The mental traveler and the physical

Many of my friends and acquaintances make a fetish, so it seems, out of traveling out of the physical state they’re in — whether that is a state of the Union or a psychic state, e.g., exhaustion, depression, ennui. They scatter themselves far and wide to all parts of the country and the globe … and send back, via Facebook and other social media, often marvelous photos of their adventures.

Adventure = to come out of oneself and go into something or someone else. So if I leave Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I now reside, and venture to Kansas City, as my wife and I did this past weekend (just 250 miles north), for a grand-niece’s wedding, then I can be said to sally out of myself (think of the Spanish verb salir) and strike out not on my own so much as on another tack or tangent. If I tack here and there, or go in a bee-line for that matter, to another place, I have taken myself out of the usual, the conventional, the regrettable, it could be, and into a new air or new sphere of development. Or so I would hope.

I will see new things:

  • A young people’s wedding, with its ceremony, dancing, drinking, feasting, pledging, promise of love and love-making;
  • A new motel (if old, familiar chain) with new guests I can gaze at, wonder at, admire or bemoan at the common breakfast, for example. My countrymen! I might lament. Why are you so fat and well fed? Why do you confuse going out and going out of yourself with pumping way too many victuals and liquids into your gut? Aye, aye, aye! You too-well-fed are the older brethren, like myself, for the most part, while the younger ones are slimmer, more muscular, if just as addled in their own way. They go out of themselves to avoid each other, sitting at the tables, chowing down their breakfast, while besotted with their smartphones so as to avoid what they see in front of them, whether spouse or fellow guests.
  • New restaurants (if some are old, familiar chains) where new delicacies are put before our eyes and swallowed gratefully, gluttonously.
  • New streets and parks, where one might gaze with interest and admiration or take a hike, as I did, in a large regional park with trails winding among the woods and lakes.
Where am I? Holy cow! Could it be Cartagena?

And if I were a bit more geographically, and financially, adventurous, I could, if I bit just one of the junkmail ads I receive daily, sally forth to

  • Romantic New York City (including the Met Opera)!
  • Nashville (do I really want to go to Nashville?)!
  • San Francisco, Gateway to the East!
  • Columbia (whilst avoiding the drug trade)!
  • China (better not buy drugs, Yankee!)
  • Peru (including, what else, poor up-and-down trodden Machu Picchu)!
  • Mexico and the Sea of Cortez!
  • Upscale Turkey!
  • Australia and New Zealand, mate!
  • Bali & Malaysia!
  • And so much, much, much more!

But wouldn’t it be cheaper, not to mention more fertile and adventurous in its own way, simply to stay at home, enjoying a “staycation,” and gaze at the images our friends are sending back, halfway around the world, could be, while we stay in place, exactly where we are, enjoying the freedom, if that’s what we prefer, to do as Samuel Beckett, sit in an easy chair, fart, and think of Dante?

Or draw out our old copy of William Blake and consult his poem “The Mental Traveller”?

I traveld thro’ a Land of Men
A Land of Men & Women too
And heard & saw such dreadful things
As cold Earth wanderers never knew.

William Blake, "The Mental Traveler"
Noticed the Men & Women you’re traveling through?

In truth, I’ve never been drawn to William Blake as much as to the other, more serene Romantics like Wordsworth and Keats. But his ideas on mental traveling are worth noting, in a time and place where most of our traveling is physical and corporeal. As a later critic, W. M. Rossetti, put it:

“The Mental Traveller indicates an explorer of mental phænomena. The mental phænomenon here symbolized seems to be the career of any great Idea or intellectual movement—as, for instance, Christianity, chivalry, art, &c.—represented as going through the stages of—1. birth, 2. adversity and persecution, 3. triumph and maturity, 4. decadence through over-ripeness, 5. gradual transformation, under new conditions, into another renovated Idea, which again has to pass through all the same stages. In other words, the poem represents the action and re-action of Ideas upon society, and of society upon Ideas.”

Which sounds an awful lot like a dialectic, if not a Marxist dialectic. Blake, I remember from way back when in college, is drawn to contrarieties — male and female, young and old, innocent and experienced, black and white — and forges his own system out of them.

Without being too intellectual about it ourselves, we feel the intellectual, political, artistic currents of our own time, which is a time of tumult and trouble. We hear the contending words “populism,” “democracy,” “tyranny,” “liberty,” “authority,” and dwell upon them, at least in passing, without making systems of them. It’s easier to be less than systematic, of course, or to subscribe to someone else’s system, or ideology. Saves us a lot of trouble, doesn’t it?

We realize that without flying halfway around the world, say to Ukraine, we can understand what is meant by “corruption,” “influence,” “cronyism,” and even “paranoia.” All while reclining in our easy chairs, farting, reading the Times, thinking.

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