Many travelers still seek solitude among the tourists, the luxury to communicate personally with the ruins. They long to leave their minds on idle, while they enter the vista before them, undisturbed by the other souls striving for the same illusion. I often feel this contradiction of being alone with others when I travel.
And I confronted it again in mid-March when I took my class to Greece for a week. For instance, to beat the busloads of Italian high school students in Delphi, we got up earlier than them. To avoid the tours gaggling through the National Museum, we arrived there very late in the afternoon.
Ever since travel had become a realizable goal for the middle classes, people have sought their personal communion with a site, and, in this process, have wanted to distinguish themselves from the hoards around them. The boundary between the journey and the tour is part of the modern self-understanding of travel.
Consider Robert Byron’s (1905-1941) evocative description of ancient Persepolis in The Road to Oxiana (1937), the brilliant account of his journey through Iran and Afghanistan. In this influential narrative, Byron voices the common desire to apprehend the past without the annoyances of modernity. In the old days, he writes, you arrived in Persepolis by horse, “made a camp there, while the columns and winged beasts kept their solitude beneath the stars, and not a sound or movement disturbed the empty moonlit plain.” You saw Asia just the like Greeks saw it and “you felt their magic beneath stretching out towards China itself.”
But even in the 1930’s this was no longer possible as the authorities and travelers themselves had converted the ancient Persian capital from a place of romance to a site for aesthetic appreciation. Byron’s narrative shows how ruins have become for us objects in a museum which we appreciate but with which we don’t build any dreams. We transform them into an occasion for a photograph.
This is also the position of a more recent travel writers like Christopher Woodward (In Ruins 2003). He too longs for the past before archaeology, before the fences and ticket sellers, the gates, guides, weed-killers, and I-phones. Dismissing the Coliseum as the most “monumental bathos of Europe—a bald, dead and bare circle of bones,” he yearns for the miasmic aura which has been erased by modernity but which nourished artists and poets. Woodward wants to be the man, who according to Stendhal, rode his horse at night through the deserted arena, he too wishing to be seized by the magic stretching out towards China.
Both authors express here one of the tropes of travel writing, the wish for that moment of wonder, the extraordinary vista that defies the viewer’s comprehension.
I, too, was searching for words to describe the Acropolis awash in light, a view I have often witnessed but one that seized me again, as I stood transfixed on the pavement, unable to move. Then my eyes looked down and across to the soup-kitchen that had been recently set up to cope with the nation’s newly poor. I had never witnessed such a sight before in Greece, the men and women waiting for bread with their heads down, the castaways of whatever you wish to call it—the shock doctrine or the politics of Euro-severity.
Suddenly I was initiated into another kind of narrative. I tried to put the two stories together and my brain, no longer on idle, had to switch gears.
The sight of the food-line certainly highlighted, as if this were necessary, the luxury of travel and the way it converts the foreign spot into an aesthetic performance, a spectacle through which the self seeks improvement and realization. We, the affluent, feel the right to roam the world in search of cultural difference and natural wonder.
Our need for intimate conversation with the past often erases the food-line before us. The travelogue does not invite us to look at the castaway because their sight challenges our desire to convert landscapes and people into opportunities for the sublime. We simply render them invisible as we often do with painful occurrences. In short, while travel writing celebrates cosmopolitanism, it is made speechless by economic inequality—the politics of austerity meeting the aesthetics of alterity. This has not always been the case.
Look at the perversely honest musings on the “monsters” of the Mediterranean by Mark Twain. “If you want dwarfs go to Genoa. If you wish to buy them by the gross, for retail, go to Milan. If you want to see a fair average style of assorted cripples, go to Naples. But if you would see the very heart and home of cripples and human monsters, both, go straight to Constantinople. The cripples of Europe are a delusion and a fraud. The truly gifted flourish only in the by ways of Pera and Stamboul.”
These cruel words shock us, especially coming from an author who wrote about racial conflict in Huck Finn. But this heartlessness is in a bizarre way very honest in that it doesn’t flinch from the ugly and uncomfortable. In contrast, modern travel writing turns a blind eye at the human and environmental obstacles to our self-development and transcendence. Liberal sensibilities don’t permit Twain’s hideous sentiments and encourage us to airbrush the “monsters” we pass by.
Standing in front of the food-line, I was confronted with my own double vision, the Acropolis, on the one hand, a symbol of human ingenuity and perseverance, and Greece’s underclass awaiting handouts, on the other, a sign of personal misery and societal failure. I did not know how to make sense of both of these sights in front of me, each claiming my attention.
And, as a teacher, I felt my own inadequacies even more intensely. For it was not just the choice of travel narrative that troubled me but the very painful questions about what it meant to lead students through a country in economic and political crisis. I was overwhelmed by the thought that it was much easier to talk to students about the Acropolis than about the food-line.