Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance.
— Karl Ove Knausgard
The way we talk about journeys is sadly results-oriented. We ask where we’ve been, not where we’ve been through, or how, or even if while getting to where we were going something important happened (that is, something that in reality we would expect from the visit: some meaningful coincidence, something learned, some kind of revelation). No; we’re only interested in having arrived, the being-there. Good travel then, is irrelevant travel. It is the type of travel that allows us to forget that we’re traveling, that we have travelled. The few times we do talk about it, it’s because something exceptional must have occurred: a strange disruption or postponement – an accident – that brought it out from its invisibility. In this sense, one could almost say that travel has something of the obscene, the unbearable. The machinery of travel works to minimize it to the point that ideally, going from Barcelona to Tokyo should consist only of moving (dragging yourself, pushing yourself) from the bed to the back seat of the taxi, to the boarding gate, to the seat of the airplane, to the arrivals gate, to the back seat of the taxi, to the hotel bed. Ideally, we should be able to do without the 10,425 kilometres and twenty or so countries that separate one bed from the other.
When we say that we’ve travelled a distance, what we are in fact saying is that we’ve erased it. What we’ve done is something different. We’ve waited in our seat, we’ve ignored the safety protocols that, also by protocol, the flight attendants have explained to us, we’ve read, we’ve taken a nap, we’ve ordered chicken and Coca-Cola, we’ve fastened our seat belt when beginning our descent. When we say that we’ve gone ‘from one place to another’, what we are saying in reality is that we didn’t experience the distance that separates them. That, in a way, we’ve avoided this experience, translating it into something else, whether flight hours or differences in time zone or glasses of whisky. It doesn’t matter. The point is to eliminate the sensation of moving; to take a travel-nap. You fall asleep – you wake up somewhere else.
The problem is that without this experience of distance the trip becomes a paralysis, a diorama, a projection in your living room, one of many mountains that lead to Mohammed. In this sense, the trip of a results-oriented person is similar to that of a baby in a pushchair being wheeled around any European capital. Nobody would say that the baby has been in said capital. The baby was lying down in the pushchair, connecting brain cells, looking at its feet, doing whatever it is that babies do; in his experience, the only thing that has changed is the decoration, that gelatine of colours that dazzles through the hood.
On this type of trip, one never gets anywhere, because one never moves. One is always too close to himself – stuck in that Zero, Zero, Zero of our narcissistic coordinate system.
One never gets anywhere.
A considerable portion of modern literature seems to be written based on this principle. Kafka’s heroes try doggedly to get somewhere, to meet with someone, to obtain certain information, and all of them fail. Doors are closed, appointments go on forever, complete information is always just out of reach. Proust’s hero strains to remember something fully, all in one piece, but his memory gets tangled up, it becomes asymptotic (because, as in Tristram Shandy, to talk about something you first have to talk about that other thing, and to talk about that, you have to have talked about so many other things), so that the memory evoked becomes the memory practiced; the object becomes the activity. Joyce and Woolf’s heroes move little (they go to work, they prepare a dinner) but only because each gesture they make crosses two thousand years of cultural history. It seems logical that they are slow gestures: they are painted in the thickness that interests the modern eye. The modern eye focuses on a microscopic aspect of daily reality in order to find the ‘Big Picture’, that is, to discover that this said aspect is not a point, an isolated atom, but rather an infinite series of points organized into networks. These networks in turn take the shape of systems with sufficient critical mass to acquire a certain orbital movement, a sort of rotation that keeps them in motion but anchored to a single point, simultaneously centripetal and centrifugal. Virginia Woolf explains it with the image of the tunnel: behind each word, gesture, silence, there must be a cavern that opens a path towards the inner person (and not only that: towards the inside of language, the code that makes a gesture or the absence of a gesture comprehensible) and it would connect, in semi-darkness, to so many other caverns, hers and others’. Perhaps for this reason, the lines of the modern novel are always curved. Modernity meanders, postpones, digresses. It reminds us that one is never so oriented as when one is drifting.
Against the results-oriented journey, modernity poses the journey of the Pequod. Like the majority of whale ships, the Pequod moves through everywhere without ever reaching anywhere. It knows what it is looking for – the white whale – but is unaware of where it is. Like falling in love, or reading, the Pequod’s venture is a venture of knowledge, which, in Melville’s view, dooms it to failure. Or to a relative failure: we cannot come to fully know anything, in the same way that one cannot ascribe a single meaning to any text, or know the exact measure of what one person feels for another. Speaking of the whale, Ishmael writes: ‘Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will’. The fact that the will to know fails does not mean that there are not differences in the method of failing. Neither does it imply that there is not a certain beauty in this failure, nor does it deny the truth: it only reminds us of the necessity to redefine what we understand by success. From that point of view, Moby Dick and the adventure of the Pequod radically redefine the affirmative idea of the journey, which will no longer have to do with travelling a physical distance, but rather with exploring a psychological one (where ‘explore’ means ‘getting lost’ and where ‘psychology’ is rather a metaphysical nightmare). Throughout all this, the journeys of the Pequod never arrive anywhere1: because ‘arriving’ would mean closing down a process characterized by its opening.
Saying that one ‘never arrives anywhere’ presupposes a certain idea of what a ‘place’ is. Or what it is not. A place is not a space. A space is merely a physical observation, an accidental intersection of coordinates, a plan. The place appears when one inhabits this space, when one lives in it, when one moves through it, when one fills it with discourse, when one digs through it. The space exists apart from us; the place, however, does not. The spaces supply the maps; the places, the memories. For this reason, going back to where that something happened – where you were raised, where you met a certain girl, where you think you were happiest – is always somewhat disappointing: we think we’re going back to the place, but we only find the space. Therefore, the only distance that is promoted is that which is measured between two spaces. It is the distance of travel agencies, of record books, of Google Maps. It is the only distance that is promoted because it is the only one that we can bear; the one that brings places closer and takes them further away. On the other hand, it’s the type of distance that is repressed, and which art, among other forums, works to bring back to the surface of the visible. It is repressed, perhaps, because we haven’t reached a consensus on any method to measure it. And our world is crazy about the measurable. As a result, it has ended up being the patrimony and problem of artists: because each one is obligated to define the valid terms of said measurement. And that requires a minimum of creativity, systematic risk, and passion for the question. In literature this measurement often contains something of autobiography, something of a language treatise and something of psychoanalysis2 – three ways of constantly arriving at a thing that always escapes us. Unlike the distance that separates spaces, the distance that separates places cannot be travelled for the same reasons that a person cannot fully know him or herself: not so much because of a late-romantic faith in the ‘impregnable ineffability of the individual’, but rather because of the same thing that, according to Zeno, happens to Achilles with the tortoise. We never fully get to know a person because the time we take finding out something about him or her has already changed said person. The question that reveals that something – the conversation, the situation, whatever it is that brings that previously unknown dimension of the person to light – modifies the person asked; between that person (the known) and the current one (unknown), the question, the conversation, the situation has taken place – we ourselves, who observe the person and ask the question and look at him or her in one manner or another. Thus, if a journey is truly a journey, it simultaneously brings us closer to, and takes us further away from, the place to which we are going. Perhaps this has to do with what we addressed previously: that the place is not a mere cartographic anecdote, but rather a cluster of imaginings, expectations, dialogies that change as we move – as we get closer. But this is not all: a place is also a delicate alchemy of proximities and distances. In order for a place to be a proper place, it must be far in certain ways and close in others. We must perceive this double tension between strangeness and familiarity, between what is us and what is beyond. If it falls on the side of the radically strange, it ceases to be a place and becomes a space. If it becomes radically familiar, it is no longer a place, but rather an extension of ourselves. This balance belongs to both the space and the person who inhabits it (that is, at its intersection: the space) and it is for this reason that it runs the risk of changing if we make a true experience of distance. We should not be surprised then that sometimes, halfway down the path, we realise that there is no longer any meaning to going where we wanted to go when we left the house. Or that sometimes we arrive at a space that, during the journey, has ceased to be a place – and has therefore ceased to have meaning.
In this sense, all journeys are initiation journeys, which explains why it is not promoted: one does not return from an initiation journey. One becomes someone else. Something of ourselves returns. Someone who is and is not us. The results-oriented journey, on the other hand, thrives on the opposite promise: it guarantees that you will return intact. It must be able to guarantee it. In order to do that, it will do whatever is necessary to avoid, from where you are to where you’re going – and during the time you’re there – anything happening to you that might threaten the integrity of who you are. Such a journey therefore seems convinced that one is ‘something’ before leaving the house. Based on that lie, results-oriented thinking allows us to eliminate distances, going wherever and returning with no metaphysical puzzles. It thinks it is not, but it is indeed stuck on the map. The journey of the Pequod, on the other hand, begins by discrediting all maps. It is the unsatisfied journey of the almost, one that explores the space that opens between the not yet and the no longer, one that accompanies the world in its delinquent transformations. It has no method or cartography. It is always on the verge of beginning and it has always already begun. Recognising the latter may be the challenge of a lifetime.
1 In fact, it does arrive somewhere – not at a geographical point, but at its annihilation: at a situation that takes the sinister form of an existential destiny. It is not insignificant that the spatial metaphor here folds its literal meaning over the figurative: the end of the path is not a point, but rather the end of a life – the conclusion, albeit a failed one, of a search – and at the same time, the revelation of its meaning.
2 Let’s say you’re talking to a girl. You’re having a coffee at the office café, and you have ten minutes between what has ended and what has yet to begin. You like the girl, but she makes you uncomfortable, perhaps because she doesn’t agree with you on almost anything. Or because not only does she argue with you about everything, but she does it in reference to something that makes you uncomfortable. Modern philosophy, for example. No: Heideggerian existential hermeneutics, something that simultaneously brings you closer to her and pushes you further away. Your repertoire of book references doesn’t go beyond the four classics. It irritates you that she says ‘phenomenologically’ and ‘insofar as’ and talks about the difference between ‘induction’ and ‘deduction’. Well yes, you care about that, but only up to a certain point. Precisely because you don’t know her, the philosophical jargon becomes a kind of verbal fall of Adam. They are inside; you are waiting outside. They understand everything; you are confused by everything. There is plenitude; here, destitution. For this reason, each more or less abstruse pretentious word opens up a small hole on the surface of your comfort zone and makes you feel the immensity of what awaits on the other side. Let’s say that the girl is Argentinian. Or no, Colombian. You like her accent, but it gives too much space to a frightened imagination. Behind each deafening thing, twenty years pile up on an unknown continent and exclude you from a whole world of references, habits, smells. Each minimal phonetic difference opens up the space necessary for everything that you will never understand about her, for the lover that marked all the differences, for that imminent and inevitable return. Perhaps for this reason, you begin to mentally fill in the gaps. You tell yourself that, at some point, she must have backed down from the idea of making a living from her philosophy degree. You think that, as a result, her relationship to work – to this job – must merely be for financial reasons, for survival, which doesn’t take away the fact that she can enjoy what little of it there is to enjoy. Behind that allusion to the severity of the father, you say to yourself ‘Oedipus’. You also ask yourself whether that messed-up relationship with the father (you have decided that it is ‘messed up; it also seems that you prefer to speak of her father as ‘the father’) must have determined the decision both to study philosophy and to accept a little job as a secretary afterwards. You decide that’s what it is. It works. All of the mentions of Heidegger now seem to you a blend of self-assertion and nostalgia that no longer frightens you. You also assert yourself from time to time. You also feel nostalgia for certain things. Now you’re the ones inside something and the others are waiting outside. By the time you’ve finished the coffee, you will have already made her into the heroine of a story of transatlantic personal improvement that, in some way, will end in success thanks to you. It doesn’t matter much to you that the image you’ve created of the girl doesn’t have much to do with the girl herself. What matters – what will make your love possible – is that you feel closer to her than ever.