Monday, June 07, 2004

Reasons for Staying Home

I quit my monkish cell for a few days and hit the road, Jack, to visit my sister in the Los Angeles area. Although the trip was worthwhile, I had occasion to review once again the reasons for staying home. By my present count, there are three chief reasons, the Emersonian, the Pascalian, and the Vallicellan. The first is that travel does not deliver what it promises; the second is that it delivers us into temptation and vexation; the third is that it knocks us out of our natural orbit, to return to which wastes time.

The first reason is from Emerson’s wonderful essay, “Self-Reliance,” wherein he writes, “Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places.” (Selected Essays, ed. Ziff, p. 198) This notion of the indifference of places is one I believe Emerson borrowed from the Roman Stoic Seneca (4 B.C. - 65 A.D.), though I can’t remember where Seneca says this. The idea is simple and sound. Wherever we are, we see the world through the same pair of eyeballs, and filter its deliverances through the same set of conceptions, preconceptions, anxieties, aversions, and what-not. If I travel to Naples, thinking to get away from myself, what I find when I wake up there is “...the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.” (Ibid.) Shift your spatial horizon as you will, you may not effect any change in your mental horizon. If you can’t find enlightenment in Cleveland, where the water is potable and mosquitoes are rare, what makes you think you will find it in Benares? I once had a conversation with a young Austrian at the train station in Salzburg, Austria. He told me he was headed for Istanbul “to make holiness.” But could he not have made holiness in Salzburg? Could he not have found a Pauline ‘closet’ somewhere in that beautiful city wherein to shut himself away from the world and pray to his Father in secret?

The second reason is from Blaise Pascal who sees “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness” in the fact that “he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” (Pensees, trans. Krailsheimer, p. 67.) Sallying forth from his monastery, the monk exposes himself to every manner of distraction and vexation. The alluring world may even lure him to his destruction. Had Thomas Merton remained in his hermitage at Gethsemane, instead of flying off to a useless conference in Bangkok, he would not have met his early death by accidental electrocution.

The third reason is that vacations tend to require a recovery period for getting reestablished in our natural orbits. In the summer of 2000, two weeks in Poland and Germany cost me another two weeks of recovery time before I could get back into the philosophy writing groove. Is the time spent travelling wisely used? It is not clear to me. But then I may have been unduly influenced by Kant, who never strayed from Koenigsberg.