as Papal emissaries to seek an alliance with the Mongols against the Mamluks, and also to investigate the truth of rumours that the Mongols were Christians (probably Nestorian).

1:36 pm  

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