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An Aesthetic Justification of Travel

Lindsay Oishi thinks you should travel to celebrate a particular object of art.

I always wait until the very last minute to pack. I relish that “oh my god I will miss my flight and forget my passport and …” panicky feeling, that long sleepless flight and that endless day of arriving and checking in and pushing myself into the oblivion of exhaustion that is what? A holiday. Looking at pictures of myself on vacation, I am often reminded of Goya’s series of engravings: “One cannot look upon this.” “This is worse.” “Will she rise again?” Goya’s Disasters of War are not the trivial inconveniences of travel – my comparison is more than a little disrespectful. Yet there is beauty in both Goya’s stunning images and the soul of a traveller.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, in The Birth of Tragedy: “we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art – for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” For Nietzsche, life required justification because of its senseless suffering. To escape this, we ensconce ourselves in SUV’s, climate controlled offices and ivory towers. We distract ourselves with gym classes and television; comfort ourselves with science and religion. The clever tools we depend on allow us to be safely stupid. It is easy to see why Americans today do not use all of their hard-won vacation time. Without challenges, we can fool ourselves into thinking that life does not need justification: we are too busy queuing at Starbucks. But then we also have no chance to see our lives as works of art.

Travel challenges us by removing technological and cultural crutches. If getting by without email seems fantastical, try going without shock absorbers. For the lack of these often unappreciated bits of machinery, a ‘scenic’ journey in southern India turned into twenty hours of bone-jarring bouncing that conspired with a feisty intestinal virus to turn my bowels into jelly. Be careful: even the essentials cannot be taken for granted. Language, for example, should be easy. We all have the cognitive potential to become happy babblers from birth. But communicating verbally can be nearly impossible in a foreign place! Stricken with an eye infection, jet-lagged and alone, I searched for medical help – only to be turned away, inexplicably, in Chinese. I felt bewildered and lost in more than a physical sense, which goes to show that San Francisco really is its own country.

No wonder most of us come home from a trip needing a ‘vacation to recover from the vacation.’ The word is kin to the Latin vacre, to be empty, and that is how travelling too often leaves us: drained and wondering why being well-travelled is such a fad. Nietzsche tells us that the measure of a man is how much he has suffered, and that suffering validates. What he does not tell us is how. You can suffer on a vacation, be bored to tears, or come back feeling totally unmoved. But this only happens when you fail to see how travel is worthwhile for more than instrumental reasons. So the justification we are looking for is aesthetic; what is special about art is that we love it just for what it is, not what it is good for. How is travel similar?

Because it tests you at every turn, travel demands that you act deliberately, and offers in return the possibility of making everyday choices meaningful. On a recent trip to France I forgot to bring shampoo and resolved to buy a bottle of my cherished brand. But it was offensively expensive, so I scraped by with the hostel’s ‘ gel cheveux et corps,’ and when that ran out, I got by for a day or two. It was liberating to realize that shiny hair is inconsequential, and that in choosing not to buy shampoo I can resist the consumerist pseudo-values I detest. Do we really need shampoo, cosmetics, and i-pods in order to be fulfilled? In bringing everyday purchasing decisions to our attention, travel allows us to see that what we buy is not who we are.

Simply being aware of our choices can liberate us from many of them. When we realize that we are not what we buy, we also see that consuming at all is not intrinsic to identity. This may be the solution to a question that has long perplexed me about beaches. Although I grew up in Hawaii, I visit a beach wherever I go, no matter how rocky, windy or hopelessly inferior to Hawaii’s beaches it may be. Why are beaches so universally adored? Perhaps because there you can simply be. Without accessory or invented need, you can relish the ultimately mysterious, miraculous fact that you, in all your singularity and evanescence, live now.

Of course, you do not need travel to find this peace. That sense of haecceity – the ‘thisness’ of self that makes me just who I am and no one else – is always there to be discovered. But it is strongest when I am in a foreign country where my accent announces me, my features are conspicuous and my habits curious. Seeing ourselves in this circus mirror, we have a chance to examine our values anew, to re-commit, or – if we are very honest – to throw overboard the unwanted cultural stowaways that get a free ride in our psyches. Stowaways weigh down a nimble ship: we discard them for our own health. But sometimes the spur to reflective endorsement is lacking, and we need to be confronted with competing ways of life.

For example, I thank British women for liberating me from a minor but insidious misconception. Much like the notorious ‘salaryman’ of Japan, ambitious young Americans don a uniform. It is less a particular outfit than a style: obsessively clean, impeccably matched, oozing luxury without declaring wealth. British women (at least the ones in Oxford) bin that image with attitude. They revel in black fishnet stockings dotted with – gasp! – holes. They wear loud colours in combinations that increase the offence exponentially. They mouth off that they are ‘too fit’ for make-up, and for that matter, to waste their time on trying to be attractive to men. Sure, it is mainly bravado. Nevertheless, living in Britain has shown me that the idea of femininity as flawless is psychologically unhealthy. I would not have seen this as clearly had I not travelled here: idealizing perfection devalues women just as we are.

Who are we? This is the question travel poses, and gives us the chance to answer. On holiday, we throw off our roles as worker, mother, docile consumer. Of course, many of us cherish what we do and would never want to stop being doctors, teachers, writers and parents. But everyone needs space, even if only to better appreciate what they temporarily leave. Travel is like the Japanese word ma, which indicates a space or interval, but not in isolation. It is a clearness that defines the objects it separates and gives them a special beauty. Disrobed of roles, we see ourselves for a moment in still clarity.

Schopenhauer believed that quieting the struggling, striving will makes “an event of real life seem poetical.” (from The World as Will and Representation). He extolled natural beauty as the best route to this experience. A magnificent panorama frees your mind from personal concerns; you gape. But Schopenhauer also noted that “the sight of a wholly strange town often makes on the traveller an unusually agreeable impression, which is certainly not produced on the person living in the town.” Novelty invites us to see a place objectively, without the obscuring influence of daily desires. But if we also look at ourselves afresh – could we become objects of revelatory beauty?

If this seems farfetched, it is perhaps because in this age of hectic multitasking, sometimes the only way to achieve an aesthetic perspective is in the quiet ma of a vacation. Dido’s poignant Sand in my Shoes speaks to modern stress:

“I think I’ll leave it till tomorrow to unpack
try to forget for one more night
that I’m back in my flat
on the road where the cars never stop going through the night
to real life where I can’t watch the sunset
I don’t have time
I don’t have time…”

The haunting truth of the song is that after just two weeks away, you can come back to a life that has not changed and that once made you happy, only to find that you have changed and the same routine no longer satisfies. Dido’s heroine found a lover on vacation, but she also discovered things about herself: free-spiritedness, impatience with triviality, and even misgivings about the over-rational approach to relationships that rules out long-distance romance. Like Sartre’s waiter, surrounded by the accoutrements of an identity but inescapably more than ‘just’ a waiter, Dido’s traveller comes home to the mess she made before she left and no longer sees herself in it.

The reason why Sartre’s garçon cannot be merely a waiter is the key to how travel can be aesthetic. Sartre was worried about self-consciousness. Just who is doing this being conscious of the self? If it is me, then I am automatically greater than everything I am conscious of in myself. If I am the person who can look at everything I am and call myself a waiter – wait! I now have a perspective from which I surpass waiterhood. For Sartre, living well was a matter of sincerely embracing this freedom. Living as if we were defined by labels is ‘bad faith.’

Yet there is one label we cannot transcend: our identities as persons. Like Sartre, Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard sees consciousness as the core of being human. Because we are self-conscious, we are aware of choices. If we are not to be wantons, we need reasons for what we do. Most of our reasons come from local and contingent identities, such as being a student, waiter, American or Briton. But you cannot coherently transcend or reject your identity as a human being. Korsgaard concludes, “Since you cannot act without reasons and your humanity is the source of your reasons, you must value your own humanity if you are to act at all.” (The Sources of Normativity, 1996, p.123)

When we travel, we cast off the labels that normally define us. We can re-evaluate the habits, beliefs and values that are handed down by culture. There is a moment in a good journey when you realize who you are independently of roles, money, conveniences and comforts. That is the moment when you value yourself as ‘just’ a human being. It is the realization that if you want to flourish, you had better start with a deep valuation of humanity. Travel is consciousness-raising.

It also brings us back to Nietzsche, who in Ecce Homo urged us to view life with “the highest affirmation, born of fullness, of overfullness, a Yes-saying without reservation.” Travel can give you the empowerment of meaningful choices, the reflective distance of rest, and a reconnection with what is important that does more than recharge the life to which you return. It reinterprets your life as worthwhile, regardless of contingent identities.

The highest expression of zeal for life is Nietzsche’s principle of amor fati: love of fate. If we were told that every event in our lives, indeed in the entire universe, were to occur again exactly as it did forever onwards, we should not despair but be grateful. Isn’t this how we feel after a wonderful trip? That despite the inconvenience and exhaustion, we would not have had it any other way? Or – if we are lucky – that it was not just the gorgeous weather, great food and sleeping in that made it special? If so, it is because the experience was intrinsically rewarding as an exercise in the value of human life, with all of its kinks and trials.

How then is this exercise aesthetic? In his book Values of Art, Malcolm Budd writes “It is the nature of the work of art that endows the work with whatever artistic value it possesses; this nature is what is experienced in undergoing the experience the work offers; and the work’s artistic value is the intrinsic value of this experience.” Art is intrinsically valuable when we do not care how much it costs, whether it accords with today’s mores or what the trendy critics say about it. We just want to experience and understand it fully. If we do not care for the pure experience of art, we can use it as pornography or propaganda. We can use ourselves as politicians, poets – or prostitutes. But it is only when intrinsic value trumps instrumental value that art is valuable for what it is, rather than what it does. Since we go on vacation to find ourselves, rest and rejoice that we are alive, the object of art that you should celebrate through travel is you. You are a beautiful human being. And so travel is aesthetically justified.

© Lindsay Oishi 2005

Lindsay Oishi just completed a second bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology at Oxford University. She will begin graduate studies in educational psychology at Stanford University in September 2005.

Thanks to Ken Sakaguchi for bringing up the paradoxical benefits of travel and discussing whether travel is necessary to get these rewards.

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