You’re the Founding Editor of an International Journal of Travel Writing, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics. The journal’s website states that “Any book that travels across national borders, via online book stores—any letter, an email itself—carries potential threat to a previously established and hegemonic travelogy. In this sense any written word that talks of motion or itself moves via means of transport is travelogical and political.” Could you give us some examples of poems (or other texts) that become political by ‘talking of motion’? How important is it that your own poems carry potential threat to previously established and hegemonic ways of thinking?
I must take the liberty of explaining what travelogy is. This is a neologism. I have noticed some people have already begun using that word without any knowledge of what it entails. There are travel agencies called “Travelogy,” and I would therefore link the academic concerns and intellect of the casual user of that word and the travel agent as identical—as nil.
First of all, travelogy has no connection with travelling at all. It simply is how much home (heim) does one create. In order to construct this home travel is indispensable. One travels physically or through prostheses. Architectural forms travel, commodities, culinary cultures travel (which in turn shape architecture is a major way) ideas travel, the planet itself travels every day. Some of us do not create any home whatever, some of us simply consume, hedonistically. However, this perhaps is only theoretical. No one can entirely create or consume. I am given to the sentimental idea that there is always that vestige of production or consumption in the most consuming or producing agency. This is to say, the native or the aboriginal who constructs a narrative or space is also consuming it to some extent, and the blasé tourist—who according to Lefebvre plays no role in the production of space—is also after all adding to the semiotics of the landscape.
Henri Lefebvre’s ‘The Production of Space’, Gaston Bachelard’s ‘The Poetics of Space’, and Michel de Certeau’s ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ are the most well-known examples to me of full length works on space and travel which encounter very politically the ideology of travelling and arbitrariness of spatial codes, wherein the spectre of capitalism and tourism is inherently destructive to the oneiric (daydreaming) potential of the traveller or the dweller. Certeau, for instance, writes that we travel to revisit lands which have become alien in our own homesteads. A late eighteenth century example of this semi-parodic mode of travelling—urban travelling, flanerie, interior travelling—is Xavier de Maistre’s ‘Voyage autour de ma chambre’ (Voyage Around My Room, 1794) which provides a prototypical example of modern day psychogeography along with being a parody of the grand travel as witnessed in the early eighteenth century narratives of space, colonialism and discovery in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe’. In poetry take Rudyard Kipling for instance. An enthusiast for the Indian railways, he left in his ‘A Ballade of Burial’ a plea for settling down in the Indian hills
Solemnly I beg you take
All that is left of “I”
To the Hills for old sake’s sake
The above is political because of the increasing industrialization of the cities and in nineteenth century India, coupled with the colonial conception of the “noble savage” being the true aboriginal of the hill stations. These sites later became the laboratories of colonialism, where the memsahibs bred Victorian manners in situ, and the whole paraphernalia of the British Empire was relocated to for half the duration of the each year. On the one hand the politics of hillmaking is offered an incentive in the words of Kipling, and on the other the English nationalist melancholia of the graveyard poets returns in the travelogy of Kipling.
My own writing, needs must be writing first of all—it must be singular, self-conscious, even belabored. Since it is always in response to previous writing it must distinguish itself at the same time as imbibing from the latter. I cannot say that I have managed, or will manage, to threaten established forms and norms of writing or thought. Neither do I set out with such a motive. However, I do consciously work on language and try to generate newer mechanisms of naming, of the verb, and of imagery. Even in the examples I have named above the writers found themselves pitted against enormous hegemonic ideologies. There is hegemonic attack on mine as well. There is, as some say, no poetic rationale behind the epigraphs, some others blindly criticize the use of footnotes and the import of foreign languages into English poetry. For some it is immoral sexual content. Any kind of acceptance of hegemony is counterproductive to writing. Acceptance is not sustainable. One has to keep writing back to hegemony in language after language. The moral, law abiding, and conscientious reader also needs an inducement to come to your bohemian literary cafe. As a writer I am always threatened by the idea that someone would steal my thought or writing and present it before a larger readership than I could. In this way, all writing that has come before me must necessarily be under the threat of being represented in a new language, rewritten, for there is simply nothing we can produce that is new. We can only speak another tongue after all the tongues at Babel were severed.
What do you make of Thoreau’s statement “I have travelled a good deal in Concord” (from ‘Walden’)? Does travel has to be across geographical borders, or can it be purely an act of the imagination (as when Des Esseintes ‘travels to London’ in ‘À rebours’)?
This is a question after my heart.
Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?
Travel also is a kind of labor, or at least that is how it is understood by most—a kind of mindless labor. It is trekking, hitchhiking, rock climbing, lavish spending and leisure holidays (the latter which in turn subsume the labor of an invisible force forfeited to capital). The amount of capital invested in travel blogs and online hotel brochures is staggering. Ironically it is part of a parallel universe, the worldwideweb, where the idea of travelling or flânerie is yet to be explained to the world at large. These thrive on the ideal of alternate travelling. But what is it that the traveler produces? We are not talking of Jack Kerouac for whom the road was a home. We are talking about aspiring individuals who are here to stock social as well as monetary capital. Since when did travel become a passport to social mobility? Since forever ago, because the idea of travel was fraught with opportunism and imperialism at its very inception.
‘À rebours’ is a wonderful critique of the dilettantism that is a de facto enticement behind travelling. It is a fine specimen of literary travelling. In the specific example of travelling to London, which you mention, Des Esseintes demonstrates how the space created by Dickens is not simply fiction after all but the essential cognitive space that all the Londoners might exist within, in the Frenchman’s conception. Joris-Karl Huysmans writes of Des Esseintes dining in an English restaurant in Paris, while the latter waits for his train
A feeling of lassitude crept over Des Esseintes in this rude, garrison-town atmosphere; deafened by the chatter of these English folk talking to one another, he fell into a dream, calling up from the purple of the port wine that filled their glasses a succession of Dickens’ characters, who were so partial to that beverage, peopling in imagination the cellar with a new set of customers, seeing in his mind’s eye here Mr. Wickfield’s white hair and red face, there, the phlegmatic and astute bearing and implacable eye of Mr. Tulkinghorn, the gloomy lawyer of Bleak House… The Novelist’s town, the well lighted, well warmed house, cosy and comfortably appointed, the bottles slowly emptied by Little Dorrit, by Dora Copperfield, by Tom Pinch’s sister Ruth, appeared to him sailing like a snug ark in a deluge of mire and soot. He loitered idly in this London of the imagination, happy to be under shelter, seeming to hear on the Thames the hideous whistles of the tugs at work behind the Tuileries, near the bridge. His glass was empty; despite the mist that filled the room over-heated by the smoke of pipes and cigars, he experienced a little shudder of disgust as he came back to the realities of life in this moist and foul smelling weather.
Why that shudder of disgust? Is it because Des Esseintes finds it all too contrived insofar as fiction had begun mediating his realities? Well, that is true of any regime, any epoch. You need a fiction to experience reality, for the latter is only a reflection, and not the obverse as is touted before schoolchildren. But the point easily to be missed here is Des Esseintes’ overwhelming realization of the futility behind travelling to (literary) places unless one is capable to producing one, or at least nurturing it, rather than ordering for it to be served on a platter, in proxy, in a foreign establishment. He hence foregoes seeing merit in being a “naturalized citizen of London,” after the disillusionment that Dickensian dramatis personae stage before his eyes.
The fact, to conclude, is that neither imaginative nor physical travelling are travel narratives of the human spirit: both either follow a technique (as in writing, and reading) or a mechanization (as in the digital reproduction of places in brochures and travel blogs). What is, however, the most ecological system of travelling is the construct of the heim in relation to its universe. The heim is anthropomorphic apropos the individual self, and the experience of the unheimlich (the haunted house, or the place outside of congruent space, as experienced by Des Esseintes in the English restaurant) is mediated by a difference of spatiality. As a consequence human forms, norms and emotions follow spatial codes, or possess a certain spatiality, and spaces themselves have anthropomorphic responses to human stimuli. Travelling is the negotiation or the dialectic between these two—the heim and the unheimlich. Descriptions of exotic places, travel packages and tours to villages tucked away in isolated landscapes do not cut much ice in my imagination. I am obsessed by that one sentence I would often encounter in Chemistry or Physics lessons in school: “An electron is travelling at the velocity of…etc.” The electron is the reactive constituent in covalent bonding. It is a transient Heimlich, and yet the bond is stronger than electrovalent bonds. Likewise we too, unbeknownst to ourselves tend to bond with spaces by sharing our own valences. This scientific model does work very well, and I am neither trying to be a spiritualist or a positivist. My equation is simply about the home and the universe, and in methods one can take to visualize itself through elements of another; hence the dialogue between spaces, going inwards into the heim within, and taking the heim beyond the confines of geopolitical borders. No, travelling is not about border crossings, it is about striking co-valence with spaces and their characters. What I see as a narrative of food, fashion, architecture, and luxury, not even well-decorated (not even as durable as the picturesque British narratives of Indian hill stations which go into the making of tourist brochures till today) is not travel, what I see as a photograph posted on social media incipiently declaring “I was here…” is not even tourism, it is conquest.