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keerthik sasidharan

Looking and Seeing

Looking and Seeing

One of the perks of traveling alone in a foreign country is the happy obscurity it affords.  There is neither the apron string tug of family or the familiar nor are there the social pressures of friends and rivals to exert their influence, be it subtle or vivid, on one’s immediate thought.  The world arrives naked into one’s consciousness, unclothed by the veils of other minds.  On the flip side such solitudinal travels reveals, in moments of weariness, the loneliness that modern societies can easily thrust on individuals, even amidst the grope, fumble, and throb of megacities.   Without family and friends, the capacities of an individual to discern for herself — the internal architecture of a society’s hierarchy,  its rarely visible levers of power, the relationship between its originary myths and the lived realities— is not just weakened but often at odds with the glitter of reality.  In essence, the world perpetually presents itself as a garden of forking paths and to choose wisely without the benefit of experience and tradition is difficult. (Thoreau writes in his journals, “The wisest conservatism is that of the Hindoos. 'Immemorial custom is transcendent law,' says Manu.””)  To get away from one’s fold is dangerous, not just to one’s body but also for one’s mind. 

For much of human history, at least since the rise of sedentary societies, traveling alone was rare and, more importantly, was seen as subversive to the established order.  Sramanas in India, the desert fathers of Palestine, the early-medieval knights of Europe — to be on one’s own isalmost the exception, an act seen as in service of radical truth-seeking or in search of prestige by demonstrating incredible feats.  By mid1700s, as rural societies began to undergo churn, either through legislative fiat which aided industrialization as in England, or through after effects of slavery, genocide, forced migration, and indentured labor across swathes of Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America — the solitary straggler became a more common figure.  The adventurer, the traveler, the runaway slave, the aborigine wasting away — archetypes who belonged to the peripheries now muscled their way into the core.  As modernity cranked up its production of the disaffected and disconnected — we find novels and songs on these individual experiences, and more particularly there arose an effort valorize the individual itself.  Be it in the heroic biographies of Napoleon or Nelson, the novels of Dickens or Thackeray, Thoreau’s experiment with self, or in the collective songs sung by unfree persons on transport ships from Kolkata to the Caribbean — the possibility of breaking social and real chains, the conceit of being born anew into the world solely by virtue of spanning geographies entered popular imagination.    

In fact, a particular kind of travel — difficult, life threatening, and emancipatory — inspired the creation of new genres of fiction itself.  This new invention, called ‘naval novels’ or ‘le roman maritime’ was born thanks to James Fenimore Cooper whose 1823 novel ‘The Pilot’ set motifs from medieval historical fiction into a world at the precipice of the First Wave of Globalization in mid 19th century.  The result was the creation of a literary archetype: a brooding protagonist, the promise and peril of travel, and an oceanic expanse as awesome as the revelation of a transcendent God to those weary of life. Since then, the literary descendants of Cooper — including Hermann Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Travailleurs de la Mer’, Jules Verne’s ’20,000 Lieues Sous les Mers: Tour du Monde Sous-Marin’, the many novels of Joseph Conrad and up to Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis’ trilogy — have relied on sea travel as a way to critique the follies of life on land.  For much of human history, the experience of travel lived upto its root word, travail, or labor.  To this end, the traveler performed many roles, for himself and for others: as an educator, historian, story-teller, sociologist, and even as colonialism’s intellectual rear-guard.  

But closer to our times, travel has lost its frisson.  Much of the world became safer and many of travel’s historic roles have been usurped by other specializations.  In the mid 19th-century, when rich Europeans began to travel for travel’s sake, there began a transformation: travel transformed into sightseeing.  No one nudged the Europeans more in this direction than Karl Baedekar, a German publisher, who dreamed up the idea of a travel guide (‘Baedekar’s’).  The result was the privileging of the seemingly eternal: monument seeing became the ritual.  The labor of travel — the anxiety and reality of foreignness — began to be carefully replaced by the bland simulacra of the familiar.  By our times, so excellently packaged are travel routines that it is possible to visit entire countries without ever once talking to a native.  In every major city, it is now easy to find groups of humans, armed with cameras and maps, suntans and waterbottles, bravely venturing to explore pre-approved cordon sanitaire by ministries of tourism.  Suddenly, visiting Greece was reduced to seeing the Parthenon rather than the Greeks themselves, a south Indian can travel to Rajasthan without ever leaving the happy confines of Tamil or Malayalam.  The natives and the traveler walk past each other, like warring relatives at a funeral: shamed by the occasion to maintain peace.  But such disembodied routines from journeying soon sap energies.  They give the momentary consolation of having looked but a gnawing recognition of never having seen anything.  Conversely, and more vexingly, where the foreign begins and where home ends is too increasingly unclear.  Indians who know Manhattan better than Mysore or Madurai are on the rise, which in turn creates an entire class of citizens who feel foreign while at home.  

The author Alain de Botton tells us of a 19th century novel by the French author J.K. Huysmans called ‘À Rebours’,  wherein the protagonist concludes that the dream of London is better than its soot filled reality.  Much of modern travel industry is devised around eroding thisprecise suspicion that has gained ground.  Travel to the unfamiliar is not what it is made out to be.  For many American xenophiles, the lived experience of Europe is less attractive than the imagined idea of Europe — which perhaps explains why only 131 million Americans have bothered to avail of a passports in 2016 (out of a population of 332 million).  

Faced withthe sameness of experiences on one end and a recognition of the misunderstood truth in that old Sartrean quip (“hell is other people”) on the other, what then is the goal of travel today, especially for the young? One possible answer is that travel is a way of learning to see the individual within groups, to avoid mistaking the act of looking for the insights born from seeing.    

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A version of this article was published in The Hindu on July 16, 2017.  The title is an improvised fragment from a V.S.Naipaul novel: 'The Enigma of Arrival', wherein he writes: "I saw what I saw very closely. But I didn't know what I was looking at. I had nothing to fit it into."  My thanks to Ragini T. Srinivasan who had introduced me to this novel by VSN many years ago.  

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