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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Words To Drive By Part 5

On Possessing Beauty

IMG_1728There was much beauty to document on our recent trip. From San Francisco’s salmon-colored, hillside homes, to the produce stalls of Saturday morning markets, from ocean vistas to smaller nooks and crannies.

You get my drift. A snapshot or two or 50 becomes inevitable; there is an urge to possess beauty when it is fleeting. We began our slow-twisting descent into Yosemite Valley as I reached the chapter on “The Art of Possessing Beauty” in “The Art of Travel.” I felt a renewed appreciation for the examined life vacation, the notion of author-as-companion tapping me on the shoulder with some timely advice.

This time, the life of John Ruskin is the author’s point of inspiration. An Englishman living in the 19th century, he wrote The Elements of Drawing and The Elements of Perspective. He championed the art of drawing to the English public, believing that drawing was the only way to truly see the world’s beauty.

He was interested in what it meant to see: he valued writing and photography and other methods of “possessing beauty” in so much as they allowed a person to understand and articulate the various factors that made something seem beautiful.

He was acutely observant of visual and sensory details:

“Ruskin was throughout his life frustrated by the refusal of polite, educated English people to talk in sufficient depth about the weather — and in particular by their tendency to refer to it as wet and windy…” (De Botton 227).

He also believed in traveling slowly, in a state of deep concentration, covering small distances at a time. De Botton summarizes the rarity of this approach among modern travelers:

“It is a measure of how accustomed we are to inattention that we would be thought unusual and perhaps dangerous if we stopped and stared at a place for as long as a sketcher would require to draw it” (218).

I am sure John Ruskin would have delicately rolled over in his grave had he witnessed the herd of cars and RVs eagerly stopping at one particular, heavily labeled overhang for the same photo op (like me, below). I am sure our hour-long drive to the campsite, winding through one sun-drenched patch of trees after another, punctuated by the occasional, sparkling stream or stark cliff, could have easily been its own trip, its own portfolio of drawings.

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But for all the dramatic views, highs and lows we witnessed at Yosemite, we did spend one afternoon that felt distinctly aligned with his principles of slow-moving receptivity, lying along the rocks of a very clear, cold river on a thick, hot day. It was the psychological equivalent of being eight years old again, in the dog days of summer — the faded voices of families calling to each other, multiple generations in multiple languages, the crunch of gravel, the mixed smell of charcoal and barbecue, the running of water over rocks, slight breezes cutting through dry heat, sending an occasional shiver through low-hanging leaves.

That is my attempt at a “word-painting,” for which Ruskin eventually became famous. Ruskin believed that describing the natural beauty of a place meant to capture its unique, emotional effect, using emotionally evocative words to enhance the objective, sensory details.

Seems like a familiar idea, even a cliché, that the beauty of a place is tied to the feeling it creates. But when you take that idea to its logical conclusion — all places are beautiful because all places evoke feelings (of varying depth and complexity) — you become aware of how much beauty is available in any given moment, and how much conscious effort (and slowing down) is necessary to see that beauty.

For Ruskin, the conscious effort involved in “word painting” is what allows the writer to see more clearly. Ruskin had a less elevated opinion of photography, but I stand by my mindless snapshots. Capturing views is important in wine country — it allows the good stuff to sit tight, eventually be reopened, shared, and enjoyed anew.

Words To Drive By Part 4

Landscape: On The Country and The City

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The corruption of cities versus the moral superiority of the countryside seems like an outdated, turn of the nineteenth century idea, but it’s one that is convincingly explored in The Art of Travel. The beauty of Yosemite National Park proved the author’s point that “there are concerns that seem indecent when one is in the company of a cliff” (148).

In this chapter, De Botton describes a three-day trip to England’s Lake District, following the footsteps of “a broader historical movement… in which city dwellers… travel in great numbers through the countryside in an attempt to restore health to their bodies and, more important, harmony to their souls” (130).

The Lake District is where William Wordsworth wrote his poems, and by extension, why he wrote his poems, since his poetry mostly praised his natural surroundings. I always thought that poets like Wordsworth got a pass for unbridled, emotional praise of butterflies and sheep and gooseberries; I assumed such flowery adulation didn’t seem “soft” in a more romantic era, but according to de Botton, Wordsworth was mocked pretty harshly for his overflowing love notes “To a Butterfly,” “To a Skylark,” “To The Daisy.”

Wordsworth was equal parts philosopher and poet, meaning that his poetry stemmed from a deep-seated, arguably non-Western belief in the importance of nature to human happiness. He thought cities made people self-centered and isolated, too focused on the social hierarchy and so eager for novelty that their broader, truer sense of interconnectedness was dwarfed. In addition, he viewed plants and animals as “paragons of stoicism,” and thus morally instructive to human beings.

1. Exhausted in the city
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2. Enamored in nature
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3. Morally instructive elephant seals
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As this guy flapped his flanks with sand and let out deep, gutteral groans, these headlines, among many others, made news back home:

  • As Bay Area Strike Idles Trains, Commuters Scramble
  • The Fall of Paula Deen
  • Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing

The contrast makes this idea, quoted from a nineteenth century book about Wordsworth,  rather charming:

“‘I am sure it would give much pleasure to many of the public if the local, daily, and weekly press throughout the country would always record, not only the arrivals and departures of Lords, Ladies, M.P’s and the great people of this land, but also the arrivals and departures of birds.’”

See De Botton’s thoughts on possessing beauty

Words To Drive By Part 3

Motives: On Curiosity 

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“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts” (111).

In this chapter, de Botton contrasts his own lethargy in Madrid with the insatiable curiosity of a German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Von Humboldt’s biography (or one of them) is entitled What May Be Accomplished in a Lifetime, which indicates how active his South American explorations were, leading to discoveries in the fields of geology, botany, physics, anthropology, and more. For today’s curious traveler, do facts merely overwhelm or distract? The author quotes Nietzsche:

“Nietzsche also proposed a second kind of tourism, whereby we may learn how our societies and identities have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging… He can gaze at old buildings and feel ‘the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that his existence is thus excused and indeed justified’” (110).

I got you, Nietzsche. It’s hard to feel accidental, sharing this view
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or this one
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or even this one
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But to acquire “a sense of continuity and belonging,” the curious traveler might prefer to venture no further than a lazy vineyard, sip slowly, and enjoy the thought that one’s existence is “excused and justified.”

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See De Botton’s thoughts on landscape, the country versus the city

Words To Drive By Part 2

On Departure: Anticipation

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“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me…” (19).

In this first chapter of The Art of Travel, De Botton writes self-deprecatingly about a trip he took to Barbados. He laments a classic dilemma: sometimes it’s hard to appreciate something when it’s right there for you to enjoy, as if you can’t physically reach your destination until you clear your mind of cares.

De Botton compares his ennuie in a beautiful place to the novel A Rebours by J.K. Huysman, in which a French hermit/misanthrope suddenly yearns to visit London. He ventures to his local English tavern and reads Guide to London for a day, during which his enthusiasm quickly diminishes. He returns home, never to leave his villa again.

On my first day in California, I also experienced the hazards of…myself. A few tranquil hours that looked like this
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led me to discover, upon standing up, that I now looked like something I had recently considered eating:
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which led to further crabbiness the following morning, due to pinprick reminders that my legs had been with me during that tranquil afternoon, now blistered and on fire. The skin behind my knees wouldn’t stretch, so I navigated our rented room sporting bent legs, raised heels, and a grimace, looking remarkably like the faun character from “L’après-midi d’un faun”:
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For more musings about The Art of Travel, see the chapter on motives and curiosity.

[Photos: “Flying Solo” from bored now’s flickr photo stream, “Nijinsky dans L’Après-midi d’un Faune,” Jean-Pierre Dalbéra flickr photostream]

Words To Drive By

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.43.51 AMThe Art of Travel by Alain de Botton was a fitting companion as I road-tripped the coast of California this June and July. Unlike a traditional guidebook suggesting what to do in a given locale, it probes the how — asking what it means to travel meaningfully from a historical, philosophical, and anecdotal point of view.

The book has a clever structure: in each chapter, de Botton explores a big, travel-related topic using a guide from the world of literature, art, or history to offset his own travel anecdotes. For example, in the chapter, “On Eye-Opening Art” Van Gogh’s history in Provence enlightens the author’s first trip there. With the help of Van Gogh’s paintings, de Botton finds that this much-lauded corner of the world lives up to its hype, leading to a more subtle, philosophical conversation about the two-way relationship between beautiful places and their representation in works of art.

I found de Botton’s reflections apropos — universal, nimbly working around clichés — as I found myself lazing next to a cold river reading about Wordsworth’s exultation of the countryside, or greedily snapping photos of peaks and valleys, only to encounter a chapter “On Possessing Beauty,” with relevant, reverent quotes such as

“‘I can never stand long under an Alpine cliff, looking up to its pines, as they stand on inaccessible juts and perilous ledges of an enormous wall, in quiet multitudes, each like the shadow of the one beside it — upright, fixed, not knowing each other’” (229, John Ruskin).

Allow me to share some more of my favorite musings from The Art of Travel, and how they became words to drive by, beginning with  some thoughts on departure and anticipation.

Monday is for Margaret Atwood

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 3.08.06 PMI recently purchased the novel Cat’s Eye on the basis of its $4.98 sale price and its author Margaret Atwood, whose novels The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale have captivated me with their universal themes and strange, otherworldly settings.

Cat’s Eye is not a science fiction book, but Atwood’s penchant for the wild and surreal shines through in her exploration of the central character’s consciousness, raising questions about the power of childhood imagination and adult memory, as well as the fluid, fleeting nature of identity.

Elaine Risley is a painter who reluctantly returns to her native city of Toronto to attend a retrospective of her work. Written from Elaine’s perspective but alternating between different incarnations of Elaine at different ages, the narrator is what an English teacher might call unreliable: young Elaine knows things that old Elaine has forgotten; old Elaine has the advantage of hindsight and the burden of more stubborn biases. Only the reader has full access to Elaine’s disassembled story.

The youngest version of Elaine is a tomboy, content to follow her older brother Stephen as the family treks through the forests of Northern Canada in their “boat-sized Studebaker,” guided by the caterpillar studies of her biologist father and defined by a milieu of motels, canned food, pine trees, and car trips. Her mother is outdoorsy and “wild.” From a young age, her brother broods about a fourth, time-space dimension and grows up to be a physicist.

Elaine’s reverence for her older brother is broadcast in endearingly childlike terms, i.e.,“‘his only weakness that I knows of is his tendency to get carsick,’” evoking the short-lived purity of childhood sibling friendship. Atwood also touches on the existential thoughts that children experience: when the family is living in an abandoned campground, Elaine adopts an outsider’s view of her parents: “‘I see my parents, in through the window, sitting beside the kerosene lamp, and they are like a faraway picture with a frame of blackness. It’s disquieting to look at them, in through the window, and know that they don’t know I can see them. It’s as if I don’t exist, or as if they don’t.’”

This gives way to a slightly older Elaine, wishing for “friends who will be girls, girl friends, [she] know[s] that these exist, having read about them in books…” The family settles down in Toronto, and Elaine is forced to navigate female friendships that prove baffling and cruel. Twin sets, household appliances, and exclusive lines at recess overtake and delineate her old, tomboy-ish world. The characters Carol, Grace, and Cordelia jointly attempt to “improve” Elaine, described with watchful, desperate immediacy by the young narrator:

“‘It’s one of her friendly days; she puts her arm through my arm, her other arm through Grace’s, and we march along the street, singing We don’t stop for anybody. I sing this too. Together we hop and slide. Some of the euphoria I once felt in falling snow comes back to me; I want to open my mouth and let the snow fall into it. I allow myself to laugh, like the others, trying it out. My laughter is a performance, a grab at the ordinary.’”

Elaine’s fastidious efforts toward social acceptance continue: she earnestly imitates her friend Grace’s religious zeal and submits to humiliating dares. This culminates in a near-death experience at the bottom of a steep ravine. The extent of their cruelty, and a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a cat’s eye, finally liberate her from the need to fit in.

The contrasting worlds of Elaine’s childhood — her nomadic family versus cruel, small town cliques — converge when Elaine becomes an artist. She gains admission into a drawing class on the basis of her sketches of plant and insect life. A few years later, she gains critical acclaim through surreal depictions of small town life, painting visual cues of the fear, bitterness, and contempt that she felt.

My favorite parts were the narration by the child version of Elaine. The earnestness and determination of her voice reminded me of the recent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and its heartbreaking, vulnerable, headstrong protagonist, how the minds of children are fertile grounds for storytelling.

[Photo: “DIY Margaret Atwood Mask,” Christos Tsirbas’ photostream]

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