Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dickens and Traveling

The week since I last posted has been split between sitting with my mother in the stroke ward of the hospital and moving in with my mother. The least agreeable of Dickens’s novels may not have been the best thing to read during this ordeal, but I stuck with it. Perhaps I felt sympathetic companionship from the man in a mood dark enough to produce Little Dorrit.

One volley of pointed satire I harmonized with right away is aimed at international travel. This Dickens tale concerns not just two cities but at least seven: London, Marseilles, Paris, Calais, Antwerp, Rome, and Venice all make appearances. Dickens’s sourness at the time he wrote Little Dorrit elicited cynical views on all this travel, while I’ve had almost perfect experiences the last three times I went to Europe. But I still recognize the rough edges he brings up.

The first remark I noted referred to the purpose of traveling the Grand Tour: Mrs General “saw most of that extensive miscellany of objects which it is essential that all persons of polite cultivation should see with other people’s eyes, and never with their own.” So much humbuggery gets revealed  in the course of that one sentence!

    1. That there are things one ought to see.
    2. That one element of society sees itself as politely cultivated.
    3. That this element would expect certain travel experiences from anyone
            else who wants to join the elite circle.
    4. That people neither look for what they enjoy nor enjoy what they see by
            means of a direct impression made the cathedral, painting, castle,
            river, or mountain in question.

Dickens refers several times to Mr Eustace’s travel book and everyone’s dependence on that expert to instruct them what they themselves think about each place. Today it could be Frommer or Rick Steves or a personal tour guide. But don’t we all tend to take helpful and interesting contextual information too far, to see the world through other people’s eyes?

Aristotle might call the view of tourist attractions the final cause of European travel. Dickens treats the efficient cause in the next passage I marked:
It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home. They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriers and local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into the prison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much in the old, dreary, prison-yard manner. They were usually going away again to-morrow or next week, and rarely knew their own minds, and seldom did what they said they would do, or went where they said they would go: in all this again, very like the prison debtors. They paid high for poor accommodation, and disparaged a place while they pretended to like it: which was exactly the Marshalsea custom. They were envied when they went away by people left behind, feigning not to want to go: and that again was the Marshalsea habit invariably. A certain set of words and phrases, as much belonging to tourists as the College and the Snuggery belonged to the jail, was always in their mouths. They had precisely the same incapacity for settling down to anything, as the prisoners used to have; they rather deteriorated one another, as the prisoners used to do; and they wore untidy dresses, and fell into a slouching way of life: still, always like the people in the Marshalsea.
Which of us has never felt like a prisoner on a trip? We make ourselves prisoners of our own schedules, prisoners of the hotelkeepers, prisoners of our companions, prisoners of our unrealistic expectations.

Just this morning I smiled at poor Mr Meagles traveling around Europe “with an unshaken confidence that the English tongue was somehow the mother tongue of the whole world, only the people were too stupid to know it.” I smiled at the fictional account, but I’m embarrassed by these people in real life. I once stood in a line in the Netherlands behind a fellow with a cowboy hat on who opened a wallet full of greenbacks and asked the cashier, “How much is that in American?” If I didn’t speak French when my turn came, I’m pretty sure I used an English accent. I also remember, from an earlier visit to Europe, rushing with my head hung low out of a pastry shop in Germany after my travel buddy pointed at a roll and said, “I buy one dis. Yes?” But still I laugh when I read in Little Dorrit of Mrs Plornish who speaks to Signor Cavalletto in this same manner, fully convinced that she has mastered the Italian language.

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