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Double Positive

Illustration by James Rumford, from his book Traveling Man, The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354. *See note below



My intention has been to publish on this blog every week or ten days. I haven't posted since 20 July, so I'm well past that self-imposed schedule. But this new post has been difficult to put together — I can't make the pieces fit. My hunch is that there's a connection between the material at the beginning — the references to Cezanne and to Michaux — and the material that follows, which takes up the theme of travel as tentatively explored in a previous post.


Thinking this through as I've struggled with this post, I know that my purpose is to engage in a process of discovery. This has two components — first, to establish connections among my various interests, and then hone them down to a single focus. I imagine that focus might consist of a rumination on the practice of fieldwork -- but that's undecided. Second, I want to do this in public, publishing on an open website just now. No doubt there are relatively few readers or visitors to this site; readers are important, but the public nature of the blog supplies a valuable psychological dimension; it's a communicative, not merely ruminative process  


As I say, this post is rather disjointed. But I want to move on with it, picking up threads from my previous post to begin probing the meanings of travel. The word travel hardly expresses all that I hope to convey just now, but I'll begin unpacking it here. Firstly, I want to note that the immediate inspiration for this post came from recent reading, with various stray pieces expressing a similar idea, but arising in divergent contexts. The first is from a review by Jed Perl of the recent Cezanne show at MOMA that appeared in the New York Review of Books. Perl is searching for a way to convey the jointure of faultless craft and visionary inspiration in Cezanne's work. He writes that,


 …the English critic Herbert Read quoted the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who said that 'the secret of true poetry' is 'to be drunk and sober not in different moments but at one and the same moment.'


And then:


Gustave Geffroy, the critic who was the subject of one of his most complex portraits, may have been echoing Schelling when he wrote that Cézanne "experiences an intoxication in the spectacle unfurled before him" and then transfers "this intoxication to the restricted space of his art." Cézanne is drunk on sensation but always sober enough to pin it down.


This is a common way to represent the complexity of authentic art, and the work of the inspired artist, and it turns up in a variety of writings, sometimes inserted more or less casually into seemingly unrelated discussions. For example, in a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement of a new translation of Johan Huizinga's masterwork, Autumntide of the Middle Ages (previously translated as The Waning of the Middle Ages), Alexander Murray notes of Huizinga that 'His prose unites precision with passion in areas that commonly pull them apart.' More pointedly, in the Introduction to Thousand Times Broken, a triptych of interrelated pieces by Henri Michaux, the translator Gillian Conoley offers the following regarding Michaux's experiments with mescaline:


Throughout each exploration, one becomes aware of a split in consciousness. While there is a mind at play, courting chaos, there is also a mind acutely observant and vigilant, taking note of every synapse, each glimmer of the unknown. As much as Michaux is desirous of vision, he is desirous to chart the course. While the work is strange, dark, and fantastic, his stance is often scientific, rational, that of one who is taking account, detached. Thus, Michaux, who once attended medical school, is both "poetic" and "scientific" at the same time, taking Rimbaud's statement: "contemporary poetry can no longer content itself with vague lyricism, but only with total self-knowledge," quite seriously.


The similarity between these passages appearing in entirely unrelated contexts is notable. But there's more.  As is widely known, Henri Michaux famously experimented with mescaline as a means of exploring (or accessing) the wellsprings of art. Having read the passage in Thousand Times Broken, I wanted to learn more about mescaline, especially any ritual or artistic implications associated with the substance. In Pharmako Gnosis, the third book of his Pharmako trilogy, Dale Pendell also identifies the jointure, but then suggests that the resulting equilibrium can paradoxically impose significant constraints on artistic practice and outcomes. Pendell writes of Michaux that,


For one, he can't stop the show — the dynamics of the mind. Michaux tries to find the inner laws of how one thought leads to the next, and uses his time in "altered states" totally to that end, a task for which his poetic training, the ability to maintain aesthetic judgment even in the midst of a maelstrom of images, serves him well. Still, one keeps wishing for the rationalist to let go, to fly through the medicine space to a more magical kind of art.  


But where's the connection to travel? I'll try to address that question by introducing yet another dichotomy, also prominent in contemporary writing and in accounts of writerly practice.  In a long and thoughtful review of a recent biography of Edward Said, writing in the New York Review of Books Adam Schatz notes that:


…as Said often pointed out, affiliation could degenerate into filiation, into a familial structure of obedience and conformity. Only in his final decade did he express himself freely on the movement's failures and the region's dictatorships. But, as Brennan shows, the Palestinian struggle enriched Said far more than it constrained him. The themes that echo through his writing – the preference for exilic over rooted writing, the idea of 'contrapuntal' criticism, the insistence on secular humanism, worldliness and universality – can all, indirectly, be traced to Palestine. Not to the land itself, or to the people, but to the metaphor, the region of the mind, that he fashioned out of them.


The interplay between affiliation and filiation, and between the exilic and the rooted, are of special interest. I am of course making free with Shatz's discussion of Said (in anticipation of further discussion later), but much as the artist manages altered states by leveraging poetic training (in Pendell's rendering ), so too must the traveler reconcile apparently conflicting tendencies — to remain rooted, or to venture forth — in other words, to accommodate risk in anticipation of reward. There are echoes here of the religious pilgrim, who for centuries has taken to the road in search of  enlightenment, or to fulfill a religious obligation, or to pay homage to sites or shrines invested with spiritual or historical significance.


As Cid Corman writes in his introduction to Basho's Back Roads to Far Towns, Basho and his friend Sora embarked on just such a journey, which they'd been looking forward to for some time:


The journey was one both had looked forward to and realized would be difficult and even dangerous. And, indeed, one might not return. It was to be more a pilgrimage — and in the garb of pilgrims they went — than a case of wandering scholarship: a sight not uncommon even in modern Japan, visiting from temple to temple, seeing old acquaintances, places famed in history or poetry or legend, touchstones for the life lived, the dying to come and what life continues.


Corman captures the tension between the anticipated rewards and the unexpected dangers associated with travel. Basho was a great traveler and a great world poet, who in fact fell ill and died on a subsequent journey, aged 51. His 'death poem', composed just four days before his death, suggests the deep intertwining of life and travel for Basho:


On journey, ill:

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields.


The 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta likewise left an important account of his journeys, making the pilgrimage to Mecca and other holy sites at age 22, later reporting on those as he did on the habits, customs, and experiences of peoples and places he encountered along the way — Cairo, Mecca and Medina, Andalusia, the Maghreb, Mogadishu and the Gulf of Aden, and so on. He begins his narrative thus:


I left Tangier, my birthplace, on Thursday, 2nd Rajab 725 [June 14, 1325], being at that time twenty-two years of age [22 lunar years; 21 and 4 months by solar reckoning], with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Mecca] and the Tomb of the Prophet [at Medina].


Unlike Basho, Ibn Battuta set forth alone, relying on family connections and on serendipitous encounters along the way. He too was well aware of the difficulties and potential dangers associated with traveling far from home, and which can be met and overcome, as he suggests in his account of a prophetic dream:


A dream of travels to come


That night, while I was sleeping on the roof of the cell, I dreamed that I was on the wing of a great bird which was flying with me towards Mecca, then to Yemen, then eastwards and thereafter going towards the south, then flying far eastwards and finally landing in a dark and green country, where it left me. I was astonished at this dream and said to myself "If the shaykh can interpret my dream for me, he is all that they say he is." Next morning, after all the other visitors had gone, he called me and when I had related my dream interpreted it to me saying: "You will make the pilgrimage [to Mecca] and visit [the Tomb of] the Prophet, and you will travel through Yemen, Iraq, the country of the Turks, and India. You will stay there for a long time and meet there my brother Dilshad the Indian, who will rescue you from a danger into which you will fall." Then he gave me a travelling-provision of small cakes and money, and I bade him farewell and departed. Never since parting from him have I met on my journeys aught but good fortune, and his blessings have stood me in good stead.


There are others who sought a middle ground of sorts — valorizing the idea of travel while not actually making the trip. I'm thinking here of the Moroccan poet Ibn Darradj al-Qastalli, who was active during the 10th century C.E. Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour print two of his poems in their Book of North African Literature (Volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series). Addressing his wife, the poet-traveler conveys the double nature of traveling thus:


Don't you know that to settle down means to die     

and that the homes of those who have no will become graves?

Didn't you try to read the early birds' omen?

Didn't they fly to the right to tell you the journey would be safe?

This long journey does scare me

though the hope of kissing al-Mansur's hand sustains me


Here again is the double or fraught nature of travel — the intertwining elements of risk and reward, to be experienced at home, and on the road. That said, although traveling formed the subject of Ibn Darradj's poetry, it was not part of his lived experience. In a note to their selection of these poems, Joris and Tengour quote translator Abdelfetah Chenni, who writes that,


Ibn Darradj is known as the poet of 'exile, separation, geographical nomadicity,' yet he's never been farther than Morocco, & each time he traveled, his family was with him: the man lived more in a nostalgic nomadic world of his own, though he did write excellent poems thanks to this virtual nomadic state of mind.


There's much more to be said here. But meanwhile, this post has wandered long and far, without arriving at any particular destination, or completion. I'll return to this subject in my next post.


*NOTE: Joris and Tengour provide a reference for an online version of Ibn Battuta's Travels, where I subsequently read the book and found the quotes which I've used in this post. Searching afterwards for a compelling image, I pulled a book from my shelf which I'd forgotten I owned -- an illustrated retelling of the Ibn Battuta narrative by James Rumford. I've used one of Rumford's images at the top of this post; his book was published in 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. The web version of Ibn Battuta's Travels can be accessed here, in the "Internet Medieval Sourcebook" on the Fordham University website.

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