Friday, January 8, 2016

Exocentricity and Travel: Where is "Somewhere Else?"

I usually list "travel" among my interests when asked by a website or new acquaintance.  But what is travel?

We probably would not count just any displacement in space, any lat/lon or other spatial coordinates previously missing from our collection of bodily occupied origins (0,0) as travel.  Any untouched stone in a neglected garden zooms relentlessly around the sun, logging more frequent-flier miles than anyone has ever claimed against any airline, but we'd find it odd to say the stone is traveling.

We find ourselves immediately in the throes of Relativity Theory.  When the train on the next track at Penn Station starts to pull out, I am tempted to certainty that my train is moving.  In the absence of other clues, the truth can be ascertained only by appeal to an observer exterior to both trains, and the "truth" will need to be stated in some tedious form such as "from my observer's position C it appears to me that train B is moving with respect to the stationary train A--by which I mean that train A is not being displaced relative to my perception of MY position in 3-dimensional space.  Of course we'd need yet another observer D to verify the relative state of motion of train A and the initial observer C...and so to infinity.

When I travel, I tend to favor mundane activities over "attractions."  I usually prefer to sit in a cafe in Paris, or walk along the Seine, or through the Jardins de Luxembourg, rather than wait in lines for the elevator to the deck of the Eiffel Tower, or queue up for the Beaubourg or the Louvre.  Usually.   I have, however, slept in my car in the lot next to Chartres cathedral to be able to enter as early as possible and spend the day in awe and contemplation.  Why?  I could walk with so much less effort from my bedroom to my office to spend the day there in similar rapt enthrallment.  Sailing alone around the room. Circumnavigating my back yard. When my mother asked Dad if he'd like to drive with her to California, he answered, "Why? I didn't lose nothin' over there." (My aunt agreed to make the trip with her.)  Tony Bourdain: "I eat, I travel, I'm hungry for more." We'll always be hungry for more, since once we've introjected another locale as our own, it is no longer "travel."  My brief rental of a basement apartment with a water view taught me that over time it was little different from looking out upon any other view.  Once I get somewhere else, well, there I am!  Memo to self: "How can I miss you, if you won't go away?"

I therefore question my oft-repeated contention that the value and beauty of a liberal arts education is to make oneself "at home" in the widest possible variety of worlds: Gregorian chants, Elizabethan dramas, surrealist poetry, 12-tone music, Bororo tribesmen, the Athenian agora, quadrilateral equations, string theory, Chinese dynastic history, Muslim theology.  But once inhabited in a familiar way, they all become again.  "Here comes everybody."  We dream of exotic travel, but we are forced, finally, to admit that a "bucket list" is nothing but an enumeration of prospective "selfies."  And we look at the image of ourselves at St. Moritz or the Kremlin, trying to get back inside the moment of the camera click, while hoping that others note the awesomeness of Being-Me-There.  They are still outside me, outside the photo, and so now am I, in that moment of lost merger and transcendence. There's not even the satisfaction of ordinary masturbation, since I don't experience the situation at the same moment that I'm perceiving it from my distance.  Zen Master to hot dog vendor: "Make me One with Everything..."

Mystical eroticism always tends towards that moment when I can't distinguish the flesh of my beloved from my own--but the moment passes.  Medieval theologians logically concluded that God, being perfect, could not waste his time and spoil his perfection by contemplating his dependent/finite creation (imperfect me!).  He could only contemplate Perfection--that is, Himself in His infinite perfection.  (All of which is subverted by the masculine pronoun:  S/He?  I know no man is perfect. Agnostic about XX-chromosome beings, but still in doubt.) Hegel and Mormons provide maps for achieving divine perfection as Absolutes...but I still have to tie my shoes in the morning and deal with the latest news regarding Donald Trump, as Kierkegaard might have noted.

Shortcuts?  Maybe sex, drugs, and music--which provide occasional intimations of immortality in immediacy.  Bacchantes, LSD, universe in a grain of sand, St. Teresa in ecstasy, orgasm, Sufism's musical mysticism. Maybe also habits--a poor man's dreamt substitute for immortality: conceiving eternal life/heaven as doing the same thing...forever. Maybe it will never stop.  If I have coffee every morning at 7, and have always had coffee at 7, then maybe I'll never die. (Though that's my idea of Hell: Chipmunks Christmas music, repeated forever. Would harps and Hosannahs wear any better?  High-minded discussions with the Apostles?  Just an interminable Faculty Meeting.)

All of which provides a motive to distinguish between egocentric and exocentric viewpoints.  Most films are shot exocentrically: the camera makes us an observer of the interactions of the actors--even when we are being invited to identify with the hero or protagonist: we watch John Wayne slug the bad guy or in The Searchers watch his ambivalence in the search for his kidnapped niece, Natalie Wood--all from outside the mind and eyes of Ethan.  But a few rare films adopt an egocentric camera mode: in  Lady In the Lake, we, the audience, see from Marlowe's (Robert Montgomery's) perspective.  Exhaustively.  With a couple brief exceptions, when he addresses the audience, we live "inside the head" of Marlowe.  This disorienting experience should seem normal, since we "live inside our own heads" always.  In fact a great number of films shift between the two modes rapidly, and we accommodate the transitions seamlessly, living in the perception of passengers A and B, as well as the observer C, without confusion. We could note that we are simultaneously accommodating the equally puzzling merger belonging to the Paradox of the Actor: we see Ethan looking for his daughter, but we also see John Wayne's short-legged walk and hear his idea of a cowboy's drawl.  We know he is being false to himself, mimicking artificially to be able to make Ethan "real."

I would hazard a guess that the key to travel is "staging."  We build an armature, a set and setting, and cast ourselves in the starring (selfie) role.  Here I am with a beautiful woman in a gondola in Venice: now what?!   Well, mauvaise foi, as Sartre would have it:  bad faith.  I enter the persona or mask of Mastroianni, lower my chin, raise an eyebrow and take a "selfie," whether mental or actual, then invite my "Friends,," whether Facebook or actual, to credit my performance, while suffering the quiet knowledge that I am Darrell trying to BE Mastroianni, and am not, therefore, Mastroianni, thus abandoning responsibility for choosing this role in favor of a fixed, essential identity.  This is a reason why I'm not a fan of meeting people at parties.  Parties are a fight to the death among actors demanding recognition and identification as Essences: the Philosopher, the Rebel, the World Traveler, the Sensitive Listener, the Lover, the Most Interesting Man in the World. That world-class XTreme climber, hanging in a hammock off the face of El Capitan, is just a shivering guy running through his thoughts about mortality and future stories to tell at parties (with the proper seasoning of self-deprecation.) The wealthy fund manager in the best 5-star restaurant is a mammal with his mouth full of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, smooth, hot, cold organic bits with names requiring some translation--for which he's willing to pay the better part of a year's salary of another  less privileged he can tell the people at Truman's party about this most extraordinary culinary pilgrimage.  And so it goes.

So why do those of us who live in Maine--Vacationland--spend thousands to travel to New Orleans or Dubai, when the people who live there are spending thousands to come see Maine?  Why not Nebraska?  All that's required is staging: same sky, same moon, same rocks, same retail chains,  strip-malls, 6-lane thoroughfares, stop-lights, motionless squirrels, women with beautiful smiles, minerals, Toyotas, and traffic lights.  Ansel Adams could have skipped Yosemite and shot Yazoo City, MS, instead.

Finally, travel is an almost fool-proof universal alibi.  Say I am able-bodied, modestly educated, and "employable" in standard ways, while spending my time walking, looking out windows, reading, going to concerts, plays, galleries, and shops.  Say, further, that I avoid all gainful employment, sleep when I please, and obey only the dictates of seasonal survival and the pleasure principle.  If asked, "What do you do?", I am suddenly a candidate for all sorts of negative judgments: I am a slacker, a bum, a lazy, leeching, dysfunctional, pitiful excuse for a human being.  Not at all:  I calmly answer, "I am travelling," and all is well. Travel is the only vocation that allows me to do nothing at all, and garner near universal admiration and even envy.

I'll take Borges, over Theroux, or Baedeker, as my guide to travel.  We live in staged constructs, exocentrically synthesizing components we choose to include in our egocentric roles--rebuilding the ship of self, while at sea.