I love Paul Fussell's books. Yes, he is an arrogant SOB but he writes well and he is never more entertaining then when he is being condescending and cruel. If Americans are widely reported to be "nice", Fussell takes great pride in being an exception.
I just finished Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars which was published back in 1980. The book is ostensibly about the British Literary Diaspora between the two great wars of the 20th century: Auden, Graves, Huxley, Russell and so many others who left England for France, Persia, China, Japan, and (lo and behold) the United States.
For at least part of the book he manages to stay on topic and I fed my to-read list with a number of titles I hadn't read.
But smack in the middle of the book is a polemic about people who travel. There are three kinds, he says: explorers, the "true" travelers, and the tourists.
"All three make journeys, but the explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveler that which has been discovered by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity."
Which one of the three do you think he holds in the most contempt?
Is there really a "right" and a "wrong" way to travel? Are those who do it "right" superior to those who do it "wrong"?
Ah, those human animals and their webs of significance. We are such complicated creatures and we do indeed judge according to conventions that are all the more powerful because they are rarely explicit. Like all such systems which are man-made and expressed through cultural codes, most of the feedback is negative (we think we know what it isn't) expressed in such phrases as "typical tourist", "playing tourist", and so on and so forth. What does positive feedback look like? Hard to tell. Perhaps it is that moment when someone says, "You went to X? How cool is that!" and you realize that you have just had some social capital conferred on you based entirely on a place you visited.
Fussell talks about "tourist-angst". This is the deep anxiety that one's presence in a foreign place will be interpreted as mere tourism. Clearly there is no social capital attached to that if you are middle-class. I could be wrong but I doubt very much that solid upper upper class individuals care about such things. Having a great deal of social and financial capital already, they are more secure and their heading off to Paris for a weekend or on a road trip through the Amazon requires no particular justification.
I suspect that it's only the middle-class that must strenuously assert difference and advance a claim that their travels are broadening, morally uplifting, or even just more interesting then those of the hoi polloi or the global jetsetting class. The problem is that the categories "traveler" and "tourist" have become so muddled that it really is simply a question of presentation and interpretation. I live just a few short kilometers away from the Versailles castle. Are the people visiting it intrepid travelers looking for the "mind working in history"? Or is this just a high-class Disney World?
The books Fussell chooses to reflect upon (and I've seen a few comments about his omissions) are the product of a particular time that are still a joy to read nearly a century later (and I do thank him for a fine bibliography). I'm hard pressed to tell you what I find most interesting in them - is it the well-written descriptions of the exotic locales that demonstrate a solid classical education? Or is it the personalities of the authors? These were deliberately odd, offbeat people who took a certain pride in being eccentric, witty, and cruel. When asked at a dinner party why he lived in the country, Evelyn Waugh was reported to have replied, "To get away from people like you."
What I do not find in these British travel/expat books written in the early 20th century is insecurity. They don't seem to be at all concerned with being taken for tourists though Fussell points out that they had great fun mocking them (especially Americans). They didn't worry about "fitting in". On the contrary they seem to revel in being outsiders. Or so it seems to me.
Fussell doesn't think much of modern travel tales. He contends that travel as it existed in the early 20th century is simply impossible now. He laments the demise of such things as grand passenger ships and the daring exploits of dashing men (women are conspicuously absent from his book).
I think he's partially right The problem modern travel/expat authors have is that it is very rare today to find a part of the world that hasn't already been seen, lived and written about by at least one Anglo-Saxon: Brits in the South of France, Americans in Paris, retirees in hot countries, spiritual seekers in Indian ashram, expat spouses in Asia or South America. There is already so much material written about these places that the writer ends up working within existing frameworks and stereotypes about expats and natives and retelling a story that has already been told many times before. As W.H. Auden said, "It is impossible to take a train or an airplane without having the fantasy of oneself as Quest Hero setting of in search of an enchanted princess or the Waters of Life."
Adam Gopnik's book Paris to the Moon is a great example. Beautifully written, it still plays into every fantasy about the exotic French and the American expat who learns to live in the quirky, but lovable, Hexagon and then returns triumphantly home. There is a formula there that is every bit as powerful and confining as a Harlequin romance complete with HEA (Happily Every After).
I call them fantasies or fairy tales but Fussell uses the word "romance" and he makes the link between travel/expat books (quest romances) and Joseph Campbell's monomyth: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
Nothing wrong with re-telling an old story using a formula that the reader feels comfortable with. Nothing inherently wrong either with using the social capital an individual acquires living abroad to earn a living or explore one's writing talents. I think where I am all too often disappointed by modern travel/expat books is that I look in vain for the one element that will always be original and makes or breaks the book for me: I want to know what's going on inside the author's head - that combination of personality and "a brain worth exploring." It's not so much intellectual ability as it is awareness of the self and a willingness to expose it even if it forces the author to stray from the Life Abroad formula in ways that might disturb or destabilize the reader. Art, not reporting.
To write that kind of travel or expat book, an author would have to cast away his or her own insecurities, lose the idea that somehow his journey has to be morally uplifting or have something to teach, and perhaps be financially and socially secure enough to not care whether what he or she has to say sells.
I honestly think that there are darker, richer and more complex tales to be explored that come straight out of the traveler's/tourist's subconscious (perhaps even published if anyone dared do so). I'd like to see some of the uncomfortable tales told, not in order to discourage people from moving abroad (or to find material to denigrate the Other) but as inspiration, a more nuanced view of "the people who move around" and a glimpse of what is going on inside their heads as they experience the incredible dissonance of trying to cope with life on life's terms in another land.
“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”