Monday, December 13, 2004

on discovering the meaning of life in Little Gidding

I stopped trying to broaden my mind a long time ago in favour of dedicating more time to trying to narrow the field a little. I think the turning point was when I realised that, however extensive my understanding of the world and its peeps 'n' places and my vanishingly insignificant place in it, it all (all that understanding) ended up residing in here (*points to own shiny pate*), where it was subject to such an overwhelmingly selective process of memory distortion that the only thing that distinguished my own recollections from those of others was that mine were less interesting (to me - obviously, to others, they represent the apogee of scintillating entertainment), since they held no surprises - and what's the point of living without surprises?

obviously, travel was out, since this is top of the list of the stuff that's supposed to broaden the mind, and I must say I have very few regrets about deciding never again, except in conditions of dire emergency and/or astonishingly lucrative job offers, to go out of my way to move further than the bottom of my garden. and yet it's still there, very much in one's face, the lure of the exotic to such innocents as once, I suppose, I used to be, who suppose, if only they could save up enough to purchase one of those round the world backpacker tickets and beg enough from their parents to subsidise it, that their experiences will open a secret gate of understanding into the nature of life the universe and everything, or at least provide a lengthy list of entertaining anecdotes with which to bore one's friends for the rest of their lives. in the more enterprising cases, of course, they'll scam the ticket from some reality TV show in return for allowing themselves to be arbitrarily tormented and humiliated en route in order to provide the material that the viewers supposedly demand.

just as sipping retsina on a grey day in December in South West England converts it, by some cultural alchemy, from the divine nectar you experienced when sitting at a harbour-side bar in Skiathos in May watching the sun set into a glassy wine-dark sea into something vaguely reminiscent of disinfectant mixed with cat's piss, so all foreign experience, uprooted from its time and place and context, serves little purpose other than to be able, later, to reflect 'that was different' - which is about as good as it gets, really. anyone who imagines that by witnessing a bunch of barefoot local ragamuffins kicking a tin can around in the dirt of a grassless field behind a gaudy tin can church in Trinidad they're learning anything about anything is deluding themselves: poverty means you improvise and happiness can sometimes be a tin can - there - was that useful?

by default, travel writers and photographers are the most culpable of the travel = mind-expansion pimps. their hugely enjoyable lies about the gawpsome exotica to be discovered at any randomly intersecting lines of latitude and longitude need to be understood in the context of the world post-Thomas-Cook, ie in the vastly profitable world of tourism. and, please, let's scotch, once and for all, that tired distinction between the tourist and the traveller. the traveller is a tourist who believes the junk the travel writers and photographers peddle. the tourist is a traveller who believes the junk the brochure writers and photographers peddle. the one inevitably despises the other. they're both equally gullible (well, the honest tourist marginally less so, cos all she wants is cheap sun and sangrilla and sex, which she's more likely to get than the other, who wants spiritual enlightenment and/or acquired depths of pan-cultural understanding formerly reserved for lamas and librarians as well), since the only relationship that matters between an impoverished country (of the kind that attracts the most visitors for its plucky charm and cheap accommodation) and the foreign visitor is the economic. inevitably so.

as usual, of course, I speak from the insufferably smug position of immense privilege - that of having had, and having exploited many opportunities to travel, more often than not in the context of work (in an earlier life in the theatre, touring in Europe mostly, with the occasional foray to extremely foreign parts like Wales), which is how I prefer it.

once, during a Spanish tour at the time of the Falklands War, we were unloading the van outside the gig in some tiny town way out in Extremadura and attracted the usual crowd of kids who all started chanting 'Malvinas! Malvinas!' (the Spanish name for the Falklands, to whose present claim by Argentina Spain was supporting, of course). for sure, the kids had no inkling about the issues, but knew we were Ingles, and that the Ingleses were in a funk about something that they said belonged to them, so it was like a football match, wasn't it? Malvinas! Malvinas! none of us in the company spoke more than a few words of Spanish at the time, but we got the gist of what was going on, so we all mimed surrender and scribbled 'Las Malvinas' on the backs of the company fliers and started handing them out saying "take them, they're yours, we never wanted them in the first place", and other stuff which the kids couldn't understand, of course, but found totally hilarious. nice gig. those stupid Ingleses. they just rolled over and died.

I love Spain. I also love Denmark. (Denmark is my very own personal secret country. I don't want anyone else to know about it. stay away.) both countries seem to awaken something in me that remains dormant between visits.

the staggeringly wise Noam Chomsky proposed, some time ago, that all children are born with a basic understanding of language and the mental capacity to learn it very quickly - far more quickly than ought to be possible, considering the complexity of the task. his thesis - known as the nativist perspective on language acquisition was developed from the astonishing observation that all babies begin by babbling the phonemes (basic sounds) of all languages to begin with, ie the infant's 'babble' contains, as well as all the familiar vowel sounds from the European languages, the unfamiliar ones from, say, the Asiatic languages, and the totally alien ones, such as the glottal clicks, from the older, rarer languages such as the African. his proposal was that, at birth, the brain is 'over-connected' in the sense that it comes ready-wired with this universal capacity for language, with an immensely complex network of connections, many of which, if not used (ie the infant only hears its parents using a limited combination of those sounds to construct meaning), simply die out or become dormant, whilst new connections based on experience start to build on the most-used ones.

given the even more recent work on the mapping of the human genome, and the discovery that the genetic difference between each and every one of us is only marginally more significant than between us as individuals and the common fruitfly, it strikes me as not being too far-fetched to extrapolate from these kind of findings the notion that cultural and linguistic divergence is just a kind of macrocosmic geophysical analogue of that chance-driven engine of genetic evolution. the reason for my sensing something in me coming online, as it were, only when I cross either the Spanish or the Danish borders could be, quite simply, that my particular programming - my own much-modified hard-wiring - happens to resonate, at those crossings, in the same frequency as has evolved and been adopted as the carrier-wave of the Spanish or Danish cultures. who knows why? Scandinavian gloom counterbalanced by Spanish passion? well, why not?

the Delphic oracle's cryptic maxim - 'Know Thyself - Nothing in Excess' - might or might not have just been one of the drunken babblings of an ancient glue-sniffer. whatever. the understanding that learning to know yourself, at least (the nothing in excess part seems generally to have fallen on deaf ears), constitutes the beginning and the end of wisdom has become one of the prima facie canons of Western philosophy. this being the case, inarguably the process requires that we venture beyond the borders of the known and the safe in order to pursue such self-knowledge. there's a time for doing this in the literal sense, but, equally, there's a case for recognising that there's something about the traveller/tourist mindset that contributes less about learning about yourself through learning about others (the travel-broadens-the-mind school) than about the opposite - and that such travelling, by distracting ourselves from our time-and-space-bound selves, could actually represent a kind of escape from our selves. certainly, I recognise in my own Wanderlust years (mine the equivalent of a week's sniffles compared with the full-blown life-fever of a few people I've known) a correlation with my love of flying and science fiction - the one an escape from gravity and level horizons, the other an escape from reality. if the agoraphobic has to confront his fear of exterior spaces, whatever I have become or am in process of becoming seems to be addressing some previously unacknowledged fear of inner spaces. fear of self-knowledge would have been an absurd idea to those Greek Apollonians, but I bet they'd have had a word for it. egophobia? this way to the Minotaur.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

(T.S.Eliot - Little Gidding from Four Quartets)

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