The Observant Traveler

English writer Hilaire Belloc was observant not only in his travels, but also in his journey through life. Consider the essay “On Wandering” in Places (1941):

A man wanders in order to entertain himself with new discoveries and experiences…. But he travels in order to visit cities and men, and to get a knowledge of the real places where things happened in the past.

The first is undertaken for its own sake, the other with a definite goal in mind. Belloc also urges us to visit even those sites we think we know well through books or photographs, reassuring us of the “novelty about a distant place actually experienced at last through the senses.” There is no substitute for being there, a point perhaps even more germane to our age of simulated realities. Such a journey is more than an opportunity for selfies and social media postings; it is a “discovery” that belongs uniquely to each individual.

In “Fashion” Belloc discusses the evolution of travel writing: the gradual shift from descriptions of people and towns (which had held sway since ancient times) to the romantic, almost pantheistic, fixation on nature itself, which became popular by the late 18th century. He seems impatient with the latter, though few writers were as masterful or sympathetic as Belloc in describing the natural world. Consider his essay “The Silences” where he speaks of communing with the dead amid the great woods: “The trees are brotherly to man, especially the greater trees.” Even in remote locales there is always an anthropological reference. That is perhaps what set him apart from most of his contemporaries. By comparison, he says of the romantic writer

He is all rocks and waterfalls and big hills…. With these he will infuse… a certain personal melancholy, not to say peevishness…. That was the great mark of the romantic time, I think; a naive, often exasperating preoccupation with the writer’s little troubles…. Later on, this inordinate complaint with the general lot turned sour and became worse, it bred a taste for horrors and all manner of misfortunes, mainly sordid. But still the fashion for the inanimate world, presumed to be animate by a fiction, survived. It is going full blast today in the angry complaint against the sordid surroundings which, none the less, our moderns love to dwell upon as well as to dwell amid.

We are reminded of Belloc’s belief that at heart all great issues are theological. One could say a lot more about the contrarieties of a society obsessed on the one hand with the cynical and obscene aspects of human existence and on the other with a nihilistic desire to eliminate that same humanity and return the earth to the plants and the beasts. The older view of human imperfection and constructive humility has been replaced by a mixture of arrogance and self-loathing. For related thoughts, see Belloc on the Present Age.

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