Travel to write, write to travel

In the most famous travel stories, the object book was not always the original destination of this type of writing. Many of them were initially conceived as intimate diaries, personal memories, epistolary exchanges, travel records, scientific reports or journalistic reports, among other possibilities. On certain occasions, it has been the criticism itself that has recovered the scattered texts to do integral works with them.

The idea that every trip involves the transfer of a side by side, Michel De Certeau makes an initial differentiation between the notions of “place” and “space.” The place denotes a stable arrangement given by a combination of elements and the space refers to the set of operations that update the fixed coordinates and express the action of the historical subjects in this. De Certeau links the two notions from the discursive praxis exercised by the subjects on both terms. They are the ones that symbolically transform the place in space or space in the place, through two modalities: “seeing”, which prioritizes the description of stable elements and takes the notion of place to build a “map”, and the “go”, which consists in the transforming action of a self that sets up a “tour” through the spaces it creates. De Certeau concludes by pointing out that the entire travel story implies a spatializing operation, encrypted on the interaction between map and route.

On this first definition outlined by De Certeau, which emphasizes the symbolic transformations of the subjects on spaces and places, it is possible to add the characterization that Tzvetan Todorov when trying to define what is a journey for Western civilization. Their statements enrich the issues by including issues related to the tension generated between those who travel and write and those who are seen and involved where they live.

Todorov says that the true travel story is made in exotic regions or non-European civilizations. These characteristics do nothing more than configure a notion of ethnocentric travel that conceives the culture of others as an element that can be analyzed and interpreted by those who travel and write. In fact, those who depend on the paradigm of the traveler are the European subjects who, from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century, travel through the unexplored world based on trade, wealth, conquest, knowledge or science. Therefore, Todorov concludes by stating that above all the travel story looms a colonialist look.

However, this reflection does not imply consideration to subsume any travel narration to a mere colonial operation. For example, James Clifford had a discussion with traditional ethnography and conceived the trip as a notion that allows destabilizing and complexing anthropological practice by discussing ideas such as the contrast between static inhabitant and traveling scientist, informant orality and specialist writing, interpreted cultures and interpreting cultures On the other hand, Marc Augé points out the importance of writing as a mediating instance that introduces a double distance, by splitting and linking, lived and narrated, interiority and others, and he ends relating the ethnographic method to memories, for his continuous unfolding of the self in the always deferred review of the contacts he had with others.

Beyond these approaches, there are works that address the issue from a specifically literary perspective. Among the vast bibliography referring to the subject, the contributions of Michel Butor and Beatriz Colombi about the writer as a traveler and the travel story as a genre stand out.

In the first case, Butor details that every travel story begins with literary works read or projected, develops with the reading and writing of texts and concludes with the final book, in which the trip is told. From the fact that for these writers traveling is a way of writing (and vice versa), Butor proposes the foundation of a discipline that studies the travel experience and, at the same time, a program that guides his story. Critical and poetic, how to think about the trip and how to tell it, are two axes of Butor’s proposal.

On the other hand, Colombi locates the travel stories at the crossroads of various discursive and generic regimes, which ends up constituting them as diverse texts mainly due to their heterogeneous nature.

Colombi considers a series of elements that structure travel stories through recurrences and reformulations. Among them, the main ones are: the plots (formation trip, grand tour, satire, picaresque), the tropes (the most frequent rhetorical figures), the topos (the spaces traveled), the topics (the images-themes set by the tradition, such as the melancholy of the trip or the conquering journey) and, finally, the narrator / author solidarity: a particular nexus through which the subjects who star, narrate and sign the texts appear to match, through a pact that the reader can decode as one of the most specific features of the genre.

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