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how to talk about places you've never been

26 march 2016

I could easily have reviewed How to Talk about Places You've Never Been without having read it – or at least, without doing much more than scan the titles of its chapters. But I'm glad I did anyway, because I would never have been able to generate its full complement of Bayardian paradoxes on my own.

Bayard claims to have traveled little and to find the whole enterprise risky. I think he's being tongue-in-cheek. But below the surface of How to Talk about Places You've Never Been lies a deeper problem, akin to the central problem in How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. In his earlier book, Bayard noted that every act of reading is followed by an immediate act of forgetting, so that even the most adept and experienced reader has to talk about a book by recreating a kind of "screen book" in its place. You can see how this works with travel, before you've even read How to Talk about Places You've Never Been. Your memory of somewhere you've been is partial, fading, and inevitably mixed up with what other people have said about that place and the pictures of it that circulate in media and the popular imagination. "A place we have forgotten, but which we actually did visit—when every trace of the trip has vanished from our memory, would that still count as a place traveled through?" (58)

Worse yet, even the most thorough tourist hasn't seen the half of what a destination has to offer. I've been to Rome, but I've only seen the Vatican in the distance. I've been to Florence, but I didn't see Botticelli's Primavera; it was being restored that year. And worse than worse, even if you see the high points of a given venue, you suspect you've missed the real place. You can see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty and you might as well never have gone to New York; you've only seen something you (and everybody else you know, whether they've traveled there or not) have seen thousands of times before. Meanwhile, have you been to the real New York, the one only the locals know? But if you had, it wouldn't be only the locals who go there anymore. Hence the effect of those "insider" guidebooks which direct traffic toward hidden gems which become just as packed and "inauthentic" as the tourist traps.

Bayard discusses many eminent travelers who dispensed with going somewhere in favor of just talking about it: Marco Polo, Chateaubriand, Blaise Cendrars. Sometimes these "armchair travelers" are upfront about their non-travel, as with Édouard Glissant, who was too disabled to go to Easter Island and sent his wife instead. Sometimes they became more famous as frauds: Rosie Ruiz, Jayson Blair. But ethical or not, all these stay-at-home journeyers share the literary impulse to create destinations by mixing imagination with culture.

Prudently rereading the most famous authors doesn't in any way imply that we should challenge their accounts—unless one falls prey to the illusion that the closer you get to a place, the better you can know it. No, it should be about knowing how to appreciate their accounts in a different light, no longer just for their documentary value but with all the poetic and heuristic power they possess to invent possible worlds. (179)
We sometimes don't worry about it when reading fiction, but how many great world-builders ever spent much time in the realistic venues they evoke? Bayard notes Jules Verne, who deliberately makes his circumnavigating Phileas Fogg the kind of traveler who doesn't pay much attention to the sights he's seeing, being focused instead on the logistics of A to B and around to A again. This makes Around the World in 80 Days useless as travelogue but impressive as a study of obsessive motion, and obviates the necessity for Verne to go around the world himself or even make a very detailed study of Fogg's itinerary.

This spring, I'm teaching Shakespeare, who notoriously never wrote about a time and place he'd actually been to. And recently I read Jean Echenoz' Envoyée spéciale, a novel (I'll spoil it more here than in writing about it directly) set half in Pyongyang, North Korea, a place I hope Echenoz hasn't been to. In fact, some of its characters proceed to escape from Pyongyang and cross the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which Echenoz specifically describes as a place no-one ever goes to, and that he's thus free to populate with exotic mammals and butterflies.

Bayard advocates a "atopic" approach to discourse about travel (just as, in Le plagiat par anticipation, he advocated an atemporal approach to literary history). Indeed, he doesn't so much advocate atopicity as to show how it's inevitable.

Such devil-may-care attitudes toward where you've been are deliberately scandalous. I intend to visit Dayton, Ohio next month, and I am required to bring my employer back boarding passes as evidence of my duly-diligent pinning of that place on my map. Yet of course it's very difficult to establish precise presence, even in these days of checking in on Facebook and smartphones that function like tracking collars.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare has the wise old counselor Gonzalo remark on the utter familiarity of the fantastic island where he and his shipmates have washed up:

when wee were Boyes
Who would beleeue that there were Mountayneeres,
Dew-lapt, like Buls, whose throats had hanging at 'em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their brests? which now we finde
Each putter out of fiue for one, will bring vs
Good warrant of. (Act 3, Scene 3)
Men "whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders" appeared also in Othello, equally familiar and equally bullshit. Yet despite their nonexistence, Gonzalo implies that there was a kind of early-modern book on fantastic travel, where someone would offer excellent odds to bettors that he couldn't be found out lying about where he'd traveled to. I don't know how such bets would be settled in any era. But they speak to the same impulse that my university's travel office does: prove you went there, buddy, or pay up. Pierre Bayard undermines the whole racket.

I was mildly surprised to find that Bayard does not quote Blaise Pascal on the superiority of staying put:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

[All human unhappiness comes from just one thing: not knowing how to stay quietly in your room.]
But Pascal's theme was perhaps how to talk about places you haven't never been.

Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk about Places You've Never Been: On the importance of armchair travel. [Comment parler des lieux où l'on n'a pas été?, 2012.] Translated by Michele Hutchison. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.