Sample text for Fresh air fiend : travel writings, 1985-2000 / Paul Theroux.

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Counter Introduction:
Being a Stranger

For long periods of my life, living in places where I did not belong,
I have been a perfect stranger. I asked myself whether my sense of
otherness was the human condition. It certainly was my condition. As
with most people, my outer life did not in the least resemble my
inner life, but exotic places and circumstances intensified this
difference. Sometimes my being a stranger was like the evocation of a
dream state, at other times like a form of madness, and now and then
it was just inconvenient. I might have gone home, except that a
return home would have made me feel like a failure. I was not only
far away, I was also out of touch. It sounds as though I am
describing a metaphysical problem to which there was no solution -
but no, all of this was a form of salvation.
I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler
before I was a writer; I think one led to the other. I don't think I
was ever a scholar or a student in the formal sense. When I mentioned
this notion of being a stranger to my friend Oliver Sacks, he
said, "In the Kabala the first act in the creation of the universe is
exile." That makes sense to me.
Exile is a large concept for which a smaller version, the one
I chose, is expatriation. I simply went away. Raised in a large,
talkative, teasing family of seven children, I yearned for space of
my own. One of my pleasures was reading; reading was a refuge and an
indulgence. But my greatest pleasure lay in leaving my crowded house
and going for all-day hikes. In time these hikes turned into camping
trips. Fortunately our house was at the edge of town, so I could go
out the front door and after half a mile of walking be in the woods,
attractively named the Mystic Fells. On my own, I had a clearer sense
of who I was, and I had a serious curiosity about what I found in the
woods. The taxonomy of the trees and flowers and birds was a new
language I learned in this new world.
When I went to Africa, a young man and unpublished, I became
a mzungu, or white man, but the Chichewa word also implies a spirit,
a ghost figure, almost a goblin, a being so marginal as to be barely
human. I did not find it at all hard to accept this definition; I had
always felt fairly marginal, with something to prove. So, speaking
about myself as a traveler is the most logical way of speaking about
myself as a writer.
As for my apprenticeship as a writer, I am sure that my
single-mindedness was helped by my being out of touch. Both ideas -
being a stranger, being out of touch - seem to me to be related. I
believed myself a stranger wherever I was - even when I was younger
and among my family at home - and for much of my life I have felt
disconnected. You think of a writer as in touch and at the center of
things, but I have found the opposite to be the case.
A variation of this concept was once a great topic in
colleges. When I was a student it was the obsessive subject - the
alienated hero or antihero, the drifter, epitomized by the figure of
the casual and detached murderer Meursault in Camus's L'Étranger, or
Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or the trapped and ineffectual
Josef K. in Kafka's The Trial, who is a total stranger to the process
that is for no apparent reason blaming and victimizing him. There
seemed to me something freakish about these men and something
formulaic about their predicament. I found these characters and this
discussion less persuasive because the characters seemed like stock
figures in a morality play. I could not identify with
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
I have been much more affected when an apparently whole,
rounded character described a sense of loss or deep isolation. It is
no surprise when the hero of a postwar French novel is said to be
alienated, but how much more powerful when the anguish is that of
someone instantly recognizable, like Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's
Tender Is the Night, or Peyton Loftis in William Styron's Lie Down in
Darkness, or the "whiskey priest" in Greene's The Power and the
Glory. It is almost a shock when one of the great serene masters of
the novel speaks of alienation, as these three men have done -
Fitzgerald on alcohol in The Crack-Up, Greene on manic-depression in
A Sort of Life, and Styron on suicidal depression in Darkness
Visible. Even Henry James, the intensely sociable and inexhaustible
dinner guest, experienced several breakdowns and many depressions.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "I speak in a poem of the ancient food of
heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to
us to transform, so that we may
make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are
eternal, or aspire to be so."
There are few more explicit descriptions of the pain of
isolation than that confided by James in a letter to a friend, who
had asked mildly, using a travel metaphor, what had been his point of
departure - what "port" had he set out from to become a writer. James
replied: "The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the
essential loneliness of my life - and it seems to be the port also,
in sooth, to which my course again finally directs itself! This
loneliness (since I mention it!) - what is it still but the deepest
thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else;
deeper than my 'genius,' deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my
pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art."
The English writer V. S. Pritchett spoke about this condition
of otherness in his autobiography, how it was not until he began to
travel far from his home in south London that he began to understand
himself and his literary vocation. He said that he found distant
places so congenial that he became an outsider at home. Travel had
transformed him into a stranger. He wrote, "I became a foreigner. For
myself, that is what a writer is - a man living on the other side of
a frontier."
For various reasons, it is now not so easy to be a foreigner
(I am using the word in a general sense). Yet it was very easy for me
less than forty years ago, when I was an impressionable teenager and
amateur emigrant. Then, a person could simply disappear by traveling;
even a trip to Europe involved a sort of obscurity. A trip to Africa
or South America could be a vanishing into silence and darkness.
The idea of disappearance appealed to me. For about ten
years, the whole decade of my twenties, I was utterly out of touch. I
went to central Africa in 1963 and stayed for five years, and then
instead of heading home I went to Singapore, from which I emerged
late in 1971. At that point I buried myself and my family in the
depths of the English countryside, nowhere near a village. During
this entire period, living frugally, I did not own a telephone, and
the few calls I made were all in the nature of emergencies -
reporting births and deaths, summoning doctors, all on borrowed
phones. This decade of being off the phone, which is the most extreme
condition of being cut off, was formative for me, one of the best
things that could have happened in my passage to becoming a writer,
because it forced on me a narrow sort of life from which there was no
turning back. I was isolated and enlightened. I learned to cope, I
read more, I wrote more, I had no TV, I thought in a more
concentrated way, I lived in one place, a
nd I studied patience.
"Connected" is the triumphant cry these days. Connection has
made people arrogant, impatient, hasty, and presumptuous. I am old
enough to have witnessed the rise of the telephone, the apotheosis of
TV and the videocassette, the cellular phone, the pager, the fax
machine, and e-mail. I don't doubt that instant communication has
been good for business, even for the publishing business, but it has
done nothing for literature, and might even have harmed it. In many
ways connection has been disastrous. We have confused information (of
which there is too much) with ideas (of which there are too few). I
found out much more about the world and myself by being unconnected.
And what does connection really mean? What can the archivist -
relishing detail, boasting of the information age - possibly do
about all those private phone calls, e-mails, and electronic
messages. Lost! A president is impeached, and in spite of all the
phone calls and all the investigations, almost the only evidence that
exists of his assignations are a few cheap gifts, a signed
photograph, and obscure stains. So much for the age of information.
My detractors may say, "You can print e-mails," but who commits that
yackety-yak to paper?
As for the video revolution, the eminent Pacific
archaeologist Yoshihiko Sinoto told me that the most rapid
deterioration he had ever seen in human culture took place when
videocassette players, powered by generators, became available in the
outlying islands of the Cook group in the Pacific. Now villagers were
watching Rambo movies and pornography, with disastrous results to the
fragile society. Last year I was in Brazil. A woman in Rio mentioned
that she was flying to Manaus, on the Amazon, to meet her husband,
who worked there. She was eager to go, she said, because Titanic was
showing at an Amazonian theater. Four months later I was in Palawan,
a somewhat remote island in the Philippines, and walking along a
beach I heard a Filipino boy humming the Titanic theme, "Our Love
Will Go On."
Nothing I can say in protest against the proliferation of the
creepier manifestations of popular culture will change the continuous
innovation in electronic media, which seems more and more to me like
a cross between toy making and chemical warfare. Having lived through
the whole electronic revolution, I know that much of what I have seen
is not progress but folie de grandeur. It is misleading, creating the
illusion of knowledge, which is in fact a profound ignorance.
Obviously advances in communication are traveling so fast that you
can accurately characterize people as writing at the speed of light
throughout the world.
But of course not the whole world. The most aberrant aspect
of the delusional concept of globalization is the smug belief that
the world is connected and that everyone and every place is instantly
accessible. This is merely a harmful conceit. The colorful
advertisement for cellular phones or computers showing Chinese
speaking to Zulus, and Italians speaking to Tongans, is inaccurate,
not to say mendacious. There are still places on earth that are
inaccessible, because of their geography or their politics or their
religion. Parts of China are off the map, and for that matter parts
of Italy are too - there are villages in the hinterland of
Basilicata, in southern Italy, that are as isolated as they have ever
For the past ten years, since the disputed and disallowed
election of 1991, the entire Republic of Algeria has been a no-go
area where between eighty and one hundred thousand people have been
massacred. Algeria - a sunny Mediterranean country, the most
dangerous place in the world, with the worst human rights record on
earth - is right next to jolly Morocco and colorful Tunisia, the
haunts of package tourists and rug collectors. This bizarre proximity
highlights the paradox, which is an old one, that close by there are
areas of the world that are still forbidden, or terra incognita,
where no outsider dares to venture. In spite of all our connectedness
we have little idea of what passes for daily life in Algeria.
Distant and arduous travel is not always required to find a
no-go area. For many years Northern Ireland was a patchwork of town
and neighborhood strongholds, based on interpretations of
Christianity. If you were the wrong sort of Christian, you might be
killed. There are New Yorkers who think nothing of traveling to
Tierra del Fuego but who would not set foot in certain parts of New
York City. I am not saying all these places are equally dangerous,
only that they are perceived to be so.
And while millions of people in the world are accessible,
millions are not - many live in closed cultures, the sort of hermetic
existence that has not changed for centuries. For well over forty
years travelers were forbidden to enter Albania, and Albanians were
forbidden to leave. This isolation ended ten years ago, and because
the confinement had been involuntary, Albanians have found it hard to
adjust - have "decompensated," to use the clinical term - and have
suffered a decade of chaos and a sort of political dementia, which
has in part fueled the Kosovo conflict. I was in Albania a few years
ago. It was a glimpse of the past for me and, by the way, a place
without telephonic connection to the outside world.
There are lots of such places. Zambians in their capital,
Lusaka, find it much easier to communicate with, say, people in Los
Angeles - just pick up the phone or log on to the Internet - than
with the Lozi people, in Zambia's own Western Province, who live
without electricity and telephones and in some cases without roads.
Life goes on for the Lozis, and though they suffer drought and
disease, their lives are in many ways richer, more coherent, for
their isolation. The hinterlands of the world still exist, neglected
if not inviolate, and thank God for them. But it is only a matter of
time before they are violated, with predictable results. I have
witnessed this in a number of countries. When I first traveled in
Sicily in 1963, Uganda in 1966, Afghanistan in 1973, Honduras in
1979, the upper Yangtze in 1980, and Albania in 1993, I felt in each
place that I was off the map. After me came a deluge - soldiers,
tourists, developers, or the complex cannibalism of civil war - and
the inhabitants of those places hav
e been profoundly changed, if not corrupted in new and uninteresting
ways, as though turned into gigantic dwarfs.
Anyone with money for a ticket can fly to any other big city
in the world - an American airport is a gateway to Vladivostok and
Ouagadougou. My reaction to this is: big deal. Cities did nothing for
me. It was the hinterlands that made me.
In Africa as a mzungu, I was a stranger among the People,
which is what "Bantu" means. I was not a person but rather a sort of
marginal spiritlike being, and what I spoke was unintelligible to
most of them. That was a good lesson. Until then, I had not known
that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and
their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human - at
least not human in the way the People are - nor is a stranger's
language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated
I should have known this purely on the basis of Native
American terminology. "Bantu" meaning "the People" has its
counterpart throughout the world's cultures. The name of virtually
every Native American nation or tribe or band - Inuit, Navaho, and so
on - translates as "the People," the implication being that they are
human and the stranger is not. For example, the earliest people in
what is now Michigan called themselves Anishinabe, "the First
People." Strangers named them the Chippewa, which was corrupted to
Ojibway, a variation of "those who make pictographs" - because of the
elegantly engraved birchbark scrolls they produced.
The early French travelers who were the first to encounter
these Anishinabe were blind to these scrolls, could not read them,
were interested only in the furs the people could supply. There are
distinct disadvantages to being a stranger. The stranger is always
somewhat at sea and, like a castaway, faced with unusual, unexpected
Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be
analogous to experiencing a form of madness - those same intimations
of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been
familiar is stripped away. The stranger can feel like someone wounded
or disabled. In The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson used the Greek
myth of Philoctetes as a metaphor to describe the relationship
between art and illness. The underlying idea in the myth is that
Philoctetes' wound is part of his character: "the conception of
superior strength as inseparable from disability." It is not only
Philoctetes' wonderful bow that makes him superior, but also his
fortitude, a power derived from his bearing the pain of his wound.
His unhealed injury gives him nobility. This notion of the link
between trauma and art (or sickness and strength) was not new with
Wilson; it exists throughout literature. It is in part the basis of
the heartsick artist-lover of the Romantic movement, as well as much
of what we understand as modern. Bor
ges, who was blind, wrote, "Blindness is a gift."*
The greatest exponent today of this interpretation of illness
as a possible source of imaginative power - though he has never
referred specifically to the myth of Philoctetes - is Dr. Oliver
Sacks. His patients are classic strangers. In the case histories
collected in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An
Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Sacks has explained how an apparent
disability in one area of a person's life can grant an access of
strength or inspiration in another area. More recently, in The Island
of the Colorblind, he has described how achromatopes develop a keen
understanding not of color but of what he calls "a polyphony of
brightnesses." (The non-colorblind person is as helpless as the
sighted man in H. G. Wells's story "The Country of the Blind.") And
he tells of encounters in which the physician is revealed as less
acute, less capable, and less perceptive than the patient.
To be a stranger is to be childlike, a bit defenseless and
dim, and having to acquire a language. In Seeing Voices, his study of
the deaf, Dr. Sacks compares Saint Augustine's description, in his
Confessions, of his learning to speak as an infant with the deaf
learning sign language. Wittgenstein's analysis of this experience
relates this to the stranger's dilemma: "Augustine describes the
learning of human language as if the child came into a strange
country and did not understand the language of the country; that is,
as if it already had a language, only not this one." This is
precisely what the stranger feels: an inner sense of helplessness,
almost infantilism, in this new place, as if the stranger had passed
through the looking glass.
Living in the African bush for so long meant that I was
dependent on the hospitality of Africans, the Nyanja people in
Nyasaland. They could have managed very well without me, but I needed
them. My first task was to learn their language, Chinyanja, also
known as Chichewa. After that, my life was much easier, although I
felt isolated: I had only a bicycle for transportation for my first
two years; I had no phone, and for long spells of time - hours or
days - no electricity. On the plus side, I was not far from a
vegetable market and a post office. I raised pigeons and ate them. I
liked my students. I had friends in nearby villages. Except for
periods when there was political trouble in the country and rifle
muzzles were pointed at my face, I did not feel I was in much danger,
because in general I understood the risks. In spite of my sympathy
and good will, I knew I lived apart, but that was not a new feeling.
In terms of being a writer, I felt very lucky.
Another important and common fact was that in the Africa I
knew, and even the Southeast Asia I knew, local people did not think
of solving problems by uprooting themselves and emigrating. They
accepted that they would live and die in their own country, indeed in
the village where they had been born. They did not have relatives or
families elsewhere. A person who is in a country for life tends to
see himself or herself as part of a community, with responsibilities.
Because fleeing was not an option, the people I knew had a well-
developed sense of belonging. They took the long view: they had been
there forever, the land was theirs, they were part of a culture, with
a long memory, deep roots, old habits and customs. Living among such
people intensified my sense of exclusion, of being a stranger, and it
fascinated me.
Haunted by the restless dead, these places are more populous
than they appear, for most people share their existence with the
unseen world of spirits. Ancestors live within us. There is an Inuit
notion that a baby born soon after the death of a grandparent is
actually the incarnation of the deceased, and the infant will be
referred to as "Granddad" or "Grandma" and treated with the respect
accorded to an elder. In most of the places I lived during my decade
of being cut off, it was an accepted belief that the dead were not
dead at all, nor even absent; for many people in the world no one
dies, no one really goes away. The dead are present, friends are
present, ancestors are present. Recognizing this, Lévi-Strauss
wrote, "There is probably no society which does not treat its dead
with respect." At my present age I am more prepared to entertain the
concept of ancestor worship and the proximity of the spirit world
than of monotheism. Anyone who has grieved for the loss of a father
or mother understands what I a
m saying, but it extends to all areas of time passing.
Turning up twenty-five years after leaving Malawi, I met
people there who reminded me that I had not been forgotten. As a
friend, I had not really left. For them, not much time had passed. Is
this because we in the West tend to measure time in terms of a single
lifetime? Perhaps in places where life expectancy is short (it has
been calculated to be thirty-eight years in Zimbabwe), a life span is
a useless unit of measurement.
Toward the end of a long day's paddling in the Trobriand
Islands, off the northeast coast of Papua-New Guinea, I put ashore at
a tiny seaside village intending to ask permission to camp on a
nearby beach. "Stay here," the goggling villagers insisted. "You will
be safe." That also meant they could keep an eye on me. No one ever
asked me how long I intended to remain in the village, though they
were bewildered that I should prefer my tent to the hospitality of
their huts. Fear of malaria - endemic and often fatal in the
Trobriands - was my only reason. After two weeks of utter contentment
I paddled away.
They yelled: "Come back sometime!"
Six months or more passed before I returned, and when I did,
without any warning, dragging my kayak out of the lagoon, a woman on
the beach smiled at me and said, "We were just talking about you."
Her casual welcome delighted me. There was nothing remarkable
about my reappearance. It was as if I had hardly left. I had thought
of the intervening months as full of incident in my life. That same
time was not long for them; it represented one harvest, one storm,
and several deaths. But no one truly dies in the Trobriands. The dead
simply go to another island: their spirits reside on Tuma, just a bit
The villagers' own notion of the passage of time made my
return less stressful. There was Trobriand protocol - ritual
greetings and presents - but none of the drama and forced emotion
that characterizes an American homecoming. It pleased me to think
that I figured in their consciousness. Death or departure was part of
an eternal return.
And the friendship of people who come and go, for whatever
length of time, is not diminished by their absence. What matters in
the Trobriands is your existence in the consciousness of the village.
If someone talks about you, or if you appear in their dreams, you are
present - you have reality.

The most dramatic example of otherness occurs when two radically
different cultures meet for the first time. This encounter is summed
up in the expression "first contact."
In First Contact, their 1987 account of a series of such
events in New Guinea, the authors, Bob Connelly and Robin Anderson,
found people in the New Guinea highlands in the 1980s who had been
present when Australian prospectors first came to the highlands in
1930. The Australians were in a hurry to find gold, but seeing them
cross a river in their valley, the villagers believed that these
white men were the ghosts of their ancestors. All used the
word "spirit" to describe the strangers.
One of the witnesses, Kirupano Eza'e, said, "Once they had
gone, the people sat down and developed stories. They knew nothing of
white-skinned men. We had not seen far places. We knew only this side
of the mountains. And we thought we were the only living people. We
believed that when a person died, his skin changed to white and he
went over the boundary to 'that place' - the place of the dead. So
when the strangers came we said, 'Ah, these men do not belong to the
earth. Let's not kill them - they are our own relatives.'" Another
man, Gopie Ataiamelaho, said, "I asked myself: who are these people?
They must be somebody from the heavens. Have they come to kill us or
what? We wondered if this could be the end of us, and it gave us a
feeling of sorrow. We said, 'We must not touch them!' We were
terribly frightened."
They had to be from the sky - where else could they have come
from? Also, some people took the white men to be incarnations of a
mythical being, Hasu Hasu, associated with lightning.
This parallels the Hawaiian belief that Captain Cook, in the
year of first contact, 1778, was the god Lono - he seemed to have all
the attributes, and he was feared until he too was discovered to be
mortal. On an earlier voyage, in October 1769, when Cook arrived at
Turranga Nui in what is now New Zealand, the Maori thought these
Englishmen were atua, supernatural beings, or perhaps tipuna,
ancestors who were revisiting their homeland. Cook's ship, the
Endeavour, was taken to be a floating island, the sacred island
Waikawa, and the crew to be tupua, or goblins. In 1517, the year of
their first contact, the Aztecs took the Spaniards to be avatars of
Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, god of learning and of wind.
Even today the word for foreigner or white man in Samoan is
palangi (a related word, papalangi, is used in Tonga), meaning "sky
burster," a person who comes from the clouds, not a terrestrial
creature. Haole - white person, in Hawaiian - means "of another
breath." The polar Inuit assumed that they were the only people in
the world, so when they saw their first white stranger, the explorer
Sir William Parry, in 1821, they said to him, "Are you from the sun
or the moon?"
Dim-dim, in Trobriand, means someone not human, not at all
like the Trobrianders, who trace their origins to ancestors who rose
from holes in the northern part of the main island. The Naskapi
Indians of Labrador thought the first white men were ghosts, because
ghosts were white too, and fairly common. The writer Larry Millman,
who collected oral accounts of the Naskapi around Davis Inlet in
Labrador, told me that as a result of this belief, "the Naskapi kept
bumping into their white visitors, who were Oblate fathers, because
they thought they could walk right through them, as in fact they
could walk through ghosts." Today in Hong Kong, the word gweilo is
used for a white person or foreigner; it means "ghost man."
The more isolated a people, the greater the emphasis on a
stranger's being benign. I am not referring to their near neighbors,
with whom they tended to be in conflict - as in New Guinea and
elsewhere - but rather to the hard-to-account-for person of another
color who invariably is first seen as a spirit of a dead ancestor,
then as a patron with goods to share, next as a pest, and finally as
a threat. As they met more foreigners, the Inuit began to see them as
fellow humans, but different; the widely used Inuit word for white
person is kabloona (derived from qallunaat), which means something
like "eyebrow stomachs," probably a reaction to whites' hairy bodies
by the almost hairless Inuit.
In general, the more contact a people have with foreigners,
the more they lose their innocence regarding the strangers' motives,
and this cynicism is usually reflected in their language. The late-
medieval book of travels attributed to Sir John Mandeville has proven
to be a compilation of travel narratives from many sources, and,
along with the actual accounts of early (thirteenth- and fourteenth-
century) travelers to China, includes medieval fantasies about
cannibals, one-eyed men, and dog-headed people. Among others,
Shakespeare used the more outlandish details in his work - Caliban is
taken straight from Mandeville.
Columbus's descriptions of the islanders he encountered in
the West Indies show him to have been heavily influenced by
Mandeville. He asserted that he saw one-eyed men, and cannibals, and
dog-nosed individuals. He was also influenced by Marco Polo, and
using his copy of Marco Polo's Travels as confirmation, Columbus
thought he might be in Asia. Some islanders he took to be soldiers of
the Great Khan. It was important for Columbus to establish the myth
of Carib cannibalism, for then Spain could enslave the people on
grounds that they were savages. This same logic applied in the
Pacific (New Hebrides is the most dramatic example), where the
apparent existence of cannibalism justified intense missionary
activity, or slavery, or both.
Anthropological stereotyping is not new, but one of its
symmetries is that when an isolated people are visited, and they
discover that the visitors are not gods or ancestors or goblins but
are people looking for gold, land, or souls to save - usually all
three - they tend to protect themselves, and for defending their
homes they are termed "cruel," "brave," "bloodthirsty," "warlike,"
or "savages." The word in Italian for slave (schiave) is related to
the word for Serbian (Schiavone), as in English (from Latin) "slave"
is related to "Slav" - so many Slavs had been enslaved that the words
became synonymous, as "barbarian" has its roots in "bearded" - the
hairy enemy. And "bugger" is related to "Bulgar."
This European stereotyping is shared by the Arabs and the
Chinese. In China there are many words for foreigner, from the
generic wei-guo ren to the words for "red-haired devil," "white
devil," and "big nose." It cannot be a mere coincidence that all
these Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese live in places that have been
crossroads for foreign travelers, and enemies. Unlike the New Guinea
highlanders and the Inuit, they were well aware that there were
others in the world.
The Arabic language reflects this worldliness: "foreigner" is
ajnabi, and the root means something like "people to avoid." Another
such word is ajami, which means foreigners, barbarians, people who
speak Arabic badly, and Persians. Gharib, stranger, is related to
gharb, the West, in the sense of "a person from the West." ("East"
appears to have more friendly connotations in Arabic.) But the point
is clear: linguistically, first contact exemplifies a kind of
innocence, and nothing intensifies xenophobia more than seeing
strangers as a threat.
"Every stranger is an enemy," a notion I have encountered in
my travels in various cultures, achieved its cruelest expression in
Nazism. In his preface to Survival in Auschwitz (also titled If This
Is a Man), Primo Levi discusses this delusion. He writes, "For the
most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection;
it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie
at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about,
when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism,
then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager" - the Nazi
extermination camp.
It is rare to find the opposite view, but not long ago,
Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, wrote in his
essay "Compassion and the Individual": "All that is necessary is for
each of us to develop our good human qualities. I try to treat
whoever I meet as an old friend. This gives me a genuine feeling of
happiness. It is the practice of compassion."
But I was not embraced as a traveler. I was seen as a
stranger, sometimes a dangerous one. My experience of that conflict
made me a writer.

One of the paradoxes of otherness is that in travel, each conceives
the other to be a foreigner. But even the most distant and exotic
place has its parallel in ordinary life. Every day we meet new people
and are insulted or misunderstood; we are thrown upon our own
resources. In the coming and going of daily life we rehearse a
modified version of the dramatic event known as first contact. In a
wish to experience otherness to its limit, to explore all its
nuances, I became a traveler. I was as full of preconceived notions
as Columbus or Crusoe - you can't help it, but you can alter such
thoughts. Non-travelers often warn the traveler of dangers, and the
traveler dismisses such fears, but the presumption of hospitality is
just as odd as the presumption of danger. You have to find out for
yourself. Take the leap. Go as far as you can. Try staying out of
touch. Become a stranger in a strange land. Acquire humility. Learn
the language. Listen to what people are saying.
It was as a solitary traveler that I began to discover who I
was and what I stood for. When people ask me what they should do to
become a writer, I seldom mention books - I assume the person has a
love for the written word, and solitude, and disdain for wealth - so
I say, "You want to be a writer? First leave home."

Except for "Down the Yangtze," all the pieces in this book were
written since my previous collection, Sunrise with Seamonsters
(1985). I have placed them thematically, in a way that seems right to
me, rather than putting them in chronological order.

part one
Time Travel

Memory and Creation:
The View from Fifty
One of the more bewildering aspects of growing older is that people
constantly remind you of things that never happened. Of course, this
is also the case when you are younger, but it is only with the
passage of time that you're sure of the lie. I was driving up to
Amherst with my parents a few years ago to accept an honorary degree,
and my mother, who was excited and talkative, said, "I always knew
you were going to be a writer."
I said to myself, No you didn't. You always said I was going
to be a doctor.
My father said, "Yep, you always had your nose in a book."
I said to myself, No I didn't.
When I got to Amherst, one of the officials said, "Remember
when we arrested you at that demonstration?" And he laughed. "That
was something!"
I said to myself, It was horrible. About fourteen people on
the whole campus protesting what was the beginning of the Vietnam
War, and everyone else calling us Commies. The so-called student left
was composed of freaks, misfits, kids with glasses and hideous
haircuts, dope smokers, a jazz pianist, and a handful of Quakers. I
had the glasses and the haircut. It was no joke. My uncle in Boston
heard about my arrest on the radio, and he called my parents, and
people said, "This is going to affect your whole future." My whole
Someone else that weekend said, "Well, when you were editor
of the student newspaper . . ."
I said to myself, I was never editor of the student
newspaper, which was actually quite a prestigious post and much more
respectable than anything I would have chosen or been given.
I think perhaps I have made my point, and I don't want to
belabor it. But the subject has been on my mind a great deal lately:
I have just turned fifty years old. Who wrote this?
Fifty: it is a dangerous age - for all men, and especially for one
like me who has a tendency to board sinking ships. Middle age has all
the scares a man feels halfway across a busy street, caught in
traffic and losing his way, or another one blundering in a black
upstairs room, full of furniture, afraid to turn the lights on
because he'll see the cockroaches he smells. The man of fifty has the
most to say, but no one will listen. His fears sound incredible
because they are so new - he might be making them up. His body alarms
him; it starts playing tricks on him, his teeth warn him, his stomach
scolds, he's balding at last; a pimple might be cancer, indigestion a
heart attack, he's feeling an unapparent fatigue; he wants to be
young but he knows he ought to be old. He's neither one and
terrified. His friends all resemble him, so there can be no hope of
rescue. To be this age and very far from where you started out,
unconsoled by any possibility of a miracle - that is bad; to look
forward and start counting th
e empty years left is enough to tempt you into some aptly named
crime, or else to pray. Success is nasty and spoils you, the
successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without
the winch of money. Then it is clear: the ship is swamped to her
gunwales, and the man of fifty swims to shore, to be marooned on a
little island, from which there is no rescue, but only different
kinds of defeat.
I wrote that in my novel Saint Jack when I was twenty-nine
years old, and I think it is inaccurate as it applies to me - I
cannot identify with that person or relate to that state of being
middle-aged and clapped out. Nor can I share even remotely the sense
of loss Philip Larkin expresses in his fiftieth-birthday poem, "The
The view is fine from fifty,
Experienced climbers say;
So, overweight and shifty,
I turn to face the way
That led me to this day.

Instead of fields and snowcaps
And flowered lanes that twist,
The track breaks at my toe-caps
And drops away in mist.
The view does not exist.

Where has it gone, the lifetime?
Search me. What's left is drear.
Unchilded and unwifed, I'm
Able to view that clear:
So final. And so near.
These sentiments give me the willies. Larkin at fifty seems to regard
his life as just about over. I do not feel that way; I hope I never
do. I have always felt - physically at least - in the pink, no matter
what my age. One line in Saint Jack goes, "Fiction gives us the
second chances that life denies us," and this remark, which I regard
as prescient, is one of the themes of this excursion today.
When I began writing Saint Jack in 1970, one of my friends
was turning fifty in Singapore, and it seemed to me, I suppose,
salutary to observe that climacteric, for as I say, one of the
strangest aspects of growing older is that people constantly remind
you of things that never happened - and worse, they ignore what
actually took place. The invented reminiscence of "I'll never forget
old what's-his-name" has a cozy quaintness and seems harmless enough,
but the element of self-deception in it can lead you badly astray.
Lately I have been wondering about the relationship between
memory and creation, and between memory and perception - and
behavior, too. It all seems scrambled together. I say "lately" partly
because of this half-century birthday and also because of several
dramatic changes in my life: becoming separated from my wife,
traveling extensively in the Pacific, resuming residence in my
American house. My life has been full of changes, all of them
unexpected. When I was young and felt downtrodden I thought, My life
will be pretty much what it is now, because people were always
prophesying, saying they knew exactly what was going to happen to me,
even if I didn't - another example of people alarming me with their
I often think that I became a writer because I have a good
memory. When I say "a good memory" I do not mean that it is a totally
accurate memory, only that it is a very full and accessible one,
packed with images and language. Montaigne, who discusses the
question of memory in his essay "On Liars," claimed to have had a
terrible memory. He makes the case for the virtues of having a bad
memory (such an afflicted person is less worldly, less ambitious,
less garrulous), and asserts that "an outstanding memory is often
associated with weak judgment." There are other treats in store for
the deeply forgetful person: "Books and places which I look at again
always welcome me with a fresh new smile."
Montaigne suggests that he is utterly helpless. And while it
is true that remembering depends on habit, it also depends on the use
of deliberate techniques. I agree in general with Dr. Johnson's
observation, reported by Boswell, that "forgetfulness [is] a man's
own fault."
Yet often the very drama of events prints them on our memory.
At the age of two I started a fire under my crib. I put a
match to some newspapers, as I had seen one of my older brothers
doing just a few days before. Without any alarm I was a spectator to
a great tumult in the house as my burning mattress was flung out the
back window onto the lawn.
Not long after that I squeezed through the loose picket of a
fence and cut my scalp on a rusty nail on the top bar. The resulting
scar was a white crescent, and for a long time, whenever I got a
short haircut, people said, "What's that on your head?" I must have
been very young - how else could I have gotten through that small
opening in the fence?
A few days after my sister Ann Marie was born, in 1944, when
I was three, I was being looked after by a neighbor while my mother
stayed in the hospital. Lonesome for my father, I noticed he wasn't
home. Believing he was at church - it was a Sunday - I eluded the
baby sitter and walked there, a quarter of a mile away. I distinctly
remember the long crossing of a four-lane road known as the Fellsway -
I was so small I could not see over the hump in the middle to the
other side. I sat on the church steps calling out "Daddy!" and there
I was found by my panicky father. A search party had already been
sent to a nearby brook, believing I had fallen in and drowned. I
suppose this was my first attempt at independent travel.
The first book that was read to me was Make Way for Ducklings
(it had a Boston setting), and the second was The 500 Hats of
Bartholomew Cubbins, by Dr. Seuss. As soon as I could read I wanted
to be a hero.
I can name nearly every child who was in my first-grade
class, Miss Purcell's, at the Washington School, in Medford. We wrote
with big thick pencils. In the third grade Miss Cook introduced us to
ink - we had inkwells and used sharp steel nibs; the difficulty of
forming letters with those sputtering nibs is vivid to me today. I
know Psalm 23 because it was Miss Cook's favorite when I was eight. I
knew the distinct odor of everyone's house, friends' and relatives',
where I was taken as a child: the assertive and often offensive reek
of cooking and different people. Blindfolded, I could have identified
thirty of those smell-labeled households.
I have more recollections of this kind, which go under the
name "episodic memories" and I am well aware of their approximate
truth. "Remembering is not a re-excitation of innumerable, fixed,
lifeless, and fragmentary traces," Sir Frederick Bartlett wrote in
Remembering. "It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction,
built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass
of organized past reaction or experience, to a little outstanding
detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is
thus hardly ever exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote-
capitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be."
I have altered my memories in the way we all do - simplified
them, improved them, made them more orderly. Memory works something
like this: stare at a square and then close your eyes; the afterimage
will gradually soften into a circle - much more symmetrical and
memorable. Goethe was the first to write about this phenomenon.
"Few have reason to complain of nature as unkindly sparing of
the gifts of memory," Dr. Johnson wrote in The Idler. "The true art
of memory is the art of attention." This observation is vividly
illustrated in the life of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who
traveled and proselytized in China in the late sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries. He is known to Sinologists as the man who drew
the first map of the world for the Chinese, and in so doing conveyed
many facts disturbing to the Ming court: that China might not be the
Middle Kingdom, that other large countries exist on the planet, and
that the earth is round.
Ricci developed a highly complex mnemonic system, which
served him well as a missionary (he carried a whole library of
Christian theology in his head) and as a linguist (he became so
skillful in the language that he wrote a number of books in Chinese).
His memory also endeared him to the Chinese and won him Christian
converts. In his study of the man and his times, The Memory Palace of
Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence described how "Ricci wrote quite
casually in 1595 of running through a list of four to five hundred
random Chinese ideograms and then repeating the list in reverse
The memory palace that Ricci advocated was an imaginary
mental structure that might be based on a real building. This
construction, great or small, was the best repository for knowledge.
It could be vast, full of rooms and halls, corridors, and pavilions,
and in each chamber we could place the images of things we wanted to
recall. Ricci wrote, "To everything that we wish to remember we
should give an image; and to every one of these images we should
assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready
to claim it by an act of memory."
The scholar Francesco Panigarola, who may have taught Ricci
in Italy, and who wrote on memory arts, could remember as many as
100,000 images at a time. And as a Jesuit, Ricci was well aware of
the importance Ignatius of Loyola attached, in his Spiritual
Exercises, to memory as a means of contemplation. Ricci himself
credited the concept of the memory palace to a Greek poet of the
sixth and fifth centuries b.c., Simonides of Ceos. But the arts of
memory were a part of classical learning, and in listing the memory
experts of the past, Pliny's Natural History was as powerful an
inspiration to Ricci as it was to Jorge Luis Borges four hundred
years later - the result in Borges's case was his wonderful
story "Funes the Memorious."
Ireneo Funes, the hero, has a marvelous memory, and one day
the narrator loans him a copy of Pliny. Later, he visits Funes, who
begins by reciting the book by heart - in the darkness of his room.
. . . enumerating, in Latin and in Spanish, the cases of prodigious
memory recorded in the Naturalis historia: Cyrus, king of the
Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name;
Mithridates Eupator, who administered the law in twenty-two languages
of his empire; Simonides, inventor of the science of mnemonics;
Metrodorus, who practiced the art of faithfully repeating what he had
heard only once.
But Funes is unimpressed by any of this. His own memory is as good
but much stranger, for after a fall from a horse he became paralyzed,
and in waking from the trauma of the fall he discovered he had the
gift of an instantly imagistic memory:
He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30 April
1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks
on a book in Spanish binding he had seen only once. . . . Two or
three times, he had reconstructed a whole day; he never hesitated,
but each reconstruction required a whole day. He told me: "I alone
have more memories than all mankind has probably had since the world
has been the world. . . . My memory is like a garbage heap."
Borges describes one of Funes's bizarre projects, how he has invented
an original system for numbering, giving every number "a particular
sign, a kind of mark." The number one might be the gas, two might be
the cauldron, and so on:
in place of seven thousand thirteen he would say (for example) Maximo
Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other
numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the
whale. . . . In place of five hundred he would say nine.
Assigning an image to a word, Funes has reached the number twenty-
four thousand. The narrator is at pains to point out that Funes is
almost incapable of sustained thought or of generalizing. Funes can't
understand why the word "dog" stands for so many shapes and forms of
the animal, and more than that, "it bothered him that the dog at
three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the
dog at three fifteen (seen from the front)."
In this oblique story of the memory palace of Ireneo Funes,
Borges gives final expression to the clear link between memory and

As a schoolboy I had no memory palace, but I did have a manageable
sub-Funes system of converting anything I wished to remember into an
image. My intelligence was emphatically pictorial, and in this I was
buoyant, but I foundered whenever a subject became unreasonably
abstract. I still regard the best sentences as those which throw up
clear images, and the worst as opaque, intangible, unvisualizable -
like this one!
I performed well in school because rote capitulation was so
important. Learning was memorizing: history was names and dates,
geography was capitals and cash crops, English was reciting poems by
heart ("The sun that bleak December day / Rose cheerless over hills
of gray"). Biology was the simplest of all for me, not just a memory
exercise but a new vocabulary: nictitating membranes, epithelial
cells, osmosis, and the exotic-sounding islets of Langerhans (in the
pancreas). Early in life, on the basis of my easy grasp of biological
nomenclature and what I consider aesthetic reasons - all those
euphonious names - I resolved to be a medical doctor. Even after I
had abandoned the ambition, I went on telling people that it was my
chosen profession - its being respectable and moneymaking, no one
would question the choice.
I survived school because I remembered everything: my memory
saved me. It was an odd, undemanding, and unsatisfactory education,
and I think, because so little writing was involved in it, that its
oddness helped make me a writer. For one thing, I read whatever I
liked - in a jumble, preferring adventures about fur trappers or
castaways, ordeal stories that involved cannibalism (Boon Island by
Kenneth Roberts comes to mind), and books considered smutty or
outrageous in the 1950s: Generation of Vipers, Tropic of Cancer, Lady
Chatterley's Lover. Because of the censorship and repression of the
period, language itself - seeing certain forbidden words on a page -
was a stimulant, a thrill. I avoided anything literary. I was not
taught any formal approach to essay writing. I was forced to invent
my own writing technique.
This homemade reading list and my impressionistic method of
writing did not serve me well at college. I was criticized for not
being rigorous or trenchant. "Who says?" was a frequent comment by my
teachers in the margins of my essays. I was offering personal
opinions, not literary judgments. This did not worry me. My academic
aim was never to excel but only to get it over with and move on. I
was impatient to graduate: my reading had given me a taste, not for
more reading or writing, but for seeing the wider, and wilder, world.
I had felt small and isolated living in the place where I had grown
up. I had read to find out about the world. I despaired of surviving
being swallowed up by my hometown of Medford. I wanted to leave.
There was another obstacle. In college I was curious and
energetic, but there was a weariness in the novels I read, in life in
general, a sense of doomsday approaching. The postwar dreariness had
penetrated into the fifties and even overlapped the sixties, and in
the vogue for the placeless novel or play or poem, the dominant
emotion was frustration and anger expressed as exhaustion. It was a
sense of powerlessness, and it was almost certainly political: this
was an age of racial segregation, fallout shelters, the Bomb, deep
conservatism, overbearing religious views, and a denial of women's
rights. Books were banned and put on trial. The literary expression
of the period was a kind of confusion. It was the era of Waiting for
Godot, the setting of which is an almost bare stage. Bare stages were
in fashion. So were novels without much sense of place - I am
thinking of the French nouvelle vague, but there were British and
American imitators. Naturally, Eliot's The Waste Land was extremely
I found this all unhelpfully abstract. My main objection,
although I did not know enough to formulate it at the time, was that
my own memories were of no use, my own experience somewhat irrelevant
to the metaphysics of the modern novel or poem. Apart from blackouts
and the shouts of air raid wardens - but why would the Germans want
to bomb Webster Street? I wondered - I had no useful memory of World
War Two, and that set many of us apart in the sixties. I had no sense
of the Waste Land - I came from Medford, after all, which was a
frustrating but funny place. We used to say Medford was famous
because Paul Revere had ridden through it in 1775, but in fact we
were more proud of the tough gangs of south Medford who slugged it
out with the gangs from Somerville. Medford had particularities: my
teacher Mr. Hanley, who had a wooden leg; Harry Walker, the drunken
policeman who once lost his badge and gave us a quarter when we found
it; hangouts like Joe's poolroom and Brigham's ice cream parlor and
Carroll's diner;
the dank, muddy smell of the Mystic River.
It is true that I could share some of the feelings of
spiritual crisis in the literature of the fifties and sixties, but I
had no strong belief that God was dead. In any case, God was like
Banquo's ghost, popping up at every riotous occasion, to my great
shame. I had been raised a cultural Catholic, and so religion had a
strong ethnic coloration, depending on who was saying Mass or giving
the sermon, an Irish priest (Saint Patrick, Mary mother of God, boozy
funerals) or an Italian (Saint Anthony, the muscular Christ, boozy
Now and then I recognized my own world in fiction - in the
stories of J. F. Powers (The Prince of Darkness, for example); in
José María Gironella's Spanish trilogy - I have no idea how The
Cypresses Believe in God (sex and syphilis figuring in a large way)
came to be in the house; in Joyce's Dubliners. But mostly I didn't
recognize anything in fiction as resembling the world I knew. I
envied the prosperous families with prep school kids, the Jewish
families trying to look respectable, even the struggling blacks:
their worlds appeared, to a greater or a lesser degree, in popular
fiction. Stereotypes of them existed. They were written about. My own
mongrel world had gone unreported. It was like being denied my own
experience, and without a model - with nothing to imitate, with the
mistaken notion that my world might not even be worth writing about
(after all, there seemed nothing specifically literary about the life
I knew). I devised my own remedy. I fled, went away as far as I
could, with the Peace Corps to
central Africa.
Africa was a lucky choice for me, because distance, in terms
of both space and culture, produced in me feelings of alienation that
only memories could ease. I could not live in a culture that was
completely foreign, and my solution was to live in my head. I needed
to remember the past in order to be calm, and retrieval was not easy.
I was in Nyasaland, which at that time was a British protectorate.
The African towns were superficially English, like English culture
made out of mud. In the absence of stimuli - I went to Africa with
one small suitcase; I had virtually no possessions - I had to devise
ways to gain access to my memory.
Does this seem a deliberate process? It was nothing of the
kind. It was not a calculated act. Like almost everything in my life,
it was haphazard, accidental, and I was seldom conscious of what I
was doing. Writing is to me only superficially deliberate. It is more
like digging a deep hole and not quite knowing what you are going to
find, like groping in a dark well-furnished room - surprises
everywhere, and not just remarkable chairs but people murmuring in
the weirdest postures. I am inclined to agree with the novelist
narrator Bendrix in Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair when
he says (and Greene himself believed this): "So much of a novelist's
writing . . . takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the
last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We
remember the details of our story, we do not invent them."
This is why writing takes such patience. I had that, and
determination - a great stomach for the job. And why? Because my life
depended on it. I had nothing else - no one to support me, encourage
me, or pay my way. If I faltered, or failed, or if I took a year off,
I was shafted.
For years I had been practicing the craft of writing, but
what is the craft? It involves rumination, mimicry, joke-telling. It
requires long periods of solitude; I have always managed to be happy
alone. Many writers I have known talk to themselves. I have a
mumbling habit, which has served me well not merely as a mnemonic
device but as an imaginative rehearsal for writing - it is image-
making of a serious kind - and I nearly always mutter as I write.
Nothing is truly forgotten - there is no forgetting - Freud
said; there is only repression. In Civilization and Its Discontents
he wrote how "in mental life nothing which has been formed can
perish . . . everything is somehow preserved, and in suitable
circumstances (when for instance regression goes back far enough) it
can once more be brought to light."
All his life Freud was concerned with retrieving early
memories. This preoccupation led him to develop theories of
repression and eventually to write his wonderful paper "Creative
Writers and Day-Dreaming." A Freudian might explain my creativity in
Africa as follows: when I had ceased to be affected by repression at
home, and in the United States generally, and was living entirely on
my own, unaffected by the scrutiny and the ambitions of my somewhat
censorious parents, I was able to recapture in these suitable
circumstances the early memories that gave me an impetus to be
creative. Perhaps.
Writing in Africa gave me access to the past, helped me cope
with long periods of isolation in a foreign place, made me reach
specific conclusions about the people I was among - in a word, it
enabled me to see Africa clearly. This plunge into my own memory
inspired in me feelings of oneness with Africans and their landscape.
Our lives in many respects were totally different, but on closer
examination I saw how much we had in common and how these people
shared many of my fears and hopes.
I am speaking of an early period in my writing life, but the
most crucial one. I was in my early twenties. I had begun to deal
with reality. It was no longer the literature of the Waste Land, the
theater of the absurd, minimalist poetry, the barren and featureless
narrative. I do not belittle them; I am simply saying they were no
help to me. I may seem to criticize certain types of writing. No;
only that they are not my type. "The house of fiction has many
windows," Henry James said.
From the vantage point of Africa, I was able to see that
where I came from seemed to have merit and was a worthy subject.
Africa too was an immediate subject - after all, hadn't Conrad and
Hemingway written about it? Nevertheless, I arrogantly felt that
these great writers had not done Africa justice. It irritated me that
although Tarzan of the Apes, Henderson the Rain King, The Unbearable
Bassington, and Devil of a State were partly or wholly set in Africa,
Burroughs, Bellow, Saki, and Burgess had never set foot on the
Conrad and Hemingway had no such excuse, yet in their fiction
they ignored Africans or else made them insubstantial figures in a
landscape. Conrad could be terribly ponderous and vague; Hemingway,
remote and rather privileged, hadn't the slightest clue to the human
activity, the politics and culture, in the country. He was a big-game
hunter, the sort of rich and complacent bwana mkuba we saw in Land
Rovers heading for the herds of kudu or the migrating wildebeest.
As a resident there, not a tourist, I understood that any
slob could kill big game in Africa. The animals were big and they
were everywhere. Nothing was easier than bagging a zebra - there were
herds of them - and an animal like the coveted (and now seriously
endangered) bongo was the easiest of all: you just set dogs on this
broad-horned antelope, and when it was preoccupied with this pack of
savage mutts, you shot the poor creature in the heart (to preserve
its head as a trophy). Hemingway's Swahili was notoriously bad and
laughable. As for Africans themselves, they were like a well-kept
secret: no one had really written about them except sentimental
settlers like Karen Blixen, who wrote from the point of view of a
colonial memsahib. Doris Lessing came a bit closer in The Grass Is
Singing, but even she seemed to be writing about an earlier period.
I was not writing particularly incisively, but I had started
along the right road - a narrow and empty side road. I had a sense of
being freer, of growing stronger, and my belief in myself had nothing
to do with success or failure but only with writing well. Of course,
I wanted to be recognized - I wanted to be a hero - but that desire
was not incompatible with the various fanciful roles I had chosen for
myself, growing up: the traveler, the hunter, the explorer, the lion
tamer, the forest ranger, the scientist, the surgeon, which were all
brilliantly solitary and somewhat heroic. I can honestly say - and it
was a great help to me - that I had no driving ambition to be
wealthy. If so, I am sure I would have given up writing and done
something more immediately profitable. I knew many people who did
just that.
"The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is
real," Freud writes in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming." He goes
on to describe people's fantasies and the relationship of these
daydreams to the reality of their lives. "We may lay it down that a
happy person never fantasizes, only an unsatisfied one." Time is a
crucial factor, because of the relationship between memory and
fantasy. The fantasy is linked to three "moments of time" (not very
different from the "spots of time" to which Wordsworth alludes in The
Prelude): "Mental work is linked to some current impression, some
provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one
of the subject's major wishes. From there it harks back to the memory
of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this
wish was fulfilled; and now it creates a situation relating to the
future which represents a fulfillment of the wish. What it thus
creates is a day-dream or fantasy, which carries about it traces of
its origin from the occasion
which provoked it and from the memory. Thus past, present and future
are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs
through them."
Normally, a daydreamer conceals his fantasies, but if these
fantasies should be revealed to us, Freud says, we would be repelled
or unmoved by them. On the other hand, when the creative writer
discloses his fantasies, we experience pleasure. "How the writer
accomplishes this is his innermost secret; the essential ars poetica
lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us
which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between
each single ego and the others" - that is, in artistic alteration,
the writer softens and disguises his daydreams, and with style or wit
he gives us aesthetic pleasure. It is all in the telling, Freud says,
which is true enough, and this "enjoyment of an imaginative work
proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds." He goes on in
an aside to say that "not a little of this effect is due to the
writer's enabling us [as satisfied and enlightened readers]
thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or
In a word, reading is liberation. We are vindicated in our
dreams. The same is true of writing, since a dream is being fulfilled
in its artistic re-creation. And the dream has a complex time frame
of past, present, and future. Something in the present provokes an
impression that rouses a wish that is linked to an earlier memory.
Being in Africa certainly liberated me, and I did remember a
great deal that I had thought I'd forgotten. This access gave me a
sense of conviction; it calmed me, and in that reflective mood I was
given greater access. I discovered, for example, that if I was very
calm, at a point of resolution, I could write well. It might be truer
to say that I needed to be calm, needed my mind clear, in order to
remember. My sense of freedom grew: the joy of writing made me more
joyful, because at its best it has always demanded a mental journey
and led me deeper into my unconscious mind. There is a paradox in
this: the deeper I have gone into my own memory, the more I have
realized how much in common I have with other people. The greater the
access I have had to my memory, to my mind and experience, searching
among the paraphernalia in my crepuscular past, the more I have felt
myself to be a part of the world.
The political dimension of this creative process was
something I had not expected. There was a dissatisfaction among
Africans, a hankering for something better in their lives. That
yearning and that bewilderment was familiar to me. They felt as I had
growing up, and in many ways their condition, the way they had been
patronized by colonial powers, recapitulated the condition of
children in a large, oppressive household. Imperialism is like a big
unhappy family under the control of domineering parents. It was the
way I had felt at home. Contemplating the conditions of Africans
stimulated my own childhood memories - the frustrations, the
longings, the fantasies. Consequently, in this atmosphere, writing
about Africans and recalling my past, I could truly express myself.
The provocative occasion that Freud mentions as stimulating
the memory and producing a creatively useful fantasy might also be
the simple contemplation of an object, or the chance association of
music or an odor. A musical phrase stimulates memory in Proust's Jean
Santeuil, the famous memory-unlocking taste of the cookie in
Remembrance of Things Past.
I developed internal ways of stimulating my memory. It is
possible for a writer to think creatively only if he or she manages
to inhabit a mood in which imagination can operate. My need for
external stimuli inspired in me a desire to travel - and travel,
which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is
for me the opposite: nothing induces concentration or stimulates
memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. It is simply not
possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.
More likely you will experience intense nostalgia, a harking back to
an earlier stage of your life. This does not happen to the exclusion
of the exotic present, however; in fact, what makes the whole
experience thrilling is the juxtaposition of present and past -
Medford dreamed in Mandalay.
It was a deliberate dream for me. In the dark, in distant
places when I needed the consolation of memory, I used to calm myself
and reflect on the past by mentally getting into my father's old
Dodge and driving from home through Medford Square, up Forest Street,
down to the Lawrence Estates, past the hospital where I was born, and
then drive the long way home, around Spot Pond, taking in all the
scenes of my early youth.
Who are the great travelers? They are curious, contented,
self-sufficient people who are not afraid of the past. They are not
hiding in travel; they are seeking. Recently I was on the northern
Queensland coast of Australia, in an aboriginal reserve. In the most
unlikely spot I encountered a beachcomber who had been living there
for several years. He was looking for plastic floats and bottles,
building a raft that would take him around the top of Cape York in
one of the most dangerous channels in the world, the Torres Strait. I
asked him if he knew the risks.
"I'm not bothered," he said. "You can go anywhere, you can do
anything, if you're not in a hurry."
That is one of the sanest statements I have ever heard in my
So many times over the years, in the most far-flung places, I
have heard people exclaim, "This reminds me of home" or "This reminds
me of" - and name a place where they have been very happy. It might
be said that a great unstated reason for travel is to find places
that exemplify where one has been happiest. Looking for idealized
versions of home - indeed, looking for the perfect memory.
Friends are also reminders of where we have been, what we
have seen. They are a repository of our past, and friendship and love
enable us to retrieve memory. The most human emotions and activities
put us in touch with the past, which is another way of saying that
neurosis frequently distances us and makes the past ungraspable. When
Freud says that only the unsatisfied person has fantasies, he is not
saying that the more unhappy you are, the more access you have to
memory. On the contrary, he states that if "fantasies become over-
luxuriant and over-powerful, the conditions are laid for the onset of
neurosis or psychosis."
You know how much friendship matters to memory when, for
whatever reason, a friend leaves the orbit of your existence. Losing
a friend to death or absence or misunderstanding is not only a blow
to self-esteem but a stun to memory. The sad reflection that we are
losing a part of ourselves is true: part of our memory has departed
with the lost friend.
One of the extremes of this is marital woe - separation and
divorce. My wife and I separated in 1990. The pain of that event had
many causes. It was an emotional trauma, but it was more - it was as
though I had been lobotomized, part of my brain cut away. My wife had
been a repository of our shared experience, and I could count on her
to remind me of things I had forgotten. When she read something I had
written, she had a unique ability to judge it. She always knew, even
when I didn't, when I was repeating myself or being a bore. Her
presence stimulated my memory, because her memory was an extension of
my own. We had lived together and loved each other for more than
twenty years.
It is easy for a writer to think, because of the solitary
nature of the profession, that he or she is in this alone. But is
that so? A writer cannot be the solitary figure in the Waste Land,
the actor on the bare stage. "Everything I have written has come out
of a deep loneliness," Henry James wrote. Lonely, yes, but he was not
alone - he could not have been and written as he had of such a
complex world, so many landscapes, so many levels of society. The
paradox is that the writer is involved both in society and in the
world, and yet is alienated from it. It is simply not possible to
remove yourself from the society of people or the flow of events, yet
the very things that stimulate writing are frequently obstacles to
the writing process. Travel is a great stimulant, as I said, but it
is hell to write while you are traveling.
I separated from my wife in London and quickly realized that
I could not live in the city anymore. That very day I flew to the
United States; I needed the comfort of my childhood home. I needed
reassurance, the stimuli of those landscapes and sounds - the
weather, the temperature, the odors. It was winter: frost, rattling
branches, wood planks shrieking in the house, night skies, dead
I also needed the artifacts in that house, objects such as
pictures and knickknacks. My chair. My desk. My books. With these, I
felt, I could begin again. Once, about six years before, our London
house was burglarized. People have various responses to news of a
robbery. You feel violated, they say. The thieves must be desperate,
they say. Criminals come from awful homes; they're on drugs; they
need your stuff; you're lucky you weren't home; you might have been
Mine was none of these. I felt, They stole my memories - they
removed a portion of my mind! The insurance people asked how much my
things were worth. I told them truthfully: they were priceless. I
would never look upon those objects again and remember. For this
reason, for a period of time I ranted like a fanatic. I am not
talking about a video recorder or a radio. I am speaking of a small
silver box that had the camphor-wood odor of Singapore, of the pen
with the worn-down nib with which I wrote seven or eight books, of
the amber necklace I bought with my last twenty dollars in Turkey.
All of it gone, flogged to a fence somewhere in London. Sentimental
value, people said. Yes, but to me there is no other value. If all we
were talking about was money, then these things could have been
replaced and I would have had no problem. What was removed from me by
these thieves were the stimuli for some of my dearest memories.
Interestingly, Freud was just such a magpie in the way he
collected little objects. His house and study were crammed with pots
and statues and artifacts, most of them Egyptian, Greek, and Roman.
He never wrote about them, but undoubtedly they stimulated him, for
his work is full of classical allusions and historical detail. It's a
pity that Freud's house was never burgled, because I would have loved
to read his analysis of his own emotions as the victim of a theft of
his treasured things.
I aspire, where material possessions are concerned, to the
Buddhist condition of non-attachment. That is my ideal. I am not so
acquisitive that I am possessed by these objects, though I do feel
dependent on them at times. I think one must practice ridding oneself
of them, but that requires concentration and great mental poise - I
want to learn how to give them away; it must be my confident
decision. I don't want them torn out of my hands. Obviously, the
happiest person is that Buddhist who truly sees that such objects are
illusion, and who owns nothing - all these possessions are in his or
her memory.
The act of writing - artistic creation - dependent on memory,
is itself a mnemonic device. And what is strangest of all is that
drawing on memory - say, writing a novel - I am giving voice to one
set of memories while creating a structure for remembering the
circumstances of writing that book. Looking at almost anything I have
written, I can remember the room, the weather, my frame of mind, the
state of the world, or whatever, while I was working on that piece of
writing. For a reader or critic this can be deceptive. For example,
it was in Dorset, in the west of England, that I described the hot,
cloudy tropics in Saint Jack, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, that
I wrote about Dorset in The Black House. I look at The Mosquito Coast
and see south London, and I glance at Jungle Lovers and hear the
cooing voice of the Chinese amah feeding my children in our Singapore
My books mean as much to me for what they are, for their
narrative, as for those personal scenes and circumstances that they
have the power to evoke. Often, the memory of writing the book
overshadows the work itself. This aspect of writing has not been
explored or analyzed, and yet most novelists, when asked to introduce
a particular work, reminisce at some point about the surroundings of
their creation - the house, the family, the weather, the writing
room. It is almost a conventional digression in any introduction. I
can truthfully say that nearly everything I have written carries with
it the circumstances of its creation. Picture Palace happened to be
my twelfth work of fiction, but the title might have served for any
of them.
Such books are in the widest sense histories - of my world
and myself. In spite of my conscientious work, they are probably full
of inaccuracies, but they are as true as I could make them. I lost
patience with the Waste-Landers and the purveyors of whimsy, the
people who used language for its own sake, its own sound. "It's like
farting 'Annie Laurie' through a keyhole," as Gully Jimson says in
The Horse's Mouth. "It's clever, but is it worth the trouble?" The
opposite of play, Freud said, is not seriousness but reality.
The political implications of this ought to be obvious.
Having lived through the fifties and sixties, and having heard all
the canting conservatives, I am well aware of our national tendency
toward revisionism. If the sixties was a time of disruption and
unruliness by students and others, it was because they faced an
almost overwhelming, and much more vocal, number of people who were
saying, "Bomb Peking . . . Bomb Hanoi . . . Mine Haiphong
Harbor . . . Give white South Africa a chance." The Vietnam
revisionists are legion, and the issue has been flogged to death. But
to take a more recent example of revisionism, I was amused by the
reception that Nelson Mandela was accorded when he was released after
twenty-six years in a South African prison. I remember when he had
received his life sentence - I had copied his courtroom speech in his
own defense into my notebook. I remember reading this eloquent
affirmation of human rights to a friend, who dismissed it, actually
laughed, saying, "He's dreaming." Every indu
strialized country continued to trade with South Africa, and the
apartheid regime officially declared the Japanese as white - and
Japan gladly accepted the reclassification in its eagerness to trade.
Mandela's reputation grew because a few people clearly remembered
him, and because Mandela had the good luck to survive - he was one of
those South African prisoners who were not tortured to death.
Mandela's greatest achievement was that he himself was loyal to his
memory. Hitler said, "Who remembers the Armenians?" - referring to
their massacre by the Turks earlier in the century - when he was
challenged in his decision to exterminate the Jews. It was only
recently that Americans remembered who the Palestinians are, when we
were forcefully reminded by the Intifada.
Memory can be a burden, and can seem a bore. In Sinclair
Lewis's novel of the future, It Can't Happen Here, one of the hero's
perorations about remembering sounds tedious to his listeners until
America falls apart under a fascist dictatorship. Most Yankees who
travel to the South are struck - I certainly have been - by the
southerner's memory for details of a war the rest of us have mostly
forgotten. Faulkner makes the point in Absalom, Absalom!: the
southerner lives in a state of constant remembrance of the past. This
is generally true, though the lamentation for the Old South does not
always embrace the memory of slaveholding or the sort of apartheid,
the Whites-Only signs, that I saw myself on a visit to Virginia when
I was ten. The Civil War was fought in the South, but I also think
that the humiliation of defeat is more memorable than the euphoria of
victory, and emphatically, the winners have the most authority when
they publish their version of history.
That is why it is often better to look at the past, or at the
reality around us, through the window of fiction. A nation's
literature is a truer repository of thought and experience, or
reality and time, than the fickle and forgettable words of
politicians. Anyone who wishes to be strong needs only to remember.
Memory is power. I said earlier that in choosing to be a writer I
felt that I was on the right road, but a narrow and lonely one. I
remember most of the way, and now I see that it has been the long
road home.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Theroux, Paul Travel, Voyages and travels