Does Travel Narrow the Mind?

Does travel narrow the mind?

First consider Emerson:

Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

Then Chesterton:

… There is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside.

Andrew Sullivan summarizes:

The proper conservative resistance to travel is not, therefore, a blinkered resistance to the new; it is an understanding that we have never fully absorbed or understood what we already know; that the places we love are still mysterious, and understanding of them should never be mistaken for simple familiarity. Seeking new superficialities at the expense of familiar depths is a neurosis, not an adventure.

I find the above ideas fascinating but unpersuasive. As one of Sullivan's readers writes, "Inward and outward journeys are simply not opposed, and to pretend that they are in order to adhere stuffily to the superior excellence of the inward journey is just irritating."

I've found that travel can awaken the inner journey. Some of my most contemplative thoughts have come while sitting on a bench in a foreign land, looking around and recognizing nothing, and retreating inward like one runs inside from a cold day for a cup of hot chocolate.

For a final, different take on the value of travel, here's a unique David Foster Wallace footnote from his Gourmet magazine piece on lobsters:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.

My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all.

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful:

As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

8 comments on “Does Travel Narrow the Mind?
  • Great thoughts Ben. Would agree that travel brings new perspective, and exposure to various cultures and experiences spurs creativity. Here’s a short, interesting article from the economist on living abroad.

  • Re DFW’s piece, I’d say that obvious tourists are loathsome. (I get annoyed to the point of walking away from anyone with me in a foreign city who whips out a map in public.) If you don’t call attention to yourself, you don’t feel like you’re imposing or spoiling the usually unspoilt.

    I think there is a conflation of two different issues, though: If you think you can do “a geographic” (as they say in the 12-step rooms) and leave your loneliness, your sadness, and your problems behind as long as you’re in a dream spot, you’re bound to be disappointed. If you’re going somewhere fully aware that “wherever you go, there you are” but with the intention of experience and learning – even it’s the experience of being frustratingly uninspired by one of the world’s great natural wonders, or learning that museums make you grumpy with their swerving crowds and overly watchful security guards – then you’ll be fine. But you have to be okay with the possibility that you’ll find yourself unmoved or even feeling worse than if you’d stayed home.

    (Also, I think it’s advisable to let go completely of other people’s ideas of what you “should” do when you go to certain places. I struggle with this – I know I “should” be at the Met when I’m wandering round the smaller, friendlier JP Morgan Library, that I “should” be at the Royal Opera House when I’m bowling at the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus – but it’s an idea worth trying to shed. Otherwise you never can be fully in the moment where you’ve chosen to place yourself, or you end up in places just because others think you should be there.)

    I recently started spending more time in New York, and feel intoxicated by the city most of the time. But the first rainy day when it felt too cold and nasty to venture out, I found myself intensely lonely, and couldn’t think of anything that would make me feel my usual NYC buzz. There I was, and I had to get okay with that.

  • Reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Ugly Tourist.” That whole feeling of being disliked by the natives but also being needed for economic purposes depressed me when I first read it.

  • Fascinating tidbits here, Ben. My initial instinct was to push these arguments away, thinking “how dare they question the benefits of travel?!”

    I have to say that there has never been a time that I have regretted travel to a different country – and I don’t think I ever will (unless it comes as a result of opportunity cost).

    But I know what they mean here. You can’t escape the self. But I believe travel unfolds and reveals the self in ways that you won’t get at home, as you mention above. It’s still an inner process, except that it’s happening on the outside too as you interact with different cultures and styles.

  • As with everything else with travel you get out of it what you put into it.

    If you travel through a country as a tourist with friends from home, you’re likely to have few meaningful interactions because you’re really just in a bubble. I think this is true even if you travel alone, in the end you’re just passing briefly through the lives and settings of others.

    My own experience is consistent with the Economist article, living and working in a foreign country is what is mind expanding (I’ve lived in two European countries) – you have to re-learn how to do hundreds of everyday things, while building a whole new set of relationships in a culture (and language) where you are the foreigner. You get true perspective on how many different ways there are to live, how you have to adjust to other cultures and norms when you are a minority of one, and yet at the same time how much all people have in common, regardless of the culture in which they live.

    I find this most true when working in another country. Even a few days in a country very foreign to me (Egypt) where I was imursed (working 14 hour days) with the local employees of my company, and meeting with local customers to solve their business issues, expanded my horizons in ways personal travel never has.

    Travel is most expanding when you get out of the bubble and become part of the locals’ lives, on their terms.

  • That Emerson quote seeks to extricate the self thro travel and is disillusioned with the outcome. That’s because most travel is best of all in the anticipation or the remembering; the reality has more to do with losing your luggage. But Chesterton conveys more by not stating the obvious which to me is, if you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home. It’s like the tourist that misses toilet tissue in cultures where they use a significantly more hygienic faucet. On Sullivan’s neurosis take is a clear endorsement of the fact that no one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.

    That said, the best way to enjoy travel is not in trying to lose self; It is by hating having your life disrupted by routine. Pining for home while on travel or worse, comparing it to familiar surroundings brings up a typical jerk. Check out Columbus.

  • I agree with Erik.

    Crucial is the distinction between travel and tourism.

    The best of travel can be immersion into another culture, or withdrawl into yourself.

    The worst of travel is tourism, bringing the whole herd with you totally out of place and worst: taking photos or video and talking all the time.

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