Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Introduction toTourist Snapshots

(I here offer something of a theory of travel. This is the introduction to my Tourist Snapshots CC Marimbo put out in 2008.)

I may have striven once to be a sort of anti-tourist (going a good deal on foot and avoiding any place that accepted credit cards at all), and I was resident in the Niger delta for a spell, but my perspective must nonetheless be the tourist’s, for that is the only middle term between stay-at-home and long-term expatriate. The tourist’s perspective, however, is no mean thing; it has to my mind a certain potential for sublimity. Walking without destination one notes the dusty hypnotic tavern signs of down-at-heel Cleveland, or promenades on a bush path past snares with one eye cocked for the dropping mambo, or along Wenceslas Square between sausage stands and sculpted monarchs [1] -- walking through such sights is the richest of pretexts regardless of whether text ever comes trailing behind. The tourist, after all, does nothing but look and listen and sniff the air. Thus his needs are few and “he travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest.” [2]

The tourist is a true saunterer, which the philologists derive from saint terre, as pilgrims travel, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the holy man and the holidaymaker. [3] And the focused gaze in fact makes every land Jerusalem. Thoreau usefully notes that some dissenters would trace the etymology to sans terre, “having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Such a saunterer is a professional at wu wei or doing nothing, the activity most greatly prized by the Daoists. [4] Though arguably one of the highest of human pursuits, it is often abandoned to infants, idiots, friends of cannabis, and poets. Hazlitt was on the mark, as he was more often than not, when he said "The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases." [5] The tourist is always on the job, whatever may unfold, and should he get stuck as Patricia and I did, trying to catch a lift on the coast of Algeria merely because we thought there were Roman ruins in Cherchell and we wanted to walk where Augustine once did, that sort of vulnerability has some share in the extraordinary potential of the vulnerability of love.

Among travel’s charms is the objectification of alienation. Since the fall we have all been wayfaring strangers for all that the ants and the crows seem altogether at home. In the bosom of a warm living room such alienation can gather forbidding metaphysical weight. The talons of the bird tighten on the shoulders and the whole figure threatens to stoop toward agony. But abroad, among crowds of robed figures murmuring unintelligible utterances or crying aloud, before inscrutable dwellings with coded doorposts, the visitor expects to be an outsider. His normative status cannot be measured against others of his group. Instead, he alone defines the American. One’s sense of conspicuous oddity becomes then honorable – the sign of the adventurous, the affluent. The sometimes wearisome business of the day becomes a quest. What a luxury to find identity clear and simple, like a cloudy solution gone suddenly transparent in its Erlenmeyer flask!

The ambulatory eyeball has the rare illusion of objectivity, and it sometimes happens that ego recedes in the most writerly of texts. As the focus turns outward, the traveler’s vision is clarified by the automatic triangulation one cannot avoid as a literal as well as an existential ├ętranger. At home this is food-, here food is that – one can only conclude that the category encompasses long-known, newly known, and a goodly quantity of unknown to boot, and in that way proceed a step toward truth. Even the colors differ in different languages. A like advantage accrues to the reader of texts from other times and places, for whom, as for the tourist, every experience has comparison and contrast ready-made. Only the American black with DuBois’ double consciousness is similarly cued to check and measure all that occurs.

Whether traversing the globe’s surface or the printed page, the observer often has imperfect knowledge of his interlocutor’s tongue. His lack of familiarity with local culture and conditions is likely to be a rich source of suggestive misprisions. It is no bad thing that, as Dr. Johnson said “a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge,” though our knowledge is always provisional, awaiting the next word from abroad. One returns with not ideas only but affect as well, for as the man said in As You Like It, “the sundry contemplation of my travels . . . wraps me in a most humorous sadness.” While the traveler may indeed be a bore, he is most probably a bore with a message. And the message may be the fruit of a moment in which sensation so overpowered consciousness that the ego flickered.

I recall for instance: orchids on a steep slope after rain, a gnarled monkey paw hairy and accusing on the market table, fetid air and oil on a dark green Seine. I tasted the roughest raw tequila while hearing the sweetest soulful song in a cantina with a leaky roof and a dozen men with pistols in their belts speaking Tarahumara, and the drunkest was getting aggressive. And, in the market of Ourika near Marrakech utilitarian goods are on display: spade blades and sickles, food and detergent. Boys dash past with flayed carcasses. Hassan practices economics as recreation and sociability, considers every meat table there, negotiates with several dealers in energetic conversational bursts, laughing and exclaiming, then buys a kilo and takes it to another stall for cooking. As we sit in a hut with walls of fronds, we eat the meat with mint tea and round loaves, white and whole wheat, while drummers and string pluckers keen and warble and trill, and great rough clouds of smoke from cookfires that have smoldered for centuries drift through this new and most temporary Eden.

1 In the fall of 1999 the traditional Wenceslas at one end of the square was balanced by a new version at the other who rode his inverted mount’s belly. The good soldier Schweik would have been amused.

2 Cortez, quoted in Prescott V, 3. In the case of the conquistadores considerable stores must have been required, though rather for thieving than for tourism.

3 The problem is old as Dame Margery Kempe could testify, whose 14th century companions on pilgrimage asked her not to speak of religion but rather to make merry at meals as they did (Ch. 27 The Booke of Margery Kempe).

4 The Tao in its regular course does nothing, and so there is nothing which it does not do. (Tao teh King, 37 in Legge’s old version) The Old Master also notes that “the skilful traveller leaves no traces.” (27)

5 William Hazlitt (1778-1830), "On Going a Journey," Table Talk, 1822.

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