Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.
(The weather not their mind they change who rush across the sea.)
Horace’s tagline is generally cited to illustrate the American cliché that, wherever you may go, you cannot run away from yourself. In a country where divorce is more common than marriage, where millions every year move from one state to another, and where half the population spends more than $1,500 on an annual vacation, escaping from ourselves is not so much a national obsession as a way of life.
Horace knew that human beings cannot really escape the lives they have lived. He also realized, following Heraclitus, that character is destiny. However, in making his skeptical observation on the benefits of travel, he had something rather different in mind. The poet had traveled, for study, war, and diplomacy, both within Italy and in the Greek East. He was far from being immune to the glories of Athens or the beauties of Aegean islands. His point is not that we should never go anywhere, but that we should be content wherever we are. We can, as he says, sing the praises of a Greek island from the security of a house in Rome, whether Rome, Georgia; Rome, New York; or even Rome, Lazio. The discomforts of travel distort our perspective. Journeys can be wet and wearying and yet, while, enjoying the comforts of a hotel’s bath and bread, a wise man would not conclude that the summum bonum of human life is to spend his life in an hotel. To rush about in fast cars and luxurious boats is to miss the point: Strenua non exercet inertia. The fast-paced pursuit of pleasure does not cultivate our better qualities. What you seek, you can more easily find at home.
It is good advice, especially for those who live in Horace’s Rome, Dante’s Florence, or Henry Timrod’s Charleston. But what if your fate is to dwell in Rockford in the age of GateHouse Media newspapers, Friday’s, and the FOX networks—fast-food sitcoms and fast-food political commentary joined at the hip by Tony Blair’s Australian pal whose NewsCorp hacked into the private lives of grief-stricken parents in search of cheap gossip to steal and sell? Who would not wish to escape a global empire dominated by Murdochs and Buffetts and Madoffs?
It’s a small world after all, so small you cannot escape it by touring the Aegean on a Holland America cruise ship or at the Casa Magna Marriott in Cancun. Everywhere is everyotherwhere. The inanities of USA Today are deposited “free of charge” at hotel-room doors around the country, and there is no escape from CNN. Airports used to be boring, arid places, where one’s reading was disturbed only by flight announcements. Now the TSA’s endlessly repeated dictates—“Remember, three-one-one”—have to compete with the simpering platitudes of an androgynous ex-model whose family tree is a reminder of how quickly our country went to hell: a robber-baron war profiteer (Commodore Vanderbilt), an incompetent war criminal (James Judson Kilpatrick), and a blue-jean designing floozy (mother Gloria Vanderbilt). CNN is one of the best reasons I know for not owning a television set, but airports around the world beam these images of lies and hate at weary travelers, as if to remind us that we are trapped in Henry Miller’s air-conditioned nightmare from which there is no escape.
I knew all this before deciding to extend a little conference in Georgia to a tour of the Carolinas. We are, most of us, taken in by our own prolonged childhoods, and in getting ready for the trip I could not keep from humming the James Taylor song that has become de rigeur at UNC basketball games: “Dark and silent late last night, / I think I might have heard the highway calling. / Geese in flight and dogs that bite. / And signs that might be omens say / I’m goin’, goin’, I’m gone to Carolina in my mind.”
Carolina—the university, not the state—now exists only in the mind, and if we wanted to visit the Carolina that Mr. Taylor’s father served as dean of the medical school, we might better have stayed home than return to Chapel Hill. Seeing old friends after so many years was a great joy, naturally. Our elder daughter’s godmother and namesake was virtually unchanged—a mind and character formed on Jane Austen is impervious to the degradations of modern life—and our old classmate Cecil, now retiring as chairman of our old department, had the same old exuberance, tempered only by the wisdom of experience.
Nearly everyone I met or even heard of was considering the possible options for retirement. One former friend and quondam Chronicles writer had already moved into a retirement village—apparently because a turnkey “home” made travel easier. I can almost understand the attitude. If I were living in that uglified, modernized, Yankeefied suburb, I’d be on the road more than I am now. And since the old village has been replaced by high-rise apartments and shopping malls pandering to luxury consumers, we might well prefer a few years of rest and relaxation on a green lawn with helpful nurses keeping us docile with regular tranqs—“Come now, dears, time for your nice pills. Don’t worry, it will all be over soon.”
Yes, and thank heaven. In the meantime, though, we still prefer drinks to tranqs and Agrigento to Carolina Meadows or Fearington Village. I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I’d rather be one of those fierce old men that people try to avoid—Robert Duvall, for example, in Get Low or Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. I used to laugh when a friend of ours spoke of moving to a shack at the end of a mountain road where he could shoot the Yankee tourists before they reached his house. I no longer laugh, but why, I wonder, should I limit myself to Yankees or tourists? It’s a small world, after all, and the jerks we keep on running into might just as well be Italian fashion designers, English soccer louts, or New South p.r. flacks in Columbia.
How far do you have to go to escape the endless strip malls that have eroded the landscape and drained the inhabitants of every distinctive quality? We were discussing this point with friends in Charleston, when one of them pointed out ruefully that people used to light out for Alaska or Australia, but anyone who has caught a glimpse of Sarah Palin’s TV world or watched a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard knows that escape is impossible. Would you want to live in a country run by such a person? Of course not, but we already do, which is why moving to Australia would be a futile gesture.
I share the American longing to escape to the wilderness of the frontier, which may be why as a boy I loved science fiction, but the illusion is no longer sustainable. I can imagine some noble family, saving for years for their cottage in the Yukon or in the Everglades, only to find, when they arrive, that their paradise has been overtaken by development. The older and more corrupt a place is, the greater the chance it has of preserving its character, particularly if it is a bit rundown and dirty. Our friend Navrozov, in his endless search for a refuge from progress, went from London to Rome and Rome to Venice before lighting upon Palermo, whose political corruption, criminal violence, poor sanitation, and decrepit buildings have few rivals, though Naples is, in fact, dirtier, and parts of Genova more intimidating.
One does not have to go to the Russian extreme. Venice and Florence may be too overrun, but cities like Rome are quite large enough to accommodate both the swarm of tourists that leave their droppings on the steps of the Victor Emmanuel monument and several million people leading normal lives. In Charleston, Mayor Joe Riley has done his best to turn the downtown into a developer’s bordello into which cruise ships now routinely disgorge their herds of budget-minded travelers, but less than a mile from Market Street there are pleasant neighborhoods where a few travelers but no tourists set foot.
A really happy man in the Aristotelian sense would probably not need to travel very much except to see old friends. It would be enough to lead a useful life in company with family and friends within a community worth defending and even worth dying for. A little travel in one’s youth is often instructive, and, if a reader takes delight in the novels of Anthony Trollope or the poetry of Dante, an occasional excursion to Hampshire or Tuscany is a source of pleasure. But why would a perfectly contented man in his 60’s be willing to endure all the discomforts of travel just to drag himself from one vacation spot to another?
The only obvious answer is that far from being happy or contented, he is profoundly dissatisfied with the life he has created for himself. Rather than spend time with his children and grandchildren, he prefers to risk melanoma, lying out in the sun in some seniors’ paradise; instead of assuming the role of the cracker-barrel philosopher in his hometown, he rushes off to Disney World or Vegas—the two destinations one can always reach by direct flights from Rockford. Instead of finding beauty and meaning in the hills of Arkansas or the plains of Iowa, he takes a cruise around the world without ever leaving Arkansas or Iowa behind. Caelum non animum mutant, indeed.
Like any other serious pleasure, travel requires a bit of work and study to make it enjoyable. Without learning something of the language and history, the tourist can only find evidence to bolster his prejudices. Foreigners are dirty and rude, my sister told me after a trip to Paris 50 years ago. Did she really have to spend a day in a propeller plane to find out what she already “knew”? A rich friend of mine has traveled all over the world, only to discover that Hong Kong is rich and that ancient Knossos had air conditioning, or was it a Roman villa in Britain that had central heat?
This past winter I ran into a Chinese girl snapping forbidden flash pictures in the archaeological museum in Agrigento. Pointing to the display cases filled with Greek vases, she asked me, “No mummies?” I was charmed. The ugly Japanese tourists that replaced the ugly American tourists have been replaced by the ugly Chinese tourists who swarm over Piazza Santa Croce in Florence in an endless search for discount-priced leather goods—probably knockoffs shipped in from China. Navrozov turns out to be wrong. The human race is making progress.