Sunday, May 17, 2009

David Foster Wallace on travel

An insect on a dead thing. Photograph by the Mrs.

I'm still not quite done with finals; a substantive post will have to wait a while yet. But because I've been musing a bit about travelling of late (and I have the added experience of having lived in a foreign country for an extended period of time), this passage from David Foster Wallace (via Andrew Sullivan struck home this morning. Disclaimer: I'm not sure just how fully I agree with this, but I've had an awkward moment or two when I've sort of forgotten my tourist status that cause me to give some serious thought to what Wallace is saying here.):

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.

My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all.

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful:

As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.


Eric said...

I love your thoughts on tourism. I shall keep this in mind when I travel to New York City in July!

R. Sherman said...

I think this is a little over the top. I can see his point when it comes to certain places which attract and cater specifically to those tourists he describes. In a sense, a Gatlinburg, Tennessee is indistinguishable from Daytona, Florida. Or see any town immediately outside the boundaries of popular national parks. Yet, with the right mindset, a desire to leave one's comfort zone, travel can be quite illuminating and renewing, as well.


Jim Sligh said...

This quotation of DFW's folds right into some vague thoughts I've been trying to rope together into a longer piece on travel writing (abroad, though), which are still diffuse enough that I'm not sure I'm able yet to rehearse here.

One part of it: "of living somehow outside and above it all" - reminds me of the flanêur, the objective eye outside of circumstance, able to float along the surface of things. (I think there's an essay by Virginia Woolf about this feeling, and its potential superficiality, allowing oneself to drift along on images; I was reminded of it a few months ago when I realized that after half a year here I had never actually touched an olive tree).

I don't think, though, that Wallace's essay needs to be embraced absolutely; it's a provocation, and meant to be considered insofar as it's always true, even when other things can be true as well.

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for commenting.

Eric, have a good time in NYC--but don't be too hard on yourself. And that brings me to Randall's and Jim's comments. I think both of you are right in your own ways that DFW wants us to look at and think about ourselves in a way we probably had not before--as is usually the case with just about anything he writes.

Something else that occurs to me: I find myself wondering to what extent DFW's experiences as a traveller were shaped by his celebrity. I have no way of knowing how comfortable he was with his relative fame; but, comfortable or not, surely that's something that he wasn't able to leave at home or lying on his hotel room bed. Surely at some level, that shaped his experience as a tourist. We Nobodies, no one bothers us as we gawk at your standard issue Tourist Attractions. We have the luxury of relative anonymity. And for the most part when I travelled in Mexico, unless I was in some really un-touristy place, people's gazes would sort of flit over me and that would be that.

(Aside: Once during our October trip to Mexico City, the Mrs. turned to me and said, "People are really staring at me," and I told her, "Well, that's because you're about the tallest woman in Mexico City right now" (she's almost 6' tall). Even so, though, she once told me she felt relatively anonymous, due, she said, to not knowing too much Spanish.)

The dynamic of being a tourist, at least as DFW describes it, is much like that of being an anthropologist.

Jim Sligh said...

"The dynamic of being a tourist, at least as DFW describes it, is much like that of being an anthropologist."

Just like writing; I'm thinking of DFW's essay "E Unibus Pluram: TV and US Fiction" and the entire introduction about writers as lurkers & starers. What role played by we moderns wasn't, for DFW, a kind of anthropology?

Being six foot & anonymous in Mexico City reminds me of how I feel in Boston when I wear a suit - totally conspicuous, totally invisible.

Doc said...

I tend to agree with DFW, though not to the same degree.

Like yourself, I have lived longterm in 2 countries besides the US, and have meandered throughout another half dozen; DFW points are sailent and have often crossed my mind...BUT, my thoughts were/are not informed by DFW's crushing depression.

So while I say yes: if you are a thinking individual at even the basic level, the reality and impact of your tourism should at some point strike you as significant as the hypothertical viewer awaiting Schrödinger's cat to debox.

However, the "insect on a dead thing" metaphor is only apt for a thoroughly self-aware individual who is also daily contemplating suicide...

But it is just that point of viw that made DFW a fascinating read.

Jim Sligh said...


Living in another country myself, I think we might have had similar reactions reading the piece (ie. less on intranational tourism and more on the international, or on the difference between a tourist & someone living temporarily in a country . . . I, of course, am a beginner at this).

On the other hand, while Wallace's recurrent depression had enormous influence on his writing (and maybe even on his syntax - that obsessive turning of a subject to look at it from every angle, the looping paragraphs, the circular reflections), the last part of your comment seemed to me to skirt dangerously close to judging the body of his work solely on the basis of the way he died.

Isn't to retroactively explain away "insect on a dead thing" as the product of a mind constantly contemplating suicide only after you know he's commited suicide dodging the critique?

John B. said...

Wow. And to think I'd posted this in the first place mostly as a way to let people know I was still around. Thanks, Doc and Jim.

Jim, your remark reminds me of a passage from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise that Wallace quotes entirely and approvingly in his essay on contemporary U.S. fiction in A Supposedly Fun Thing . . . : It's the passage describing JAK Gladney's and Murray Siskind's trip to The Most-Photographed Barn in America. What is fascinating about that passage is that we get a fairly detailed description of the people photographing the barn and the economy that has sprung up around the vantage point from which people photograph it; but, as Murray says, "No one sees the barn." And then it hits the reader: JAK, the narrator, never describes the barn--the ostensible reason all these people are there and all those photographs taken--at all. He describes the spectacle instead. What's being photographed is, in a sense, the "most-photographed" part--the adjective rather than the noun.

I don't pretend to know the extent to which Wallace's depression shaped his writing--or his general intellectual bent, for that matter. It does seem to me, though, that the scene from White Noise and Wallace's "insects on a dead thing" image (and, it occurs to me, Walker Percy's well-known essay, "The Loss of the Creature") are both getting at the same general idea: that, to borrow Derrida's famous formulation, in tourism there's an inescapable "always already"-ness. It's been "seen" by us in our mind's eye, through someone else's descriptions or pictures, or else we wouldn't be going there ourselves. That's not a condemnation of tourism per se, mind you--just of package tours :)

Doc said...

@ Jim

“Isn't to retroactively explain away "insect on a dead thing" as the product of a mind constantly contemplating suicide only after you know he's commited suicide dodging the critique?”

fair question.

no, my comment was not hindsight. nor do i mean to reduce his work into a simple byproduct of his disease

yet DFW’s ongoing battle with depression was “common” knowledge since the late 90s when he first (publicly) went off the rails. and i grew up with a clinically depressed family member – suicidal ideation is part and parcel for the disease. that being the case, some of us who followed DFW early days onward were always worried that he call it quits…

i was lucky enough to see and talk DFW twice – once at an author’s forum (with lesser literary luminaries) in portland just over a decade ago, and also on harvard square when he was doing a reading. what was jarringly obvious -aside from his genius- was DFW was one of those people that the world was always too much with; add his constant battle against depression, and his astonishing sense of inadequacy as a writer (yeah – go figure) and much of the self deprecation found in his work has always echoed his mal à la vie

Jim Sligh said...

@ Doc,

On rereading your comment, I'd remembered it as more reductive than it was. I also didn't mean to decouple DFW's disease so entirely from the suicide itself, as though it weren't the final iteration of something previously, repeatedly, experienced. Thanks for elaborating after my (somewhat uncharitable) reading.

I guess my point was, DFW may be grappling with disease, but that doesn't let us off the hook to the extent that we are complicit in modernity and all it entails (modernity here standing for an insect on a dead thing, to open up an even bigger box), which includes tourism, even unpackaged tourism, despoiling what it means to appreciate unspoiled, and even perhaps means global cosmopolitanism erasing the local cultures that make moving around to different countries worth it in the first place.

(so my living in Spain is a good thing, but if every American goes to Spain, what happens to Spanish-ness?)

@ John,

I just read White Noise for the first time last summer. The barn reminded me a lot of this Christmas, when I was at the Alhambra with a high fever, and it was more crowded than I remembered it being - I sat in a little chair near a reflecting pool and watched fifty different people with huge digital cameras approach the same tiled alcove, consider it for less than a moment, and raise the lens up to take the same shot, over and over again . . .

It might have been the fever. But the emotion reminds me forcefully of these two passages.

Also of the British prankster/graffiti/performance artist Banksy's series, "This Is Not a Photo Opportunity," which I've only heard about but never seen, in which he stencils those words somewhere inconspicuous on a heavily-traveled site, where they're only noticed in the photograph after it's been taken home and developed, in its thousands of copies - somewhere over in the corner, say.

Doc said...

@ Jim, you:

i agree with DFW's premise of complicity, it's just that my quantum mechanics analogy was inept. what i was trying to express was that tourists indeed play a similar role in determining state: the thing being witnessed is in all possible states up to the actual point of viewing AND the act of viewing, in and of itself, is part of determining that state, making the viewer an active participant in the changed state…

sorta of a Schrödinger von Neumann Chocolate Catastrophe Milkshake, if you will.

obviously poorly expressed – my apologies.