wherever you go, there you are: why travel is pointless without philosophy
The artist Hank Schmidt in der Beek recently did a collaboration with photographer Fabian Schubert, in which he traveled to scenic locations and set up an easel, only to then paint the designs on his own shirt.
It seems like an amusing sort of gimmick. I am sure some art snobs would deign it the mark of an unoriginal mind. The thing is, we all do just that in different ways. Maybe not in such an obvious way or as an intentional statement, it just happens.
We fall prey to confirmation bias and read books to cement preexisting notions. We travel to places we have dreamt of, only to slip into the usual addictions and vices. Someone speaks of a difficult event they are going through and we respond by telling them of something similar which happened to us. Or we look at someone successful and see only what can be replicated or mimicked.
When I went to Paris in July, I was astounded by how many people were primarily concerned with taking selfies in beautiful locations. Everywhere I looked in the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Notre Damn etc were people with selfie sticks and self-timers, getting pictures of their own faces. A shirt is as good a symbol of that as any. Our base selves remain loud and obnoxious everywhere we go.
Seneca talks about this issue with travel. In one of his letters to Lucilius he wrote:
'Men travel far and wide, wandering along foreign shores and making trial by land and sea of their restlessness, which always hates what is around it. ‘Let’s now go to Campania.’ Then when they get bored with luxury–‘Let’s visit uncultivated areas; let’s explore the woodlands of Bruttium and Lucania.’ And yet amid the wilds some delight is missing by which their pampered eyes can find relief from the tedious squalor of these unsightly regions. ‘Let’s go to Tarentum with its celebrated harbor and mild winters, an area prosperous enough for a large population even in antiquity.’ ‘Lets now make our way to the city’–too long have their ears missed the din of applause: now they long to enjoy even the sight of human blood.'
Seneca is not criticizing travel per se, more the act of moving around in the hopes of finding the right form of entertainment. Of shifting the external in the hopes of reworking the internal. Which is something that has never worked for anyone. Some people derive more benefit from a walk around their town that others do from touring half the planet. If you can't amuse yourself purely with the contents of your own mind, how can you amuse yourself with a location?
I have always segmented my life based on location. We moved a lot during my childhood and I recall the anticipation each time I changed location and school. Finally, I would think, I get a fresh start and can be a new person. I was extremely unpopular at school and would tell myself it would be different in each new place. Okay, I would say to myself, you are not going to be weird this time, you are going to be cool. Except I never was and within a week I was back to gloomily dreading school.
Only when I understood that I was the problem, not the place, did I learn to accept things. It does not matter where you are or how much time has elapsed. You are you and I think it's time we all face up to that. We can all improve ourselves, we can change, we can grow. But no one ever gets anywhere by relying on some superficial catalyst for that alteration.
There is wonder to travel and it is the perfect springboard for growth. Yet the place in itself is irrelevant. Think of the concept of alive time vs dead time. People throughout history have (and still do)plenty of alive time in the vilest circumstances imaginable.
In ugly circumstances, I try to ask, where is my snowball? How high can my butterfly go?
Look hard enough and there is always a snowball, always there, ready to spark awe and appreciation.
Look hard enough and there is always somewhere for the butterfly to soar to.
I like to keep a notebook of the most significant quotes I have heard or read, surefire sources of awe. I open it multiple times a day for that purpose. Books make good snowballs (here are some of my favorites.) So do phone calls to people who matter. And maps. When I spent a year in hospital, I had a pocket map of Paris which I gazed at for hours on end. It was my snowball. I remember pacing my room, saying the names of each metro stop out loud. Rehearsing the pronunciation so I could try to sound like a local when I finally managed to visit.
When I did get to visit, the experience was almost beyond words. I got a tattoo to reflect the experience. It is a matchbox with the word 'TOUJOURS' written on it, a reminder that no matter what, the memory of Paris is always there for me to immerse myself in, it is something I can never loose. One of my most memorable moments in Paris was a meditation session. It was by far the most powerful one I have done yet. My mind did not wander. I had an experience of losing my sense of self, something I have chased ever since.
I will be leaving for Paris on the 4th of March. No plans, no return ticket, accommodation only booked for the first night. Total freedom to immerse myself in the place. At the same time, the place itself is not the point. I was able to experience pure wonder just from looking at the map. Just from the names, the colors of the Metro lines. Pure magic. All the same, a location is superfluous. I don't need to travel to create alive time. It is possible anytime, anywhere, anyhow. If Jean-Dominique Bauby could do it whilst paralyzed, and Victor Frankl could do it in a god damn concentration camp then no one reading this has any excuses.
Meanwhile, plenty of people live through (and still do) dead time in the most opportune circumstances conceivable. People who make a million pounds a month and still need coke to get through the afternoon. People who get into their dream university, then skip class because it's too hard. Actors and singers who complain about the press, as if it is somehow superfluous to their success. Those who pick up a classic book, then claim it's 'too hard.' This general lack of gratitude and self-awareness amongst people in my generation.
And then travel is offered as a solution. As if wandering around the world on your parents' dime, getting drunk and dropping cigarette butts on beaches is a cure for dissatisfaction. As if it is possible to learn to live by staring at a smartphone in another generic hotel room where an underpaid maid will pick up your towels. As if paying £6000 to faff around with orphans will make you a better person.
Seneca also wrote in the same letter: 'As Lucretius says ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.'
Honestly, if you can't be satisfied with your own thoughts, if you can't enjoy your own company, if you can't laugh without vodka or create more than you consume than travel will change nothing, except for the superficial.
The main thing most commenters on Hank Schmidt miss is the actual beauty of the photos of him working. They are stunning. Indeed, they draw even more attention to the landscape than a mere photograph of it would. A viewer's eye goes first to the canvas, then to the shirt, then to the landscape. The humor becomes obvious, then the beauty. As the beauty is revealed, it is unusually poignant. Visceral, real awareness of the place he stands in. The irony is that the landscapes appear even more striking than they usually do in pictures.
It makes sense. Only when we appreciate the every day can we appreciate the ordinary. Only when we see the micro can we see the macro. Only when understand our own biases and inherent narcissism can the wider world become coherent.
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