22: The Anecdote of the Jar

Doing my MA meant reading a lot of literature that I would not otherwise have encountered. As well as studying the Situationists and seeing how they related to other theorists, or learning about Georges Perec and Oulippo, I also encountered many poems and stories I would not have found on my own. One of these was Wallace Steven’s Anecdote of the Jar.

English literature courses spend a lot of time discussing how one should interpret a poem, and the discipline offers a range of different filters: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, &c. Some of the textbooks in particular treated literature as a patient who might respond to different treatments. I encountered other students who chafed at this, saying poetry shouldn’t be a puzzle, something to be solved and simplified. The best poetry is that which is unstable, that doesn’t quite surrender to interpretation.

Wallace Steven’s Anecdote of the Jar, first published in 1919, sounds simple, beginning “I placed a jar in Tennessee”, telling how “It made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill.” Wikipedia refers to the way in which different interpretations can approach it: “from a poststructuralist perspective the poem is concerned with temporal and linguistic disjunction… a feminist perspective reveals a poem concerned with male dominance over a traditionally feminized landscape”. We could talk about the act of creation, about contamination or even colonialism. Some people have drawn links between this poem and Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.

The Steven’s poem is one of the pieces of literature from the course that I remember most fondly. The professor who introduced it took a broadly post-structualist approach, while never compromising the basic act described in the poem. A poet placing an object in a landscape then looking at how that has transformed the environment.

21: A Prejudice against the Imaginary

In May 2014, the Guardian published an article GTA V to Skyrim: the 10 most beautiful walks in gaming. The writer claimed that modern games are “exotic and atmospheric, and expansive enough to explore at leisure” and the photographs accompanying the article were certainly evocative; particularly when I remember the excitement greeting the landscape of Midwinter when it came out in 1989.

The idea of walking in computer games turns up in other places – the game Myst was built around little more than exploration. And, in October 2014, a man completed a sponsored walk in GTA V, crossing the map in 6 hours to raise money to buy his mother a diabetic medical alert dog. My first response to this sort of news is revulsion. How can people spend so much time on something that is not real? I’ve mostly avoided computer games since I was a teenager, not wanted to get sucked in and miss out on ‘real life’. But maybe I’m in some way prejudiced.

I went to a party at the Lady Castle just before Christmas. As I was leaving, a man cornered me and said he had something to tell me that would interest me. I didn’t remember meeting him before, but didn’t say so, and he told me how he’d got an Oculus Rift. I’d seen one of these demoed at the Catalyst Club and was impressed, although not enough to buy a development kit. The man at the party told me the device would change everything. For him, the biggest market would be people who lived in bedsits, confined in miserable rooms, people who wanted something more.

There was a 60-second Playstation advert on this theme from 1999, Double Life. A series of regular people take turns in narrating to the camera. “You may not think it, to look at me,but I have commanded armies and conquered worlds… I have no regrets. For though I’ve led a double life, at least I can say: I’ve lived.”

Is it right to privilege real life over imaginary worlds – particularly when the work of Guy Debord and even Iain Sinclair both question how authentic the systems of the modern world are? Eve Online has an exchange rate with our world; gold farming has produced mundane jobs within multi-player environments; people take tourist photos of Elder Scrolls. If we are questioning what’s real about the real world, should we also be questioning what’s unreal about the unreal world?

20: The Worst Journey

According to G.K. Chesterton, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”

Back in 2010, I made my first trip to India, wandering around the North for ten weeks. My Dad came to join me for the couple of weeks in the middle and we went to Varanasi, a city we found it difficult to get the measure of.

From Varanasi we planned to travel around 700 kilometres to Darjeeling. Dad had booked the tickets via Patna in Bihar. The state had a bad reputation and the advice to travellers was to avoid it. We had two hours there between trains there before taking an overnight trip to New Jalpaguri where we could rest overnight and I could buy some new clothes – all of mine were dirty. We could then get the toy train into the mountains.

The plans fell apart as soon as we reached Varanasi station to find out there were massive delays. The helpful tourist ticket office found us an alternative route by sleeper class, staying overnight in Patna. We waited hours in Varanasi, our train occasionally given a new platform then delayed again. It was several hours before boarded our train.

We arrived in Patna about 3am. The station was full of people sleeping in preparation for early trains. We wanted to find somewhere to stay until early afternoon, when we had our connection towards Darjeeling. I was sick and we were tired. We found a taxi and tried several hotels where the night-staff wouldn’t even rouse to see what we wanted. The only hotel we did find wanted £80 for the night which seemed a little steep. We stood on the street corner, dawn breaking, wondering what to do next, a small pack of cycle-rickshaw drivers waiting for us to make our decision.

I was nervous and more lost than I’ve ever been. But we made it to Darjeeling safely and, looking back, standing with my Dad on an early morning street corner is one of my favourite moments. The adventure happened at the limit of our plans, as they began to fall apart.

In Delhi, a few weeks later, I was watching the BBC world news in a hotel room. One of the reports was about six hour delays on the channel tunnel, interviews with furious tourists. And I wondered what made the difference between an adventure and an inconvenience. Surely problems back home could be resolved in the same way as the mysteries of train tables, currency exchange and cheap accommodations.

19: “Cheap holidays in other people’s mystery”

“In Kathmandu there is a stupa by the name of Swayambhunath, which demonstrates one of the difficulties inherent in writing about this part of the world; it all turns into Rudyard fucking Kipling given half a chance. The promise is given that any pilgrim who dares ascend the temple’s three-hundred and sixty-five stairs WITHOUT ONCE STOPPING TO REST is guaranteed enlightenment in this life.”  – Grant Morrison, ‘It was the 90’s’

The weird metaphysics of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles was inspired by a vision he had in Nepal. Morrison visited Kathmandu after seeing the Swayambhunath temple on a BBC documentary and hearing the climb to the top could confer enlightenment. The climb itself turned out to be an anti-climax: “by step fifty or so… we realise we’ve overtrained for the event”.

The evening following the climb, standing on the top of the Hotel Vajra, looking back towards the temple, Morrison was contacted by entities from higher dimensions. He was taken on a tour of the universe and ultimate secrets were revealed, the same mysteries later communicated in the Invisibles, how …our physical bodies are all facets of the same fractal froth of thinking mercury. It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, but it’s a good story, a fun piece of background.

Years later, Autumn 2013, I was in Kathmandu myself, on a trip to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday; and while I was there I made my own trip to Swayambhunath. Interestingly, the Lonely Planet guide made no mention of enlightenment, even as it describes how the eastern stairway was constructed by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century and warns about the monkeys. Searching for the legend of enlightenment at Swayambhunath turns up only references to Morrison. But the story makes it worth climbing.

The ascent is as easy as I’ve heard, although I get stopped a short distance from the top to pay an entry fee. I am a little distance ahead of my friend and pay for both of us. I don’t manage the climb in a single go but he does. I wonder if this toll house on the way to enlightenment might have some deeper meaning but it’s all a silly story, although it has been enough to bring me to a beautiful temple 4,500 miles from home.

temple

18: The Lost Art of Getting Lost

In the 1960’s, if you wanted to meet another traveller on the hippie trail it took a little work. If you knew where they were going to be, then you could send a message poste-restante; you could communicate via a third party back home; or you could leave a message on one of the trail’s noticeboards on the trail, such as the one in Istanbul’s Pudding Shop.

Reading the accounts of the Beats in their globe-trotting days, it’s striking how convoluted some of the arrangements were. The modern world’s communications are so much faster – cheap telephones, mobiles and email have made everything more connected. You can be sitting in a cafe in Nepal and an SMS will arrive asking if you’re coming down the pub that afternoon. At home, the way people arrange to meet have changed too. The complicated arrangements of my teenage years are so far back it’s hard to recall how much work went into them, how difficult it was to work around train delays.

Another change surrounds being lost. I’m not sure where I first encountered the idea – probably Warren Ellis – that there is a generation of people growing up who will never experience being lost. Now our phones can tell us where we are and, even when the battery fails, passers-by have their own phones, making their directions reliable. I can remember being overwhelmed by London, when the only option to find a place was sneaking into a newsagents and flicking through an A-Z; now, the Internet and my phone collaborate to lead me through streets I’ve never seen. Their maps update instantly, telling me what the traffic is like at the very moment. I can now phone ahead to an appointment to say that I’m delayed.

I wouldn’t ever want to give up this technology, the benefits far outweighing the losses. But there is a certain type of being lost that I love. All but my most recent trip to India were made without a phone. Nobody knew where I was and I couldn’t send messages if I was stranded. I would pass beautiful landscapes and have no idea where they were, stop at tiny stations whose names were written only in the Hindi script that I’ve only recently learned to read. At moments like that I felt free.

In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost she quotes Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” We will soon need to teach ourselves new techniques for getting lost.

17: The Only Authentic Form of Travel

In their book ‘The Rebel Sell’, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter brutally attack the idea of a counter-culture, questioning ideas such as repressive tolerance and consciousness raising. They claim that that democratic action produces change, not rebellion for the sake of it. Capitalism involves a form of competitive consumption, with the goods and services distinguishing consumers from each other. It’s not about the number of things we have, it’s about how much better they are than what other people have. There is an arms race as we try to outdo those around us. The counter-culture has become a means by which capitalism extends and re-invigorates itself.

Their chapter on travel is fascinating, beginning with a sharp dig at Alanis Morisette’s lyric “Thank you, India”. They show how the counter-culture has long been fascinated by other cultures, seeing them as purer and freer, outside of the ‘oppression’ of the west. One example of this is Ginsberg’s quest for self-discovery in India and his awkward encounters with local people.

(The Sikh journalist Khushwant Singh encountered a group of hippies in the 1960s who said they had come to India because they were fed up with Western materialism. Singh apparently told them that Indians were fed up with poverty and would welcome some more materialism)

Many travellers are hunting for authenticity, aiming to escape the alienation of daily life to reach something real: travel far enough, beyond the reach of the Lonely Planet, and you can escape the pains of the modern world. Other travellers limit this, shattering this authenticity. “When it comes to exotic travel, hell is other Westerners”. This leads to the idea of the film and novel The Beach, where travellers end up fleeing urban Thailand for a ‘paradise’ without even any locals, where they can be free and independent.

In much of their book, Potter and Heath offer no solutions, but they are more optimistic about travel. There is a way to see the world without being trapped by inauthentic traveller environments; a way to be welcomed by the locals. “In the end, it may be that the only ‘authentic’ form of travel is business travel. Everyone else is just a tourist.”

16: Are You Experienced?

One of my favourite books about India is William Sutcliffe’s novel Are You Experienced. Published in 1997, it tells the story of Dave, a naïve gap year student, who travels around India with his best friend’s girlfriend. The sexy cover suggests a much less thoughtful book than the one Sutcliffe has written. Some of the jokes may be offensive but there are some very insightful observations.

Dave roams around much of India, including Manali, Udaipur and Goa. The people Dave encounters, from public-school hippies to a Reuters journalist, provide opportunities for Sutcliffe to make points about travellers and the different ways they try to define and understand such a large and populous country. The journalist, for example, is used to skewer the traveller lifestyle, asking incredulously “So the most significant and challenging thing you do in each place is to buy the tickets to get to the next place?”

There’s no sudden epiphany for Dave and even learning from the journalist turns out not to be straightforward. But, somehow, Dave follows an epic hero’s journey to become, by the end of the novel, Dave the Traveller. Sutcliffe is sympathetic to Dave, even as he makes the occasional cringe-worthy blunder. Particularly interesting are his shifting observations, such as those around the question of what backpackers are supposed to do all day. At one point he muses, “maybe the places were the shit bits that you had to tolerate in order to do the travelling”.

Early in the novel Dave and Liz encounter an ostentatiously experienced traveller, who refers to the Lonely Planet guidebook as The Book. A few dozen pages later, they run into Jeremy again in Manali, where he has encountered some old school friends, all exclaiming over the cosmic coincidence that has brought them together in a country of a billion people. Dave is having none of it: “But you all come to the same places and you all do the same things, don’t you?”

Even in the days before the Lonely Planet guides, the traveller routes had their gathering places, such as the Pudding Shop in Istanbul or Jhochhen Tole, Freak Street, in Kathmandu, but the Lonely Planet cannot help but focus people into particular areas. A town like Udaipur, with 600,000 inhabitants, is reduced to a map of the tourist area, less than a square kilometre. Listing a dozen places to stay out of a few hundred leads travellers to congregate in certain ones.

The travellers in Are You Experienced find their way to Pushkar (“Oh, it’s really mellow, apparently. There’s this lake, and …er… It’s just apparently really mellow. A bit like Manali, but with a lake instead of mountains.”). When I visited the town last, I stayed in a guest-house that a friend had recommended. It was beautiful, with a balcony overlooking the holy lake and plain, simple rooms. I think I could have stayed for weeks.

When I checked, out the owner urged me to tell as many people as I could about his guesthouse. It had been in the previous edition of the Lonely Planet but was not included in the latest. He was now finding it hard to bring in guests. The listings in the Lonely Planet changed the routes followed by the herds of travellers and could make and lose fortunes.

15: Only literary walks leave traces

Or, perhaps, this is a walking movement. It is notable that the new psychogeography picks up on the Derive rather than some of the other aspects that Debord was interested in, such as mapping, politics or scientific observation.

In his Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Debord wrote “The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.”

The Situationists never got down to specifics and the record of psychogeographical actions are sparse. Coverley describes one such account, Abdelhafid Khatib’s Attempt at a psychogeographical description of Les Halles, referring to its “mundane descriptions” and how it owes “more to a particularly unreadable form of travel guide”.

It makes sense that psychogeography has become a brand for a certain type of literary walking rather than a political movement of its own: activities that don’t leave an artistic or literary trace cannot be added to the psychogeographical canon. When Sinclair discusses tagging and graffiti in Lights out for the Territory, these anonymous acts are subsumed into literary psychogeography.

In the essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, Borges made the point that, following Kafka’s writing, a series of distinct earlier authors come to have a resemblance: “if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality”. Debord’s work has led to something similar, and Coverley’s book on Psychogeography draws in authors such as Daniel Defoe, Robert Luis Stevenson, William Blake, Charles Baudelaire and (of course) Thomas de Quincey.

Once a pattern like this is seen, it is hard to ignore. Perhaps there is another path that could be taken through psychogeography, drawing from Land Art and people such as Richard Long; or through protestors such as Reclaim the Streets and Occupy. A psychogeography that cannot be enjoyed from an armchair. Maybe the traces are there to be drawn upon.

14: The Psychogeographical Revival

In an interview with Lee Rourke, Merlin Coverley talks about how he came to write his book Psychogeography; that he wasn’t interested in the subject so much as ‘certain writers’. Coverley explains that he learned about it via Iain Sinclair who, he feels, is responsible for the current popularity of psychogeography.

And it’s certainly true that Sinclair’s Lights out for the Territory stands at the heart of a psychogeographical revival. The people featured in the book include Will Self, Bill Drummond, Stewart Home, Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, Patrick Keiller and JG Ballard. But, while Sinclair has a political rage that Debord would sympathise with, Sinclair’s psychogeography is more of a literary movement than a political one.

Sinclair started his long rambles in the capital when he first arrived in London: “Walking was a means of editing a city of free-floating fragments.” He began to interpret the capital, learning its history and reading its hidden patterns. Like Coverley, Sinclair was not directly inspired by the Situationists: ” I had no idea, back then, that rogue Parisian intellectuals had already branded these strategies and given them a provocative title: psychogeography.”

Debord was, in many ways, a poor father to psychogeography, leaving a lot of his work incomplete. He also ignores a lot of his predecessors (most notably the Surrealists) Rebecca Solnit writes in her history of walking, Wanderlust, “that flaneury seemed to Debord a radical new idea all his own is somewhat comic.”

While he would have hated what psychogeography became, Debord didn’t leave much to work with. In his interview with Rourke, Coverley says that his problem with Debord is “that when you look at the writings, the manifestos, the lists, the plans — it stalls… People are primed with Debordian ideas and sent out into the field and seem to come back with nothing.”

What would it matter if Sinclair was taken as the founder of psychogeography? If Sinclair had used another thinker as a point of departure, the situationists could have have remained as a minor influence on Sinclair’s new genre. Debord cut out many of his direct predecessors: what we would lose if we had a history of psychogeography without Debord?

13: On Missing Adventures

Last year, during the Brighton Festival, Dr. Bramwell suggested going to see a film show. It would be held in the Brighton Crematorium chapel, and was to be followed by a lecture on Victorian death rituals.

The event was not a success. The film hadn’t been finished and we could only see a seven minute segment. The lecture had to be cancelled when the speaker couldn’t download her notes to the laptop. After the truncated show, we asked for refunds and set off for a walk instead, heading up the hill and onto the race-course. The whole affair felt a little disappointing.

A week or two later I was at the Catalyst Club, an event compered by Dr Bramwell. For his opening monologue he described the event we’d been to. Rather than simply describe an underwhelming show, he worked it into an anecdote. The audience laughed as let-down was piled on top of let-down.

It made me think. About how adventure might not just be about epic occasions. That there is also an art to transforming something into a story. Nothing in Dr Bramwell’s monologue was invented, the exaggerations minimal, but he made it into a little drama.

Ever since then, I’ve wondered what things have slipped by me when I could have turned them into stories.

(From Tumblr, late May 2014)