Travel and Enlightenment

The fall 2006 issue of divide, the literary magazine of the University of Colorado at Boulder, will focus on “Travel and Enlightenment.” The call for submissions which editor Ginger Knowlton e-mailed me frames the theme wonderfully, beginning with this quote from Emerson: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” And from Mark Twain: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness.”

I’ve been suffering from blogger’s block lately. I have no desire to lug my camera around, even the tiny Pentax, in search of arty shots to post to the Chronicles. I’m sick of the role of tourist. I feel embarrassment toward my earlier enthusiasms, seeing a clumsy foreigner making shallow judgments about a culture about which he hasn’t a clue.

The beauty of blogging is the freedom to change the game. So far this blog has had its lit-blog phase, when I peppered each post with links to other literary blogs and articles, and it’s had its tourista phase with pretty scenes of the Cote d’Azur . There was even a gee-I’m-writing-in-French-phase: “Regardez maman, no hands!” We seem to be entering a new phase that doesn’t have a clear sense of itself yet. I’m sniffing around like a basset hound who has lost the scent of a fox in the woods.

In this sniffing mode, I might as well respond to an invitation from fellow blogger and Denver Zen student Joel Taggert to list writing that I’ve enjoyed. I reluctantly passed on a similar invitation from my nephew Seth, feeling guilty for doing so, but the list of questions he forwarded seemed too long and came at a time when I was très occupied with learning French. So this list is for Seth, as well:

The last book I bought was:

Madame Bovary by Flaubert. Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI and one of the bright lights of Bennington, has read this novel over and over, and a review he wrote for The American Scholar made me curious as to what all the fuss was about. So I’ve begun reading it in French, a slow but very pleasurable process. I read a page or so before I go to bed, and the story of Emma has already caught me up in its spell. By this time next year I may have finished it.

Five fiction books I like are:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. I read this book in an abridged English translation when I was about 14 years old. Except for Barbar the Elephant and the Little Engine that Could, this novel forms my first strong memory of being taken over completely by a book, of entering a world as real as the one I left. It was perhaps the first time I discovered how the written word could transport me from my baffling little life into a world of grand actions based on moral clarity.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. This novel delighted me with its perfect-pitch rendering of the world of a New England prep school and its crafty rumination on the rewards and perils of literary creation. It reads like a literary whodunit, with a breathtaking plot twist involving plagiarism.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. This vast display of scary writing talent held me captive for several weeks, maybe months. I remember the mind-numbingly detailed notes in the back of the book, and how the descriptions of scenes and characters seemed feverish, intoxicating, and just this side of insane. DFW hasn’t written a novel since this one made him a star 10 years ago. I can’t remember much of the plot, which was a vague element of the book anyway, but I do recall that there was a lot about tennis.

Washington Square by Henry James. I enjoyed a fertile James period at Bennington, during which I read a series of stories and this novel, all suggested by my teacher David Lehman. My assignment was to find insights into the process of being an artist, and the stories were full of provocative pearls. Darlene and I were traveling through New Zealand, and I remember the joy of coming across my next James book on the list, hiding in the dusty shelves of a second-hand bookstore in Wellington. I frankly can’t remember any of the insights now, except for a general sense that James made the work of being an artist seem impossibly difficult and endlessly rewarding.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. I am a great believer in serendipity when it comes to deciding what to read. Last fall, Darlene and I were exploring the old city of Grasse, about an hour north of Cannes, and I found a little stone bookstore. It had about 10 books in English, one them a falling-apart paperback of Lord Jim. I remember reading it on the train, here in the apartment in Cannes, and at various coffee shops. I simply moved into the protagonist’s life and lived there during the weeks I was reading it and writing exitedly in my journal in response to its complex moral provocations.

Five nonfiction books I like are:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This is nonfiction, right? I’m never sure. But this book has been a marker for me, and I can date shifts in my life directly to the two times I’ve read it, each time buying a motorcycle shortly thereafter. I’m sure it laid the foundation for my interest in Zen. I don’t want to buy another motorcycle (although I’m crazy with envy for the sporty Vespas and little Harleys which vroom the streets of Cannes), so I don’t plan to read Pirsig again any time soon.

An American Requiem by James Carroll. A poignant, beautifully written memoir of how the author, then a radical priest, and his father, a military official, struggled to transcend their fiercely contrasting views during the Vietnam War. In the end, they didn’t succeed in the effort. But Carroll’s honesty and courage in telling the tale touched me deeply.

Walden by Thoreau. I grew up near Walden Pond, and for many years Thoreau symbolized the actualized, liberated spirit which I feared I would never be. I give him credit for luring me toward my own life, but I frankly cringe when I think of how simplistic my reading of his exhortations was twenty years ago. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, except for artsy guys like me who read Thoreau and “get it.” Right. I’m more of a mind now to accept the fact that any life has plenty of quiet desperation in it, and that the job of growing up (and of being an artist) is to deal with it gracefully, doing as much good in the world as can be managed.

Humanism and Democratic Criticism by Edward Said. This is another book which confirmed my belief in serendipity. While in Oxford, England, last fall I happened on a moving tribute to Said in The Guardian, and shortly afterward I found myself in Blackwell’s standing next to a copy of his posthumously published book. I bought the book in spite of its deadly dull title and spent several months reading it along with Said’s beautiful and painful memoir, Out of Place. The result of all this was a review of which I’m very proud that was published recently in Rain Taxi, an excellent book review publication. My passion for the project, as is usual when a book review taps into real energy, was fueled by my sense of seeing in Said aspects of my own questions and quest.

One magazine I like is:

The Atlantic. One of my writing idols, James Fallows, is a leading light at The Atlantic, and I always buy a copy when I see it includes an article of his. Fallows was president of The Crimson, Harvard’s daily newspaper, when I was a staffer. He presided over the mainly lefty wunder-writers—including Frank Rich and Michael Kinsley–with
what I thought was admirable fairness, intelligence, humility and rock-solid principle. It was a time of great ideological turmoil at Harvard, including the takeover of University Hall in 1969 when I was a freshman. I very much wanted to choose a side and fight the bad guys, but I could never figure out exactly who the bad guys were. Left and right both seemed to have a piece of the truth, and it didn’t make sense to me that half of the campus simply had its head up its ass. Fallows made sense to me 30-plus years ago, and so does most of what I read these days in The Atlantic.

Well, so much for blogger’s block.

Joel’s assignment has kept me blissfully occupied for several hours here at the apartment in Cannes. I had hoped that working on it might tease out an approach to divide’s “Travel and Enlightenment” theme. Perhaps this review of writing that has affected me suggests how best to pursue enlightenment through travel in the “real” world: by serendipity, mainly. By sniffing the woods for a scent that seems promising, raising your head to howl when you finally smell a trace of the fox, and scampering down the trail as fast as your little basset hound legs will carry you. I can’t think of a better reason to explain why we are in France, or what I’ve learned so far from our travels.

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