Europe's relationship to America as a travel destination
Although Paul Bowles is noted as a traveler of all places, I found his comments concerning Euro-American travel most pertinent to a class like this, although his descriptions of other places, like the Sahara, are still beautiful expositions of his life and travel aesthetic.
Bowles comments that Europe has a particular pull for Americans that other places do not. It has, as he calls it, a "tribal past" for Americans that other places simply cannot have. I'm a bit ambivalent towards this claim, but it's a nice foil to the ordinary contention (especially among Europeans) that American tourists are particularly noisy, "uncultured," or generally disrespectful.
His remark makes me think about general travel trends. Americans tend to go touring to Europe. The average American tourist dreams of going to Paris or Madrid, not Zambia or Mongolia or Nauru, and it really seems like you have to go out of your way mentally to go to most non-Western places (although I've found that, practicalities considered, it is not always that much harder to go elsewhere). I'm sure a big part of Americans only touring the western world boils down to comfort, reliability and so forth. But I've always wondered: if Europe was as "underdeveloped" as Zambia or even, say, Egypt, to what extent would Americans still be driven to go to Europe? Put another way: How much does being part of the same cultural tradition play into the choice to travel, as opposed to notions of ease?
I ponder such things because the attitudes of Americans, in my experience, tend to be both accepting and rejecting of European tradition at the same time. America likes to see itself as a very independent country, but at the same time many Americans really respect, often naively, what they perceive as European cultural magnificence, whether it's in architecture, food, language, or manners. (How many of us have had Little Italy became a huge part of a friend's New York trip?) In my experience, rarely have Americans told me that any notion of cultural connectedness plays into this respect. In other words, I've never heard anyone bemoan not being able to see England because it was what spawned American culture in the first place; rather, it's because England is simply older, or more cultured, or what have you. My speculations are in contrast to Bowles, when he says,
"I believe that what we Americans are seaching for, and thus the most important thing we canbring back with us, is something more all-embracing. I should call it a childhood--a personal childhood that has some relationship to the childhood of our culture."
If this is true, it must be happening on an imperceptible level. Maybe that's what he means.
Anyway, I'd like to extract one more notion from Bowles' comments on American travel to Europe. The stereotypical European resident-American traveler relationship involves a "cultured" OR snotty European (depending on who you're talking to) constantly putting up with American boisterousness. Sometimes this relationship is spoken of by Americans in a way that is self-deprecating. On some level I think it speaks of a real cultural tension, however passive: that of Europe the old, orderly and wise, the receptacle of all things old and important; and America the unhistoric, the untamed, and yet disturbingly powerful.
I remember reading recently that the British school system talks about the American Revolution only in the most passing manner, as just another colony lost throughout the ages, details unimportant in the greater scheme of things. American history, on the other hand, cannot but speak of European cultural forces if it wants to give any degree of accuracy to its own origin; it is dependent on Europe for its own definition in history. Whether this is a legitimate way to define who is more or less cultured, it seems to be the source from which events like the Europeans discounting Bowles as "just" a jazz composer stem from.
OK. This is getting a lot longer than I thought, and I wanted to mention a few other things but I'll let them linger. I will mention one thing, though. Bowles' descriptions of the Sahara as a totally alien, self-referential space strike me as very similar to those of Brion Gysin's in the novel The Process
...which is, to an extent, based on Gysin's own travels and is from about the same time period. In both cases do the writers refer to the Sahara as a place that will completely turn the traveler inside out...At any rate, it's worth a look for anyone who's drawn to that kind of culture.