G. K. Chesterton, the Prince of Paradox, on Travel

August 1, 2015 § 1 Comment

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The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

So says G. K. Chesterton, prolific British author and Christian apologist, whose life bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.

Chesterton has much to say about travel, largely on how to do it well and how it can affect the traveller.

The quotation above comes from “The Riddle of the Ivy,” a short sketch in his Tremendous Trifles. When a friend asks why he is packing his luggage, Chesterton tells him he is traveling through Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort, with the aim of finding the Battersea district of London.

Knowing that his destination is their current location, his friend says, “I suppose it is unnecessary to tell you that this is Battersea?”

“It is quite unnecessary,” I said, “and it is spiritually untrue. I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

And then the man who deals so much with paradox that he has been called “the prince of paradox” cautions his friend, with threat of physical harm, against referring to his thoughts as paradoxical:

“Now I warn you that this Gladstone bag is compact and heavy, and that if you utter that word ‘paradox’ I shall hurl it at your head. I did not make the world, and I did not make it paradoxical. It is not my fault, it is the truth, that the only way to go to England is to go away from it.”

A month later, his opinion is confirmed when he returns to England and sees it with a wonderful freshness. An American traveling companion is struck by England as well, but for her it is because this is her first time there.

“I have never been in England before,” said the American lady, “yet it is so pretty that I feel as if I have been away from it for a long time.”

For the American it is déjà vu. For Chesterton, is it déjà new?

Not Seeing What You See

Regardless of the destination, believes Chesterton, there is much more to traveling than simply taking a trip. He writes that “true” travelers let the experience of a destination come to them, without manipulating it with expectations and prejudices. He is quoted as saying,

The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.

The actual version of this comes from the following passage in his Autobiography:

I had pottered about in France ever since my father took me there as a boy; and Paris was the only foreign capital I knew. I owe it to him that I was at least a traveller and not a tripper. The distinction is not snobbish; indeed it is one rather of epoch than education; half the trouble about the modern man is that he is educated to understand foreign languages and misunderstand foreigners. The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. A true traveller in a primitive epic or folk-tale did not pretend to like a beautiful princess because she was beautiful. It is still true of a poor sailor; of a tramp; in short, of a traveller. Thus he need form no opinion of Paris newspapers; but if he wanted to, he would probably read them. The tripper never reads them, calls them rags, and knows as much about the rags as the chiffonnier who picks them up with a spike.

I understand why the common version of this quotation uses tourist in place of tripper. We don’t use tripper much today, at least not with this meaning. And I don’t think that Chesterton would mind. He writes,

It is the most sincere compliment to an author to misquote him. It means that his work has become a part of our mind and not merely of our library.

Bevis Hiller, in The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton, gives the origin for this quotation as the December 31, 1927, issue of GK’s Weekly, though I couldn’t track down the original source. While I have no reason not to trust Hiller, wouldn’t it be ironic if Chesterton never said this?

The Broad and the Narrow Ways

They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind.

One of the characters in Chesterton’s stories is the crime-solving poet Gabriel Gale. In “The Shadow and the Shark,” Gale discusses Mr. Amos Boon, a former missionary who has decided he prefers the Philistines of the Bible to those biblical characters who follow God. While defending Boon against charges of murder, he does not defend the “broadening” of his mind.

“Boon is a good man,” said Gale, calmly; “he is very stupid; that is why he is an atheist. There are intelligent atheists, as we shall see presently; but that stunted, stupid, sort is much commoner, and much nicer. But he is a good man; his motive is good; he originally talked all that tosh of the superiority of the savage because he thought he was the under-dog. He may be a trifle cracked, by now, about sharks and other things; but that’s only because his travels have been too much for his intellect. They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind. He had a mind for a suburban chapel, and there passed before it all the panorama of gilded nature-worship and purple sacrifice. He doesn’t know if he’s on his head or his heels, any more than a good many others. But I shouldn’t wonder if heaven is largely populated with atheists of that sort, scratching their heads and wondering where they are.

If “they” say that travel broadens the mind, Chesterton himself says traveling presents the danger of making the mind more narrow:

I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labour and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality that is the moment of supreme danger—the moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which a meeting meant a duel.

The paradox of travel.

(G. K. Chesterton, “The Riddle of the Ivy,” Tremendous Trifles, Methuen, 1909; Bevis Hiller, The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton, Continuum, 2011; Chesterton, Autobiography, Hutchinson, 1936; Chesterton, “The Shadow of the Shark,” The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale, Cassell, 1929; Chesterton, “What Is America?” What I Saw in America, Hodder, 1922)

[illustration: “G.K. Chesterton,” by giveaway boy, used under a Creative Commons license]

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