When I was little, my parents used to ask me and my sister every night at dinner to name three things we learned that day. It seemed tedious to a child - what did we learn? Sometimes we could ramble on about new French words or multiplication tables, but other days we were completely at a loss. But this exercise should have been easy. The reality is, we were learning so much every single day. We all do, each day, even if we don't always stop to realize it. In fact, the daily insights we have are really important, be them sweeping moments of falling in love or as simple as learning what "homosexual" means. The point is, it's all important, and we should never overlook the smaller moments of spiritual progression.
In this light, we can look to Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary as a series of epiphanies that amalgamates into one, large epiphany. As a dictionary that Guo's main character, Z, creates, each short chapter is titled by an English word, one that Z has either added to her English vocabulary or has expanded her understanding of during the course of her daily events. Though it would be fruitful to focus on specific epiphanies Z has throughout the book, such as her first time masturbating, or the myriad cultural connections and dissonances she discovers, if we look holistically at the novel as one great, united epiphany, we can see that Guo's greatest accomplishment is compiling the seemingly ordinary moments of change and realization into a larger chronicle of progression. Z's most meaningful epiphany is her realization that her own Concise Chinese-English dictionary, her diary, is the one that brings her to a new spiritual place. This entire section of her life, which fits neatly into book form, marks a moment of realization and the shaking of previous boundaries to bring Z into a new understanding.
The burdens of consciousness Z carries with her she releases via writing, by sharing her private realizations with us. In doing so, her overall commitment to writing in English not only brings her to a better understanding of English and general Western culture, but the entirety of it is a finished epiphany; one giant realization of her growth and maturation. And it very well may be that Z's choice to share this diary with us, the reader, is in a way its own epiphany: the realization that what she has accomplished is truly something. Her experiences, her new knowledge, her entire voyage was the work of change and spiritual balance. She had extreme highs and extreme lows, fell in love and found her own body; she became a woman, had her womanhood taken from her, and regained it back with her strength and conviction. Knowing all of this, she speaks to us so we can read each entry as a small, but vital change and perhaps reflect on our own daily epiphanies. What did we learn today?
As a travel fiction, Z's novel stands a picture of both a figurative and literal journey, one that ends with a return home. When she left, she was still a girl, and she returns a woman, who has the maturity and peace of mind to be able to share her writing, instead of her body, with us for our benefit. She has learned to respect herself, and she respects her voyage as a whole, the pieces of which she puts together to make sense of a confusing, often difficult and beautiful life. And life itself is, of course, a journey.
For about a week before the hike, Thomaz and I had been crafting characters. Sailing and camping in Ilhabela, Brasil, off the coast of São Paulo, we found ourselves completely alone from anyone we knew, in a very remote island town where we didn’t need to wear shoes and spent the days watching the fishermen bring in fresh catch. Foodmon and Bait, based loosely off of Robinson Crusoe and Friday, were our aliases, the wild characters we let loose in our new island lives. The two were quite developed, and their relationship seemed to form on its own. Bait was Foodmon’s new slave companion, who he had appointed on the island his ship wrecked on, and he treated her fairly but on a tight leash. Over time, however, Bait’s subtle charm and kooky love for Foodmon began to change him, and his demanding attitude became one of gentle instruction and fatherly care for his companion. For nights, we made fires on the beach and kept character, changing our voices so completely that speaking Portuguese with locals was the only way to bring us back.
The hike seemed easy enough. Cross Ilhabela, the largest island in South America, and you find a beautiful, completely uninhabited beach called Castelhanos. Okay, we figured, let’s do it. We didn’t even have tennis shoes. Nor did we check that weekend’s weather forecast.
Starting off, we passed by signs indicating the fauna and flora of this national reserve, and followed a jeep path that stretches across the island. The incline was low, and the Atlantic Forest was beautiful. Nothing wouldn’t grow in Brasil. The whole place is a giant hothouse. We were getting sweaty, and we loved it.
“Watch out for that snake, Bait!” Foodmon would cry out, and come behind me with a giant stick. “Foodmon, giant South American tarantula!” Bait screamed, jumping onto Foodmon for a piggyback ride. This was real adventure, and the South American sun was bronzing our skins. We had found joy. Then, it got cloudy.
“Did Foodmon check weather before hike?” Bait asked.
“Bait, my loyal companion, I’m afraid that was one part of our plan we forgot. No worries, comrade, we’ll be across to the beach in no time.” We didn’t mention that our plan was to camp when we got across to the beach.
About two hours into the six-hour trek, we saw jeeps coming back towards us. They kept ominously passing by, but we waved cheerily at them and kept onwards. To Castelhanos! To the beach!
But, then, the skies opened up.
A rainforest thunderstorm is unlike any other. It’s as if we were placed in a giant tropical washing machine, the heavy spin cycle, and we were completely swirled up in this beautiful, dangerous explosion of water. The path turned to quicksand, thick, swirling mud with holes and enough brown to hide the boulders underneath.
“FOODMON, BAIT’S BIG TOE IS HURT!” I cried. Thomaz rushed over to help me. I was gushing blood, and we were ankle-deep in mud. Thinking quickly, he remembered that I had brought along tampons for the trip, and he wrapped one around my oozing toe.
“We must carry on, Bait! The river will flood. We must cross it before it is too late!” There was a riverbed, normally dry, that we had planned to walk through. With the downpour, however, this was more than difficult.
We ran. I no longer cared about the bacteria that were no doubt crawling through my open sore; if we didn’t cross the river, we’d be in actual danger.
“Foodmon! Do you think we’ll make it?!” Bait cried.
“We must run, Bait! Don’t give up!”
We ran like banshees, screaming through the forest for hours that felt like minutes in the torrential downpour. When we reached the river, it was on the brink of overflowing – we swam across despite the rushing current, and kept running. We reached a rolling, mystical beach just as the rain stopped. The calm was unreal.
“Bait, we made it,” Thomaz said.
We had kept character through the whole swirling madness.
Camping that night in a hut one of the five locals on the beach offered to us, we had never felt so dirty, so lost, or ever so connected. We had made it across, together. Though we abandoned our aliases shortly after, the bonds they had helped us form were lasting. My toe healed in time, and the realization that we had kept up the fun out of instinct even during chaos moved us to a new place in our friendship. The whole thing was like a giant metaphor, only real. Next time, though, I think we'll remember to wear tennis shoes for a hike.
"Do you realize, we're floating in space?" - The Flaming Lips
Sputnik Sweetheart, huh? At first, I didn't love the title, I found the introduction to be somewhat awkward with an almost embarassing quality, and Greece? But, I couldn't put the book down. What it is about Sputnik that made me feel so personally involved with something that I am so very distant from? Wait. Space, time, distance, and understanding, an emotional response... I think I'm starting to get it.
I feel like I know K. He's so down to earth. It's amusing he narrates a story about satellites. But I suppose that's part of it; he's grounded, so we can trust him as he takes us through this surprising story. And in the end, what is history, K's chosen field of study in college, but stories? And what has history brought us to lately? A threading of many different histories, worldwide, that transcend time. But history books often leave out the most important part of these stories: the human emotions in them. Murakami, however, thinks about history in his work focused on human emotions.
The way Murakami splits and fuses really has a very atomic ring to it. The whole mention of Sputnik of course conjures up Cold War imagery, but the novel itself is so modern. Knowing next-to-nothing about Japanese culture, reading Sputnik leads me to assume everyone in Tokyo is extremely western, reading dog-eared copies of Kafka in dark coffee shops, dressing like hipster American youth or otherwise enjoying the fine qualities of Western, European, bourgeois gourmandise, never once eating anything traditionally or specifically Japanese in the novel. It seems like Murakami definitely has some globalization issues, and that's easy to understand for a Japanese who went to live in the US. But I think that he articulates his awareness of these dimensions in the novel, drawing on surrealism and place to drive home an understanding of human emotions.
After all, Western culture was born in Greece. Maybe Sumire, named for a Western piece of music, had to split herself between two worlds, physical and metaphysical, geographical and symbolic, as Miu did, to in fact become whole. And the Eastern part of her, I believe, stayed with K, who ended up writing afterall. Here is Sumire's novel, combined with K's sharp and refreshing insight; their final fusion, not exactly the type K wanted, but I think he felt satisfied by the novel's completion. In their joint work, he can finally hold her, be inside her by way of her thinking, and she can be with Miu, who can finally say honestly and on her own volition, "I like you. Very much" (175). The idea is, here's this woman who's split between white and black, like yin and yang, West and East, who is both male and female to Sumire, who is not a lesbian, but "happens to be in love with a woman." The ultimate combination of it all is volatile and sweaty, confusing and uncomfortable, but it needs to happen.
The world is only so small. We need loving travel companions, like guidebooks for life on one planet, to take us through the global journey we are all embarking on now. Hopefully we can draw on our histories while looking beyond them to understanding each other, and ultimately finding compassion. The idea is to find harmony, the kind that resonates throughout the pages of Sputnik Sweetheart in all Murakami's musical references, amongst cultures worldwide. Murakami creates his love triangle to explain this, with no absolute borders on characters who have seemingly precise characteristics, yet possess hte capacity to change. Though we're floating around in space, we all live together, and human emotions don't stop at border lines or require visas.
Nushu, 女書: a language buried with its last speaker. A women's language of secrecy and emotion, of poetry and the art of everyday women's work.
In a novel so centered around language and love, what can Nushu (page 97) teach us? Z explores a questionable if not frightening sexuality throughout her story. Often lonely and confused, she experiences abuse to the soul and the body, and Guo marks her wounded womanhood with a reversal of nature, the abortion she must have. Reading Z's dictionary makes us at once uncomfortable and afraid for her, annoyed at first by her English attempts and remarks, and shocked at how quickly and easily she jumps into serious situations. But Zhuang's history tells of women's solidarity and unspoken resistance, of a special connection and purity found through creative expression. The novel as a whole has a redemptive quality in its textual form: one thinks Guo must have done some serious healing herself in writing about her experiences. Writing, like translating, is a transformative process. Hurt by her past and hurt in her present, where does Z turn to for solace when not even her lover is there? Her dictionary-diary, which she presents to us as a very secret, intimate work. Language, it seems, goes beyond the workaday lifestyle Zhuang's family comes from. Mentioning the factory setting often, Z illustrates for us the difference between her family's life in China and her "new" life in England. Talking about the peasant workers back in China on 131, Z says,
"And the managers employ lots cheap labours like peasants, peasants' wives. And those womans they don't really know what is this machine for, but they just make it, by putting every piece of spare parts together. It is like they make computers by putting pieces together, but they never use computer."
This analogy, like the symbol of the dildo being manufactured in Chinese factories by women who don't know what they are producing, is certainly related to language. We use a language daily, but how often do we pause to reflect on all of its implications? When do we employ our own language, and when do we use someone else's? I'm sure many of us at Gallatin have pondered language quite a bit this semester, especially in our writing classes, but the majority of people in the world will spend their lives working the way these Chinese laborers do. The ability to think and use language to their ability is very difficult under these circumstances. The significance of the women's language, which was tainted by others who sought to use it for the wrong reasons, is that it is Guo's affirmation of the need for a creative outlet, for many simply so that their hearts don't break. Guo's brilliance in this novel comes from her understanding of this idea: that for Z to survive, she would not only have to learn a language that doesn't belong to her; she would have to make one of her own. Her own dictionary, her own special language that won't be twisted and ruined by anyone else. As her English improves, so she matures; not because English is a superior language (she brazenly comments on its faults), but because of the ways in which she has learned it: through love, both with another and with herself.
"Allegory itself seems to be a mode of travel, a way to listen for echoes outside the generic walls of the novel" (8) Michael Beard, Master Narrative and Necessity in Ibn Fattûma.
As Michael Beard and J.M. Coetzee both illustrate in their articles on Naguib Mahfouz, Western-style novels written in Arabic are a relatively new concept, and they have seen great fluctuations of popularity and criticism since their introduction in the early twentieth century. As Coetzee focuses on in his essay, "Fabulous Fabulist," further Western ideals weren't introduced to the Middle East until the early-to-mid twentieth century, in a new, modern "outlook" the region came into. Writing from his home in Cairo, Eygpt, where he hardly ever strayed from, Mahfouz set out to explore these newly introduced ideologies throughout his writing. His bibliography includes over 50 novels as well as a great amount of short stories, plays and movie scripts, many of which focus on issues of Western modernity and its influences in Egypt and the Middle East. Trying to find balance, Mahfouz wrote both historically and critically, integrating his knowledge of Egyptian tradition and culture with Western writers ranging from Balzac to Joyce, extending to Tolstoy and The Bible. Using the novel form, Mahfouz was able to place new perspective in Arabic writing (though many of his efforts led to the banning of his books or trouble with authorities). In 1983, after a lifelong writing career, he wrote The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, which was later translated into English in 1992.
Drawing from the ancient Arabic narrative of Ibn Battuta, Mahfouz structured his novel on the very non-Western idea of the caravan journey, and his main character, Ibn Fattouma, is pious in his Muslim beliefs and customs. Mahfouz also writes his novel in the first-person, connecting with more ancient storytelling traditions. Indeed, Ibn Fattouma seems to be the modern reincarnation of Ibn Battuta, and Mahfouz leaves time and specific geography out of his work to exemplify the timelessness of the narrative, which resonates both in the halls of history and in audiobook format.
Qindil leaves his homeland in search of a better way of living. "I am upset by injustice, poverty, and ignorance," (7) he tells his mother before setting off on his journey. It is clear that Mahfouz is writing about more than the epic journey of a lovesick young man. Something is wrong with his homeland, Egypt and the greater Middle East, and it has to do with where Qindil's journey will take him. The ideals of Islam no longer stand for Qindil, who has become alienated from his spiritual "centre" by the hypocrisy that exists within his society. "However much the place distances itself from me," he says, "it will continue to let fall drops of affection, conferring memories that are never forgotten, and etching its mark, in the name of the homeland, in the very core of the heart" (2). Indeed, Mahfouz has become disillusioned by the corruption of past ideals, but he seeks the solution in modernity; a modern medicine to heal wounds that have collected for centuries in a place he loves.
Setting out on the journey, Qindil's mother worries about safety, to which she receives the reply, '"A caravan," said the man simply, "is never subjected to attack. The inhabitants themselves enjoy a mere hundreth of the protection afforded to strangers"' (16). It seems that no matter where he may venture to, injustice and suffering exists for the people who live there. And indeed, each allegorical land he travels to claims to hold the "happiest" or "most secure" of people, but utopia is never present for Qindil in any of them. However, Mahfouz is deliberate in his presentation of Qindil's person growth throughout the novel, and though he leaves us without a direct solution or any kind of manifesto, he seems to suggest that we must never stop searching for the ideals that bring us freedom, and as his writing indicates, we cannot limit ourselves in thought or form. In a globalized world, we may choose to stay in our homeland as Mahfouz did during his life, but we cannot avoid "traveling" to other nations in thought or creative inquiry and expression. To do so would leave us in a muddled, corrupted past, a taste of bitter nostalgia ruining our appetite for life. We can find redemption in a reclamation of the past, if we do not ignore modernity and instead take advantage of its forms. Mahfouz is prophetic in his seemingly ambiguous ending: the journey to mecca no longer exists. We must create our own mecca in the face of globalization, using the values of our pasts to bring us to a better future.
"You are all a lost generation," resonates Gertrude Stein's voice in the epigram of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. As expatriates, Hemingway and his company surely were lost; disillusioned about their place in the world. Suffering through World War I, Hemingway's characters, who reflect his and his contemporaries' attitudes and emotions towards the times, have come to leave their country. Looking at them under the sociological lense, we observe that Jake and his pals fall into a category of tourists who seek renewal in the unknown. As Erik Cohen describes in his study, A Phemenology of Tourist Experiences, characters like Jake and Cohn are "experimental travelers" who "do not adhere any more to the spiritual centre of their own society," and so they "egage in a quest for an alternative in many different directions" (189). Indeed, the war seems to have destroyed a bit of these characters, taking something from them they seek to get back in other places. For Jake, whom the war rendered emasculated, spending time in Paris seemed like a possibly "re-creative" act, more than one of "recreation," a distinction Cohen establishes in his essay.
But, as their stay in Paris prolongs, these travelers cannot seem to find the spiritual grounding they seek. Advising Cohn against up and leaving to South America from Paris, Jake says, "Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn't make any difference. I've tried all that. You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There's nothing to that" (19). Jake understands that no matter where he goes, he will remain the same. In this way, he follows Cohen's description of the experimenter, who "seeks to discover a form of life which elicits a resonance in himself," while "refus[ing] to fully commit himself to it; rather, he samples and compares the different alternatives, hoping eventually to discover one which will suit his particular needs and desires" (189).
And so, Jake and his friends engage in continuous holidays: their fiesta is all-encompassing, and when they are not traveling, they are drinking excessively, or engaging in both. Their drinking is a form of travel for them, because their type of travel insists upon escape and seeks many possible paths, in a trial-and-error fashion, to goals they aren't necessarily cognizant of. Cohen points out in his article that "Internal and external quests for the centre are homologous" (Eliade, 1971: 18), and Jake looks outward to try to clarify something inward. When visiting Spain, as he does every year to witness the most authentic and meaningful symbol in his life, the bullfight, Jake enters a cathedral. Inside, distractedly praying, he says of his experience, "I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time" (103). Though he was raised Catholically and thereby is a Catholic, Jake cannot even find spiritual refuge in his own ethnic background. Instead, he looks to another culture's tradition of the bullfight, a symbol of commitment and meaning in the closeness the matador comes to death. This recalls to mind Don Marquis' "The Lesson of the Moth," in which the moth, always attracted to the electric light which will eventually kill him, says,
"it is better to be a part of beauty for one instant and then cease to exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life is come easy go easy we are like human beings used to be before they became too civilized to enjoy themselves"
Marquis' words warn us about what Cohen has observed occuring often with "experimental" travelers, whose search may eventually become a way of life, leaving no room for commitment or the "'leap of faith'" required to attach oneself to an idea. Indeed, Hemingway concludes his novel ambiguously, with many of his characters continuing to travel, seeking new places, new cultures to observe, while remaining foreign to them. "We could have had such a damned good time together," Brett says to Jake in the last few lines of the novel, exemplifying the hollow, tragic endlessness of a life in perpetual quest of the spiritual centre. For Jake, there is no redemption where there is no transcendence from this cycle, and his fault lies in witnessing the bullfights as a spectator instead of engaging in acts of equivalent value himself.
When reading The Comfort of Strangers, I found myself making awkward, incredulous faces and yelling out loud, "What's wrong with you?!" Everytime the novel gets creepier, our main characters relax more, avoid more. "We're on holiday" seems to be a mantra for a fatal lifestyle, and the fact that they are on vacation, away from the reminders of daily life, seems to let them slip into an idleness, a laziness that lets Colin die.
Now that I think of it, I'm really finding a strong connection between death and traveling in this class - what is it about going away that kills all these characters?
Is it the ways in which they travel? Are Mary and Colin that different from Daisy Miller and others? If so, it is obviously in their strangeness and overt sexuality. McEwan throws in some weird stuff about gender and maturity/immaturity, and the travel connection is, we see again, what allows these characters to delve into these deep psychological ponderings, and to partake in pleasures spiked with fear and pain.
Setting this location in "what may or may not be" Venice is a way for McEwan to explore the weird insides of his characters. In specific, he constructs the hotel room as vehicle to sin. That is to say, traveling renders these characters vulnerable to expressing and exploring their sloth and lust. We gasp at Robert and Caroline's sado-masochism, but aren't Colin and Mary doing the same thing? When they wake up at Robert's house, naked and confused, they're hardly concerned. Instead, they accept further food and wine, allowing themselves to be literally and metaphorically drugged. When Mary wakes up frightened from her realization about the photograph, she's speechless, and they hardly discuss it. (I'd be at the consolate immediately!) Though it seems to creep her out, she lets it go. But, she's in a hotel room, a temporary place that supplies strong feelings of impermanence, and in a way the structure itself invites her to indulge in indifference. One might even suggest that she somehow takes pleasure in her fear. Smoking pot on their balcony, the two indulge in their apathy, even in a city that has so much to exlpore and offer. "On holiday," everything is done for you: your linens are cleaned by a maid, your food prepared by others (your entire vacation hijacked by a crazed, violent couple...) The fear Colin experiences swimming out to Mary on their one day at the beach subsides immediately; it seems like he should have been angrier or more tossled by the event. If we want to think of it this way, we can explore interiors as reflections of the exterior. Not to be in bad taste, but I can't help but think of Bobst library: does its open design almost invite suicide, or at least open an easier opportunity than other buildings might? Likewise, hotel rooms inspire lust and laziness, balconies a feeling of hope and escape (that work towards keeping Caroline trapped where she is), Robert's inherited house and furniture a constant reminder of his traumatic upbringing and therefore as violent, and generally, being driven by others in boats, taxis, etc. renders you trapped and without control of your destination.
Where to conclude? Should we never travel again? Do we have to be super vigilant and hyper-aware if we want to see Venice? Honestly, I think so, unless we want to invite the kind of "comfort" McEwan gives his characters, who have some intricate psychological issues (but don't we all?). I think I'd rather pay attention to not letting my surroundings get the best of me.
Again in our reading for this week I was reminded of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I know it keeps coming back to me and I probably should blog about something else, but the imagery Mann presents is just too similar, and the ending on the beach seems almost to reference the poem. Indeed, Prufrock was on the same journey: his obsessive, passionate drive for youth and beauty paralyzed him; he brought his death upon himself, just as Aschenbach does. What I'll focus on in my entry to stray from simply comparing the two works is the importance of scenery and place in Death in Venice on our main character, who is surely not a hero but, like J. Alfred, a negative example.
Mann calls emphatically upon the senses in Death in Venice, and setting plays a key role in understanding plot and motivation. The longer Aschenbach stays in Venice, the madder he becomes. Mann describes Venice as "a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap" (104), an insiduous vehicle for Aschenbach's decadence. Spending days at the beach, the sun tans him, and "the bracing salt air [makes] him more susceptible to emotion" (89), as if the salt and salt are exfoliating his old persona from him, corroding away his harsh exterior that, in a way, protected him. Raw, affected by nature and not kept in-doors in his rainy cottage in the mountains, Aschenbach feels for the first time, and begins to change from a man who "did not care for pleasure" (76) to one who is truly intoxicated by emotion. The corroding effect the beach has on him translates into his every action, and "emotions from the past, early, delightful dolors of his life were now reappearing in the strangest of permutations - he recognized them with a perplexed and puzzled smile" (91). He's not unhappy about this realization, but rather a bit clownish, unsettlingly cheerful and dangerously obsessed with youth.
And here on the beach, like Prufrock, does he move like "a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas." He has no interactions with others in the novella, besides when he is catered to and waited on, and we only hear his voice when he thinks. He doesn't speak to the object of his desire, Tadzio, who actually even waves "crabs that go sideways" (79) at him on the shore. Mann could have simply said "crabs," but he included "sideways," reminding us that Aschenbach is not moving forward (nor backward even). So affected by his physical surroundings, he turns inward and, as he is alone in his travels, away from the familiar remindings of who he is and what he does, he becomes insecure. Cripplingly insecure.
So is Mann suggesting that travel is a devilish institution that should be avoided? Many more than Aschenbach surely find their deaths in Venice. I'm not sure that Mann makes an absolute statement, but he certainly complicates things for us. In fact, Aschenbach almost made it out of Venice - by happenstance, he remained (though joyously). It seems to me Mann is commenting more on our attitudes about traveling, rather than the act itself, for when traveling, we become frighteningly aware of ourselves as environments, as places; what we do always affects others, and what we have inside our minds, and even our bodies, we always put out into the external world. Aschenbach is a writer: his "duty" is to insight hope, love, fear, etc. into minds and hearts of others, but it seems that when he experiences these emotions himself they paralyze him, and he cannot return home. If, however, he chose to live outwardly, and embrace the world around him rather than let it corrode at his very being, he might have avoided being etherized, and perhaps the camera Mann places on the beach at the end of the novella , a reminder of how we look at the world - through another lens than our truth-telling eyes - would not need to exist in this separate reality.
When I first read On The Road, it was in its original scroll form. I devoured it, quickly loving every word, and put it into the context of my own life without quite taking enough time to savor and reflect. Among quite a few other influences, On The Road was probably a catalyst for some of my big adventures: leaving college, and the country, etc. As Bob Dylan said, "It changed my life like it changed everyone else's."
I remember driving away from everything I was supposed to be doing, entering random towns in Delaware and North Carolina that I'd never been to before, and feeling infinite. My friends became Kerouac's friends (some of them really are very similar), and I suppose I thought of myself as Sal: searching for something beyond a prescription, out of the white-collar Christian Ivy League lobster roll resumé expectancies placed on me. The wind blew through my hair on the highway, and we couldn't speed fast enough (in the car we had stolen, while my partner had a warrant out for his arrest...) It felt good to be bad, but we didn't do it intentionally to be bad, or because we thought we were bad: how natural our rebellion was made it authentic, and the adventure really has great stories. The experiences I had hiking in Brazil and staying in shacks on small beaches with no electricity, wild hogs running past at night, nothing but a very dirty mattress on the floor, smeared with calamine - it was all a search for the authentic, and I believe I found it, but was I missing something more?
It wasn't until I began to think back to On The Road that I reflected a bit more on my own journey. There's something to be said in the difference between Sal (Kerouac) and Dean (Neal Cassidy), and when I realized I might have been acting more like Dean than Sal, I re-applied to college. Whereas Dean just takes off, creating and abandoning, I thought I'd slow down, write about my travels, and find ways in which I can help influence, change the world: help the impoverished people I had stayed with, rather than photograph them. Like in the novel, when everything is going so fast, it's impossible not to feel whole; like you've found the part of you you lacked before... something along those lines. Like Kerouac, I acted semi-authentically, semi-voyeuristically, peering into my own life and those of the people I encountered and wanted to know, and loved. But in Brazil, I was just as much an outsider as I was trying to be from the society I rejected in the States.
What Kerouac did was transfer his experiences into art. He had to distance himself from them to make them universal and relevant to the lives of others. Steve Wilson, in his essay "Buddha Writing: The Author and the Search for Authenticity in Jack Kerouac's On The Road and The Subterraneans," describes Kerouac as a Boddhisatva, one who cannot reach full enlightenment, but can guide others toward it. I can look back at the rupture between Dean and Sal and reflect with my decision to go the path of Kerouac: continue to search, but pay more attention to the bigger picture, think outside oneself; there, one finds wholeness. In this light, I still celebrate and thank Kerouac for his work, his honesty, and his spirit. I'd never change or take back anything I did; I've just learned how to do it again, but better.
"Whenever he was en route from one place to another, he was able to look at his life with a little more objectivity than usual. It was often on trips that he thought most clearly, and made the decisions that he could not reach when he was stationary" (98).
When Paul Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky, he was searching for something. Alone, and away from his home, he decided to write a novel in which his semi-autobiographical characters could act on his behalf; travel and seek what he was seeking. Indeed, perhaps this is how literature functions: as a fantasy vehicle for one's own real exploration. In letting his characters play out their stories, Bowles found an outlet for his own inner turmoils and those ever human emotions we all experience, suffer from, and learn by. In the desert, away from anything familiar, he embarked on his own wilderness journey through his writing, as his characters went on theirs.
His his article, Interiors and Exteriors, Richard Patteson describes that "Paul Bowles' expatriation began, in his own mind, shortly after he was born." Bowles' experiences and worldview surely say that he created Port in his own image: a lost character who, through his constant traveling, cannot seem to find a grounded place in life. In fact, Port seems to lost between two worlds, that of reality, with its harsh exteriors and tangible, ownable objects, and his dreams, literally those in his sleep and figuratively, the dreamy desert setting he wanders through. Though the novel begins with Port awakening, we see that his presence in the waking life is frightening, one that he finds "difficult to accept" (4). As his story progresses, Port's oscillation between dream-like, fantastic settings (the desert, and oases, with their mysterious many colors) and places like Bou Noura, where he aimlessly finds "the proofs of civilization" (128) serve to confuse and aggitate his spirituality and well-being. One night, he wakes from a sleep sobbing, "with no memory of any dream save the faceless voice that had whispered: 'The soul is the weariest part of the body'" (117-118). In focusing on his dreams, Port attempts to cope with the waking life, as "their particular meaning with regard to his own life scarcely mattered. For in order to avoid having to deal with relative values, he had long since come to deny all purpose to the phenomenon of existence - it was more expedient and comforting" (67). Where is the difference between dreams and reality for him?
In chapter xvi, Port comes to an understanding: "a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, but there never would be a return, another time" (126). Passing alone through the dark, red hills of his new setting, Port experiences feelings of timelessness, of mysteriously existing outside reality, and brings himself back to ponder the difference between these two worlds.
In this light we see that Port must die, to rest in one final place and end his constant traveling, constant searching. Bowles writes in the novel's preface, "I knew that the death was necessary because what I wanted, above all, was the experience of dying, not as seen by observers, but from the inside - I had to be the dying person." Through Port, Bowles was able to find a sort of strange solace for himself, and left Kit, another extension of himself, to freely explore and survive as she can and as her character would in the real world, where timelessness does not exist and dreams can end. We cannot live only in dreams, trying to escape from our own living nightmares and travel between what is real an what is not - and we should translate this dreamy travel to waking tourist travel, which, when it is aimless and used as a background for our own self-exploration, is not experiencing anything real (as Bowles shows us with Eric and his mother). Rather, we must confront our own reality, as Bowles does when he chooses to write, and as we can through our own art and expression.