Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: travel

A quiet place to go mad

Geneva is definitely not Paris. There is a quiet about the place, dare one say a provinciality, which remains untouched by the élites and oligarchs of many nations passing up and down the fashionable streets. Geneva was always quiet and sober, like its most famous citizen, Calvin, wanted it to be. Before the two world wars, which brought the League of Nations and later the United Nations and its various organizations, Geneva was really a backwater. It was a place to be alone and to do your own thing – perhaps brilliantly, perhaps eccentrically – or to go mad. Or both. As the poet said,

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Rousseau was definitely mad. He spent more time in Paris than in his native Geneva, but as the years went by he became convinced that he was the victim of a gigantic plot that included almost all his contemporaries. This, however, led to some of his finest writing.

Another among the great Genevans was Ferdinand de Saussure, who belonged to an old patrician family there. His great-grandfather Horace had been a scientist involved in the conquest of Mont Blanc, which he measured to be the highest mountain in Europe.

Ferdinand was a brilliant student of Indo-European philology and achieved fame with his Master’s thesis, in which he discovered an intricate pattern in the vowels of the language family with implications that were only grasped later. However, he did not fit in either in Paris or in the German universities, and he eventually got a job as professor in Geneva. Thereafter little was heard of him in the learned world; yet, all alone, he was devising a completely new science of linguistics and the movement that later became known as structuralism.

Saussure was also working on an eccentric project of his own. He became convinced that the Latin poets had been using a system containing secret messages – the coded names of gods. He was very excited by the discovery of this pattern. Trouble was, he also found it in an English late-Latin poet. Could the tradition have been secretly passed on down the centuries? Then he found it in a contemporary Italian professor who wrote Latin verse. He wrote to him and asked if he was using the code. The other professor, it seems, never wrote back.

At this stage Saussure must have been confronted with the illusory nature of the grand pattern he had detected. He lay low and didn’t try to publish his findings. This was not hard, because he never liked writing or publishing anyway. He didn’t even publish his masterwork, the Cours de linguistique générale. His students put the book together from their lecture notes and published it in 1916, after his death. The rest, as they, say, is history.

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Journey to the edge

As I wrote last week, the Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel in the 1950s called La Pierre et l’Oreiller, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and a sanatorium in the Danish countryside.

He talks about the “catastrophe” of his tuberculosis at the age of 30. But he wonders about what the illness means. He finds that the Catholic faith of his childhood, then Communism, then tuberculosis, were all stratagems to cover up life itself, and its ultimate emptiness.

Catholicism was a given in Belgium, where it was much stronger than in France. Dotremont  went to a Jesuit school and had the usual religious education. But he grew into a teenage rebel and got expelled for punching a Jesuit. During the chaos of the German Occupation, he abandoned his faith altogether.

Then at the end of the war, with Stalin occupying the whole of Eastern Europe, it looked like Communism was a winning formula, and so young intellectuals like himself got with the program and joined the Party. Dotremont quickly became disillusioned, however, and quit. Now that he had given up God, and given up Stalin, what was next, or what was left?

Dotremont had the bizarre creative insight that the new thing to occupy his life was tuberculosis. The illness was nothing but a hole in life, admittedly, but it was there to cover the bigger hole of emptiness. It really was taking the place of God and Stalin. Everybody, he reflected, is looking for something to hide that gaping hole. Even Ulla, his Danish girlfriend, was filling up her emptiness – with him. We are all looking for a life project to keep us busy.

Dotremont never really recovered from tuberculosis, and eventually died of the complications over twenty years later. But in the meantime he became an inveterate traveller. Turning his back on Paris, the intellectual and artistic centre, he travelled constantly, through Amsterdam up to Denmark, across to Sweden and Finland, and up to his ultimate goal where he found what he needed: Lapland, the Great Frozen North of Europe. As one writer says of him, he became “the black traveller in white spaces”. In Lapland he could sharpen his sense of three-dimensionality, grasped through the two-dimensionality of abstract brush calligraphy in his logogrammes. Was this really abstract, or was it his vision of the landscape of Lapland? The small black figures of men and animals in the vastness of the snow, the black ink shapes against the white of the paper – it was all one. Lapland was the ultimate emptiness. Out in the snowy wastes, there was no “chalice to hide the emptiness”, as he had written earlier.

So often we think, like Dotremont, that we have reached the limit, the end, nothingness, when in fact it is just a borderland, and there is something else on the other side. Although his strange artwork consciously recalls Chinese calligraphy, he did not realize Lapland could be for him a borderland – the borderland not just to Russia but to Asia, to a new departure for human culture. But he had travelled far enough for one short life.

 

The work of travel

The Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel, La Pierre et l’Oreiller, in the early 1950s, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and places in the Danish countryside, including a sanatorium where he was treated for tuberculosis and had as his room-mate the artist Asger Jorn.

The travels he describes are usually by train. In those days they had a thing called the “Nord-Express” that plied between Paris and Copenhagen. When Camus went to Stockholm to get the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, he took this train to Copenhagen and then went on by ship to Sweden. By that time there was a flight available, but his doctors advised him against it as he was tubercular too and in poor health.

At the climax of Dotremont’s novel, the narrator, instead of boarding the “Nord-Express”, takes the plane from Paris Le Bourget to Copenhagen.  It is an innovation. There are Danish journalists covering the flight, and he gets interviewed and photographed in his seat – smoking. This may have been the first time he had ever been on a plane, but he doesn’t let on.

In connection with this episode, Dotremont talks about the difference between air and land travel.  He gives an example of African porters accompanying a white missionary in a hurry, who complained after a while that they wanted to take a break because “they had left their souls behind” and the souls needed to catch up. Dotremont says that when you travel by plane instead of train you leave your soul behind in the same way. This is very true. I think also of the Australian aborigines travelling by car with Bruce Chatwin along the Songlines in the book of that name, and hurrying through the verses of the song to keep up with the unaccustomed speed of travel.

When you fly somewhere, even in Europe, it is all over so quickly that you do not feel you have arrived. We talk about “jet lag” in connection with transcontinental flights. This of course refers to the physical discomfort of being caught between time zones. You are still in the old time zone that you left, and you have not had a chance to adjust to the new rhythm of light and darkness at your destination. But there is a psychological aspect too. When you travel by commercial airliner, the whole experience is very artificial. You go up in the air, see nothing but clouds or sky for several hours, and then you land at your destination. You do not “cover ground”. You have not done what I would like to call the work of travelling. Note that the word travel is the same as “travail” which originally means work. Travel is supposed to be work, which takes time.

The best way to travel would be to imitate the nomads. Taking their inspiration from migrating animals and birds, they travel over land on a route they know, and take their time at it. They look forward to getting to their winter quarters or summer quarters, but they take the time to enjoy the journey as well. We do not do that. We do not take the time to travel. We leave our souls behind. Do they ever catch up?