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.

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