If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival.
It seems that, unlike the continuous, enduring contentment that we anticipate, happiness with, and in, a place must be a brief and, at least to the conscious mind, apparently haphazard phenomenon: an interval in which we achieve receptivity to the world around us, in which positive thoughts of past and future coagulate and anxieties are allayed. But the condition rarely endures longer than ten minutes.
It is unfortunately hard to recall our quasi-permanent concern with the future, for on our return from a place, perhaps the first thing to disappear from memory is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come; how much of it, that is, we spent somewhere other than where we were.
Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.
The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives could be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off for somewhere, for Baudelaire’s ‘Anywhere! Anywhere!’: Trieste, Zurich, Paris.
It is perhaps sad books that best console us when we are sad, and to lonely service stations that we should drive when there is no one for us to hold or love.
‘Stupidity is something immovable; you can’t try to attack it without being broken by it…’ – this lovely one is from Flaubert. And below one more by him:
‘I’m disgusted to be back in this damned country where you see the sun in the sky about as often as a diamond in a pig’s arse.’
There are concerns that seem indecent when one is in the company of a cliff; others to which cliffs naturally lend their assistance, their majesty encouraging the steady and high-minded in ourselves, their size teaching us to respect with good grace and awed humility all that surpasses us. It is of course still possible to feel envy for a colleague before a might cataract. It is just, of the Wordsworthian message is to be believed, a little more unlikely.
True possession of a scene is a matter of making a conscious effort to notice elements and understand their construction. We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it. The camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge but it may unwittingly make the effort of acquiring it seem superfluous.
My review of The Art of Travel