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Travel: A Joyous Disappointment

By Leonid Bilmes.

Geoff Dyer, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (Canongate, 2016)

‘There is never a dull moment, and yet life is an endless succession of dull moments’
– Geoff Dyer.

The English do enjoy a good moan. How many words per annum, I wonder, do we mouth to express our indignation at delayed trains, ‘improvement works’ on tube stations, the imponderable city rents, the inclemency of British weather, the reciprocal rudeness of cyclists/motorists, and the list piles on, deepening like a coastal shelf of indignation. Geoff Dyer is the nation’s prince of complaint. He took the art of complaining to unprecedented levels in Out of Sheer Rage – his study, or his failure to write a study, of D.H. Lawrence – to great comic results. Dyer has managed, largely by channelling the voices of cantankerous writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Lawrence and Nietszche, to speak to the reader in his own lovably irate idiom. Reading his eclectic books, which range from fiction, essays and travel writing, to books on photography, jazz and cinema, one basks in the tragic human comedy of failed expectations, and one recognises that voice of refusing to accept these disappointments, only to be met by new disappointments, and yet somehow being glad that one was disappointed, because being disappointed is proof of one’s ultimate joie de vivre. I adopt Dyer’s syntax in the previous sentence, but this is precisely his point in his latest book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World.

This is Dyer’s second book of travel writing, preceded by the wonderfully titled Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. The places he visits are the kinds of places that most readers, having read about them and the disappointments and small epiphanies that they give, are unlikely to ever visit themselves. Dyer begins by going to Tahiti in the coloured footsteps of Gauguin; visits the Forbidden City in Beijing; experiences land art projects in American Nowhere; flies to Norway to see, and fail to see, the Northern Lights; fears for his life after realising that he and his wife have picked up an ex-convict on their way to El Paso; makes a pilgrimage to the house, that is no longer the house, of Adorno in LA; and concludes by serenading LA, where he now resides, eating a double-baked croissant with hazelnuts, but with an intimation of mortality. Unlike the previous travel book, this one is more integrated, where each essay informs the next, and is preceded by a brief autobiographical apercu. So the book should be read through from the beginning, to get it’s wandering gist.

What is the gist? Dyer includes an illustration: Elihu Vedder’s The Question of the Sphinx (1863). The painting shows the sphinx’s head almost buried by the desert, and a wearied traveller presses his ear to the sphinx’s lips, listening. Dyer writes: ‘[Vedder’s] painting seems emblematic of the experiences that crop up repeatedly in this book: of trying to work out what a certain place – a certain way of marking the landscape – means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.’ Like the traveller in this painting, Dyer is a quester for revelation. He is a spiritual writer. Had he lived in a different time, I imagine he would be among the first to sign up for a desert trek to Mecca, or a sail to the Holy Land. The places that he does visit here are more agnostic, but no less religious in their own secular way. These are the three works of land art in various parts of the US: The Lightning Field (1977) in New Mexico, by De Maria; Spiral Jetty (1970) on the salt flats of Utah by Smithson; and the Watts Towers (completed in 1954, after 33 years) in Los Angeles, by Rodia.

The Lightning Field offers an intensity of experience that for a long time could be articulated only – or most conveniently – within the language of religion.’ If you haven’t heard of this work, it consists of 400 stainless steel rods, 250 feet apart, arranged over a distance of a square mile or so. Visitors to the site arrive at a log cabin in the afternoon, and spend the night. The point of the exercise is to observe how the ‘field’ changes with the daylight, ‘an experience of space that unfolds over time’. In order to articulate what this ‘certain way of marking the landscape’ is saying, Dyer turns to Heidegger for help. Quoting from the essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’: ‘a bridge does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge expressly causes them to lie across from each other. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.’ Now, dropping a Heideggerian firecracker at the feet of unsuspecting readers can be fun. There’s a perverse pleasure one senses behind writers’ citations of the mind-flexing thoughts of great thinkers. It’s as though one is sadistically savouring the prospect of another poor sod having to strain his or her intellectual sinews. Yet this kind of enlightenment, Heidegger as lightly quoted by Dyer, is very often all too specious. For what has one learnt, really? Well, in this case, that landscape art functions in the same way as Heidegger’s bridge: it opens up or a space for the beginning of dialogue between man and nature. Nature itself is too immense, too real, too there, for us to interact with it meaningfully, without mediation. Nature, contra Wordsworth, is too much with us. Unless we intervene: unless we build a house and a fence, surrounded by nature; or lay a bridge across the river so that we can meaningfully speak of river banks; or create land art projects. Personally, though, I think it’s hardly necessary to quote Heidegger to make this point – personally, I think it’s hardly necessary to read Heidegger. Wallace Stevens says much the same thing, but far more memorably, in his poem about the most famous bit of crockery in American poetry. Recall the first two stanzas:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

This poem can serve as an essay in itself about what land art is and does. Or do you prefer Heidegger’s: ‘The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air’?

Among the intellectual superstars that Dyer has counted as his influences, he names Barthes and Adorno, Sontag and Berger (the last, Dyer’s friend and erstwhile mentor, and the subject of his first book). And considering these writer-intellectuals’ work, we just might argue that Barthes and Adorno are about equal heavyweights, followed by Sontag and Berger, who are brilliant but not quite so brilliant as Barthes and Adorno; Sontag and Berger are in turn followed by Dyer, who is brilliant but not quite so brilliant as Berger and Sontag. I am certainly not proposing the Spenglerian notion of a general decline in European culture and intelligence. But something has changed since the days of Adorno. Perhaps we have become more distracted, or less intellectually ambitious. Certainly we are less rigorous. And consequently the kinds of books that we write have changed. We feel that we have less to say, because so much has already been said, so that whatever we do say must damn well be authentic.

Barthes, Sontag and Berger are all subjects of earlier books and essays. Here Dyer makes a pilgrimage to Adorno’s house in LA, where the sullen man lived during his exile from Nazi Germany. This essay is a personal favourite, not because it’s about Adorno, or because it says anything new about Adorno (has anyone ever said anything new about Adorno?), but because it’s such a great celebration of place, and because it is very honest in its esteem for an intellectual hero. The book that Dyer celebrates is of course Minima Moralia, written in blithely consumerist, blissfully capitalist Tinseltown: ‘I hadn’t realised how deeply and explicitly it was informed by the experience of being exiled in LA.’ Any worthy response to a favourite book should make the reader eager to read it, and Dyer does a good job here. Aside from the intellectual ‘phaw’ moments, those punches to the mind’s solar plexus, there are also the kinds ‘of observations you might get in fiction, minus the time-consuming mechanics of plot and story’. Some examples: a short-order cook is a ‘juggler with fried eggs’; slippers are ‘monuments to the hatred of bending down.’ And then we’re mind-flexing again: ‘Dialectical thought is an attempt to break through the coercion of logic by its own means. But since it must use these means, it is at every moment in danger of itself acquiring a coercive character.’

Adorno is of course a great badge author to flash in one’s writing, as Dyer is the first to admit, but what makes Dyer’s veneration genuine is that he has adapted the philosopher’s dialectical syntax to his own comic purposes. Dyer’s prose enjoys paradox: the kind of complicated sentence where the second clause contradicts the claim made by the first. This is often very funny, when logic itself becomes exasperated. Like this passage from ‘Forbidden City’: ‘Why was it … that these situations only cropped up on one’s last night, so that instead of falling asleep and waking up with her, instead of eating breakfast and spending the day getting to know her, I would get on a plane a few hours later and leave with an even greater sense of regret because, instead of having missed out on all of this totally, we would have experienced just enough to make us realise how much more we had missed out on by not missing out on it entirely?’

Dyer’s strength as a writer remains his humour. The funniest essay in the book has to be ‘Northern Dark’, which describes his and his wife’s unfortunate trip to a godforsaken town in Norway, in the middle of the Scandinavian winter. Not seeing the Northern Lights, they decide to go dog mushing. This of course proves disastrous, and Dyer chronicles the experience with perfect comic delivery. A sample:

Part of our job – part of the day’s advertised fun, even though, just as what was called day was really deep night, this fun was pure misery – was to take the selected dogs, put them in harness and fix the harness to the sled, six dogs per sled. The yelping was driving me insane and my toes were already numb with cold. Because I was thinking of my numb toes and constantly checking that not an inch of my flesh was exposed, I was not listening properly to the instructions about how to put the harnesses on, and it was not easy to hear anyway, with my parka and snowsuit hood pulled up and my head full of the sound of the yelping of ninety Alaskan huskies, half of them in heat and all of them desperate to run or fuck or both.

In much of his writing, by way of dialectic of disappointment and joy, Dyer arrives at a whole new state of consciousness: a synthesis of Dyeresque enlightenment. There might be disappointment in the joy, for one knows that the experience was not as good as one had hoped; but there might also be joy in the disappointment, for one learns that disappointment is itself a source of further pleasure for it renews one’s desire not to be disappointed. The man said it best: ‘The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment … was proof of how much I still expected from the world, of what high hopes I still had for it. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.’

All weary travellers (and perhaps some readers of this review), remember the Gospel of Dyer: disappointment is good for you.

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Leonid Bilmes
lives in London and is working on a PhD thesis concerning memory writing after Proust. He writes about contemporary literature, film and theory.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 8th, 2016.