Monday, February 6, 2017

Paul Haney: On Truth and Perception: The Travel Writer’s Dilemma

Two Septembers ago, Steven Pinker delivered a presentation from his book, The Sense of Style, at Emerson College in Boston. A grad student at the time, I missed the lecture, opting instead to take a stroll from campus, up through the West End, and over to the Esplanade with my friend and classmate Liz. We were both working on travel memoirs—hers set in Southeast Asia, mine in Amtrak cars and cities around the U.S—and previous conversations about our writing practices had revealed a fundamental difference between us. Liz believed in a core, universal truth underlying her experiences, an unwavering objectivity that presented her with a transcribable reality. I argued against such essentialism, submitting instead to the relative nature of subjectivity and perception, the fluidity of fact and identity, and the artifice involved in rendering those provisions into writing. Liz saw her writing as an extension of her inner self. I saw mine as another construct derived from an erratic reality.
     Down Acorn Street with its cobbles the colors of the fall leaves we touched on narrative perspective.
     “I know what I thought and saw and experienced,” Liz said.
     “I believe you do, I said, “but doesn’t that knowing shift in relation to your present circumstances?” Knowledge grows and conditions change, I was thinking, as do our moods, all of which color the way we feel about our memories.
     Along past the sail boats bobbing through the Charles River Basin we veered into the dynamics of audience, temporality, and materiality.
     “The message depends on the medium,” I said, “and who reads it and when.”
     Liz said, “My message is my message—that doesn’t change.”
     By the time we'd circled back to Boston Common, it had started to pour, the raindrops wetting our faces as we debated whether art could relay anything more than a determined series of choices; art’s (in)ability to represent core human experience; the utility, or futility, of attempting to convey core experience, core individuality, core and objective anything at all. These were huge subjects, the kinds that take whole shelves—or wings—of the library to examine. As writers, too, these topics were deeply personal. Their implications could alter how we oriented ourselves to our subject matter, how we understood our work. Not surprisingly, our beliefs on these matters were deeply entrenched, hardly budging.
     We hugged in the rain and I dashed, head swimming, into the subway.
     The next day the word on campus was that Pinker’s lecture was provocative and compelling. I cued it up on YouTube and found the content was not unrelated to the topics Liz and I discussed. Pinker’s thoughts on style, derived from cognitive psychology, can inform our understanding of truth, perspective, and persona in travel literature.
     Though Pinker's lecture works through topics such as classical constructions and the usefulness of passive voice, his claims about the ways in which a writer translates a field of thoughts into comprehensible written language reveal the most about the discussion Liz and I had. “You can think of language as an app for converting a web of thoughts into a string of words,” Pinker says in his lecture, calling this cognitive structure a “semantic network, a kind of mind-wide web.” From this view, the web extends throughout the linguistic realms of the mind and presents memory and language in an associative, rather than linear, sequence. We take a trip in real time from point A, to moment B, to impression C, but our recollections don’t honor that chronology. The web-like structure of memory places little value on timelines. When the travel writer writes from memory, then, she struggles to recall stored tidbits of experience in the order she first perceived them. She finds her attention flitting between stored remembrances (and her hands grasping for a notepad to put it all back in order.) Pinker employs a sports metaphor to describe these cognitive movements: “surf(ing) from any concept to any other concept in any direction.” He continues, “but when it comes time to package some portion of your knowledge so that you can communicate it to another person, you have to code it into a sentence, and a sentence is a linear string of words.” This distinction between the nonlinear nature of experiential memory and the linear demands of writing as we know it creates a tension the travel writer addresses through narrative tools such as time markers, character development, plot arc, and the like. Though travel contains an inherent circularity—we go, we reflect, we return—these craft decisions yoke scattered memories to a timeline and flatten the web of thoughts into a string of words.
     The string of words imposes narrative structure onto the trip. For example, in my telling of the stroll Liz and I took, that journey proceeds from cobbled streets to picturesque sailboats to a soggy city park, even though in my memory these place markers become disarrayed—a constellation. What’s more, to my mind the most important element of our conversation, now pinned to place and detail, resides in our contrasting views of personal wholeness: Liz insisting on the eternal yearning core of the spirit, me arguing that our identities are a mishmash of cultural and environmental influences. Yet this depiction privileges a shapely conversation proceeding from our topic (narrativity), to our disagreement (subjectivity versus objectivity), to complexity (truth and experience), and finally to a conclusion. Nor is this narrative imposition constrained to the page. Within my own thoughts, stringing together fragments of remembered experience—semantically, imagistically, emotionally—helps me understand our stroll. And I internalize and reinforce what that experience felt like.
     We perform this “stringing together” all the time. After hitting every aisle of the grocery store, for instance, snagging produce, dry goods, deli meats in the order they come, we later elide the five minutes we spent reading cereal-box labels and recount instead the cute kid in aisle seven dancing to the store music. The image of the pudgy-cheeked child explains our progression from routine boredom to surprise to remembering to enjoy the mundane. We leave out the calorie content of Wheaties versus Raisin Bran, but the kid becomes a frame employed to reconstruct our experience—a link in the narrative chain.
     Narrative entices us, saturates communication, interprets the world. But the world is not a narrative, nor are we, at least not until we perform our duties as writers and travelers and insert ourselves into one. For the travel writer, this narrative drive sorts together disparate locations while imposing rising action, climax, and resolution onto perceived experience. Held at arm’s length, the I-character of the travel narrative is always distinct from the writer at the moment of writing, and from the writer who constructs the text. The travel writer then becomes triply iterated to herself. I am the memory of the person who strolled with Liz to the Charles River and back; I am the pronoun who chats and strolls here on the page; and I am the person who writes about the experience. This narrative displacement applies also to my subject—Liz—and appears in the same triple dimensions from the reader’s point of view. Narrative, then, even while it aids communication and understanding, further removes the live subject from the lived experience.
     Asking the tool of language to mimic the traveler’s experience exposes a particular set of shortcomings. Pinker expands on language’s inadequacies when he says, “(There is) an inherent problem baked into the design of language, namely that the order of words in a sentence has to do two things at once. On one hand, it is a code of meaning; it signals who did what to whom... At the same time it necessarily presents some bits of information to the reader before others, and therefore the linear order of words affects how the information is absorbed.” The earlier words in the sentence establish the topic, which the later words refer back to. I skipped a lecture, took a stroll, and chatted with Liz. This first-person scenario privileges the speaker over the spoken-to, though a recasting of the sentence—“Liz and I took a stroll...”—as a compound subject privileges neither one over the other. Rather, the latter example presents a pair of individuals already tripled through narrative retelling, therefore distorted and distanced from their own experiences. Neither writer nor subject can elude this estrangement.
     This rigid explication of language and perspective, I realize, smacks of severity, both in terms of subject and self. Yet I won’t deny our experiences, our very existence seems significant, feels profound. It’s no wonder words fill our mouths and fly from our fingers attempting to transcribe our travels, even if language can only approximate, never strictly convey. Given this linguistic impoverishment, the question becomes not why travel?, but why travel write? 
     For complication and illumination, we can look to poetry. Elizabeth Bishop, in “Questions of Travel,” attempts to delineate how we travel write, and how we write travel. “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams / hurry too rapidly down to the sea,” Bishop begins, her description of a specific “here” echoing Pinker’s mind-wide web. The numerous waterfalls channel through streams branching out toward the sea, just as we arrange our webs of thought and memory into lines of speech and writing. Bishop’s setting also contains “clouds on the mountaintops,” which run like water, “turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.” The descriptions carry a romantic affect in which the landscape inspires grand visions, but those thoughts, projected into a future where the water runs dry, reveal that “mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled.” Bishop’s setting alters and transforms depending on her speaker’s relative mood and orientation, along with the weather, the season, the year. Perception is at least as slippery and fluid as the language we employ to describe it.
     Whereas Liz might freeze that experiential moment in front of the waterfall, highlight the shift in thinking, and frame it as dynamic Truth, I’d call on us to indulge the uncertainty and redouble the doubt. Bishop may or may not have envisioned the dried-up waterfall; that unprovable is irrelevant. But we do know the poet rendered the image through writing, a medium subject to the limits of language. In writing, even the most vivid memories and sincere philosophical disagreements are contingent upon text-based communication, and Bishop seems aware of this problem when she begins her second stanza by contemplating even the value of the travel experience: “Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” In these lines a tone of weariness seeps into the speaker’s voice as she imagines the “long trip” back, but there’s also a tone of wariness about the necessity of the trip itself. The alternative to travel is to stay at home and imagine exotic places, informed perhaps through other texts, or performed through the act of travel writing. “Oh, must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?” the speaker asks, conflating internal and external experience. While traveling, our minds convert sensory input, consciously or unconsciously absorbed, into memory even at the moment of perception. (These cobblestones are crooked; she’s challenging my beliefs; this rain is wet, and so are my clothes.) Our experiences, then, when filtered through the psychical apparatus, always occur at a remove from tangible reality, wherever that may be. This remove opens a margin of doubt which lingers around even the most fact-faithful writer, calling into question the traveler’s advantage over the homebody. Despite our adamance, Liz and I may remember our walk differently. The eye-witness can be dead wrong. Travel happens out there, but it happens in here, too. In any case, we’re destined to wade through sensory perception as we tend our mind-wide webs, our permanent homes.
     Within those homes there’s housework to do. The engaged traveler expends much of her energy sorting, interrogating, and integrating experience. Knowing comes from the inside out, just as lightning strikes from the ground up—but it unquestionably strikes. Nevertheless, as we process the world, external forces act upon and enclose us, too. “Identities cling to us, or even produce us,” Karen Caplan writes in the prologue to her critical work, Questions of Travel. “Many of us have locations in the plural.” I would take Kaplan’s point one further: all of us have locations in the plural, and the travel act brings into relief the internal-external exchange that creates this plurality.
     The most veracious travel writing explores these interchanges of place, identity, and ideology. It takes artifice to turn travel into writing, sleight-of-hand to pull off the trick. But the process comes inherent with frustration, a frustration that emerges in Bishop’s third stanza, which begins, “But surely it would have been a pity / not to have seen...” and proceeds to enumerate scattered observations from the writer’s travels. There are “trees ... exaggerated in their beauty ... like noble pantomimists, robed in pink”; “wooden clogs / carelessly clacking”; “the broken gasoline pump / in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque.” Like the poem's initial waterfalls, these sensory observations come pouring out of the speaker in a randomized litany that mirrors the flow of memory. The poet recalls “whittled fantasies of wooden footwear / and, careful and finicky, / the whittled fantasies of wooden cages,” calling attention to the “whittled” nature of observations themselves. It would be a pity, Bishop submits, “never to have had to listen to rain / so much like politicians’ speeches,” a rain which prompts the poet’s own reflections. The poem reflects the scrambled sequence of images, after the trip, arrayed nonconsecutively within the poet’s imagination. But while Bishop’s form challenges linearity, it cannot escape it. The travel experience, rendered in language, adopts a new progression, from trees to clogs, bamboo churches to rain. Because we read left to right, front to back, even a scatterplot stanza succumbs to language’s insistence on yoking image and observation into line.
     Thus Bishop’s poem, too, arrives somewhere: two concluding stanzas that, bracketed by quotation marks, seem plucked from the poet's own notebook. “‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?’” the speaker asks. The switch to first-person plural here signals that Bishop is attempting this query on behalf of all travelers who journey to places they’ve only envisioned. But “lack of imagination” seems to implicate more than the luxury cruiser; a lack of imagination would imperil the travel writer who loses herself within the romance of the journey and neglects her subjectivity. “Or could Pascal have been not entirely right / about just sitting quietly in one's room?” the stanza concludes, alluding to Blaise Pascal’s infamous adage that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” By challenging Pascal’s claim about the harm done by travel, Bishop’s speaker suggests that physical movement, though culpable for some portion of humanity's problems, is not solely to blame. But there is doubt in her claim, a conspicuous “could” that reserves the possibility that, no, Pascal was right all along. What’s true is this: it’s impossible to sit quietly in a room, because the restlessness of memory and imagination, and the process of integrating sensory perception, keeps us always on the move.
     Personal memory, sensory perception, narrative understanding—all of these facets of selfhood and experience morph and shift, warp and decay. “Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” Bishop concludes, questioning the existence of a “home” at all, within or without. That said, the impossibility of nailing down a self, a location, or the arc of a journey doesn’t negate the compulsion toward travel imbedded in human identity. We still want to see the mountains and the waterfalls, the clogs and the churches; the cobbles, the boats, the Boston Common. But we struggle to capture the journey through language, a medium which can never portray the fullness of experience.
     About this struggle, Pinker has more to say. “Why is it so hard for writers to use the resources of language to convey ideas effectively?” Pinker asks, positing that “the best explanation is ... ‘the curse of knowledge,’ the fact that when you know something, it's hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” This curse of knowledge helps explain both the passion and frustration Liz and I bring to our conversation. Before we begin, we assume we’re like-minded: we’re both, after all, living in Boston and writing travel memoirs, and we both appreciate a good dive bar. But through our dialogue, differences emerge. Assuming my friend perceives experience in the same way I do, as a borrowed complex of cultural references, I construct a string of sentences that take for granted a shared worldview; she, assuming I recognize an immutable core identity, does the same. We are inhibited by belief structured as knowledge. To overcome this impasse, we string together additional and more convoluted sentences, spin anecdotes and recite readings that illustrate our points.
     At best, Liz and I internalize and integrate fragments of each other’s explications, altering our viewpoints by shades and degrees. But we can never access the histories bound up in each other’s claims. The fragments we incorporate come to us bare and we clothe them with our own experiences, situate them in our preexisting webs, and, more often than not, reify our own worldviews with the content at hand. Language provides bridges between people; those bridges are jammed with wrong turns and pocked with potholes.
     So Bishop’s question, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” poses the ostensible option between staying or going, but the question contains a paradox at heart. Its inverse, “should we have travelled here and thought of home?” asks the same fundamental question. When perception is a traveler that accompanies the individual wherever she goes, it’s impossible to stay at home, just as it’s impossible not to “think” of elsewhere. We continually do both whether we like it or not.
     For the travel writer, however, the query becomes more complex. Why travel write? emerges as the core question, especially when the very act of writing can only make lines from constellations. Writing can only represent the journey through signs and symbols—a translation, not a transcription.
     The good news is, the translation harbors its own significance. Travel writing needn’t convey every aspect of experience; it exists as a distinct journey in itself. It allows writers and readers to reach across space and time to stroll the cobbled streets and gaze out over the river, to ramble over subjective and objective realities, to study the distinct quality of clouds pouring over precipices—all from a discreet subject position. Language may not perfectly bridge realities, nor might we want it to. But when we do desire a bridge from one mind-wide web to another, it’s the best tool we have.


Paul Haney's work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Sweet, Slate, Redivider (where he later joined the staff and now serves as Editor-in-Chief), and more. He holds an MA from Florida State University and will soon complete the MFA in nonfiction at Emerson College. He's currently working on his first two books: a travel narrative following a summer spent riding the Amtrak, and a collection of essays about Bob Dylan. Follow him @paulhaney.

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