On Traveling

If I have trouble finding a book that captures my interest, it is usually because it doesn’t make contact with some aspect of my life—where I am, how I feel, a recent experience or whatever it is that I’m searching for. If I am in the mood to read something French or Russian I know exactly where to look. If I am at loose ends, I want a book that echoes and perhaps reflects on that experience.

But after reading Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon last year, I’ve been having trouble finding much pleasure in any particular book. Mercier’s novel is an intellectual tour de force and I am always on the lookout for one of those, regardless of anything else.

However, I was recently and unexpectedly entertained by a very long short story, The Lover, by Damon Galgut in the latest Paris Review. The story is about a young man, whose name we never learn, who is at loose ends in South Africa. The tale depicts his wanderings from one place to another and then several more for the better part of what must have easily been a year. And since I am always wandering from one place to another, whether it be for somewhere to live or an idea to investigate, I found myself enjoying the story even though it seemed excessively repetitious.

In this tale the central character simply decides: “one morning to leave and gets on a bus that same night. He has it in mind to travel around for two weeks and then go back.”

His travels last far more than that. Galgut writes:

What is he looking for? He himself doesn’t know.

His life is unfocused and directionless, he has not made a home for himself.

…he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.

Eventually he meets up with some other people and ambivalently decides to join them on their own unfocused wanderings. At certain times he leaves them. But soon thereafter he races after trying to join them once again.

He is continually uneasy, no matter where he is and who he is with, always uncertain about the idea and the value of traveling. After several months of what was to be a two-week excursion, he eventually returns to his home in South Africa, where he is soon overcome with a deep sense of apathy and once again at drift.

The story ends on what a philosophical note when the hero begins to question himself about the very nature of experience itself. Galgut describes his thoughts this way:

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it is made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there.

…soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Is the purpose of any trip primarily to collect memories? Does a trip even have to have a purpose? The experience itself is so fleeting. It starts and then it is over and what is left other than the memories that in time will fade or are transformed and then totally forgotten. Is it worth it? Of course, there are all those photos, but that isn’t why you went all that distance or incurred all those costs.

As far back as 1670, Pascal wrote in the Pensees: The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

I remember Pascal’s words every time I consider traveling far from home and then, as I begin to imagine how much I’ll enjoy being there, I promptly ignore his wise consul and begin to make my plans. How much more sensible it would have been to have taken his advice more seriously and simply stayed at home to travel there on Goggle Earth.