- Nonfiction, Philosophy, Reading, Travel, Writing

On the Art of Wearing Yourself Out, by Brian Kiteley

 

I drew maps and mazes when I was a kid. Endless maps, some very particular, some just rough outlines, some urban, some of unpopulated landscapes and continents. An old, discarded meaning of “maze” is to wear oneself out, but to this day other people’s maps never bore me, especially European maps of cities, where the division between street and building is most stark.

When I was twenty-nine, I visited my friends Allen and Nora in Egypt for a month. I’d caught a cold on the plane from New York and didn’t leave their apartment for the first few days. Allen was in the middle of a busy stretch at the American University in Cairo, where he taught, and Nora was six months’ pregnant with their second child. Ten-month-old Dash sped around the apartment in his flying-saucer-shaped walker. Despite that, it was easy to sleep until two and then help Nora cook dinner. Their books about Egypt filled my sleepless nights—Flaubert, Mahfouz, E.M. Forster’s beautiful little book about Alexandria, Pharos and Pharillon, letters between Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, the section of Pynchon’s novel V. set in Egypt. When I awoke, Nora served Turkish coffee on the little balcony three stories over the quiet street in Garden City, an early twentieth-century British enclave of central Cairo. Nora was housebound, too, for better reasons than I was. As a kid, I’d traveled around North America and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s with my family, so I’d seen some of the world, but no city had ever intimidated me as Cairo did, even from comfortable rattan furniture on a narrow balcony above it.

Allen and I had written a letter a week to each other for four years, and his letters from Egypt provided the experience of living in this foreign place months in advance of my actually arriving there. Allen had already set aside his sense of Cairo’s difference. This was now home to him, and I immediately borrowed that feeling, even as I resisted throwing myself into the city.

I finally did set out for a stroll by myself on the fifth day. Nora wrote their address in transliterated Arabic on a piece of paper to read aloud to a cab driver if I couldn’t find my way back on foot. Garden City’s curving streets intersect each other and form something that on a map looks like a maze or the graceful overlapping ovals of Muslim architectural design. From inside, the neighborhood was difficult to navigate. That was the point, to keep Egyptians from easily storming the English suburb. Once outside Garden City, I found I could walk in one relatively straight line for a couple of miles, sometimes going down side streets or into shops to poke around, but I could always came back to my line. After an hour or so, I did an about-face and set off in a direction I hoped was “back.”

Cairo was formidable, built by various rulers to confuse, and designed by the natives to protect itself, both from conquerors and from heat. Heading “back,” I walked about the same amount of time toward Allen and Nora’s apartment and still seemed no closer to their neighborhood. Garden City is distinct in its elegant 1920s stone buildings rising up six stories above the relative flatness of the rest of Cairo, which has few tall landmarks to use for navigation. The pyramids aren’t visible unless you’re in a high-rise. It took two hours to make the return trip, but somehow I came upon the wide boulevard that marked the border of Garden City. Re-entering the maze, I worked my way around the gently bending streets that intersected at sharp angles, until I found myself in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank on the ground floor of Allen and Nora’s building. Upstairs, Allen greeted me with a glass of mint tea. I was very happy to be home, exhilarated by how lost I’d been.

For me, philosophy has always been something like this—a complicated city I don’t know my way around, with street signs in a language I can’t read. Although my father was a philosopher, I never took a single course in philosophy in college or graduate school and so was ignorant of his great love for a very long time, analytic philosophy (sometimes called linguistic philosophy).

Two high school acquaintances once asked me what philosophy I’d read. This was in college, and they were a year younger than me. I recognized that their question was hostile, but I couldn’t defend against it. They asked if I knew Husserl or Heidegger. I knew the names, but I knew nothing else about them. I know now that they were leading me toward a discussion of phenomenology, probably to critique my father’s analytic philosophy. But this is only a guess.

Phenomenology examined consciousness and the body. Analytic philosophy tried to frame problems and questions, and it tended to dismiss the study of mind because it was impossible to verify or logically analyze thinking or consciousness itself. The two schools were geographical—Anglo-American and Continental European. The task of analytic philosophy was not to construct new theories but to contribute to human understanding by clarifying the logic of language. Phenomenology was the study of things shown and perceived by our senses. Phenomenology was a lot more like fiction, and analytic philosophy was closer to pure mathematics or logic.

Travel and philosophy aren’t often linked, except when you speak of the philosophy of travel. The American philosopher Alphonso Lingis writes something like philosophical travel essays, in which the travel is inextricably linked with the philosophizing. Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin mingled the two genres, though mostly so that they didn’t stay mixed for long, like vinaigrette ten minutes after you’ve stirred it up. Lingis translated the great mid-century phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty and Levinas for half his career. The first book of his own philosophy didn’t arrive until he was almost fifty. Since then, he’s written sixteen books.

In the chapter “Typhoons” in his ninth book, Trust, Lingis starts with a narrative of a trip to Madagascar and moves swiftly to London, which, at the moment, is beset by a mad bomber who targets ethnic and homosexual groups. Lingis concludes with a brief disquisition on this notion of trust. All of this happens in ten pages. In Madagascar, Lingis gives his trust to a guide, who could easily steal all his money and his cherished camera, and Lingis wonders why he does decide to trust him. In the London section, Lingis speaks of how easily we lose trust on a vast scale in modern multi-ethnic cities. One intriguing moment in the piece is when Lingis speaks of Madagascar’s poverty in the lofty, detached terms of travel narrative: “The traveler feels anxiety about his personal safety. He has little confidence in a personal or institutional ethics to hold back the impulses of mass desperation.” Four lines later, the narrative switches to a more intimate tone: “A friend invited me to join him on a walk into the jungle.” Lingis constantly fiddles with narrative distance, near or far.

Most travel narrative is interrupted by research—history, archaeology, ethnography, or summaries of older travel writings. Alphonso Lingis’s approach is side-by-side placement of ideas and narratives. He doesn’t make connections. In Trust, the philosophical prose makes up about a third of the book. The rest is travel narrative of various kinds (personal as well as of architecture, anthropology, and archeology), but even the travel narrative is jumpy. It leaps from one place to another, from one context to another. There are few interstices, almost no attempt to tell us how or why we’re moving from the tip of South America to Australia, for example. Trust in many ways is typical of contemporary travel writing, except that it doesn’t explore one place or a linear set of places. The philosophical portions of the book are small, but they are the thinking that all the travel leads up to (or the thinking that results from all the travel experience). We enter the sections of philosophical writing as if they were another description of Petra, in Jordan, or the mile-long drawings on the earth visible only from an airplane in Chile.

The appeal of travel writing for travel writers isn’t necessarily to meet the Other but to lose the self momentarily, which is also an essential goal of philosophy. Travel writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mapped the world, defining Europe by what it was not. In the next two centuries, the mature period of the genre, the search moved inward, defining the self against the background of the exotic and the dangerous. French writer Julien Viaud arranged to visit the Egyptian Museum one night in 1910. He was amazingly granted a night alone inside the museum, and he discovered a mask to one of the great Pharaohs in Viaud’s own likeness. Julien Viaud had himself photographed beside this mask. It is true, the resemblance is uncanny. Julien Viaud, a French naval officer and acrobat, took the pseudonym Pierre Loti for his first novel, Aziyadé, which has a character also named Pierre Loti. This Loti in the novel is English and clearly unrelated to the author of the book. Why is Viaud doing this? In the first part of the twentieth century, travel writers had no unexplored regions to penetrate. They were testing themselves and in a sense comparing themselves to the locals they encountered. Only Pierre Loti actually found himself, both in the Egyptian Museum and in his own travel novels.

In Trust, Alphonso Lingis uses zeugma—from the Greek word for “a yoking.” The best example, on a small scale, of zeugma is Alexander Pope’s phrase “stain her honor or her new brocade,” which loads the verb “stain” with two different operations. Lingis also uses metonymy (“the crown” to represent the Queen), a kindred figure of speech. Roman Jakobson says that metaphor and metonymy are the basic poles of written expression, one vertical (metaphor) and the other horizontal (metonymy). Travel is largely horizontal, and so travel writing is naturally metonymic: the unique and alien experience of walking into the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo triggers an emotional and perhaps unidentifiable memory of walking through the Lincoln Memorial after you’ve been sick all night from Chinese food. Lingis builds discrete units of ideas and narratives, leaping from place to place and idea to idea. This mimics the effect of understanding—or at least feeling—reality by means of association. Lingis is unafraid of narrative and its momentum in his philosophical texts. There are many novel-writing philosophers—Maurice Blanchot, Sartre, Rebecca Goldstein, even Plato, whose dialogues could be called precursors of the novel. But very few philosophers use narrative within their philosophy the way Lingis does.

In December of 1969, during a year my family spent in Europe, we took a four-day trip to Tangier, Morocco. My brother and I had a ritual at every new place of setting out from our hotels for a long walk, while the rest of the family got comfortable. We did that here too but were lost in the Casbah within minutes of leaving the hotel, and for an hour we tried, without seeking any help, to find our way back to it. Tangier was a frightening city, and even boys our own age were menacing, much different than in any European city we’d visited so far in our travels, but we ignored them as much as we could. We were about to give in and ask for help when we discovered our mother standing in front of our hotel, not the least bit worried we’d been gone so long. Geoffrey was fifteen, two years older than me, a fount of wisdom, and a serious rival. We had been great friends until I was six or seven years old. By this time, we had troubled relations, so it’s odd we had the habit of walking together. This hour of being lost is the only time I can remember from my childhood when he wasn’t in control. I was a little bit safer because I was lost with my brother, and the balance of power between us shifted slightly thereafter.

Donald Barthelme’s short story “Paraguay” starts with a hidden quotation from another writer describing not Paraguay but Tibet, which is noted only in a footnote at the bottom of the first page. The reader reads along in the first paragraph feeling the odd style, noting the archaic tone, but at ease and at home in this country the narrator nevertheless calls “Paraguay” (the whole story is a parody of travel narratives). The footnote tells us that all travel in a very foreign place is similar, even interchangeable; it revokes our reality, too. If the reader skips past the footnote, she won’t know that Barthelme has been playing with the way descriptions of foreign places blur into one another. Travelers arrive in a new place and they can’t know anything about the place except what they’ve read in advance and what they see and smell and hear.

My brother died at the age of thirty-nine on Christmas Eve in 1993. I had spent the last month in Northampton, Massachusetts, going to the hospital every day, watching him slowly disappear (a growing tumor making digestion impossible). I lived in Athens, Ohio then, but my university was on the quarter system, so we had a long winter holiday break from just before Thanksgiving to just after New Years, as it happened the duration of Geoffrey’s last stay in the hospital. I had an interview for another job, at the University of Denver, and I wanted to go to the MLA conference after Christmas in Toronto for the preliminary interview. My wife Cynthia begged me to ask the Denver chair to postpone the interview, but I was unshakeable. We swung by the hospital on our way out of town, two days before Geoff died. I went up to say goodbye, knowing it was very likely a final goodbye. I was running away from this deathbed, but I also wanted the job.

I stood awkwardly beside his bed. Geoff was forgetting a good deal. He asked me where I was going. He talked about this option of a new life in Denver, briefly lucid, comparing the one place with the other place. It broke my heart. When I was about to leave, he said: “Have a good trip.” I answered, “You, too.” He stared at me for a long moment, and then he smiled and with some difficulty he slowly nodded.

Brian Kiteley

About Brian Kiteley

Brian Kiteley is the author of three novels, The River Gods, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, and Still Life with Insects. He’s also published two books of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A.M. Breakthrough. He is at work on two linked novels, Emily’s Book and Jack’s Book. Kiteley has received Whiting, Guggenheim, and NEA writing fellowships as well as residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Millay, Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He teaches at the University of Denver in their English and Literary Arts Department.
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