The Practiced Zen of Cortazar and Maistre
Much of our recent class discussion, especially within the context of Kincaid and Phillips, have focused on the selfish behavior and reductive thinking apparently intrinsic to travel. Whether explicitly conceded, as in the case of Theroux, condemned, in the case of Kincaid and to a lesser extent, Twain, or implicitly expressed through the stories of self-realization narrated by Phillips, Mahoney, Davidson, Morris, Chatwin, Orwell and Flaubert, traveling to a foreign place necessitates an exploitation of the otherness of said place in the service of personal introspection. This exploitation occurs through the imposition of the often-discussed traveler’s gaze, reductive in its imposition of otherness upon what, as Kincaid would point out, is a banal and quotidian existence for many.
Yet, reductive though it is, the traveler’s gaze is simultaneously more receptive to the qualities and atmosphere of a given locale than that of a native: as de Boton writes, “What, then is a travelling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility.” In the light of this quote, it is possible to analyze Kincaid’s rage as directed more at the lack of humility with which most travelers carry themselves than the idea of travel itself (although, angry as she is, I’m not sure she would ever endorse travel in even its most benign forms.) Kincaid’s skewering of the overworked tourist on vacation, who she addresses menacingly as “you” in her piece, rests heavily on the hypothetical tourist’s bending of actual experience to fit their preconceived notions of a place—rather than ask where the food comes from, or where the waste goes, her derided traveler glosses over these nagging questions so that Antigua retains its image as a place to relax and escape banal existence.
The delight that Cortazar, Boton and de Maistre would all take in visiting an Antiguan market might be read by Kincaid as condescension, but the fact that these authors would be equally exuberant while exploring their own corner groceries reveals them as possessing the aformentioned humility of receptivity. Cortazar opens his saga of highway travels with the confession, or perhaps declaration, that he has “almost never accepeted the names or labels things arrive with.” “I don’t see why we should invariably tolerate what comes before and from outside,” he writes, explaining that even the names he himself conceives of are subject to change based on his continuing and evolving experience.
In short, Cortazar never allows images of places or people to ossify within his mind. Thus, although his tone is obviously and delightfully humorous, when Cortazar compares himself to Magellan or Columbus, he is simultaneously joking and deadly serious.
Cortazar believes that, if traversed with care, love and an open mind, the highway between Paris and Marseille can be a source of experience and epiphany as rich as the open sea or a new continent. By choosing to view the structures and rhythms of his own banal existence through the lens of the epic, Cortazar turns the traveler’s receptive gaze on his own native land and succeeds in escaping the same “demons” Kincaid’s vacationer seeks to avoid without succumbing to the exploitation that angers her so much.
Beyond this compelling expession of travel philosophy, it is noteworthy that Cortazar’s narrative synthesizes many of the writing techniques we have encountered thus far. The account is rife with allusions to other texts, and like Flaubert and Chatwin is characterized by a mingling of different media—letters, lists of provisions, maps, photographs, drawings, and the aforementioned quotations. Cortazar’s frequent oscillation between the third and first person, as well as his self-confessed penchant for using multiple, shifting names, underscores the importance and multiplicity of perception—not only do different places hold different meanings for us, but we too hold multiple and sometimes disparate meanings for different people, or even multiple meanings for the same person. Retaining a flexibilty of thought, a willingness to reconsider as Cortazar does, is thus essential in maintaining humility and receptivity.
Lastly, I found it interesting that both Cortazar and de Maistre traveled extensively before embarking on their parallel conceptual journeys. Perhaps it is only through travelling far and often first that one can then develop the ability to practice travelling at home in such a skilled manner.