Agnes Callard, a University of Chicago philosopher, infuriated various portions of the internet in June with an essay making the case against travel. Though really it was the case against tourism, since Callard exempted many forms of travel — for work or study, for personal or political reasons or charitable service — from her critique. What remained for her to savage was the contemporary there-and-back-again excursion: the checklist of foreign sights and places, the pursuit of agreed-upon Great Experiences, the expectation of some sort of personal transformation — all of it, according to her, an exercise in self-delusion.
Citing travel skeptics as various as Walker Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson and G.K. Chesterton, Callard discusses tourism’s “locomotion” problem (“I went to France.” OK, but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” OK, but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’”), its inevitably superficial non-encounters with alien peoples and experiences, its imitative, guidebook-driven estimation of what’s worth seeing in the world. Its core failure, she argues, is that it promises growth or conversion but generally returns travelers unchanged to where they began:
As it happens, I read the essay just as I was about to embark, with my wife and four children, on an 18-day odyssey through Britain, the Netherlands and France. So I refrained from any comment on her thesis, assuming — like every other self-deluded tourist — that I would return more enlightened than before.
Now, back home and dealing with what Percy called the “problems of re-entry,” I can barely remember the man I was before our trip began, let alone recall whatever ideas about travel my former self might have entertained before we recklessly tried to take a 3-year-old through several European capitals and all the British countryside between Stonehenge and the Scottish Highlands.
But casting my mind back to that distant prior self, I dimly remember having two reactions to Callard’s essay. The first was that she was identifying a real problem — one especially associated with the forces of secularization and disenchantment, which have transformed the promise of travel by making mere tourists out of people who would have once been pilgrims instead.
Like today’s locomoting Louvre-goers, the pilgrims of the past assumed that travel could yield some kind of special knowledge or illumination. But they had better reasons for the assumption, because their idea of pilgrimage presumed an interaction with unseen powers and forces, not just with physical locales and their merely human inhabitants. You certainly didn’t just go out to “find yourself,” whatever that might mean. Rather, a pilgrimage might bring you closer to a specific saint or deity, or place you before a special oracle or altar where essential questions might be answered and intercessions made. Or the journey might have been an offering to God in its own right.
These expectations were carried forward into modernity through the cult of nature and the cult of art. The Romantic poets sought the numinous in an Alpine meadow after it was banished from the industrializing city. The aesthete aspired to commune with the good and beautiful and true by perambulating in Roman ruins or contemplating the “Venus de Milo.”
But those cults still assumed some idea of the absolute, some special power and agency operating through different totems and locales. Whereas once skepticism strips away that religious residue, once relativism makes all greatness a matter of the beholder’s eye, travel can degenerate into a process where the self changes location but remains closed to deeper kinds of change — buffered against both the supernatural and the superhuman, with what Callard calls the “conventional wisdom about what you are or are not supposed to do in a place” replacing openness to the place’s secret power, its numen or its god.
That’s the worst-case scenario, at least. But my second reaction to her essay was that the debased kind of tourism she describes — the passive tour bus prisoner, the hyperactive monument collector — is a peril for the modern traveler, but not something inevitable or universal.
For one thing, total disenchantment is something of a myth — the world still defies reductionism, the gods have purposes of their own. You might go forth with a guidebook mind-set and find yourself ensorcelled by an unexpected vista or knocked prostrate by a work of art. You might still have a religious awakening in the midst of a tour-bus trip through France’s cathedrals. (I have known such cases.)
And if you don’t achieve quite that kind of absolute encounter, there’s still room for travel to be edifying in ways that exceed mere entertainment. The longtime reader of Jane Austen who wanders the grounds of a Georgian mansion, the history buff who touches the crumbling stones of Hadrian’s Wall, the parent who has read “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck” a hundred times but now stands in Beatrix Potter’s rain-drenched garden — all of these travelers are enjoying an extension of their education, a deepening of their knowledge, which is less than a conversion but more than just a bit of harmless fun.
Likewise, the communal aspect of travel, the sharing of experiences and misadventures with friends or family members or even the new acquaintances on the tour bus, is undersold by Callard’s polemic, in which a solitary-seeming traveler is forever sliding haplessly across the surfaces of things and the conviviality of travel seems altogether absent.
And finally, her essay underestimates the sense in which there-and-back travel can be a skill unto itself, a knack that you can cultivate, a form of mastery that tests your limits as a planner and navigator, and strives against all the vices she describes. Becoming a truly skilled traveler, a tourist-plus, if you will, can transform you in the same way as learning carpentry, studying painting or gaining a facility for gardening — not with a sudden mystical rush, but as a slow-motion acquisition of capacities you didn’t have before.
These last two aspects of travel are especially in my mind right now because dragging four kids across three countries by plane and rail and car is obviously not an ideal method for encountering the divine — and indeed our most overt gestures in that direction tended to flop. We missed Mass at Sacré-Coeur because of a nasty fall, a sudden squall kept us out of the line to enter York Minster, the tides denied us access to the ruined abbey on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The cult of art, meanwhile, prefers adult initiates, and the looks we received as our 3-year-old prowled the Rijksmuseum were not especially conducive to a deep communion with Rembrandt.
But travel-as-community we had aplenty (as well as a certain amount of communal violence in the minivan’s cramped back seat). Much like the family drive we made across America last summer, our European vacation functioned as a clan initiation as well as a grand tour — which of course is the real function of family vacations generally, to create bonds as well as open vistas.
And as for skill-building and mastery? I don’t know if “masterful”quite describes the day we left Paris by train in the early morning, spent the middle of the day racing frantically across London to buy the car seat that the rental car company had forgotten to reserve for us and after two hours of wrong-side-of-the-road driving somehow reached Stonehenge a solid 40 minutes before the guards closed the path to tourists and the shadows and the druids took it back. But the achievement felt pretty Homeric to me.
The truth is that I’ve never been a particularly good traveler. I fall easily into the patterns Callard describes, I recognize her descriptions of tourist mediocrity, I shy away from the risks and experiments required to escape the guidebook rut. And our household’s newfound habit of taking epic vacations is probably overcompensation for that deficiency, relying on the inherent madness of extended travel with small children to force a boldness (or ugly-Americanness, who can say?) that I would never muster on my own.
But the other truth is that any sufficiently elaborate trip contains within itself a range of modes and experiences, some educational and elevating, some disappointing and clichéd, some empty and some brimful.
Thus we were travelers, not mere Callardian tourists, when we sojourned with some old friends and their kids in Amsterdam, abandoning the museum circuit for a languid late afternoon trying to steer a boat on the canals. But then we were definitely tourists, American tourists, when we grimly frog-marched the kids through the streets of Paris, trying to hit all the high points in just 48 hours — and I could imagine Callard nodding in vindication when my 7-year-old son wanted to take a picture of himself in front of the “Mona Lisa” but not in front of one of David’s Napoleons, on the grounds that “the ‘Mona Lisa’ is famous, Dad.” (The interpretation of his subsequent demands to purchase a Napoleon Playmobil figure in the Louvre gift shop and then watch the trailer for Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” on repeat I leave to historians of his future conquests.)
And then we were, ever so briefly, proper pilgrims when we made a mad dash from Edinburgh north to the heights and depths of Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis, to scenery I’ve now seen twice in my life and that needs no complex argument, no philosophical theory to justify even the shortest visit.
Seen clearly, one might argue, the entire world is shot through with majesty, which is why the perfectly enlightened need never practice tourism. But there are places where the sublimity is especially strong — strong enough to penetrate the fog of care and obligation, the remembrance of newsletters waiting to be written, the getting and spending in which we lose ourselves so easily.
Going in search of such places is no substitute for seeking deeper forms of conversion and communion. But neither is it just a detour or distraction from those obligations. The sublime justifies itself.
Matthew Rose on the religious vision of Robert Bellah.
Aris Roussinos on liberal Britain and conservative Europe.
Ed West on the French Intifada.
David Samuels on the pop culture apocalypse.
Reasons not to use psychedelics, from Tyler Cowen and Owen Cyclops.
Avi Loeb’s undersea search for extraterrestrial life.
David Deming on what elite schools really offer.
This Week in Decadence
— Elizabeth Wagmeister, “Mattel Execs on Next Hollywood Moves: ‘Barney,’ ‘Polly Pocket’ and ‘Barbie’ Sequels,” Variety (July 26)