Lecture / Workshop 6

[Bashō: The Oku Trip (1694)]

Lecture 6:
Traditional Genres

Anthology texts to read:

The journey is a metaphor. Of course. In fact, the "journey of life" is probably the single most familiar image for the pattern of each individual's existence. (The river is the next most popular -- starting in the hills, then running down to the sea).

But the journey is also real. Epic journeys are actually undertaken by explorers such as Mawson or Shackleton, but also by ordinary individuals, such as the Buddhist monk Bashō.

No matter how real it tries to be, all travel writing has a tendency to stress the metaphorical, simply because it has to appeal to an audience of readers who aren't there with you - who can't see what you're seeing, and therefore have to interpret your descriptions in their own terms.

Terms like "realistic" or "symbolic" therefore have to applied quite carefully to all forms of travel writing, but particularly traditional, ostensibly "straightforward" writing.

Explorers' accounts of their journeys are no exception. They generally begin with a travel journal (the necessary proof that you actually went where you claim to have gone - demanded by funding organisations and publishers alike). But even before that, they begin with a general sense of the genre and its requirements. In expedition accounts, for example, it's traditional not to allow room for any personal conflicts (hence the controversy over various recent books about Captain Scott's Antarctic expedition which do re-admit the material censored at the time by - among others - the explorer's widow).

Late-nineteenth-century / early twentieth-century Antarctic expedition narratives generally appeared in two forms. First, a full account in two (or more) huge volumes - complete with extensive technical details about supplies, equipment, and scientific observations in a series of appendices. Second, a "popular" edition in one volume, with much (though not all) of that material edited out.

In the case of Douglas Mawson's 1911-14 expedition, I've chosen instead to reprint some pages from a contemporary transcript of his original sledging diaries (you can find more details about these here). The two texts make a very different impression. Which one brings us closer to the "real" journey, I wonder?

In the recent television documentary Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica (2008), modern explorer Tim Jarvis attempted to reproduce Mawson's original death-march - with mixed results. Like Mawson, he survived. Unlike Mawson, he proved unable to extricate himself from a crevasse towards the end of the trip.

"In the footsteps of" is one obvious way of coming closer to an intangible, unreachable original journey. As well as being a good writing solution to the problem of recreating it for the reader.

Another approach is found in Theodora Kroeber's biography Ishi. Perhaps the msot interesting aspect of this book is its attempt to recreate the stone-age California which co-existed with the modern American state until (at least) the early twentieth century. Ishi was (so far as is known) the last Native American to live in complete ignorance of and isolation from the "civilised world" - but the extraordinary thing is that he and his tribe managed to stay under the radar for so long. What did the world look like through their eyes? Kroeber's anthropologist husband tried to find out the answer, whilst simultaneously attempting to watch over and mediate Ishi's integration into his new world.

Whether he succeeded or not is a very controversial subject - as is his widow's rather hagiographic account of his work - but it isn't hard to see how this idea of seeing one's own world through other people's eyes is an attractive one. How does it feel to live on the North Shore of Auckland when you don't speak English, for instance? Easy or hard? Confined or free? We can speculate, or (even better) we can try asking those who know.

Bashō's journey is, on the surface at least, more straightforward than these others. It's a travel diary, the record of a religious pilgrimage, and is presented as such. The discussion in Donald Keene's Travelers of a Hundred Ages (1989), though, reveals that many of the details in the diary are, in fact, fictional. Precise weather records exist from this period, for instance, and they reveal that Bashō will choose weather which he considers appropriate to particular sites and days, rather than adhering strictly to reality. It's also a very carefully worked-over text: one which he wrote and rewrote until the end of his life.

The journey, then, is a metaphor. Or rather, our generalising imaginations have a tendency to turn it into one. Kroeber and Mawson, as historian and scientist (respectively), have very high expectations of veracity to live up to on the part of their audience. Bashō, as a haiku poet, might have somewhat more licence extended to him, but I think it comes as a surprise that the intensely everyday and circumstantial details of his itinerary have undergone any alteration - let alone been extensively revised.

In all three cases, though, the texts we read enshrine particular interpretations of a journey. That's what travel literature is, in fact: not what happened to you on your trip, but how you chose to turn what happened to you into writing.

Discussion points:

  • Kroeber’s book describes a hidden world surviving behind the façade of the one we’re living in
  • Mawson’s text shows the effects of writing up a narrative. His original journal notes are very different from the travel book he published a year or so later
  • Bashō's Narrow Road begins by pointing out that life is a journey not only for every human being, but even for "Days, months, years" and "the cloud-moving wind"

[A. L. Kroeber with Ishi]

Workshop 6:
In the footsteps of …

“Take only memories, leave only footprints.”
– Chief Seattle.

Discussion of Local Travel Assignment.

Sharing scenes exercise

Our first writing workshop session: critiquing the written-up version of the scenes you improvised in class last week.

Asst 1: Book Review due in this week.

No comments: