Forster and Travel

Forster fascinates me as much as a man as a writer. Furbank's excellent biography reveals a man who was diffident, opinionated, well-read, a product of his class yet surprisingly lacking in the prejudices of that class.

He had the remarkable ability (echoed in Fielding's character) to accept what a country or place had to offer. Consequently, he is probably one of the few intellectual travel writers who recognized the "boring" side of a place. Forster rarely fell victim to the "I am having a NEW experience--it MUST be grand because I am ABROAD!"

Forster's refusal to produce knee-jerk intellectual glorifications of his travels reminds me of a comment by P.J. O'Rourke when visiting the South American rain-forest:
"[The male witch or shaman] seemed to be a nice man, very dignified with sad and common-sensical eyes. I'm sure he was, in his way, as pious and devout as ever was Reverend Lackland, the incredibly boring pastor of Monroe Street Methodist Church, which I attended as a child in Toledo, Ohio . . . In fact, the [shaman's] spiritual cleansing ceremony was at least as tedious and lengthy as Methodist Sunday school."
Barbara Thorndyke: I was in Morocco when
I had writer's block...the man gave me [this]
brooch; since then, I've never had a problem.
This is my muse, my artistic inspiration.
Blanche/Rose: And it goes with anything!
Barbara: You missed the point of the story.
Blanche/Rose: Oh, really? Run it by us again.
It also reminds me of a scene in Golden Girls where Dorothy's new friend, Barbara, tells her
pretentious story of being "spiritually" inspired by a foreign place. Rose and Blanche keep interrupting with mundane comments. Barbara gets irritated: Rose and Blanche aren't responding properly; they're supposed to be awed by her soul-changing experiences. It's an astute encapsulation of adopting a pose about travel rather than being a honest tourist. Because of course, Barbara stayed at the nicest Americanized hotels. She only experienced "the other" as a touchstone to her own life.

Rather than producing knee-jerk intellectual pseudo-spiritual reactions, Forster observed. He was also willing to go along with the events of the moment (there was a playful side to Forster). When visiting the Maharaja (before he went to work for him), Forster and his British companions were given Indian court dress. One of Forster's friends "later recalled that, of all the guests, Forster wore his with the most dignity." Forster's friend guessed that princely grandeur appealed to Forster. My guess is that unlike the other guests, Forster wasn't self-conscious. His attitude was "oh, okay, why not."

  Forster was, in other words, the kind of tourist who, while visiting a country, stays not in the fancy "American" hotels but in a local hostelry. Eats the food. Wears the dress. Watches the entertainment. Talks to the natives. Yet at the same time, he is perfectly willing to say, "Hey, that makes me uncomfortable" or "Boy, that entertainment was tacky" without such comments becoming an indictment of the entire culture. Since he knows that every place has its complement of normal everyday people, he more or less expects to encounter the same variations of interesting, monotonous, enthralling, unusual, silly, puzzling, and self-interested behavior everywhere.

Forster measured a thing for its own sake or by his immediate subjective response, not because it did or didn't match up to what he was used to or what he was supposed to be experiencing.

So, for example, at the Maharaja's banquet, he disliked the apple-like sauce; heartily disliked the "dreadful little dishes that tasted of nothing until they were well into your mouth, when your whole tongue burst into flame"; become quite attached to a sweet rice; and so on.

Forster is NOT the kind of tourist who would visit Japan, stay in a monastery, then complain because it wasn't central heated. On the other hand, he might say something like, "I can never get used to waking so early." That is, he wouldn't immediately decide that the experience was "special" because it was supposed to be. Nor would he decide that it was dreadful because it wasn't what he imagined. He would simply decide to experience it. And if he got a little cold, that was part of the experience. He may or may not experience it again. That decision certainly wouldn't be based on what he was supposed to feel or think.

None of this is to say that Forster didn't have his prejudices. But he had the remarkable ability to objectify his own imagination.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

This was an interesting post to read right before I was about to take my plane home from vacation. Of course, I was traveling to meet family.

Any way your right use travel stories to show how "sophisticated" they are. People do this with literature or the arts too. Really, they are just playing a game of one up manship and often don't even know anything about the subject they are talking about. An actually deep person can find meaning anywhere.