Questions of Travel
Is it better to have stayed here and thought of there, Elizabeth Bishop asks, in her 1956 poem. Take Barcelona, ever so pleasing Barcelona. Or don’t take it, not quite yet. I am still holding onto Barcelona as a possibility, because to let go of Barcelona would mean a kind of death.
On my first visit, just out of high school on a bohemian-budget ramble through France with a mostly best friend, an unlimited rail-pass trip during which we slept under rowboats and had mussels at random fisherman’s bungalows, the city was just a train station to pass through to the pulsing soundtrack of the budding self, so blind were we, seated on the ground at the Barcelona train station, picking at a stale baguette, so wrapped up in the adventure of being together, seventeen-year-olds abroad, counting coins while talking to random Scots who might as well have worn feathered hunting costumes. Using fantasies about the moment so musical they blocked most reality and even our fantasy of the one to come, we believed we had deciphered the world. My francophone friend wished to spend little time in Spain, though she made an allowance, because of her liking for the diffident heroine of The Sun Also Rises and so all too briefly, we skirted into Pamplona the day the bulls ran and then fled Spain.
A few years later, having received a grant leading me to Yeats in Sligo, hoping for some red before the green of that summer, I headed first to two cities in Spain: Granada and then Barcelona, and so my real entry to Barcelona involved holding a guitar a Granada gypsy’s family had sold me (another story).
Who knows what youth is really looking for? I clung to that particular determination which whispers, constantly, that adventure has an ultimate meaning, that travel works as an end and good in itself. Does later-life travel declare or undo the self in a similar way? Young travel certainly gives you wings, making you feel the potential energy of who you might become when they unfold to greater span, back on familiar ground but higher-flying, never the same.
Travel at most ages and you can find physical constraints paradoxically freeing: you have no obligation, you are free to recognize the cramping of your own mind. The peril and joy of no attachment, no one knowing where you are in a certain moment, can inspire awe, Freud’s vision of the all-swallowing libidinous oceanic. Early in that return trip to Barcelona, I swam the sea in Cadaquez, overseen by Dali’s crazy house, and had something of an epiphany a quarter-mile out, knowing I could drown and no one who cared for me would have a clue where to look, a strangely peaceful realization in that the sea’s eros and thanatos made all strivings needless: no matter the form, deliquescing algae matter or college student, I would be part of the bowlscape of sea and land, a crazed museum and the empty sky.
Travel and you are looking out a train window at landscape you will never walk through. You wave at a beaming beautiful child with whom you will never talk. All these thanatos edges – the limitations, the temporality – tighten with the anticipatory eros of novelty, as well as, if you are on a budget, the pleasant and slightly OCD stricture of making do in a city you don’t know well.
Back in Barcelona, because of the budgeting, I found myself having coffee in a true dive on Las Ramblas, a long esplanade of mercantilist desire off which you could find the tiny winding Roman-era street of the hostel in which I was staying, a place with a pleasant, mute block-bodied proprietor never to be sighted without his broom. For whatever lucky reason, I’d been happy to score a single room in his hostel, and the proprietor and I understood each other. Though Franco had died long before, a leftover spirit of protest hovered over Barcelona, an enjoyment of freedom: surprise luxuries and messages combined like cheap strong incense everywhere in the air, in the signs proudly in Catalan as well as, back then, their translation in Spanish. If cultures have an age, the age of Barcelona was also in its early 20s. Faces turned up toward the sun like lily pads in the café at the bottom of the Plaza Catalunya from which the Rambla spilled, and people from all classes issued Catalan consonants with glee, abandoning the Spanish lisp, feeling the happy sting of brazenness.
To be in Barcelona then was not wholly unlike what it might have meant to be in East Germany a decade-plus after the wall came down, awake after a long hibernation, the seedy underground and murky edges happy to stretch out. Hence in Barcelona among the gilded street performers imitating the monuments of pre- and post-Franco, awaiting coins from the very few tourists, were the transvestites, much less architecturally perfect than they are today. Back then, was it not the case, everything was less professionalized, surgery less an option, private will triumphing less than it seems to in our celebrity-waistline moment over the collective body. The transvestite prostitutes overflowed with corseted, sloppy-belted charm.
And everything of the city showed the palimpsest of decades of bad thinking from the Franco administration, like the historic modernist building covered over with a bad façade, a garish glass-fronted neon shop selling luxury leather handbags.
A few days earlier, in a burst of optimism, I had actually gone looking for a writing job – I had the lark of a thought that I could support myself as a writer though I’d painted most of my time in college, my easel alongside people who would go on to become art-world stars. Yet an objection to the amassing of objects painting requires had grown in my parochial mind: did I really wish to produce coffee table topics for the elite via the New York gallery system? The stink of capitalism and vocationalism filled our studios: my fellow students had started narrowing their inquiry into series easily understandable by gallery directors. Naïve, I thought writing was more democratic, and surely instead there might be writing jobs to be had, and while I had worked as an assistant (for a puer former psychologist turned fashion photographer), in retail (a dance-clothes store), food service (college dining halls, alumni reunions, folk-music cafés), should I not be putting a bit of pedal to the dreamy artist metal? Or mettle, as it were, and did I have enough to make a go of it, everyone in my family a scientist and how would I support myself? No matter how you looked at it, somehow one had to link art and market, support oneself with the thing one loved: or was that not the path?
Therefore, in Barcelona, I ended up answering a newspaper job ad for publicidad, thinking it meant publicity-writing, and only because they needed someone with the look of an extranjero, a person from beyond the pale, the older manager sent me to have photos done, some kind of publicidad modeling, a task I accepted because why look gift horses in the mouth however mealy-mouthed the specious beast?
Especially since the grant failed to pay for all aspects of travel. And, after a stint in Granada among the Roma who live in white-plastered caves across from the Alhambra, my wallet had started to thin out in inverse proportion to my curiosity.
There is a book I love reading with my children, one of those William Steig books in which a happy little pig named Pearl goes out to enjoy herself and quickly finds a magic bone which can talk and do magic, ending up by saving both of them from a very suave wolf, and I think this magic bone sums up a lot of the way I used to travel and still feel about it, the art of travel as well as the art within it. The magic bone I always had back then, in this case, the thing that justified everything, the thing that sucked everything into its needy little core but could sometimes save me, was the part that thought it saw the world through the optic of art or art-making or being on the side of the outcast flaneur.
Whether I was going to paint, choreograph or write, doing that most American thing and especially Californian thing of showing varying degrees of focus and exposure, I was trying to understand whatever small carrots had been thrown my way and whether or not those linked with what I felt drawn to do: reading, taking notes, dancing, playing music, watching people and film, drawing and painting, the idea if not the practice of sculpture. Some Rabelaisan discord of appetites moved me, and what could speak to all these interests? Would only film be the most generous medium, allowing the totalizing artwork of aspiration?
Back in the homeland I might go out with a backpack in which, were you to examine its contents, you could find, on any given day, a sketchbook, a 4B pencil and gummy eraser, a little notebook for ideas, a book, a leotard. Did I lack focus or was I burdened by hunger? Because it was the arts I wanted, the arts in any form, which traveled along with a certain freedom of movement and the body, the body along the edges of the main institutions. The artist walking cloaked like a mod in 60s London or Baudelaire in his cape breathing in the bourgeois or syphilitic streets of Paris, always a kind of clairvoyant flaneur at the edges of a city like Barcelona.
And why is it that some people as they develop move the eros of new sap flooding their veins less toward the idea of all the potential mates around them, treating them merely as happy corollaries, and instead let art be the sun for all tropism? Why do some subvert evolution with the desire to make art? Even animals do it, make gratuitous artistic creations: consider the unnecessary nests of the weaverbird or birdsong itself, as Rothenberg does in his book Why Birds Sing.
How does the world of imagination become so filled with light, like Bergman’s magic lantern in Fanny and Alexander? And why through that optic of artists or art-making does the world open itself with such promise, offering explanations of alienation, fulfillment, color, wonder, even sex? All the books, movies and sculptures to be known and recognized like distant family members lining up to be embraced and brought into your fold, so much better than any living person to understand all you want to say with your inchoate young self. Link with art and any leaf hanging on a tree promises a story, its own understanding of form and metaphor, obelisks, spirals or death, all of it boiled down to one thing: the need to look and seize the moment. This seemed the gift. With art came the moment. Train enough in seeing and feeling, think of all your artistic predecessors as patient uncles and aunts, and then you too would learn to recognize the aura around the banal, as when Benjamin unpacks his library. Passages you may have noted, paintings before which you have stood, films you have swallowed whole: all of it could begin to direct your attention so long as you stayed open. This was the gift, or was it not?
And how well, with its modernist architecture, its open-spirited port spirit, a city like Barcelona can seem to capture all that is youthful in spirit, hungering for meaning in a life of looking at things, of taking them in.
In every culture or concern, find a rise and fall toward and away from the simple toward the baroque. The Kuikuro tribe of Brazil living in the high Mato Grosso uses prehistoric methods of hunting and foraging, yet finds it beautiful to implant in the chins of its young children, by very elaborate process, a long, chiseled bone from a monkey spine, and so indigenous kids lounge deep in the Mato Grosso jungle on a hammock from prehistoric time with bones jutting out of their chins like the calcified hipster beards dipping toward caffeine titrations near any Seattle tech start-up. Ballet in the seventeenth century evolves toward an increased complication before hand movements become starker, serving narrative, before moving again toward the nuance of filigree and elaboration. Japan’s early Edo period invited in detail and thick walls before returning again to the primacy of light and balance. In the West, the High Renaissance becomes Mannerism, Impressionism becomes Modernism becomes Pop Art, and the way the physical carries the spirit gets essentialized before it undergoes mitosis, never as radical as it thinks it is, because the pendulum between filling the page with detail and essentializing it has its back-and-forth arc, the revolution staying consistent.
So in life. Move toward the specific, the painfully deliciously specific and you start to find that this particular person matters, that place forms you – cf. every romantic love song written by a singer mid-twenties – and then as you age you branch toward the undifferentiated sky, soaring a bit in the broad sweeping patterns. Not just that a friend always behaves a certain way in a certain situation, too disappearing or present, too much the prey of some new line of thought, whether AA or Buddhism or a charismatic therapist wielding any totalizing world view. Get older and you know certain holidays as necessary or needless. You know your traits, say, that you see the world more poignantly after a film, more sharply after an exhibit, a certain kind of dinner party or discussion. Enter a new milieu and with x-ray vision you quickly sight patterns of community and withholding, friend-making and caution. Older, you meet a new person, whether five or eighty-five, and see how every person contains a little world of autism and radical acceptance. Life becomes something about being on a train in which every place has its own borders and stern guards and boundary-crossings. A humorous strangeness, a defamiliarization, appears in how understandable or recognizable people start to seem, how open or closed-minded, despite whatever particularity to which they or their tribe cling, their particular form of monkey-spine extruded from their chins.
Older and broader patterns obtain, large Rothko-like swaths of colors with nuance present as you gaze at the color field. The nuance is the eros offered up by your mature sight, a little lagniappe for you to savor even as you note the tango of the back and forth. Older, you note these broader patterns but paradoxically you start to move again toward the specific. Is this the most moribund form of eros? Or one of death’s most erotic forms? Each little edge of everything matters. My dying father truly appreciated the owl of the east and owl of the west that started their hoots each day alongside his house in the dark before dawn. Having worked too hard his midlength life, having made workaholism his habit and teleology his addiction, being an adherent to a certain eschatology of ease and abundance – one day there will be enough for the family, one day I can do less – he finally slowed down enough to attend owl hoots instead of waking to begin the day’s titration of caffeine and any given day’s self-flogging toward a consistent goal.
Children care about the little. The meniscus of water making a small air-bubble below a faucet, careful tracks in snow following a friend’s gargantuan strides, a bakery’s buttery waft, a tree angled perfectly for climbing, the gaze of an adult. And yet the old also care about the little: consider how retirees take up highly specific acts, a particular pool class, the rhythm of swing-dancing, perfecting the swing in golf, gardening in raised beds, which club you join, which card you will play in the dwindling game, the owl hoot.
To be specific is to be young again, to care about the phenomenal world. To be broad, to let things go, is adult, but also speaks to some unchanging inner witness which we sometimes can access. When you start to choose the specific, you know where you are on the spectrum toward the recognition of whatever wisdom will wash our mind clean in the last moment before death. Whatever its mineral composition, the dirt over us, the cloth or flames, all will be the same.
What, among other aspects, is so hard for the new parent is (the deep-sea change) between being someone on one spectrum, moving toward abstraction and pattern recognition, and suddenly becoming one who must be so unerringly specific: reaching for the exact crook of the arm for a nap to take place. Inflate the balloon the right size, so big! Invite the happiness-promoting kids to the birthday party. Become a parent in our era in which parents are asked to be all ages and you become someone who can will a particular slowing down (death, abstraction) into the specific (life).
Whether or not you have kids, the ones who do will later in life understand the ease of switching gears between the broad pattern and the specific note.
So if maturity offers perspective, the foreground and background, routine can sometimes become a transvestite substitute. Routine can make it seem as though all wise choices have been made. Now one might just as well settle in for a long winter nap, habit your blanket, predictability your pillow, the illusion of a life without fears your dream.
If this is the case, art is terminal adolescence, meant to wake you up.
The detail, the angle of sight in Las Meninas, in which Velázquez’s mirror puts you into the painting itself – all stays urgent. Why did Picasso spend some four months creating sixty obsessive studies from Las Meninas? His life as a man may be less than exemplary but his artistry in understanding playfulness, self-authorization, the intensity of the gaze and rigor stays one to emulate. Getting perception right means you have stayed awake. Perceiving your moment right now: the snow skewed in its falling, the messy field of hair atop a child saying goodbye, the last letter you got before she died. Awake, young, old, everything can seem important and connected, not necessarily part of a larger design but arbitrary, asking you to care nonetheless, to pinch yourself awake with the detail.
Perhaps the day after the modeling photos, a collection to which I would never return, leaving them deposited in the coffers of a place called Imatge somewhere in the bowels of Catalunya, I was still thinking my coffers were at an end: and so, the dive, the coffee. In the dive, and what was I doing, taking small beatnik notes in one of the many tiny notebooks I’ve had and lost, so many over the years – the art of losing is hard to master, as Elizabeth Bishop says elsewhere – an actual duck came waddling toward me, coming to wake me up.
Between table and chairs, a duck!
In one of the casuistic or adventitious moments of travel, a strange opportunity waddled toward me. A plot turn: a live duck as if fleeing its fate from the kitchen or basket of a gypsy. In those days, in Barcelona, you could still see far more Roma when now you only see them on the buses or at certain intersections, good as New Yorkers in their wish to wash the windshield of a fuming, spitting, idling car.
The duck must have made me laugh in surprise because I caught the e