Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Elizabeth Dylan Bercovici: A Walk Through Boston

The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense – he is “collective man,” a vehicle and molder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind.”  —Carl Jung

Paul was wrong.
     I knew in the depths of my being that he was wrong. He contended that the goal of the writer was to translate non-linear memory to a tangible, linear expression. We agreed that there was a process of translation, but it felt different to both of us. “Writing allows us to organize time,” Paul argued. “To help us investigate the matrices of memory and human experience.”
     “Yes, but it's so much more than that. Writing is about exploration of the soul and language serves as a vehicle to explore hidden aspects of ourselves. The goal of the travel writer is to connect the soul of the author to a place and its people.”
     The two of us were travel writers with very different views of our craft.
     Paul and I walked up Acorn Street, navigating a path through the narrow labyrinth of houses in Boston’s oldest neighborhood, Beacon Hill. This was my home, and I was anxious to share it. I loved the history, the cobbles underfoot, each brick a story.
     “Henry James called this the most beautiful street in America.” What I didn't say was This is my favorite spot in Boston, I come here whenever I can. We wandered up and down, feeling the uneven pressure of the cobbles beneath our feet. An American flag lapped in the breeze overhead. For a second I saw it divorced of meaning, a mere dance of colors—deep red, ocean blue, stark white—juxtaposed with the crumbling brick below.
     We emerged onto a nearby street, encountering a trail of black lampposts, the fragrance of fallen leaves crisp in the air. Trees tilted out of brick enclosures; I strummed my fingers against their bark. Even though Boston was small, I often felt overwhelmed and missed the woods. When I felt particularly lonesome for trees or firelight, I’d come and sit down on the cobbles, my legs curled up to my chest. Everything stopped, if only for a second.
     We crossed Charles St. and meandered up the overpass to the esplanade along the Charles River Basin—my next favorite spot in Boston. Blinding light poured onto the overpass, hitting the rim of the river below like freckles of stained glass.
     Paul had a charming smile that would have been considerably more charming if he were less aware of its effect. I never knew where I stood with him. His eyes were sea-blue and hungry to understand the world; they glimmered in the sunlight. I fixed my gaze on them haphazardly, senses otherwise ensnared by the hustle of downtown Boston. Runners skirted past. I heard the rush of cars on Storrow Drive to the left, the hum of the Charles on my right; tethered sailboats bobbed along the shore.
     We talked about our writing practices, which turned out to be very different, how our travels translated into our current works, but most interestingly, we talked about where writing came from. Over the course of our tour around the basin, Paul described his belief that writing was an act of the mind, that environmental and societal pressures shaped the writing vessel (what I refer to as the writer). I turned my head and said carefully: “For me, writing is an act of the spirit. I believe in the power of the soul to manifest on the page.” Paul laughed as though I'd made a joke and shifted on his heel, his body retracting.
     Idealistic, much? I almost felt him say. Perhaps, but my perspectives weren’t ill-conceived: I had carefully investigated, measured and demarcated them before claiming them proudly as my own.
     Inspired by female writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf, I perceived the necessity of connecting to the reader through the soul, that core being within all of us. I had recently read a fascinating essay, “Written on the Landscape: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” by Sarah Mills. As Paul and I walked, I thought of the essay’s connection to my understanding of literary creation. Mills postulates on the Literary Sublime, a concept understood to engage the reader through emotional responses to written descriptions of nature. Mills differentiates between traditional masculine conceptions of the sublime, where the landscape is perceived as other—something tangible to be conquered—and the Feminine Sublime, where landscape empowers the reader to heights of great adventure and universal understanding. The Feminine Sublime does not attempt to exhibit control over the landscape, but merges the rich interior world of the speaker with the external world of the reader.
     For example, in “Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” Wollstonecraft writes, “the rosy tint of morning reminds me of a suffusion, which will never more charm my senses unless it exists on the cheeks of my child” to describe her pain in being separated from her daughter. Mills extrapolates this line to denote that in Wollstonecraft’s letter, “emotions themselves and the landscape begin to infiltrate each other so that the colours of the morning sky and the blushes of her daughter are seen to be as one.” Here, emotion serves as a connecting force, the invisible link between the subject and that which it perceives. In her classic, lyrical style Wollstonecraft writes, “There was a solemn silence in this scene which made itself be felt. The sunbeams that played upon the ocean, scarcely ruffled by the lightest breeze, contrasted with the huge dark rocks that looked like rude materials of creation forming the barrier of unwrought space.” In Wollstonecraft’s epistolary recollection of her travels, the reader understands that Sublime beauty and engagement with Nature helps the writer heal her soul during an emotionally turbulent time. Likewise, the reader finds solace and connection. In “Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” I walked alongside Wollstonecraft as she traversed rivers and mountains; the lilting syllables in her lyrical prose allowed me to feel her emotions acutely, as though Wollstonecraft’s memories were mine as well. In the retelling of her travels and in the reading of her experience, Wollstonecraft and the reader are of one mind and soul.
     As Paul and I walked beside each other, the crisp breeze whipping our faces and sending goose bumps up our shoulders, I contemplated our varying perspectives. Despite our difference, there was one thing I knew about Paul that intrigued me, that connected us: Paul espoused a reverence for poetry that occasionally threatened to override his logic and analysis. It wasn’t that we were like-minded in regards to the themes or content we enjoyed; rather, both our souls latched onto the bliss of languid expressions and the quiet beneath the words themselves. Stop thinking. I kept wanting to say. Feel with the depths of your being. In poetry, Paul encountered the Sublime; or perhaps unwittingly a part of his soul went searching.
     That was our difference—I knew I was searching. I’d always been searching for something greater, a crack in the veil of existence linking the spiritual to the temporal. That crack is available to all writers, if we are willing to take the pen in our hands and serve as sacred vessels. Artists throughout time have held this responsibility dear and sacred. Renaissance painters and Romantic poets like Samuel Coleridge and Percy Shelley believed that inspiration came through divine channeling, from the mystical winds of another world, because the soul of the artist was attuned to such revelation. Bob Dylan was quoted once as saying that the songs he wrote already existed, they just came through him. This is corroborated by other great thinkers like Carl Jung who reiterates that although works of art “come into being at a definite time, they are and have always been timeless.” In moments of peak experience creating art for the world at large, Jung says, “we are no longer individuals, but the race; the voice of all mankind resounds in us.”
     Paul was searching too, he just didn’t realize it. We sized each other up, inwardly thinking how do I convince this poor fool of my side? I thought, Maybe I cannot.
     Paul said: “I was sitting under a tree and I was inspired to start writing a poem. The words came out, but then I thought ‘I could publish this’ and the inspiration left me.” There was a sadness to his voice. I had never published anything, but I was working on a memoir about my time teaching in China and traveling through Southeast Asia. I spoke up.
     “That’s why you lost inspiration.” I said. “You can’t write with the intent to publish. Yes, at some point writing needs to be shared with the world, but there is a truth to the human condition that needs to be honored and expressed without thoughts of publication.” Inspiration lives in a very special place, in the heart of all a man has ever loved, all the stories, all the moments, all the joy he has ever experienced and all that he hopes to experience. A writer must sing the song that is innately his, even if the constructs he contends with exist beyond form and space, beyond what is thought possible for words as a medium. We must resolve to channel the ineffable even in the face of adversity. How to express what cannot be expressed? How to quantify what cannot be quantified? Perhaps through images or the converging of sounds that tilt reality just enough to evoke what mere words cannot. When I write, I surrender to a force greater than myself and the words come out slowly, carefully, ripe with depth and meaning.
     “It’s all a construction.” Paul argued. “Words are construction. Language is a construction. Essays are construction.” So is memory then, by this logic, I thought sadly, but it feels delicate on the lips. There’s a sweetness that permeates the facets of a memory. A sweetness that’s real to me.
     The esplanade reminded me of the Hudson. My mother was born and raised in Edgewater, New Jersey on the banks of the Hudson, and my father was from Manhattan. When I was little, before I learned they met at work, I reasoned they met in the water, swimming, at the crossroads between two places.
     It’s a memory, a memory that never happened.
     The images I created of my parents meeting in the water and falling in love pass me by in the span of a second, and then, the turmoil that ended their marriage. To me this memory is real, for it was so dearly crafted, so pivotal to the way I interpreted myself and the world growing up. Yes, I have a memory of a memory that never was.
     “So we ‘construct.’” I countered. “Why should that make it any less real?"
     “The writer contrives.”
     “That’s too sterile a word.” I turned my head. “Translates.” I offered. He looked at me strangely for a second then nodded.
     “Translates is a good word,” he said.
     “The writer translates the experience of the heart. Construction implies artifice; I’ll have none of it in my writing.”
     “But the ‘I’ on the page is not real,” he argued. I found myself growing increasingly irritated at the difficulty we were having integrating our perspectives. We agreed that the ‘I’ on the page was neither writer nor reader, but a character in his or her own right. Still though, I saw the construction as evoking something greater.
     “In Plato, the idea of the chair is realer than the chair itself,” I said. As I reflected on this point, sections of Borges’ poem “The Other Tiger” flitted through my mind.
Afternoon creeps in my spirit and I keep thinking
That the tiger I am conjuring in my poem,
Is a tiger made of symbols and shadows,
A sequence of prosodic measures
Scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
And not the deadly tiger, the luckless jewel
Which in the sun or deceptive moonlight
Follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra
The poem continues:
But still the act of naming it, of guessing
what is its nature and circumstance
creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those who wander on the earth.
     “Let us look for a third tiger,” the poem concludes, “The other tiger which is not in this poem.” That Tiger exists somewhere, as does Plato’s chair; we just have to breathe them onto the page. For me the process is not one of agony or a frenzied quest for publication, but gentle release—staying quiet, and being, surrendering to the words. Writing is not an act; writing is a gift of being. ‘Be the writer’ is different than ‘Do your writing.’ Doing is an act of the mind and body, being is an act of the soul.
     “I am determined to translate the essence of my being.”
     “Good luck with that.” Paul gave me his usual offhanded smile. Something in its sincerity caught me off guard and I started laughing for a second before he joined in.
     “We all have a spark of life within us, unadorned, waiting to get out. And there's a spark of life in every word, we just have to let them meet one another.  The call of the artist is to transcribe the entwined pain and ecstasy of existence. Is it so unbelievable that words could flow forth freely and that we could trust them to be true representations of our experiences?”
     “But even if you convey your personal truth, as a travel writer you inevitably colonize the people and places you visit. And then 'the truth' is lost.”
     I inhaled deeply.  I had at times been guilty of this alleged 'colonizing' of the other. Once in an early draft of my travel memoir about China, I recreated a moment in Shandong Province where I saw two trees intertwined in an old growth forest. On the page I rendered my immediate thought at the time: the story of Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple in Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to the story, Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as beggars and wandered through the town of Tyana. They were turned away everywhere they went, until they came upon the house of Baucis and Philemon. Though the pair had next to nothing, they gave everything they had. Deeply moved, Hermes and Zeus revealed themselves and promised the couple anything they wanted. Baucis and Philemon asked the gods for a way to be together forever, so Zeus transformed them into two trees with a single set of roots, their bark and branches forever entwined. I'd always loved that story, but when I showed a colleague the scene I’d written I was told I’d colonized Shandong. I was seeing China and its trees through my lens as a Westerner; I had imposed my sentiments and my history on what I was perceiving.
     Yes, this was true. Wherever you go, you bring your perceptions, your limitations, your stories. Is that so wrong? The story that came to me was a Greek love story, but the same story has been told a thousand times in different ways across cultures. It's not a Greek story—it has a Greek setting—it is a human story. My perspective may not render me objective in a conventional sense, but aren't stories and their motifs universal signifiers of the truth we all share and search for, day in and day out? Colonization of 'the other' in travel writing implies that an 'other' exists. Why let ourselves be consciously limited when we seek access to the universal?  We have the choice to rise above the illusion of separation, to transcend mind and ego and arrive at the truth of a shared human condition. I want to tell my story and Paul's, because they're different, yet one.
     The travel writer needs to step out of the way and let place flow through him or her. Just as when one is speaking, a story rushes forth thick on the tongue. It’s only words that pin it down, quelling and consuming the rush, directing the torrent into harmonious drifts and serpentine echoes. Words are life breathed onto the page, they create reality. Virginia Woolf said that words have identities of their own; they don’t ask that we talk about them, but they do ask that we use them. Our experiences have lives of their own too; we translate them through language but they exist beyond those bounds.
     Yet, without language time doesn’t exist. It operates as mere construct. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting the leaves in bright auburn and russet red, I argued: “Experiences are not linear. Nor is time.” Paul nodded. It seemed we agreed, until he elaborated.  Paul saw thoughts and experiences as matrices a writer had to unpack slowly, pockets that served as a direct result and reminder of the place where one had come from geographically, sociologically and emotionally.
     “We don’t have a core identity. We don’t have a true essence to render onto the page. Even identity itself is variable and constructed and contingent on societal and anthropological influences.”
     I disagreed: “There is something deeper.”
     It became clear our conversation was about something neither of us had originally planned to investigate—what Paul termed objective vs. subjective reality. Paul persevered in his argument that there was no universal core or source and that people’s perceptions were formed by the environment in which they grew up; because experiences occurred in that space, they had to remain in that space and were only real in that space. And yet Wollstonecraft writes: “if a light shower has chanced to fall with the sun, the juniper, the underwood of the forest, exhales a wild perfume, mixed with a thousand nameless sweets that, soothing the heart, leave images in the memory which the imagination will hold dear.” Her depictions convey to the reader that whenever and wherever the scent of juniper touches her nose, Wollstonecraft will return to the underwood. She can write about the memory of juniper in the forest, but said writing is not meant to confine juniper to a select time and space. The scent itself, and the feeling she places with it, exists outside of time, like Borges’ tiger, or Plato’s chair.
     I shook my head at Paul’s understanding of ‘writing’ in relation to the soul of both reader and writer. The sun was setting up ahead, skyscrapers melting into orange light. Everywhere you go in the world, you’ll see the sunset, I thought suddenly and hailed the sky, “Carl Jung investigated an amazing phenomenon. Different cultures throughout the world, which could never have come into contact with one another, amassed a variety of the same symbols.”  According to Jung the Collective Unconscious “is a structural element of the psyche we find everywhere and at all times; and it is that in which all individual psyches are identical with each other, and where they function as if they were the one undivided psyche the ancients called anima mundi or the ‘psyche toukosmou’” (Carl Jung, Letters Vol. II, Pages 398-400). Carl Jung’s theories of universality and oneness tie into Sarah Mills’ literary concept of the feminine. Both emphasize a oneness with nature and the universal understanding of human connection between one person and another. The Collective Unconscious, according to Jung, allows cultures across the world, during different periods of history, to create a shared understanding of the same core concepts and symbols.
     “I believe we all have a soul and those souls are connected to each other,” I said.
     “You believe that?” Paul grinned. I thought of Jung’s words: I do not need to believe. I know. I felt, I have always felt, something deep and intrinsic to my being, something shared, that pushed me to utilize words to connect my thoughts, experiences and feelings with the rest of the world. It is something that cannot be quantified, because it lives within me and has for as long as I can remember. Nor will I attempt to quantify it for the sake of this essay. I am a writer, I have always been a writer, I know too that others have this feeling; this inherent knowledge of the self. That is The Collective Unconscious; it must be felt to be truly understood.
     Despite this, Paul maintained that “Each person is island to himself. Because of his or her lifetime of experiences, everything is filtered through a subjective lens and exciting as it is, traveling doesn't bridge the gap.” He brought my attention to “Questions of Travel,” an Elizabeth Bishop poem we’d previously discussed. “Think of the Long Trip home / Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” In "Questions of Travel" Bishop postulates that there is no need for the traveler to go anywhere; wherever the writer goes she brings her own unyielding perceptions, which anchor the destination in previously existing fixtures and limitations of the mind.
     I resonated slightly with Bishop, but again, I wanted to delve deeper into conceptions of self, traveling, and writing. My parents were both psychologists, and growing up, I’d sensed the limitations of the mind. I’d wanted a more profound understanding of existence and the compulsion I felt to connect with others through words.
     We asked the same question in different ways. Why write? Why write? Why write? Why write about adventure in foreign lands? Because you can’t escape life, but you can wake up to its beauty. It’s a question of what we’re willing to see. We become conditioned by society and sometimes it takes a stark difference to undo our conditioning; the travel writer helps the reader to question their reality.
     Because question it we must. If our experiences shape our perceptions then we need to experience as much as we can; we must travel to broaden our horizons. Wollstonecraft writes: “Generally speaking, the sphere of observation determines the extent of the mind. The more I see of the world, the more I am convinced that civilisation is a blessing not sufficiently estimated by those who have not traced its progress; for it not only refines our enjoyments, but produces a variety which enables us to retain the primitive delicacy of our sensations.” In this Wollstonecraft is correct; the sphere of observation does, for the most part, determine the extent of the mind. So, travel is the antidote for this malady; travel broadens the mind and expands one's understanding of cultures, people and history. Foremost, travel connects people. “When the world’s disgusted me and friends have proved unkind, I have considered myself a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind. I was alone; till some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel like I was still part of a mighty whole, from which I could not sever myself.” Travel, Wollstonecraft theorizes, acts as a unifying force, showing the true nature of the human psyche, as unconsciously aware yet connected to all things that surround the corporal body.
     Travelers learn how truly connected we are when real understanding is forged between people who do not share the same language. Spoken language and pre-symbolic language serve to connect us to the vastness of time and space. Society and environment are subject to change, but the true soul of a person, whether traveler or reader, is constant. Writing, therefore, must be an act of the soul; the words should bleed with feeling, as though a dam breaks in the writer and the words cannot be stopped.
     The light hit Paul’s eyes as a hint of rain tilted down from the heavens, its thick beads collecting in vertical torrents. All at once I saw our reality clearly—a work of stained glass—each of us looking at the other from behind a rosy pane. I wanted to hold my hand out and break the glass, but knew not how. In the moment, language failed us. We could not express ourselves to make the other fully understand. We started to run, and the rain billowed down, both of us more confused than ever as to what to make of the other. I looked back over my shoulder for a second and saw the world again divorced of meaning, just color to be shared.
     How could he not feel it? When every step spoke to me of the past, the present, but most of all, the eternal? The edge and breath of nature harkened to me. Our walk was steeped in history, bricks solid and quiet beneath our feet, hay amidst the cobbles. I could feel Boston in my boots. I found love in the murky water of the river; in the uneven pressure of the boulders beneath my feet, as though they held me, as though all who tread their path were held by time itself, in an eternal present that existed beyond the constraints of language, beyond the bounds of consciousness that Paul would call construction.
     Moments and memories from our walk come back to me, the ones that matter and the ones that don’t. My hair soaking wet as we crossed the overpass back to Beacon Hill, rain rushing at our faces. Life is motion. We live to move and explore places unfamiliar to us, as humans have done for millennia. This migration—this search—lies at the heart of humanity. We are all seeking. Travel facilitates the merging of worlds seen and unseen. Travel writing, then, allows us to experience what cannot be seen, only felt.


Elizabeth Dylan Bercovici is a life long writer and observer of the human condition and beauty of nature. She has a BA in English Literature from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY and a MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.  She is currently working on a lyrical memoir describing her travels and journey through China and Southeast Asia, where she lived and taught English for a year. For more information you can find her at elizabethdylanbercovici.com


  1. So interesting! The concept of The Collective Unconscious within writing, more specifically travel writing, is intriguing.

  2. Elizabeth translates, Paul constructs. Elizabeth colors her translations with her feelings. Paul by constructing strives for accuracy and facts. I think this defines which each writer should seek as a genre. Art and fiction for Elizabeth. Reporting for Paul.