Monday 24 October 2011

The Art of Travel

Having just returned from Houston, it was a perfect time to stumble across this audio book on the shelf at the library. Travel does broaden the mind. Certainly Houston had surprised mine, and I was ready to contemplate travel more widely with de Botton. I've bought, but never read, Status Anxiety, although I might have watched the tv show. So I popped the CD into the player into the car. And steadied myself to be swept up in the joy of travel. How surprising to find that Alain starts with how disappointing travel is!

Few things are as exciting as the idea of travelling somewhere far from home. Somewhere with better weather, more interesting customs and more inspiring landscapes. So why are we so often dissatisfied with the reality of travel? Perhaps we should listen less to the guidebooks that tell us what to do when we get there, and learn to enjoy the journey. 

What? I'm sure glad I don't have to go on holidays with Alain. I already enjoy the journey Alain.

I'd expected The Art of Travel to be a journey of sorts, but I really wasn't expecting to be a journey to Gustauve Flaubert, William Wordsworth and Vincent Van Gogh, as much as it is a journey to Barbados and Amsterdam.

Much of Disc 2 was taken up with Flaubert, and I found it particularly fascinating. So much so that I listened to disc 2 twice. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary of course, which was my introduction to French classic literature a couple of years ago. Astonishingly different to what was going on in England at the same time. How incredible to learn that if Flaubert had lived in my lifetime he would most likely have ended up committing a high school massacre as a teenager! His teenage self apparently wanted to blow the heads off the good citizens of Rouen as they passed by, and he had a particular enmity for the local Mayor.

Flaubert was very taken with the exoticism of Egypt, and I knew that he had famously travelled there. He was particularly taken with camels and spent quite some time trying to mimic their sounds! What a different experience travel must have been, to return home with just writings, drawings and the noises you could reproduce. I didn't realise that he was quite taken with examples of local colour such as donkeys shitting in cafes- which he apparently found quite appealing.

I learned more about Wordsworth than I ever had before. Not hard certainly as I don't think I knew anything except that he was a poet. He was born and worked in the Lake District of England, and he encouraged us to "see the many animals living alongside us whom we typically ignore, registering them only out of the corner of our eyes, having no appreciation for what they are up to and want".

We also journey to Provence with Van Gogh (in the news this week after speculation that he was murdered, excellent publicity for your new book) and to the lonely American highways, motels and petrol stations of Edward Hopper (who I had only learnt of from Shaun Tan back in May).

To me, Alain was telling us that all these famous thinkers and artists were telling us to notice the Detail of Travel, more than the Art. To see the colour as Van Gogh did, the birds as Wordsworth did, and the donkeys shitting in the corner of the cafe as Flaubert had.

How does Alain wrap up our rather esoteric travels? Alain makes his final journey in the last section accompanied by Xavier de Maistre in his fetching pink and blue cotton pyjamas. I'd not heard of Xavier before, but in 1794 he published a book called Voyage autour de ma Chambre (Voyage around My Bedroom), with the sequel Expedition Nocturne autour de ma Chambre (Night Voyage around My Bedroom). In his journey Xavier is apparently asking us to consider the detail of our daily lives, to shake off our habituation and the blinkers that blind us to the magnificence that is our own bed or chair. There is of course merit in noticing the joy of our everyday surroundings, and not being blind to the life that is already around us.
And yet de Maistre's work springs from a profound and suggestive insight: that the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than non the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mindset to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt's South America. 

Which is perhaps disingenuous to some extent. Some places are inherently more beautiful or captivating than others. There are reasons why Paris is the biggest tourist destination in Europe. The feeling of warm Parisian sun on your shoulder standing in Tuileries can not be recaptured whilst looking at your own loungechair, or filling your car with petrol at your local petrol station. I remember being shocked at the bored locals riding the metro. How can they be bored? Look depressed? In Paris?

And what of the audiobook itself? Again, as with Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, the reader struggles with the frequent references in other languages. Predominantly French, but he bumbles over a smattering of Spanish and German too. So much of The Art of Travel references paintings and visual splendour that I ended up borrowing the book version from the library too, needing to see the many illustrations that I knew this book would have.

It was certainly pleasant to listen to as I journeyed to and from work in the car each day. Although I must admit that his notion of man as "dust postponed" shook me up quite a bit. Just arriving in the car park to start another 10+ hours of work. And all you are is dust postponed. It's a discouraging start to the day. But when you think of the biblical dust to dust pronouncement, I guess that's what we are- dust postponed. Oh dear, I think I need to book another holiday.... and stop listening to philosophy in the car.

BTW Audiobooks are apparently a big craze now, with Hollywood jumping on board, but it's digital downloads that are cool, not people like me borrowing daggy old CDs to listen to in the car.


Unknown said...

Must have been before my time...I often listened to audio books while going back and forth to work. Then the confusing experience arises when someone asks if you've read "Jane Eyre" for example. You immediately say yes, but in fact, does it count if you've only *listened* to it? I could never decide. What do you think?

Louise said...

I think it was released in 2002 so possibly before you were listening to audiobooks. I did find it interesting.

I know exactly what you mean about the listening vs reading experience. I think it does certainly count, but they are different experiences. Listening has sent me to the book a few times, but reading has never sent me to the audiobook! I'm confining myself to nonfiction audiobooks at the moment. A) because I find it hard to get through reading nonfiction (too much fiction), and B) because I seem to drift off more whilst listening to fiction.

Charlotte said...

I am now trying to decide if I am sufficiently appreciative of my own surroundings! I work on the East Side of Providence, crammed with lovely historic houses, in an office more than 250 years old...which I try not to take for granted!

I have never read Flaubert. I feel it is a failing.

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