Think Less, Agnes
To be concise: Agnes Callard’s recent New Yorker piece isn’t really about how travel is bad. It’s about Callard’s annoyance that other people find something transcendent in travel. Like all culture writing now, including mine, it has no true object other than what it finds irritating in other people. But despite the fact that the piece is titled “The Case Against Travel,” it contains enough caveats and provisos and backdoors that, when it falls under criticism, its defenders will say “It’s not really a case against travel!” The headline is just how they get you to click, see. And that too is all culture writing now: a simulacrum of provocation with an escape hatch through which an essay’s author and its fans can slither, if the pushback proves too fierce. The essay becomes not really an invective against travel, but about a certain mindset towards travel, which you can rest assured the average New Yorker subscriber does not hold. Thus we return to the central plaint of modern culture writing - someone reminds me of myself in a discomfiting way.
I can understand why Callard would bubble in an intellectual ejection seat this way, and honestly I’m tempted to give this one a pass out of sympathy for her. She was the subject of an almost unfathomably ill-advised profile in that self-same magazine. (Someday the Venn diagram of people who read magazines, write magazines, and are covered in magazines will be a circle.) That essay’s subject was Callard’s unusual family life: a University of Chicago philosophy professor, married with children, she ended her romantic relationship and became involved with one of her department’s doctoral students - without ever actually leaving her husband, in the traditional sense. This is, by my lights, a little domestic drama not worthy of exploration in the official journal of the Acela corridor; to others, it was a prurient little exposé on the depravity of the academic class; to many, it was a confession about a figure who had power in an institution exploiting someone who was powerless in that institution. That last, I can tell you plainly, I reject. A doctoral student is an adult who can make adult decisions, and the constant infantilization of grownups against their express adult wishes is not a tool against sexual exploitation. The two of them declared their relationship to the university, they arranged to keep their professional and academic life separate from their personal life, fine. And as for the marriage, well…. Life is complicated. If Callard had simply had an affair and split from her husband, nobody would bat an eyelash. The unconventional family arrangement isn’t my affair.
That sentiment, it’s fair to say, did not win the day. Callard was the subject of a Twitter pile-on. As is so often the case, this was really a matter of people feeling annoyed at her personally and then using the supposed identity crime (of dating someone supposedly subordinate to her) as a cudgel with which to beat her. It was all ugly and quite a bit unfair. I did, however, join with others in wondering why she participated in the profile.
No, what got to me about that piece wasn’t directed against Callard, but sympathetic feelings on her behalf, albeit rather dark ones. What struck me was the overpowering weight of endless thinking in Callard’s life. Like all good things, thinking is good only up to a point. I didn’t care that she’s polyamorous and I didn’t care that she still lives with her husband and the father of her children and I didn’t care that she’s with a grad student in her program. I did wince at observing how relentlessly, ruinously internal she was about everything. She described that romance as an abstraction and talked about it like an undergraduate trying to pad a four-page paper into six. She described the possibility of having a mere affair as “a desecration of the vision” of love which she pursues. Well, OK - most people would see the whole divorcing-the-husband part as the desecration, but OK. The question is whether seeing your romantic relationships as the pursuit of the ineffable is actually best for you and your partner. Many Hallmark cards have been written about the glory of love as a mundane project, the cooperative building of a sturdy pillow fort, and they’re not wrong. Callard is of course free to pursue love on whichever terms she likes. But everything in that profile speaks to someone who is profoundly, pathologically unable to get out of her own head, who can’t even express the bestial human feeling “I would like to fuck this person” in anything other than the most elevated of terms. But what if the right way to love is not to constantly ask yourself if you’re loving in the right way?
It appears she’s met her match, though. Her partner says, “I remember watching [Callard’s children] play on the furniture and suddenly realizing: this is the point of furniture.” I find this genuinely tragic: what Callard’s kids found beguiling about playing on the furniture cannot be replicated by thinking about what furniture is for in some mawkish philosophical sense. What they were enjoying was the immediacy of the experience, the tactility of the thing. They were enjoying a thing in the Heidegger sense without thinking like or about Heidegger. Callard can’t seem to conceive of living life that way, and she seems very upset with people who want to travel that way in the new essay. The talk she gave about her semi-scandal was titled “On the Kind of Love Into Which One Falls.” This is a kind of Rosetta Stone, a sad one. I cannot stress to you enough that you will be a far happier and healthier person if you allow yourself to be the kind to title your lecture “On Falling in Love.”
You can complain that this is all too personal, and I do have many misgivings here, but then again if I ever get profiled (and, with a book coming out soon, I’m available) I’ll understand that to be part of the deal. I’m not trying to be a dick, here, and you’ll note that I didn’t write any of this down when that profile came out; there was enough of a pile-on already, and who gives a shit? The trouble is that, in this travel piece, Callard has taken the neuroses depicted in the profile and wielded it against people who would just like to sit on the beach or check out the canals in Venice. And once you judge, you invited judgment.
There was an earlier version of this post where I fisked every paragraph of Callard’s essay, but I think we can be more efficient than that. The piece is a prime example of a certain tactic that’s often deployed in the act of crafting a talked-about essay: you develop an artificial set of goals for a given human enterprise, a philosophical framework for its success of your own making, then knock it down for failing to rise to meet that standard. The argument advances an entirely tendentious definition of what travel is for and about, projects that onto others, then affects a withering tone about whether travelers are meeting that standard. But most people don’t give a shit about any of Callard’s standards. They go to look at the Taj Mahal because it’s cool. They go on hikes in Yosemite because that’s cool. They go to party in Ibiza because that’s cool. The problem is that Callard, who over-intellectualizes everything and cannot escape the impossible standards for beauty and meaning she’s forced on herself, could never do anything merely because it’s cool. She demands we all serve some other, unchosen master. “Travel gets branded as an achievement,” writes Callard. I’m something of a passive tense apologist, but this is an exquisite example of why people so often criticize its use. Travel gets branded as an achievement… by whom, Dr. Callard? By our culture? But who is our culture? Some Instagram accounts that annoy you? The New York Times? The ghost of Anthony Bourdain?
Callard dings tourism talk by likening it to “academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer.” I guess this is supposed to be self-deprecating, in the sense that Callard is an academic. But it’s also self-savaging, as I think Callard is a good example of someone who would be a better writer if she felt more free to write for herself. Every word I have ever written has been for “the producer” because that’s the only way to create anything that has integrity or which can spark someone else’s interest, by writing for yourself. It’s the height of hubris to think that you can ever occupy a mental space so outside of yourself that you can write for others and satisfy the dictates of enthusiasm and sincerity at the same time. People pay me an awful lot of money for my self-serving labors because they aren’t interested in my motives; they’re interested in the product. And so too with travel talk - I’ve enjoyed many travel tales told by friends and family, personally. There are popular shows that do nothing but depict other people traveling! But OK. Suppose it were really true that travel stories only serve the teller. So what? Why is that illegitimate? Is listening sympathetically some sort of imposition that we should routinely deny the people close to us? I don’t get it. Well, I do get it, in the sense that the shrinking world of professional short-form nonfiction and the dictates of an attention economy militate towards provoking people by being superficially unreasonable. It’s still a drag.
Imagine how your life would look if you discovered that you would never again travel. If you aren’t planning a major life change, the prospect looms, terrifyingly, as “More and more of this, and then I die.” Travel splits this expanse of time into the chunk that happens before the trip, and the chunk that happens after it, obscuring from view the certainty of annihilation. And it does so in the cleverest possible way: by giving you a foretaste of it. You don’t like to think about the fact that someday you will do nothing and be nobody. You will only allow yourself to preview this experience when you can disguise it in a narrative about how you are doing many exciting and edifying things: you are experiencing, you are connecting, you are being transformed, and you have the trinkets and photos to prove it.
This is clever! Far too clever. Agnes: that isn’t just an argument against traveling. It’s an argument against doing literally anything. All of human life is lived in the shadow of mortality, and thus there is no explanatory power in saying that any particular act is a means to defy it. Yes, people travel to escape their fear of death. And sometimes they go skydiving. But maybe that’s traveling… you are moving from high up to down low, after all. Is that done to give you a foretaste of death? (Occasionally, it gives you the real thing!) We can throw anything into this pot, if we want to badly enough. Sometimes people play video games to avoid thinking about death too. And sometimes they take drugs. (That can separate time into the chunk before and the chunk after, believe you me.) And sometimes they go to concerts. And sometimes they read tastefully provocative New Yorker essays. And sometimes they drop their spouse and get a new one and come up with exceedingly overwrought justifications for doing so. All to avoid the fear of death. It’s all a rich tapestry, really. But none of it is particularly interesting, the observation that they’re doing it for those motives is far from novel, and there’s no reason at all to hang this critique on travel specifically.
“The peculiar rationality of tourists allows them to be moved both by a desire to do what they are supposed to do in a place and a desire to avoid precisely what they are supposed to do.”
Again with this - ah, yes, what a conundrum, moved to do what you are supposed to do and also to not do what you’re supposed to do. Kind of like, I don’t know, the entirety of fucking human life. Agnes! This is just being a person! You’re mad about being a human person and calling it travel! And I get it. I do. But travel isn’t guilty, and neither are tourists.
Callard once interviewed me for a podcast type of thing, and I do like her. I don’t bear her any particular kind of enmity. But the travel piece confirms what I saw in the earlier profile, which is that Callard is a kind of intellectual who resents intellectualism in other people. I grew up in academia and I’ve known this type of resentful scholar my whole life. If you read that profile I think you’ll get exactly what I mean; she and her partner found each other, despite her inconvenient marriage, because they both saw something lacking in the scholarship of others. No one else was as deep as they were, no one else was as perceptive and ambitious as they were, no one really lived the life of the mind the way they did. Callard was quoted as saying, “I thought that I would become sort of corrupted by staying in a marriage where I no longer felt like I was aspirational about it.” Aspirational… about what? Aspiring towards what? I guess towards some impossible ideal of romantic love that holds a serious chance of rendering her bitter about the whole concept in a decade or so. The piece on travel demonstrates that this fetish for aspiration colors Callard’s thoughts about everything - ordinary people, it seems, are too easy to please. To repeat my opening point, the essay is really about being annoyed that other people profess to be transformed by travel, which is to say it’s really about being annoyed by other people. And the specific species of annoyance here is the academic who wonders why everyone else doesn’t do the reading. Well: I have wondered that my whole life. It is indeed a sad and lonely feeling. But I know enough to know that it’s not a charitable or adult impulse.
My father was a wise man, and one of the wise things he taught us was to never give a single miserable shit about whether we were enlightened travelers or mere tourists, Callard’s concern. Life’s too short, and anyway, the distinction is illusory, a figment of the mind, kind of like philosophy. He too was a professor, a theater professor, and when I was young his research would occasionally take us to Bali. There, we would spend time on the coast, usually in Sanur, and yes we would do touristy things; they were fun. We would also go into a village up in the hills, which back in the 1990s were still relatively free of white faces. My father’s great teacher, Pak Inyoman Rajeg, had a compound there, where his extended family lived, and where his son Sumandhi kept a farm and taught dance and wayang kulit, Balinese shadow puppetry. By the time I knew him, Pak Rajeg was mostly content to make the shadow puppets; one of his creations hangs on my wall as I write this. He’s been gone for many years now, but Sumandhi is still with us, still raising catfish and teaching children to play gamelan.
On one of the trips it was just my dad and me. We spent one morning in Sanur, bopping around by the beach, listening to the penjualan cries as they exhorted potential customers (yes, tourists). I think I was 13, and the beaches there were topless, so. Later that day we took a bemo up into the village. I ate goat satay with rice and fried plantains. At night we sat in one of the huts, timber columns, wooden floor, thatched roof, no walls because who needed walls. Like always the oppressive Balinese humidity hung on me like a shirt, but I was comfortable in shorts, flip-flops, and a tank top. My father was talking with Sumandhi and a few local musicians. He spoke fluent Bahasa but was also pretty strong in Balinese, not that I spoke either; I could only tell when they switched from one to the other. At some point I laid down on a bamboo mat and pretended to sleep. I could smell incense wafting from nearby, but it was almost overwhelmed by the kreteks my father and his friends were smoking, unfiltered spiced tobacco cigarettes. Though it was late, I could hear someone practicing their gambang somewhere nearby. My father laughed and laughed, all night, his creaky old laugh, and the others laughed too. I was transported by pure sensation. And I have to tell you: I do think that the experience was “magical and profound, with effects that deepened my values, expanded my horizons, rendered me a true citizen of the globe, and so on.” I do indeed. But who am I to disagree with Pessoa, Chesterton, Percy, Emerson, and Callard? I was merely there, and I am merely me.
That profile says that, after a fight with her new husband, Callard “was consoled by the idea that she and Arnold were philosophical about their relationship in a way that she and Ben had not been.”
I hope this is true, given that I don’t bear Callard any ill will. I don’t want to disabuse her of her feeling that she’s found something transcendent, the way she’s so eager to disabuse others of their quaint love of travel. I kind of doubt it is true, though. I doubt anyone feeling romantic pain has ever been consoled by philosophy, even her. Maybe Callard thinks she’s the exception to that rule. But I’m afraid “this phenomenon can’t be assessed first-personally,” Agnes. Isn’t that a bitch?