Some jet-lagged reflections on travel

I’m a bit jet-lagged and weary, after a long journey back from India that has involved (in this order) a rickshaw, a train, a taxi (one of Kolkata’s glorious yellow Ambassadors), a lift from a friend, a plane, another plane, two tube journeys, and now another train, after which it is just a quick hop in a taxi to find my way home once again.

I’ve only been away for a couple of weeks, but in truth it feels a lot longer. It seems to me that subjective time is measured, at least to some extent, by the experience of change; and this being so, it feels as if it was along time since I left the UK. The final few days in India were I spent in Rabindranath Tagore’s university town of Santiniketan, reading, thinking and making a great many new friends and connections; and it was a humbling experience to meet with so many warm and generous people, and to find myself engaged in so many fascinating and enriching conversations.

So—partly to stave off the jetlag a while longer, and to keep myself awake, so that I don’t end up falling asleep and finding myself missing my stop and ending up in Nottingham by mistake—I thought I’d write a few idle notes on the subject of the virtues of travel. Nothing that I’m writing here is particularly new or startling; but (the issue of staying awake on one side) I thought it worth saying at least as a reminder to myself.

Travel breaks apart the crust of habit

The first thing that strikes me is that travel breaks apart the hard crust of habit, that slow sedimentation of the day-to-day that ends up ossifying the imagination. There is some virtue to repetition: if you want to write books, learn to meditate properly, teach yourself Chinese, train your cat to do cute stuff, play the flugelhorn or what have you, then you need repetition. But repetition needs to have the pulse of life to it. When it becomes mere formalism, then ossification sets in. To be on the move, to find yourself in different contexts and settings, starts to break up those hard crusts, so that things can take root in the cracks. And when they take root, who knows how large they will grow?

Travel is an antidote to cynicism

I am, I confess, sometimes prone to cynicism. I don’t mean cynicism in the wholly admirable ancient Greek philosophical sense of living in a barrel, or considering oneself cosmopolitan—a citizen of the cosmos as a whole—and wandering about with a staff and a pack on your back. I mean cynicism in the more mean-spirited contemporary sense of attributing the worst motives and intentions to the activities of others, and focussing on those aspects of life that reinforce this. I don’t like this kind of cynicism, but I know that I am capable of it. In fact, thinking about it now, it seems to me that these two ideas of cynicism—the wandering cynicism of the ancient Greeks, and contemporary stay-at-home cynicism—are diametrically opposed. Experience shows that when you get out there and meet people, it is hard to maintain a cynical lack of faith in other human beings.

Travel reminds us that we are not autonomous

This is related to the last point, I think. It’s so easy, when mired in the day-to-day, to think that we are autonomous, that we are not dependent upon others. But then you end up on a train through the dark of West Bengal, and you have no idea where you are, and there are no announcements to say what the next stop is, and you can’t see anything out of the window, and the train is already running late… and so you throw yourself upon the kindness of your fellow travellers. In such a situation, you simply have to rely on others. You have to give up your fantasy of autonomy. And whilst this can be challenging or alarming (the truth often is), it is also often rewarding. Your fellow travellers may even become friends.

Travel helps us find things we are not looking for

This, I think, is also related to my earlier post on research, and the necessity of wandering and errancy for any kind of research. One of my favourite philosophers is Michel Serres, whose book on education, The Troubadour of Knowledge is one of the strangest and most quickening of books that I know. In his Troubadour, Serres talks about the virtue of finding (“troubadour” could literally mean “one who finds”), and the virtue of setting out, not in search of some specific thing, but instead with an openness to what we might find. As the poet Miroslav Holub suggests, you may not know what you will find when you open the door, but at least / there’ll be / a draught.

Of course, this list could go on. And I could equally well write a list of the benefits of staying put (I don’t think that one should privilege moving around over staying put — as Walter Benjamin says in his essay, The Storyteller, “People imagine the storyteller as someone who has come from afar… but they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions”: there are two kinds of complementary wisdom here). But this somewhat idle and unsystematic list has at least had the virtue of keeping me awake on the final leg of my journey home, whilst saying something of the gratitude I feel for the experiences of the last few weeks.

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