Message in a bottle

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a program (sort of) about the 1977 Voyager spacecraft, launched into space with a golden record and other goodies; the hosts of the show talked to several moderately well-known people and asked what they would include. Philip Glass, for instance, would include Bach and Tuvan throat-singing (details unspecified); Neil Gaiman would include the The Wizard of Oz, among other things. Several of the folks interviewed included things it would be difficult to include on a gold record: mandarin oranges in syrup, or an entire meal at Chez Panisse.

Naturally, this got me thinking: if I were involved on the generous but foolhardy project of assembling some sort of representative selection of life on earth, what would I include? This is the sort of thing I think about while bicycling, and so the first things that popped into my mind were: the sound of bicycle wheels on pavement in all the seasons of the year; the feeling of one gets after narrowly avoiding collision with an automobile; the smell of the air on a cold, clear autumn day leaves in a slurry on the road.

Then my mind wandered: the feeling of going home to people who care for you; the desire for and receipt of the first cup of coffee in the morning; the feeling of being warm in bed on a day when you have nothing in particular planned and nowhere in particular to go; the smell of books; a very soft blanket; imagining one has done something well but not being quite sure; warming up after frostbite; the shell of a cicada; the curl of a pea-plant on a string; the smell of soil in the sunshine; water.

The more I thought about it, the less I could think of things to leave out. Even things not commonly thought of during such exercises seemed impossible to omit: quarries – chewing gum – car exhaust. Finally I reached the point (some five blocks from home on my bicycle) that really the only appropriate thing would be to wrap up the entire planet – the entire solar system – very carefully and wait.

Those magic caskets

So we’ve got through the first section of the book. Chapter three, of course, just finishes the story begun in ch. 2 and, although there are some amusing anecdotes, he’s not really going anywhere except on a narrative jaunt. But chapter 4! The first section of the book is like one of those shortbread cookies with jam in the middle: the jam is always uninteresting and a bit of a disappointment compared to the actual cookie, but without the jam the cookie wouldn’t taste nearly so good. Chapters 1 & 4 are the cookie (i.e. the substance), and 2 & 3 are the jam (meagre travellog with all the annoying pips and sugary congealments of the genre). I was thinking of beginning with a quotation like I did last week and I just couldn’t choose: I wanted to quote the whole chapter. E.g.:

Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories (37f.).

And so on and so forth on the falsity of travel narratives – as though he weren’t implicated, though he is and realizes it:

I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt; I wished I had not trodden that ground as myself, but as Bernier, Tavernier or Manucci did … Once embarked upon, this guessing game can continue indefinitely. When was the best time to see India? At what period would the study of the Brazilian savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Léry and Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know the texts too well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing date and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment. And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape (….) In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lost on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should (43).

With that I’m going to sit back and see what the rest of the book brings.

I did want to ask (and this will display my ignorance) how that would fit in with the recent Bakhtin craze, if at all? The word ‘spectacle’ set off some little bells in my head and I’m wondering how far it’s legitimate or how much it’s just a false alarm brought on by silly pseudo-critical conditioning.

The nature of the beast

Adventure has no place in the anthropologist’s profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is not available; periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose…

Having read the first two chapters of Tristes Tropiques, I can only say that I like how Levi-Strauss fleshes out his narrative. In the first chapter he firmly states his dislike of the travel genre, cutting himself off (or setting himself apart) from it and all its weaknesses. By the second chapter, though, he’s added a historical element, provided a context both personal and historical for the writing of the book. It’s the promise of flesh (observations on history and culture and his own personal development) for the skeleton he set out in the first chapter (anthropologist goes to Brazil). A good start for what looks like a complex and thoughtful book.