Paul Theroux's Transmutation of the Species, Travel...
Throughout his travel writings Paul Theroux explicates his problematic with the epic convention to start the narrative, in medius res
. His proclivity for noting the travel before reaching the destination is illuminated by comparative analysis of other such travel books, which he cites, one being as such, especially in tune with the epic tradition. The particular citation reads, “It was towards noon on March 1, 1898, that I first found myself entering the narrow and somewhat dangerous harbour of Mombasa on the east coast of Africa” cf. (Lt. Col. J. H. Patterson, The Man- Eaters of Tsavo
). This harkens one back to the great opening of Dante’s Inferno, which reads, “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark,/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Canto I)
. I find Dante’s articulation of how the loss of the ‘straightforward path’ had conditioned the middle of such journey, interesting in comparison to Theroux’s decision to take a linear pathway, rather than his former circular passageway. Does a round-trip posit a more touristic affectation of the journey’s narrative, one, which is focused on the traveler, not the travel?
Theroux does not dapple in such literary excursions focused on the excavation of the self, or the subject--- a quest bent on introspective conclusions. He comments on the pattern of travel writing to do just that, in the introduction of The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas
, stating, “one of the popular notions about travel books is that they are usually about the traveler. I wanted to get beyond this petty egoism and to try and understand the places I was passing through” (xii). Interestingly enough, Theroux operative is mirrored by the statements of Nietzsche in his essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” whereupon he comments on the egoism of the philosopher, “But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought” (Nietzsche)
. I wonder if this is the status of the travel writer that begins in the middle of everything—a rhetorical gesture that is mimetically or rather, analogously connected to the egoistic perspective all eyes circumscribe the position of the traveler throughout his journey, rather than what is external to the traveler throughout his journeys—the people and places as such. I was drawn to Nietzsche’s notion, by Theroux’s later diction—employing the word, telescope,
in the first chapter, “And yet the convention is to telescope travel writing, to start—as many novels do—in the middle of things, to beach the reader in a bizarre place without first having guided him there” (3). However the telescopic sense that Theroux seems to be intimating is a conflation of space and time. In this manner, does not, the problematic of the travel writer’s ego, and the problematic of over-stepped journey there, both identify as types of misdirected focus? Does Theroux give a re-directive for the focus of the travel writer?
Theroux’s hypothetical, “If the passenger conceives the species of transfer as travel and offers the public his book, the first foreigner the reader meets is either a clothes-grubbing customs man or a mustached demon at immigration desk” –is poetically realized in Idra Novey’s collection, The Next Country
(5). Her poem, "Customs" follows under the mantra of Theroux the transmutation of the species of travel, the slight differentiation and initiation of the able body into the strange, the unfamiliar. Travel as process. What is deemed important by Theroux as his manifesto of sorts near the opening of his book—“What interests me is the waking in the morning, the progress from the familiar to the slightly odd, to the rather strange, to the totally foreign, and finally to the outlandish” (5). Considering Theroux’s outline of the transformation of the subject, insofar as it reads as a transmutation of the species, travel does Novey’s poem follow such guidelines for the interest of the travel writer?
by: Idra Novey
Skimming facts, stamps,
the land disappearing
beneath the Pacific's salty foam
A thought of the wet stones
I placed once
at each corner of our tent,
afraid the wind might wheel us off--
And the purpose of your travel
Claret flowers in the desert, sir,
and the dunes, of course,
their muted shifting being
the real history
two people in line, one suitcase
though only you
are a citizen here--
and I pocket my fear:
sooner or later,
you'll return to this coast of yours
Carrying anyting with you today
Your warm hand in my pocket
in search of secrets,
we are what we carry undeclared.
cf. The Next Country, pg 2-3