Monday, June 3, 2013

On Paul Bowles on Tourists and Travelers

In the best-known passage of his novel The Sheltering Sky (a masterpiece of American literature and surely among the most accomplished and controlled 'first novels' ever written), Paul Bowles writes of the distinction his character Port Moresby draws between tourists and travelers:

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another....[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.

I find the second part of the definition much more to my liking than the first, which strikes me as a little masterpiece of self-congratulatory elitism (this is probably how Bowles intended it to be read, so the reader could draw the appropriate conclusions about Port's personality). To my mind, it's not how far you travel or how long you stay that makes you a traveler. It's more a matter of motivation and accomplishment. Anyone who goes to Europe, for example, to see and do specific things (stand in line at Madame Tussauds, stare at the Mona Lisa, get whipped silly at a Berlin SM club) is a tourist. All business travelers are tourists. All those busloads of American retirees napping their way across Europe are, needless to say, tourists. A traveler, by contrast, is someone for whom the point of travel is self-transformation. Anyone who goes away to be changed is a traveler. A tourist thinks he has accomplished something when he completes a column of checkmarks along his list of objects to see; a traveler is someone who takes 'seeing' so seriously that he might spend hours or days looking at a single painting or sculpture, wandering through a single building or neighborhood, seeking that sublime experience that might never come. A tourist is someone for whom a cellphone photo of a cathedral facade is vision enough for a decade; a traveler tries to see everything as intensely as a man who knows he will be blinded at midnight. For a tourist, the pretense of 'capturing' an object is all. A tourist coined the phrase 'been there, done that.' For a traveler, the experience of seeing has precedence over the object seen; the experience is the object. A traveler wrote the line "You must change your life." A traveler is, therefore, the sexier thing to be. Travelers have rocky abs and moody minds and quote Sebald before cunnilingus. Tourists have too much body fat, not enough hair, keep their passports in fanny packs, and call their wives 'mother.' All tourists, accordingly, believe themselves to be travelers. Almost all of them are wrong.

1 comment:

Chris Hegan said...

Hi. Found your blog searching for a remembered Bowles quotation. I will explore further (where else can one explore?) In Bertolucci's wonderful screen adaptation, Port says something like, "The tourist, from the moment he arrives, thinks of nothing but what he will tell his friends on his return. The traveler does not know that he will return. I don't have the book, although your blog has renewed my determination to read it. Is that quotation in the book, do you know?