(In Search of) A Fugacious Release from Narratives: Why Travel?

Nighthawkers

Stories, myths, and narratives (henceforth used interchangeably) contextualize our lives; against these substratal dramas we justify everything we do, define all we are. The angst-allaying function of myth is innate, unconscious, and executes a sort of mutiny on our waking lives. David Foster Wallace gives his characteristic point-blank exposition of the unique symbiotic relationship between human beings and narrative:

“And it’s so true it’s trite that human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as a culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his life-time as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and a middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built in thing.”

– DFW, Fictional Futures, “Both Flesh and Not”, p. 52

The grip of these stories prompted my trip to India in the first place. If the mutiny metastasizes, you lose the ability to relate to the world in any sense other than that dictated by your personal myth. The consequence is frighteningly pro-dogma. Everything that enters your life — from people to inanimate objects — is sentenced to be wholly defined in relation to your constructs. The resulting solipsism erodes the empathy and compassion that seems to underlie desirable human relationships. Again given by Foster Wallace:

“…we’re each the hero of our own drama, others around us remanded to supporting roles or (increasingly) audience status.”

– DFW, Ibid. p. 50

After much deliberation, Avery and I deemed this a bad thing (sarcasm aside, it’s absolutely terrifying to abandon a story you’ve lived in for the majority of your life). So in some vague sense, we traveled around Asia and India to escape the lure of our prior stories. In a more personal sense, when trying to answer the question, “why did I come out here?”, the working answer is something like the following:

I think I came out here to disassemble my old habits — shed my adopted conditioning — to disenthrall my unconscious mechanisms with any unwittingly acquired patterns of thought. This in itself is a lifelong task. Simultaneously observing disparate modes of living — from the hill tribes along the Mekong River of Laos to the self-sustaining organic farms of former Buddhist monks in the mountains of Northern Thailand — enriches the inventory from which I can rebuild my story with healthier, saner habits.

Drifting across cultures with expansive diversities of habit is a chief virtue of travel. Finding yourself amidst a community with a basic orientation to the world antithetical to your own is at once alarming, uncomfortable, exhausting, and yet potentially liberating. Those frictions seem to be the defense mechanisms of our mythological rootings — the survival instincts of our overriding narrative kicking in. Encountering a foreign group’s monotony, and being struck by novelty, is an awesome paradox from which to learn. Experiencing as wide and contradictory an array of these stories as possible enables an ephemeral dislodgement from our own entrenchments, a prerequisite for revisiting the ethos of a life.

Though all this is possible, travel is neither a foolproof remedy for dogma nor a sure-fire blueprint for fulfillment. Travel has just as distracting an array of stories as home life that the mind is apt to latch on to. Often times your mind’s dispositions will color wherever you go in the same hue as that which you left. This somewhat disconcertingly implies that if you really want to see something new, you have to change not the outer, but the inner landscape. Asia may not make you feel any different than you did in suburban New York unless you address the mental matrix that translates external stimuli into your working story. Ralph Waldo Emerson hit this very wall in the ostensibly comforting allure of travel:

“Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (1847)

Travel itself brings us back to a place of vulnerability. We confront the afflictions buried under the veil of habit — the questions superficially assuaged by fervid participation in whatever myth is conferred upon us. This, of course, is not enough. Without an inquiry into our mediating mind — an inversion of the journey to complement the reconsideration of our physical conditioning — our “giants” will follow. Still, travel provides an opportunity. It lifts the soul from its grooves. Albert Camus describes this excavation as being brought to the surface of ourselves (quoted at length, but I promise it’s worth it):

“…For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.”

– Albert Camus, Love of Life, Lyrical and Critical Essays

In this vein, it might not be totally absurd to venture that travel’s real value is not in where you go, but what you leave behind. To really travel is to totally extricate ourselves from our previous mental patterns, allowing for a reconfiguration of the way we perceive things. This paints travel as an active process. We can’t discover what we’re looking for; we must create it with an onslaught of both mental and physical novelty. In Osho’s Creativity, he distinguishes between the passive process of discovery and the active one of creation:

“Life itself has no meaning. Life is an opportunity to create meaning…Meaning has not to be discovered: it has to be created…God is not a thing but a creation. And only those who create find. And it is good that meaning is not lying there somewhere, otherwise one person would have discovered it — then what would be the need for everybody else to discover it?”

– Osho, Creativity, pp. 181–182

Any story discovered is contrived: tailored not to the irreducible complexities of a particular soul, but to the specifications of another. Travel — this trip — is about creating a story by which to live; fueling the internal overhaul with an array of experiences so foreign to anything I know that it’ll be impossible to return with the same mental architecture, though hopefully emerging more in line with health and sanity than before.

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