Friday, August 22, 2014
From "Travel Notes" by Lloyd Alexander:
"Most of us, on our journeys, go no-frills economy. But we get postcards from other travelers who have ventured before us: views of country churchyards, daffodils, Grecian urns, nightingales, birch trees. A windmill from Don Quixote. A specimen of unusual insect life, sent by Gregor Samsa. A raft on the Mississippi -- best wishes from Huck and Jim. Greetings from Paradise. From the Inferno. From the rabbit hole.
"The messages vary. Don't eat the lotuses. Exact change required on the ferry across the Styx. The best of times, the worst of times. All the world's a stage. All happy families are alike. Beware the Jabberwock. I am
only escaped alone to tell thee.
"C.P. Cavafy writes to us:
"To which adds Lemuel Gulliver: 'A traveler's chief aim should be to make men wise and better, and to improve their minds by the bad as well as the good example of what they deliver concerning foreign places.'
"A commendable purpose. Travelers' tales, though, are notorious for enchancing the facts. They rank with fish stories and autobiographies, a few notches above political speeches. Mark Twain, that most reliable of pilots, who spoke as much truth as any of us have courage to bear, claimed superiority over George Washington. 'He couldn't tell a lie,' says Mark Twain. 'I can.'
"We are entitled to ask if any of these tales have credibility. They are not laboratory reports of discoveries of science, awesome and enlightening as those may be. The are not official communiques, which seldom have more than a nodding acquaintance with veracity. They are not history, an altogether different order of fantasy. The messages of literature come from flesh-and-blood creatures like ourselves. They have been there ahead of us. They know the territory.
"I believe their messages are the most accurate we will ever get. They are true. As a fairy tale is true. As mythology is true. 'Myths are among the subtlest and most direct languages of experience,' writes George Steiner. 'They re-enact moments of signal truth or crisis in the human condition.' And from Elizabeth Cook: 'The inherent greatness of myth and fairy tale is a poetic greatness...extended lyrical images of unchanging human predicaments and strong, unchanging hopes and fears, loves and hatreds.'
"My purpose, however, is not to explore the great cosmologies, but the small ones; and to suggest that art is a process whereby life becomes myth, and myth becomes life....For us, the journey is a central fact of our lives. Having set out on it, like it or not we have to keep on -- to be heroic in spite of ourselves. Sometimes our most courageous act is to get up in the morning.
"Cavafy tells us:
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony
Marvelous souvenirs. But we can't keep them. They become valuable only when given away. This is not to say that we have gained nothing.
"I hope the postcards we send back are of some use to those who have only started on their own journey; if not useful, at least pleasurable. Earlier, I asked if we should trust those messages. I should have asked, Can we trust art? We not only can, but I think we must."
Art above: "Circe the Enchantress," "Treasure Island," "Aladdin," and "The Abyss of Time" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); "Dorelia Reading" by Augustus John (1878-1961); "Off Black Spruce Ledge" by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945); and "The Mermaid" by Howard Pyle (1853-1911).