Transition dialogue

A: You’re on your way now. It’s finally begun! That process that you have been waiting on for so long is finally gearing up. You must be in a strange state. How does it feel?

B: It’s strange to be in between. I’m not here any longer, I’m not there yet. I can’t really relax. It is a strange state, it’s like not being any state at all. It is exactly like not being in any state at all.

A: Don’t you feel a little bit here, and a little bit there, both at the same time? That is what change is all about, after all. Isn’t it being in two different states at once, so you have aspects of both and aspects of neither; isn’t it a new and exciting mixture?

B: Right, like when I ride the bus in the morning, I am at one and the same time already at work and still at home. Or actually, not at all. A transition is another kind of beast entirely from its start and its end. It has nothing to do with either stationary state, exactly because it’s not what they are, stationary. Like being on a bus, the process of transition is bumpy and irregular, and requires a heightened degree of attention and awareness. Now imagine it is a new bus route, and you only have a few loosely-described landmarks to watch for. Does that sound comfortable?

A: Huh. Because the impression I had from you before was more like this: you are loosening your grip on your present life, in order to shift and reach out for someting new. You talked about living in a tunnel, a cold, dark, wet tunnel, for so long, crawling and crawling and never seeming to get anywhere, and then you get a whiff of fresh air, warm, dry air. It sounded like a pleasant prospect. I could see you becoming expansive as you talked. Now you don’t seem pleasant, or I mean pleased.

B: Fear and restlessness look like energy, because they are energy. Regardless, they aren’t pleasant.

C (to A): Do you think he has really changed at all or is in any process of change? It looks to me as though he is where he was, just as before, only he is unsure about his prospects, which is why he talks about change so much, and dresses it up in such varied costumes, to frighten himself or flatter himself and see which one he thinks it looks best in, or he looks best in.

Turnaround two-step

A: A friend of mine asked me a question the other day. I think he wanted to know: was I happy? but for me, he put things in an interesting light. He said, I thought travel was the thing you loved most of everything. I thought you couldn’t live without it. And yet you’ve stayed here, in the same town, hardly leaving, for four years. You’ve made two cross-town moves but you live in basically the same way. And he was right in a way I don’t think he understood. Because what I love is the regular day-to-day. It’s the regular habits and routine I fall into, that is where my heart is, no matter how simple or homely it is. What I call travel, and I do love it, is just another way of enjoying a routine. It’s the same regularity and familiarity and warmth, renewed and refreshed by exposure to different places and different pressures. It’s a small kind of variety, but it’s the sort that suits me. I wouldn’t like the life on the road and the kind of life that would never show the same face twice, the life of the visitor on the surface. It’s the life of a resident for me.

B: My taste is different. I can’t stand to be still. I have to be going somewhere, on the road to something. I can’t abide the thought that tomorrow will be another today. Only I don’t have to change very much to make that so. I take a new route for a week between the same two points, and I watch the progress of the days across that route in their light and shadow, and in the change my week feels as long as a month. Or I make a change in my diet, and I feel the ripples of the change go up and down and across my body, stretched out laterally in time. The same city is endlessly different, even after its general shape is familiar, a slight shift in attention in a detail can make a total revaluation of the whole.

A: So fundamentally, we agree.

B: Absolutely not, I couldn’t imagine two people holding more different points of view! Given, that is, that they believe the same thing, as we do.

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.

Tristes Tropiques

Blogs collect unfulfilled projects. (It’s a form of internet lint.) Why should this one be different? One more thing I plan to use this site for, another thing I get to avoid doing in avoiding coming here, I won’t notice it. So let’s announce it: We, Mfc and I, plan to read Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a couple chapters a week, for the next however long, and blog an exchange about it. It’s one of my favorite books, and I haven’t read it in five years. I’m really looking forward to revisiting it. You’re welcome to participate, comments are open.

The rough idea is: we’ll choose a short passage, one each each weekend, and write a short, off-the-cuff post about it. Dialogue, hopefully, to follow, threaded beneath. (No promises, though.)


Shortly before I moved across town at the beginning of December, I sent a letter to my new address, as a welcome home. But I didn’t include my apartment number (it had slipped my mind). I sent it a couple days too early, there was no one by that name at that address. So it was sent back. But by that time, I had changed my address at the post office: so it was forwarded on. But it had already been sent back from the new address once. So it was sent back again, and went into postal limbo, from whence it emerged only last week; but I had forgotten about it by then. So it was a little traveling time capsule.

The longer pace time walks with when you write letters: you write, you send, you wait. A month later, the conversation you had started continues, with the reply. You view it from a new place – much has happened. Do you still speak or think in the same way? But not much has changed in a month: are you different at all? An interchange of letters makes a good repeated theme: longer than a measure, shorter than a movement. And, unlike either, subject to variation, expansion, iteration; potentially never completed.

I used to be an excellent correspondant (up to about eleven years ago), I remember writing letters between classes, on the metro, during classes, at home in the morning and the evening. I would have hardly sent a letter off before beginning another, often to the same person (to be completed, and sent, after I got the reply back). The extended monologue directed to a single person is a model of thinking.

Recently I decided to start writing again. I made a list of everyone I could think of (I made a file of stamped and addressed envelopes), I wrote three letters a day. I scattered them, for about a month. And so now I’m receiving my bread back from the waters. A couple times a week, another letter comes in, or two, replies go out. Correspondances make a nice zigzag canopy to live under: they provide continuity and mutually reinforcing roof support, like a web of interlocking rafters, or better grape vines growing on a scaffolding above a path.

Dialogue beginning, draft

Another project I’ve had sitting around is a philosophical dialogue. It bogged down because I couldn’t see what my point was. But I like as far as it got. Maybe it’ll go further. (Here’s to hoping.) You’ll see I wrote myself into a corner. Or at least I’m not sure where to go from there.

Scene: outdoors, summer. Public park.

Philo. – Hello, friend! What are you reading? Whatever it is, it has you quite by the tail: you didn’t even hear me approach. What has you so enthralled; is it another of your ancient books?

Iskander. – Oh no, it is quite new, published only twenty years ago, and not translated until ten years after that. I have become quite contemporary, you see.

Phi. – Well, what is it about? What is the gist?

Isk. – Just now, the author has begun a new topic, which I do not yet fully understand.

Phi. – Do not tell me what he has just begun just now. You never will tell a story properly, with all its parts attached: beginning, middle, end. I ask you what your interests are, and you tell me about a new fad that has only held your attention two days and in three more will be entirely forgotten. I ask you what you are planning to do, and you tell me about the most idle fancy that has occurred to you, the one you are least likely to put inhas written about that you have already comprehended, so I can judge clearly whether there is anything in this book to make it worth my while, rather than once again getting caught up in one of your windy enthusiasms.

Isk. – Let me rather continue as I have begun, and perhaps you can help me understand this difficulty.

Phi. – What difficulty is that?

Isk. – He begins by speaking of boredom, and he divides it into three kinds.

Phi. – I do not wonder that you are so focused! What could be more captivating?

Isk. – You may reconsider after you have heard me speak. In any case, if you have come only to give another exhibition of your sarcasm, I have more interesting conversation partners I can speak with, who will appreciate the work I have put in beforehand, and will treat it with the respect it deserves. Listening is as much part of the art of conversation as speaking, and it is the duty curiosity owes to thought.

Phi. – When did you become such a sloganeer? Very impressive. Yes, I will be silent and hear you out. But I will not promise not to mock you once I have heard you.

Isk. – He divides boredom into three kinds. First, there is the kind of boredom where you are attending on some one particular thing with intensity, unable to hurry its completion or to do anything but await it.

Phi. – I could comment that this is the situation you have placed me in. But I do not. Instead I possess my soul in patience, and await the sequel.

Isk. – I admire your restraint.

Phi. – Then reward it: what follows from this?

Isk. – The author draws conclusions from this regarding the nature of time.