Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In Praise of Travel

Rosanne Cash--"Rules Of Travel" (mp3)
Michelle Shocked--"Come A Long Way" (mp3)

Here's what Ralph Waldo Emerson says about travel:

I am not much an advocate for travelling, and I observe that men run away to other countries, because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own, because they pass for nothing in the new places. For the most part, only the light characters travel. Who are you that have no task to keep you at home? .... I think, there is a restlessness in our people, which argues want of character....One sees very well what their fate must be. He that does not fill a place at home, cannot abroad. He only goes there to hide his insignificance in a larger crowd. You do not think you will find anything there which you have not seen at home? The stuff of all countries is just the same. Do you suppose, there is any country where they do not scald milkpans, and swaddle the infants, and burn the brushwood, and broil the fish? What is true anywhere is true everywhere. And let him go where he will, he can only find so much beauty or worth as he carries.

Having spent the better part of the past week and a half in various places not my home town, I must disagree with Mr. Emerson. Disagree with what, you say? What did Emerson even say? Well, you've got me there, and even though I'm the one quoting him, I have some trouble sifting through all of what he says. As I read it, though, here's the general gist of Ralph Waldo's perspective: travel is bad.

But he says a lot more. I've taught his "Self-Reliance" many times (that isn't what's quoted above), so I know that this is a repeated theme for him. But it is not only Mr. Emerson who sees travel as the ultimate extravagance. My grandparents used to say the same thing. Even though my grandmother was French and had met my grandfather in Brest, France during the First World War, they liked to sit in their home in western Pennsylvania and proclaim, "You can see everything you need to see in the Beaver Valley!" Even my beloved wife, anytime money gets tighter than usual, is inclined to say, "Well, we don't need to go to ______" or "I don't think we can afford to go to _____."

Look at America--when times get tight, we cut the travel.

But travel is not a luxury; it is a necessity. And this is not simply a misguided statement from someone privileged. The fact that many people are not able to travel does not make travel any less necessary. The dual tragedies of travel are those who can't and those who won't. Put simply: it is through seeing how other people live that you come to an understanding of how you (and those like you) live. That is what travel does for us. It's probably unfair for me to use one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century as my straw man, but who says life is fair? He's dead. So let me challenge his thinking during these hard times:

1. "For the most part, only the light characters travel. Who are you that have no task to keep you at home?" Certainly, I am the lightest of characters, for I love travel as much as anything. And it is exactly those task that would keep me at home that I freely abandon. Yes, there is grass cutting, yard work, home repair, general cleaning, recycling, and throwing out to be done, but it is always there to be done. If you own a home, then you know that you could work on your house sun-up to sundown 7 days a weeks and you wouldn't get it all "fixed." Not in a world where water, bugs, and entropy rules. Mr. Emerson, of course, is arguing from a kind of post-Puritan perspective that involves always keeping focus on the tasks at hand and doing things purely for the betterment of self. And he probably isn't talking about chores. He is talking about the task of goodness.

I believe that whether you are Marco Polo or Anthony Bourdain or my daughter after she finishes her semester in Italy, you have undertaken a project that involves self-reliance. All of the work awaiting us may be at home, but so is all of the comfort. If you never travel to a different culture or part of the country, how can you break beyond that comfort?

2. "[T]here is a restlessness in our people, which argues want of character." I suppose I would like to see that argument, because I'm not sure I see the connection. That statement, in isolation, seems contradictory to the American Dream, to Manifest Destiny, to all of the values that led us to grab this whole darn continent. But, kidding aside, even if you don't go abroad, there are so many Americas out there, so many different perceptions of what this country means that are different from what we would encounter on the streets of our own city or town. Me, I like restlessness. Restlessness is drive. The desire to get to new places has led me to write proposals, make presentations, seek grants, do reading, design projects, and all kinds of other fulfilling activities that I would not have done otherwise.

3. "The stuff of all countries is just the same. Do you suppose, there is any country where they do not scald the milkpans, and swaddle the infants, and burn the brushwood, and broil the fish?" Broil the fish? Broil the fish? Yes, Ralph, you may well be correct, but the simple fact remains that they "broil" it a whole lot better down in New Orleans than they do here and they have other fish down there and it's fresher and, given your interests in self-actualization, I think I'm a better person for having tasted the potential of man's achievement as manifested in the chargrilled oysters at the Acme Oyster House, the shrimp po-boy at Crabby Jack's, and the grilled pompano at GW Fins down there in the Gulf.

4. "What is true anywhere is true everywhere." I wholeheartedly agree, but how do we learn truth? For example, living in my in-laws' condo, where space is smaller, needs are fewer, and life is simpler, it's there that I remind myself how much less I really need than what I have. You know, if you only have four shirts in your suitcase and a washing machine, it is very easy to live with just four shirts. If you have easy access to a library, you feel no need to buy books. If you can't get on the Internet, then you can't get on the Internet, a circumstance, I suspect, that would have made Mr. Emerson very happy. Well, these are all elements of my "vacation" life in Florida. But without the ability to compare, how would I discover the "truth" of that easier living? Here's another example: I need to exercise. When I'm in Florida, I exercise. It's much harder to accomplish here. But how do I see the difference, how do I examine how I'm living differently, how I can change and seek better health, if I'm not able to experience, and then to examine, how I live differently in one place than I do the other? I should probably be able to conduct self-examinations without comparison, but, I'm sorry, I'm not able to.

Since Mr. Emerson, in context, was arguing for the validity of the young America and its offerings in the face of the ancient, established capitals of Europe, I suspect at the root of his argument is the notion that his countrymen need not envy the great civilizations of Europe. For me, if anything, it isn't envy that travel creates; it's desire. Desire to see more, know more, sense more, understand more. And yes, to take a vacation from whatever current woes there might be. Emerson says that travel allows us to "hide [our] insignificance in a larger crowd." Well, maybe. But sometimes we come back from travel, and its companion reflection, with a renewed sense of who we are, significant or not. I don't see how that's a bad thing.

Rosanne Cash's Rules of Travel and Michelle Shocked's Arkansas Traveler are both available at Itunes.


Lee Bailey said...


Do you think Mr. Emerson forgot that travel is also necessary for discovery? How does he think this great country of ours came in to existence without travel? I agree with you that travel is a good thing (and so are Acme oysters!)

Billy said...

I can't help but think Emerson also only knew of "traveling to other countries" as an excursion that required the better part of a week or more to get there and the better part of a week or more to get back, and it wasn't on Carnival Cruise Lines, either.

Had he foreseen a day when going from New York City to London was a matter of hours, he might have reconsidered. (But, since I've only read about one paragraph of Emerson in my whole life -- and that just minutes before writing this response -- I couldn't say for sure.)

Hailey Owens said...

Hi! Interesting post you have in here. I agree with Emerson when he said that "there is restlessness in our people" because I myself feels that there's always a need to go somewhere and that I can't stop exploring other places.

But I don't believe that "stuff of all countries are just the same"! Never. Perhaps Mr. Emerson never went out of his own backyard to see the wonders other places have to offer.