Sunday, September 20, 2009

Returning from Elsewhere: Theories

Well-known and influential literary critic and professor Hugh Kenner wrote in 1998 a small themed book of reminiscence and theory combined. Titled The Elsewhere Community, it discusses the mode of learning new ideas that involves travel. It also contains memories of his encounters with many of the literary Moderns, many of whom created displaced, expatriate communities elsewhere. The book is in five parts, which are talks originally meant for radiobroadcast. So a little necessary repetition occurs between sections, so each can stand on its own.

In talking about the Grand Tour, a common practice a century ago of visiting the central cultural sites of Europe, Kenner defines, if only indirectly, what he means by an Elsewhere Community:

"All humans, by their nature," said Aristotle, "desire to know." A special and unparalleled way to know is to go where you're never been. And the key to this quest for knowledge is "elsewhere." In going there, you join what, in these lectures, we will be calling an "Elsewhere Community." It's a concept that is impossible to define strictly. It can name where you dream of going—where bluebirds fly, perhaps. Or it can describe the people you've met somewhere, memories of whom have helped to change you. Or it's an awareness of your own growth and change, arising from the places you've been: Rome's Sistine Chapel, perhaps, or the Zen Gardens of Kyoto, or the green oasis of Manhattan's Central Park.

Going someplace I've never been always makes me feel alive, alert, aware, and undulled. Even on a long day of driving, if I'm on a highway I've never seen before, surrounded by lands, lakes, mountains, fields I've never seen before, I feel particularly alive. It is my goal, in the next few years, to visit all of the US National Parks, and every state in the Union. At some point I want to drive along the Canadian passage to Alaska. I love the north country, and I don't want to just fly over it to get a notch in my belt for visiting Denali, and making photographs there. Photography is the goal, but in a way it's also the excuse. Just going, being able to go, being able to travel, is equally important.

I like to travel slowly, if possible, to take several days to get where I'm going. I enjoy seeing the land along the way. If I could drive to Hawai'i, I would; next best would be to take a boat there. But I'll probably end up flying there, renting a car, and taking off. Who needs hotels when you have fields of pineapple to explore?

Where I differ from Kenner, and from his generation's assumptions that the Grand Tour was to those places that shaped our history and culture, is that my own Grand Tour is about places more than people, geology more than landmarks, geography more than culture. Kenner's artistic generation was drawn, as children of immigrants, to Europe. The Grand Tour was essentially a cultural tour, a tour of the great cities, artists, museums, and history of Europe. Kenner's own form of the Grand Tour, which he describes in his book, was to visit those literary greats of the generation of Moderns that he could encounter who were still alive. He traveled to Europe to see Eliot and others; he traveled in the US to see Pound, Williams, and others. From his encounters with the Moderns he noticed that so many of them had been ex-patriates, displaced, travelers, living overseas; and from this observation was one of the roots of his idea of Elsewhere Communities.

By contrast, I am drawn to tour the National Parks. I want to be there, to feel that wind, that air, that light, that silence, for myself. I am further drawn to visit many state parks around the Union; for state parks often are equally beautiful to the National Parks, but they are relatively unknown. You can almost always find a campsite at a state park, and there are often state parks so near to National Parks that they share their geography and beauty.

For years I've envisioned myself traveling in a small van which I would have converted to sleep in, and have in it a small workspace corner, a small kitchenette. It would allow me to travel and camp at places that are sometimes too hard to set up a tent in, or unsafe to do so because of weather or local wildlife. (Like the time I pulled into an Everglades campground only to read several signs warning about cougar.) I could travel at a slower pace than I do even now, stopping whenever I was tired, or wanting to work. It would be the Zen of Travel: travel when you're alert, sleep when you're tired.

One of the great Chinese poets, one of my favorites, wrote in one his poems the state of being that an aware traveler takes on: Heaven my blanket, earth my pillow. Yang's approach to poetry changed, when he began to travel, from a focus on the poetry of the past, to that inspired by what he saw right in front of him:

Mountain thoughts, river feelings—never betray them.
Rain forms, sky patterns are always beautiful.
"Closing the door and searching for verses" is not the way of poetry.
It is only when you travel that poems will come naturally.

(trans. by Jonathon Chaves)

Yang says, It is only when you travel that poems will come naturally, and this echoes my own attitude, based on my experience. It is a classical Chinese and Japanese poetic attitude, seen in the great Chinese poets, in Basho, and in one who was self-admittedly inspired more by the Moderns' discovery of Asian literature than by their own experiments, Gary Snyder. That's a capsule summation of a central thread of my own literary lineage. I do some of my best thinking when driving on a long roadtrip. I do some of my best writing, my best photographic work, when traveling. It is from encountering the land directly that the poem arises. When I come home and start to work with the materials I've gathered on my most recent travels, I am still Elsewhere even though I am Home. I see my photos, as I sort through them, and they bring up bodily sensations—memory is an experience, not an idea—which give me more poems, art-making, and music. It's a paradox of inspiration and memory and making.

When I think about the van I want to eventually travel in—face it, I'm not 25 anymore, and setting up a tent under some conditions is really hard work—I also think of William Least Heat Moon's travelogues, beginning with Blue Highways, in which he traveled and lived just such a converted van. I also think of the station wagon that Ansel Adams traveled in on many of his journeys, which he sometimes slept in, sometimes traveled with others in, and on the roof of which he had built a platform for his camera. Stories abound of Adams pulling over, quickly setting up, and making a photograph.

I have to say, here, that I had the idea of traveling in a converted van for myself; but I am pleased that other artists have had the same idea. It's a natural idea, seen in many cultures across many times. The word "caravan," from which "van" is derived, is itself a very old word.

In my own instance, rather than a rooftop platform such as Adams used, I would build a small corner behind the driver's seat, with a computer and flat-panel screen built in on shockproof mounts, where I could download and archive the day's digital photos, and begin to work with them, at night, camped, after a day's travel.

I realize that there would have to be a bookshelf in the van, as well, secured somehow against the books scattering onto the bed at every sharp turn in the road, because as I sit here writing, I realize that I am pulling books off the shelves and scattering them on my desk to make these references. I would have to carry at least a few texts with me, there's no way around it. Some for inspiration, some for pleasure—a lazy day when you don't want to go anywhere, just loaf and read all afternoon, is bound to occur on any given trip—some for knowledge.

Hugh Kenner says, a bit later on:

Within The Odyssey we find the story of a second journey. A supernatural being named Circe—a female magician—tells Odysseus that the only way to get around the Sea God and get back home is by traveling to the Far Shore where dwell the Dead. Once there, he must consult the ghost of a sage named Tiresias. And so Odysseus undertakes a journey after knowledge, fueled by his desire to get home. The knowledge he acquires turns out to be his means of finally getting home. For to travel is always, in some sense, to learn. What we don't know yet, is to be found Elsewhere.

I want to continue with that idea: people traveling after what they do not know. Such a pursuit is a way of seeking entrance to the Elsewhere Community.

So we set out after knowledge, to see places and people we've never encountered before. Joni Mitchell once wrote in a song from her "road album," Hejira:

People don't tell you where they've been
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself
You never really know.

Hejira (the word denotes a journey to escape danger or oppression) is an album of music that lives among others in my truck as a permanent fixture, as a central part of my road music listening collection. It's an album I listen to mostly on the road, because it perfectly captures the feeling of long-distance traveling, its dislocations and its joys. In another song, Mitchell writes:

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows
Of my wanderlust.

One point of traveling with a few creature comforts, like in my theoretical caravan, is to minimize the effects that "strange pillows" have on one. Sometimes you want the pillows to be exotic and strange and unknown. Sometimes you want to carry your own pillows with you, and sleep in your tent, even when the parcel of ground you're on changes every night. And even my own pillows can seem strange, at times, when I've been traveling for a long time.

In a final turn of strangeness, when we have danced so hard that we slip sideways into other times and spaces, we come to the most recent, most technological form of the Elsewhere Community: the Internet. Kenner discusses the Internet near the end of his book, describing how it has the potential (not yet fully realized) of becoming a truly global communication tool. It creates virtual relationships that collapse geography, bringing people who share affinities into apparent close proximity and dialogue, disregarding the separations of actual distance. In this, Kenner follows the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who was one of his first mentors. (McLuhan was traveling with Kenner when they first met Ezra Pound; it was this first meeting with Pound that shaped a great deal of Kenner's future interests and career, and Kenner cites Pound as another of his great mentors. Mentoring writers was, after all, one of Pound's great contributions to modern literature.)

Because the Internet collapses space, traveling to learn is less necessary. Your library desk becomes your office or home desk, where The Library of Babel is available now, mostly, at your fingertips. The Final Encyclopedia or Universal Encyclopedia is starting to manifest itself. It is a scholar's paradise. Both data and interpretation are available directly from sources that in previous times would have been either unknown or unavailable. One can go out and do research, and make relationships, in ways both simpler and more complex than ever before.

The Internet is made by its users. There are portal-tenders and gate-keepers, but the content of the Internet is ultimately made by, contributed to by, invented by, its users. Kenner describes the Internet as not being owned by anyone yet; other writers have also described it as a free zone of thought, a temporary autonomous zone, and the last (or next) wild frontier of free thought and free speech. Its attraction to me lies in those realms, in fact: democratizing connection and removing the gatekeepers of discourse allows me, as well as you, to go out there and say what you need to say, for better or ill.

So I don't need to travel as much as I did, to get knowledge. I can stay at home and find many things out. Still, I do travel to learn, and I travel to go see places I haven't seen before, because I want to let those experiences have an impact on me, and change me. I use the Internet a lot for my pre-roadtrip research: to find out about places I want to visit, to find out about places along the way where I might want to stop, to discover information I might need to know traveling. And there are always surprises on the road, nonetheless. The Internet contains only an illusion of approximate total content; in fact, a great many experiences in life cannot be virtual, and never will be. It's easy to get caught up in the "new is inherently good" cycle, that dream of progressive technological utopia that is a principal legacy of Modernism, without ever conceding either consequences or alternative channels of learning. The Internet is still the new toy on the block, still very shiny, still very narrow-band in what it can actually give us.

The chief danger of virtual community is that it might only be pseudo-community, an apparent community that can fly apart from its own energies at any time. Sometimes we think we know people better than we do, online; virtual reality gives us a sensation of intimacy, especially intellectual intimacy, which can be illusory. (Hence the high drama of betrayal and argument cycling constantly throughout the literary blogosphere.) Relationships can be built across vast geographical distance, yet one perceives is still a representation, a persona, an avatar. It's not a matter of who you trust, or what you believe is real. It's rather a reminder that in some ways, all of experience is maya, illusion, virtual or otherwise, and it is necessary to sort through all kinds of noise to get at the signal.

If the Internet is not a huge Elsewhere Community, it is at least a collection of many Elsewheres. Some merge and overlap, many do not. But discovering which is which is another kind of learning journey, another kind of roadtrip for the mind to discover and gain knowledge from. And be changed by, even as the land and what we build upon it change, albeit at different rates.

Other entries in this series:

1. Returning from Elsewhere: Narratives

2. Returning from Elsewhere: Sidebars

3. Returning from Elsewhere: Dislocation

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