Saturday, December 6, 2008

Illusion Travels By Any, And Every, Means Available

Fig. 1. Hiraki Sawa - Dwelling (still), 2002

'One question revolves around the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality. I came upon a copy of J-K Huysmans's novel A Rebours, published in 1884, whose effete and misanthropic hero, the aristocratic Duc des Esseintes, anticipated a journey to London and offered in the process an extravagantly pessimistic analysis of the difference between what we imagine of a place and what can occur when we reach it.

Huysmans recounts that the Duc des Esseintes lived alone in a vast villa on the outskirts of Paris. He rarely went anywhere to avoid what he took to be the ugliness and stupidity of others. One afternoon in his youth, he had ventured into a nearby village for a few hours and had felt his detestation of people grow fierce. Since then he had chosen to spend his days alone in bed in his study, reading the classics of literature and moulding acerbic thoughts about humanity. However, early one morning, the Duc surprised himself by an intense wish to travel to London. The desire came upon him as he sat by the fire reading a volume of Dickens. The book evoked visions of English life which he contemplated at length and grew increasingly keen to see. Unable to withhold his excitement, he ordered his servants to pack his bags, dressed himself in a grey tweed suit, a pair of laced ankle boots, a little bowler hat and a flax-blue Inverness cape and took the next train to Paris. Because he had time to spare before the departure of the London train, he went to Galignani's English bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli and there bought a volume of Baedeker's Guide to London. He was thrown into delicious reveries by its terse descriptions of London's attractions. He moved on to a wine bar nearby frequented by a large English clientele. The atmosphere was out of Dickens and he thought of scenes where Little Dorrit, Dora Copperfield and Tom Pinch's sister Ruth sat in similarly cosy, bright rooms. One customer had Mr Wickfield's white hair and ruddy complexion and the sharp, expressionless features and unfeeling eyes of Mr Tulkinghorn.

Hungry, Des Esseintes went next to an English tavern in the Rue d'Amsterdam, near the Gare Saint Lazare. It was dark and smoky there, with a line of beer pulls along a counter, which was spread with hams as brown as violins and lobsters the colour of red lead. Seated at small wooden tables were robust Englishmen with boyish faces, teeth as big as palette knives, cheeks as red as apples and long hands and feet. Des Esseintes found a table and ordered some oxtail soup, a smoked haddock, a helping of roast beef and potatoes, a couple of pints of ale and a chunk of salmon.

However, as the moment to board his train approached, along with the chance to turn dreams of London into reality, Des Esseintes was abruptly overcome with lassitude. He thought how wearing it would be actually to go to London, how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in queues, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely described - and thus soil his dreams. 'What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair? Wasn't he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food, and even cutlery were all about him? What could he expect to find over there except fresh disappointments?' Still seated at his table, he reflected, 'I must have been suffering from some mental aberration to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination and to have believed like any old ninny that it was necessary, interesting and useful to travel abroad.'

So Des Esseintes paid the bill, left the tavern and took the first train back to his villa, along with his trunks, his packages, his portmanteaux, his rugs, his umbrellas and his sticks - and never left home again.'

Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)

Addendum: Katie has again submitted a response to one of my entries in the form of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I am happy to post.


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear it's whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

Edna St. Vincent Millay