Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Travel writing

I don't fly very often. In fact, in the summer of 2008, after two particularly horrendous flight experiences in a row, I swore never to fly again — and kept that promise for two and a half years. But on Monday I embarked on my fourth airplane trip of this calendar year — and the second to the opposite coast.

I started reading the New Yorker about eight or ten years ago, when I first started taking exercise seriously — a guilty pleasure, a respite from my usual regimen of austere left-wing theory, which I allowed myself as a reward while spending 30 minutes on an exercise bike a couple of times a week. The sense of virtue of working off some of that beer, along with a healthy dose of endorphins, allowed me to take pleasure in the craft of good writing without taking too much offense at the underlying assumptions of most New Yorker articles: a casual condescension toward both the working class and the serious intellectual left.

As the benefit of exercising became its own reward, and as I took up weights and running (at least in the 6 non-winter months we have in Vermont), I've developed a backlog of New Yorkers recently. As this flight was a long one, and I was travelling solo, and as this trip was for work, and as I've been working a lot recently ... I decided to bring nothing but pleasure reading on the plane with me — namely, all those New Yorkers.

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The one issue I read cover to cover on Monday was the April 18th issue, a kind of travel issue, I suppose. There was a long piece by the novelist Jonathan Franzen, recounting a typically New Yorker type quest — the author, seeking to escape a sense of malaise, determines to travel to a remote island and re-read Robinson Crusoe while himself stranded in solitude on an otherwise uninhabited isle. The piece becomes a meditation on the life and suicide of his friend the novelist David Foster Wallace, and on the origins, function and destiny of the novel as an art form.

I've never read anything by either author, and in fact don't read very many novels at all, or fiction of any sort (even the fiction in the New Yorker). I read left theory. I read about what social movements are doing and thinking. And, like so many other people, I read what my friends, family, neighbors and distant acquaintances are doing, thinking, and finding amusing or appalling — on Facebook.

Franzen is his piece admits to having developed the habit of narrating his own life as if it were a novel; I, like so many other people — far more than will ever admit to it to others — often find myself narrating my own life to myself in Facebook status updates, or tweets. But sometimes, especially when I've been reading the New Yorker, I start narrating my inner intellectual life in a more expansive, rich and speculative voice — and, a few times a year, the result makes it onto this blog.

* * *

I started this blog almost seven years ago, prompted by a friend who was at the time, like me, mostly a housewife. She got up early every morning to write — a discipline I always admired but could never emulate. I maintained it in proper blog-like fashion for less than a year, then stopped regular posting, especially after I lost touch with my one regular reader as she went through a divorce and some other life changes. Then for awhile it became a place where I would regularly post recipes, but I've become too busy to even do that anymore.

In recent years, the only serious blogging I have done has been when I travel — which is something I don't do much of. Between the comforts of home — especially the comforts of good food and abundant wine in the evening — the demands of work (paid, house and movement), and the regular exercise that is necessary to maintain my health, I find it hard to find the time to actually write down my thoughts, and difficult to justify writing about whatever catches my intellectual fancy instead of serious writing for the movement. Travel offers not only subjects to write about but the time to do it, and, perhaps more importantly, permission to step outside the boundaries of day-to-day life.

* * *

Travel is, of course, a luxury — and luxury is intimately connected to creative writing. Visual art, music, dance and poetry are all deeply utilitarian — constituting and re-constituting the social rituals that make human society, and thus agriculture, factories, tractors and iPads, possible. They all stretch back beyond written history; they are at the core of what it means to be human.

The novel, however, as Franzen notes, developed with the world-historical emergence of capitalism. The tremendous development of productive forces established for the first time a class — the bourgeoisie — with the leisure time to not only read for pleasure on a grand scale, but also the leisure time to take pen to paper and write — formerly the province of the skilled castes of poets, dramatists and theologians. Novels were the first blogs, the first writing that took the commonplace as a worthy subject for art, and the first art that aimed to become a commonplace — to be read alone, at home, at the end of the day, for pleasure.

Blogging and social media are at the same time a fascinating democratization of intellectual production — we express our leisure now not simply by reading but by creating — and part of modern capitalism's conquest of leisure as a site of accumulation. Every night, after work, millions of us spend our leisure time working for free, creating the content that provides revenue for Adsense and Facebook.

* * *

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts," maintained Mark Twain. Of course, the modern American travel infrastructure has been designed to purge the activity of any such subversive function.

Years ago, as part of a discussion of "socio-economic integration" in the Burlington school district, a well-meaning middle-class liberal expressed pity for the white working-class kids in my neighborhood, who would (according to this person) never leave their community. Yet in Burlington's Old North End, those kids were going to be exposed to, brought into daily intimate contact with, forced by physical proximity and their own powerlessness to reckon with, cultures that were not their own. While that middle-class liberal could easily travel the whole world and never have to leave the worldwide cocoon of privilege and liberal condescension that makes the world safe for white middle-class Americans and their views.

But still, despite all the attempts to sanitize it, travel can still radicalize people. No matter how well-crafted and swaddled in liberalism a study-abroad program is, it always runs the risk of returning a student dedicated to overthrowing imperialism.

Writing, on the other hand, is not fatal to prejudice — in fact, it is fundamental to prejudice, for what is prejudice if not the stories we tell about others whom we do not know. It can seek to disrupt prejudice, but without the disruption caused by contact — physical contact — with others, writing inevitably ends up reinforcing some sort of prejudice, however "inclusive" that prejudice pretends to be.

Which I suppose is why travel writing is, despite my reluctance to do it, important.

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