Miriam Beard on Travel: A Change in the Ideas of Living

I’ve often wondered how a single phrase finds its way from being buried in a memoir or novel to being plucked out as a stand-on-its-own “quotation.” Of course, the creator of the thought is important, but so is the one who finds it and decides it’s worthy of display on its own.

Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Many will read the book before one thinks of quoting a passage. As soon as he has done this, that line will be quoted east and west.”

When Miriam Beard, the daughter of the American historians, Charles and Mary Beard, wrote Realism in Romantic Japan in 1930, I’m sure more than a few people read it. (In 1961, the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs called it “the most popular book of the day on Japan.”) But I doubt that many stumble across it today. In fact, it didn’t warrant mention in her New York Times obituary in 1983. That honor went to her History of the Business Man, which she published in 1937. But even that work isn’t what she’s best known for now. Google her name and what rises to the top is a single sentence from her work about Japan:

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Who knows who originally brought this quotation to the attention of the masses? I’ll probably never find out, but I’d like to think that that person recognized Beard’s insight in the surrounding text. The passage comes in a chapter titled “First Timers,” in which Beard discusses how multiple experiences in a new culture bring about a growth in impressions, ultimately leading to the ability to “sympathize” (though not necessarily in the way you might think). Here is how she describes the three phrases of this progression:

If, at each repetition of a bowing, a chopstick meal, a song or a garden, my impressions were different—”how” I asked myself, “am I ever to know what I think of these things”? Should I live a hundred years before I have the right to speak my mind on any thing? If I shudder at a song the first time, and love it the last—at which stage have I the right to describe my sensations? What are impressions? Are they worth anything?

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. History is handled no longer as a mere chronicle of dates but as a progression from one stage to a succeeding. So travel is no mere heaping up of episodes but an evolution. It is of constant development and not of fixed judgment that I dare to write: of the steady submersion of the ego in a stream of life.

There are phases in this process. The earliest is a sense of bewilderment in the number and variety of scenes, gorgeous, comical, or amazing, that the East presents. It seems that two weeks in Tokyo are like a ten-minute trip through an overcrowded museum. You must rush, staring and crying out, through rooms and corridors, without a pause. The feet grow heavy as basalt rocks; the optic nerves, bruised by a thousand images, refuse to register; and the mind seeking in vain some balance in all the maze, turns round and round on itself like a kaleidoscope or a pin-wheel.

. . . . .

The sensation of living on a new planet—that is the second stage. “Home,” “America,” recede from the mind, seem farther and farther away. Nearer and nearer draw the problems and the drama of all Asia: Siam, Ceylon, Borneo, Turkestan, Afghanistan, Korea, China, and Russia the Colossus.

. . . . .

All at once a third period breaks. It becomes suddenly possible to be, not merely a spectator at a strange show, but a participant. Oriental life catches up the visitor in its swift current; and he finds that, after all, it is possible to feel at ease behind the closed gates.

. . . . .

People as well as buildings ceased to seem curiosities, as I learned to know their hobbies, families, careers, unhappiness and hope. No, I was not so perpetually startled now—far more absorbed. perhaps had ceased to observe, so clearly and directly; but then I had unexpectedly begun to sympathize.

I like this idea that the final goal of travel is to arrive at sympathy—not in the sense of pity, or even compassion. Rather it’s the true “feeling together” that the word means. This kind of sympathy is a destination not easily reached, but, as Beard writes, it’s an “evolution,” a “steady submersion of the ego in a stream of life” that is well worth the time and effort that it takes to get there.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 8, Houghton Mifflin, 1876; Walter Moonaughy, “American Image of Japan,” address given to the Japan-American Society of Washington at the National Press Club, October 2, 1961; Miriam Beard, Realism in Romantic Japan, MacMillan, 1930)

[photo: “Kissako – 喫茶去,” by Christian Kaden, used under a Creative Commons license]

2 thoughts on “Miriam Beard on Travel: A Change in the Ideas of Living

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