America: The Traveler and Beauty
by Robert E. Garlitz || Author's Links
She said: There is no refuge
from beauty nor beauty's
By most accounts Bolivia is a harsh and striking country, marked by extremes of altitude, climate, barren terrain, and great poverty and some of the worst living and working conditions in the world. And yet it is here that one traveler, Matthew Parris, a British writer, experiences a profound sense of beauty when he sees some very old women wrapped in filthy silken shawls seated in the yard of a rubbish-strewn mud house where he and his friends are trying to keep down some pitiful soup they have just eaten for lunch.
The conditions and context in which this happens and where it happens in the course of his whole trip all make his experience representative at large of a general theory of what happens when a traveler experiences beauty. The theory which I am interested in exploring in relation to Parris' experience comes from a small book of four essays by David Hickey called The Invisible Dragon. Hickey works out his ideas in terms of the sense of beauty as it is discussed and not discussed in the art world, but as a general theory I think it applies equally well and quite illuminatingly to the world of travel and the travel writer.
Matthew Parris took his fourth trip to Peru in 1988 with three friends, John, Mick and Ian. Parris is a broadcaster and journalist in England. The main goal of this trip was to trek through parts of the Andes he had not seen before. After a day in Lima they traveled by truck north to Chiquian and began hiking toward the tiny villages of Llamac and Pocpa near Lake Jahuacocha. That leg of the adventure over, they later flew from Lima to Cochabamba and traveled up through Bolivia back into Peru to reach Macchu Picchu and Quillabamba. The final and most hair-raising segment of the trip had them on a four day truck journey from Urcos to Puerto Maldonado. From there they fly back to Lima.
Parris calls his book Inca-Kola: A Traveller's Tale of Peru and he embeds within it some remembered stories and anecdotes from earlier travels, chiefly an encounter in the Andes with bandits southeast of Cuzco. The friends become ill from altitude and food. They encounter a whole playlist of characters from prostitutes to drug runners and other kinds of con artists and shady travelers. But mainly they meet a lot of people who are friendly and open to their oddness and strangeness as travelers from a world the peasants can hardly imagine.
In Inca-Kola, Matthew Parris uses the word "beautiful" or "beauty" eight times. Whether this is a high number for travel books these days, on average, or a low number, I don't know. But my attention was drawn to the question a short time before I began reading Parris' book and I began taking note just to see what I might find. I might even like to claim that Parris' count is high for travel books over the past thirty or fifty years in hopes of making the argument that he is of the newer paradigm and generation that is reversing what seems to have been a distinct tendency to refuse to talk about beauty in the past century.
Terms for beauty have not been used by travelers much in the last one hundred years. If that is so, it is part of the larger pattern in the whole of Western culture to look askance at beauty or bracket it to one side. And it seems to have been true in the world of art and aesthetics and equally so in the larger realms surrounding them, including travel. Bill Beckley states this case in the Introduction to his new anthology, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics.
Travelers don't mention beauty very often for the same reasons. The word has been out of favor in general in the West. According to Beckley we could lay the blame on Wittgenstein. Words like beauty, he argued, have little meaning. He devoted a lecture to the word in the summer of 1938. He pointed out that beauty "is most often used as an interjection, similar to Wow! or rubbing one's stomach." (Beckley xv) This is a fair description of how most travelers will use the term in popular context and meaning. And this is precisely the problem the traveler has when she wants to describe an experience that is not just a Wow but something else altogether. Something like, I would argue, the experience one has in the presence of beautiful art or beautiful landscape or a beautiful person. This is the question of beauty as it has been pondered from Plato on.
Beckley tells us that a second argument about the dismissal of this question over the past hundred years concerns what happened in the history of painting. Hickey says beauty disappeared in this century because artists progressively flattened the picture space.
He writes in "Prom Night in Flatland" one of the four essays on beauty in The Invisible Dragon, that when flat pictorial space triumphed over the effeminacy of illusionist space, the "gender" of the work of art changed. It became masculine, impenetrable.
Consequently, we replaced feminine descriptives like beauty, harmony, and generosity with masculine terms like strength, singularity, and autonomy. (Beckley xv) This strikes me as generally true of travel writing in this century. To pin down this argument carefully would be an entirely different question. But if we think of how we accept the pervasive influence of moods and movements we call "modernism" and "post-modernism" over the whole of our cultural achievements, then travel literature would demonstrate its submission to these tendencies of the age. Where it did not would be fruitful surprises to examine. And if it shows signs of coming out from under such influences that would also be noteworthy. But think of Chatwin and Theroux and Matthiessen. They don't talk about beauty much at all. This is particularly interesting in Chatwin's case because of his earlier work at Sotheby's. And yet his work as a traveler--nomad--and writer might be seen as just the sort of escape from the aesthetic subtext of questions suppressed in the art world about one of the most basic and human of experiences, the sense of beauty.
Beckley imagines that if Ruskin "might look at our contemporary landscape with its highways bludgeoning through hillsides he might say that there simply isn't any beauty left." This we would ask if our wanting to speak of beauty again is "a nostalgia for a nineteenth-century phenomena supplanted by the political? (xv)"
But if beauty interests us once more "some of the questions that Dr. Seuss raised in Green Eggs and Ham might be back too--to like it here or to like it there? If the here is in the eye of the beholder, the there is in the object." And for the traveler it would be in the object-in-the scene. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is the capacity for perceiving beauty a result of the individual's culture or is it inherent? Is beauty something all human beings enjoy because we have the same basic faculties? If beauty is inherent in an object, this is very mysterious, even magical, very magical for the late twentieth century. (xv)
I think Matthew Parris would say that yes, the whole point of travel as far away from England as Peru is precisely that it opens our inherent capacity to see the magical and the beautiful in the object, in the scene, in the people one encounters. And perhaps this desire is stronger in travelers even in this century than in other writers and artists. Although travel itself as a project which influences and informs art has been a significant factor in the whole cultural movement of the century as well. Early in Inca-Kola, Parris sets up a pattern that tends to shape many of his responses to his experiences. He and his friends are riding in a truck on their way to their first jumping-off site for hiking in the high mountains. The day before they had witnessed a small riot in the town when a couple of street performers mocked the military and sided with the revolutionaries. As they are riding out of town in the back of the truck, John sounds a note of disenchantment: When you look at how beautiful the background of mountains is, and compare it with how shabby and filthy this place of Huaraz is, the two don't seem to go together. (72) Parris replies to himself that "the power of those mountains was beyond 'clean' or 'dirty.'" "As the truck lurched, John groaned. 'To me this is hell,' he said. I stood at the front with the wind in my face. To me it was paradise." (73)
John is on his first trip to Peru and his vision is split: the mountains are beautiful in the general travel sense of the word and the people and the villages are filthy and shabby. For Parris the division doesn't obtain. He is not, however, blind. "Lima is an atrocity. Ankle-deep in urine and political graffiti, the old Lima rises from the middle of the largest expanse of wet corrugated iron in the southern hemisphere: the new Lima." (3) But when he is disposed to see beyond or through the immediate he is disposed to see the beautiful in ways his companions do not.
Most of the eight uses of the word "beautiful" are the incidental sort such as the instance above when John contrasts the squalor of the village with the perfect appeal of the mountains. In Lima they visit the Erotic Museum, filled with clay pottery depicting sexual behavior of every kind. These "failed to cheer, as might have been hoped."
The carvings and sculptures--hundreds of them, almost all of couples on each others' backs--were neither art nor pornography. They were not beautiful, for no grace or appreciation of the human form illuminated them; nor were they sexually titillating--the opposite, in fact: like children's comic strips they had been carved with a cartoonist's instinct to mock or poke fun. The overall effect, after an hour's browsing through them, was deadening. It was like staring into a pond of toads coupling in the spawning season. (19)
The Gold Museum contains one item which fulfills Parris' aesthetic ideas and expectations. Among a scattering of mummies, leather faces twisted variously into expressions of rage or pain, stood a feathered skull to which had been glued thousands of tiny, soft, blue and yellow parrot's feathers. It was covered--upholstered--in a carpet of sky-blue and acid-yellow. Though centuries old, the feathers' colours had kept all their brilliance.
Eyeless, two black holes stared out through this gaudy fringe. The old teeth grinned, as through a bank of flowers.
Parris asks the cross-cultural questions.
Sometimes (as with African art, for instance) it is hard for a European to know whether the feelings of fear, or beauty, that some mask or carving excites are a European reaction only. Perhaps the object was created for quite another purpose: perhaps it is not really "art" at all? He raises this question and then decides that whatever original cultural matrix produced the object, his response to it is what it is now. And that is that it is beautiful in the complex and profoundly real way.
But to feather this skull, so richly to ornament so grim a symbol of decay--the juxtaposition was timeless in its inspiration, transcending race and culture. It was supposed to be spine-tingling. It was supposed to be grotesque, chilling, beautiful . . . like their haunting flute music. And, like the music, it was. (21)
Parris gives here as succinct a definition of the beautiful as we could want. The other incidences of the word "beauty" are places of ordinary exclamation like Peru is a beautiful country and once when they walk into the basilica of Arequipa they hear "from somewhere, a choir was singing a song of breathtaking beauty." (313)
The principle experience of beauty that Parris describes occurs when they have crossed the border into Bolivia. Since he knows Peru well he finds Bolivia disorienting and strange. When he tries to sum up Bolivia, Parrish calls it a "mad, unlikely country." (269) "There is a paradoxical feeling of permanence about Bolivia's turmoil. It is a durable sort of fragility, for, in a way, they have hit the bottom. You feel that it was ever thus, and life, now, will go on." Peru, he thinks, might face civil war in the future but in Bolivia no such promise of radical change or conflict seems possible.
In Bolivia the hateful gods of political and economic blight take their human sacrifices daily, predictably, according to some bleak and unspoken pact with history. Peru has made no such peace with its gods. There is a threat, in Peru, that the elements of conflict might turn finally and face each other. All that threatens Bolivia is a continuity of despair. (272)
This is the shape of Parris' observations of Bolivia in general. He sees La Paz in this light:
La Paz looks and feels like the capital of a mountain kingdom. It is a compact, cobbled city, full of steep streets, swirly wrought-iron street lamps and grand public buildings with stone facades in baroque style. Ceremonial guards in nineteenth-century toytown uniforms goose step up and down outside the palaces. On all three sides the walls of the Andes sweep upwards, enclosing the whole town and adding to an atmosphere of siege, of suppressed hysteria, which hangs in the thin air. (267)
The rich from La Paz can ski on a mountain-side above the city at the highest ski-station in the world, where it is hardly possible to breathe. From these snows, clear streams flow into what is---less famously---the highest slum in the world: El Alto, whose poverty stunned even the Pope. (268)
These social observations are ones Parris makes after he has been in Bolivia a short time, and, interestingly enough, they are apparently untouched by the profound experience of beauty he had when he first entered Bolivia. He and his friends wanted to ride the train but they found in Cochabamba, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, that that would be impossible. The look for information about buses in the bitter predawn cold. As the sun rises they hear singing and look into a hut on the edge of the market. Peering past the painted tin flap which served as her kitchen door, a pretty girl aged about fourteen could be seen preparing breakfast. Holding a partially skinned, detached goat's foreleg in one hand, she trained the roaring flame of a kerosene blowtorch up and down the raw shin. She did so rhythmically, beating time with the song. She knew the words:
No quiero vivir llorando
Prefiero vivir durmiendo:
Hasta que tu vuelvas, diciendo
Que me quieres . . .
(I don't want to live weeping,
I'd rather live sleeping:
Until you return, saying
That you love me . . .)
The sounds of the flute and guitar rose into the morning air, mingling with the smells of charred flesh and singeing goat's hair. (253)
The girl has information about all the buses and within a few hours after some waiting and confusion the three travelers are on a bus, called St Francis, to La Paz. Parris is impressed by the road, "a daring construction, sweeping majestically into the clouds," but what strikes him most deeply is the poverty. "As you climb, the people grow poorer: grindingly poor, harsher than anything I had seen. Natural disasters--drought, flood, epidemic, war-- bring their suffering. But in its quieter way, this was worse, for this was a permanent, stable state of suffering"(257).
The bus stops for lunch "by a line of broken-down huts where the poverty looked typical." His friend, John, tries to photograph an old Indian woman. She throws stones at him. They go to the hut that is serving lunch. "There was no menu, no choice: just, thin, watery soup." They eat heartily, however, and as the "level in John's bowl sank fast . . . the solid components of the soup began to surface and take visible shape." Parris' description of the emerging elements prepares us for his counter-experience shortly thereafter.
John shuddered at the solitary chicken claw sticking heavenward like the spires on those churches submerged in reservoirs. But he slurped on. When some stomach-lining floated up he hesitated, but, "It's only tripe; they eat that in Sheffield," he muttered, and kept drinking.
Then something rare and strange appeared. Struggling against the growing conviction that it was a cow's nose, John persisted until no other interpretation could be placed upon the glistening black lump in the middle of his bowl. The nostrils were unmistakable. He lurched out wordless into the grey light and a renewed assault from the old women.
Suddenly Parris sees it all differently.
And yet it was so beautiful. The shacks were of mud and tin, wretchedly poor; a family of raven-haired piglets rooted around St Francis' wheels; and everywhere was the smell of urine. But in a corner by the wall someone had planted a flowering bush. Rubbish lay all around, yet its scarlet blooms would have been the glory of any English garden. It was a red which made reds you have seen before look like early attempts at the final colour.
He then finds that the juxtaposition of the flowering bush in the midst of the squalor is repeated and echoed in the clothing of the old women, including the one who had thrown pebbles when John had tried to take her photo.
And our persecutors, the old women, seated on the bare earth in the way of peasant women everywhere--head and shoulders rising mysteriously from a great heap of dusty skirts, the location of hips, thighs and legs (if they are built like other women at all) a matter of pure guesswork: these leathery old women were wrapped about the shoulders with crimson and gold mantles so fine, so intricately worked, that no Englishwoman would dare to soil them with use. These women were trailing them in the dirt. Parris now defines and crystallizes the whole experience and clarifies his aesthetic.
And as with the yard, so with the people in it: filthy, threadbare, broken down, but tinged always and at some point with an extravagant beauty. The scarlet bush, the crimson mantles, seemed to burn like small flames, hovering above the ashes which sustained them. Tiny points of intense colour, their vitality sucked upwards from the parched earth and withered bodies to which they clung.
The visual scene finds further echo and resonance in sound for he then hears repeated the song he had heard the pretty young girl singing much earlier in the day when they had begun to look for a bus.
And then that song again, this time from our driver's tape recorder, "No quiero vivir llorando . . ." (I don't want to live weeping . . .) rising in curious harmony with the throttled squawks of some distant chicken destined, no doubt, for the next soup sitting, the next bus. (261)
In this whole episode, the elements Parris found in his experience of the feathered skull in the museum in Lima are repeated and more fully developed in the whole scene and drama. The beautiful young girl singing the song of love and weeping, the old women who refuse the photographer's advance, the terrible poverty of the people, the physical illness his friend experiences when they see the contents of the soup they have just eaten, the flowering bush planted in the filthy yard as an element of order and beauty and the shawls of the women give Parris the juxtaposed elements of the "terrible" and the "terrifying" with the grotesque and the beautiful. "For with this desire of physical beauty mingleth itself early the fear of death--the fear of death intensified by the desire for beauty." This is a statement by Walter Pater which we might use to examine Parris' experience. But that would involve trying to bring into the discussion an approach that belongs more appropriately, as Bill Beckley words it, to "the magical time of deep late romanticism." (xv) Dave Hickey takes another approach to similar material in his four essays in The Invisible Dragon. Not beauty and death but pleasure and pain are the terms Hickey uses to explore a theory of beauty. For we are very aware that we are after romanticism and after Freud. Hickey is making use of the 1967 essay by Gilles Deleuze called "Coldness and Cruelty."
Deleuze, in Hickey's account, unpacks "the portmanteau concept of sadomasochism" in order to distinguish two distinct kinds of narratives insofar as all narratives can be read as variants of stories about pleasure and pain. The writers who gave their names to the word are thus distinguished rather than merged: Sade's tales and that of Masoch. With the distinction made we can more clearly see that "Similar narratives do not necessarily tell similar stories, nor versions of the same story. In narratives of desire [is every traveler's tale a narrative of desire?], it matters whose story it is, who writes the script and who describes the scene--who determines whose fate and who controls the outcome." (Hickey 61-62)
Deleuze neatly separates the two kinds of narrative. "Masoch tells the victim's story and only his. In Masoch, it is the victim who recruits the cast, describes the scene, and scripts the action." And "derives from it a yield of pleasure." The stories of Sade work entirely differently. "Sade, on the other hand, tells the master's story, always, and his script is presumed to have the philosophical force of reason, the authority of nature." The distinction separates the two visions at every point. "The sadist has no insight into masochism, nor any need of a masochist." He requires an unwilling partner whom he can "instruct." "Likewise, the masochist has not need, nor any understanding of the sadist. He requires a willing partner whom he can "educate." Sadism is about the autonomous act and narrates actions. "Masochism is about theatrical suspense. . . . 'freezes the scene.'" (62)
The distinction works at all levels.
Sadism is about nature and power. Masochism is about culture and, ironically, the law. Finally, sadism deals with the imposition of "formal values" and the cruel affirmations of "natural law," and masochism focuses on deferred sublimity and the vertiginous rhetoric of trust. As a consequence, Deleuze notes, "the sadist is in need of institutions," and "the masochist of contractual relations." (62)
Now it is with masochism as a style of narrative that Hickey draws analogy with the experience of beauty.
The rhetoric of beauty tells the story of the beholder who, like Masoch's victim, contracts his own submission--having established, by free consent, a reciprocal, contractual alliance with the image. The signature of this contract, of course, is beauty. On the one hand, its rhetoric enfranchises the beholder; on the other hand, it seductively proposes a content that is, hopefully, outrageous and possible. In any case, this vertiginous bond of trust between the image and the beholder is private, voluntary, a little scary, and since the experience is not presumed to be an end in itself, it might, ultimately, have some consequence. (62-63)
In the case of the feathered skull I think this description fits Parris' experience perfectly. When he raises the cultural questions of whether so old an artifact and one so distant from his cultural identity can be considered beautiful, Parris is in effect asking himself if he is freely willing to submit to its beauty, if he will consent to the "vertiginous bond of trust" with the skull. And when he has the experience in the lunch stop on the way to La Paz, while there is no one art object like a decorated skull, there is a whole scene and drama, from the young girl singing to the women draped in filthy silk shawls, which Parris, as victim, has in some sense recruited, cast and scripted. He finds the blooming bush of red flowers as the objective element in the scene which sums up the power and seductive appeal of the sequence as epiphany of the beautiful.
The way Hickey concludes his argument by analogy from Deleuze's distinctions is to celebrate the fact that the experience of beauty is always outside of institutional authority, a point which travel writers might find generally to be true as well. Parris writes in his book not in his professional capacities but as a traveler away from all the structures and codes which operate back home in England. Hence he is free to some extent, to a large extent, of the hierarchical powers which govern his world. True he is under the structures of where he is traveling, not as a participant in those social forms but as the outsider. In this sense the traveler is free to experience beauty across boundaries as we have seen Parris does. Hickey's celebration of this applies well to Parris' experience: "Nothing redeems but beauty, its generous permission, its gorgeous celebration of all that has previously been uncelebrated." This brings us to the threshold of a more spiritual idea of beauty by taking it as far away from institutional authorities as possible, as far away from social constructions as possible. Hickey closes his argument by citing George Bernard Shaw on this conflict. "As Shaw pointed out, institutions collapse from lack of funding, they do not die from lack of meaning. We die from lack of meaning." (63-64)
Hickey's argument takes us as far as possible to the edge of the psychological categories implicit in Deleuze's starting point as well. If Deleuze generated a good deal of insightful thought by separating sadism and masochism after it had been linked for a good while, Hickey takes Deleuze's argument and pushes it through analogy toward a celebration of the experience of beauty as something above and beyond social controls on meaning. This seems to be the way Parris tries to frame his account of his experiences. And with the images and the spirit in which he describes the women and their shawls, the red flame of the flowering bush and the points of color amid the ashes and mud of the hut and yard we can see that by the same token of reaching limits Parris shows us that to talk of the beauty the traveler beholds is to reach the boundary past which we need to begin talking about the spiritual nature of travel.
John O'Donohoe, an Irish poet and writer on spirituality notes that beauty, as Ezra Pound talks about it, "likes to keep away from the public glare. It likes to find a neglected or abandoned place, for it knows that it is only here it will meet the kind of light that repeats its shape, dignity and nature. (O'Donohoe, 104) This certainly applies to Parris' experience and to the traveler's compulsion to wander to the forgotten places. O'Donohoe also cites Meister Eckhart's teaching "If you work with a creative and kind eye, you will bring forth beauty." (158) O'Donohoe tells a Zen parable which illustrates this in nearly the same terms. The emperor's most beautiful vase has been broken. None of the artists can repair it. Finally they take it to an old Zen monk who has a young apprentice. The monk works on the fragments for weeks and finally assembles the vase. They take it back to the Emperor's court. It is greatly admired and the monk is richly rewarded. Back home in the cave some weeks later, the young apprentice is shocked to find some fragments of the vase still in the workroom. He runs to the master: "'Look at all the fragments of the vase, you never assembled them all. How did you make a vase as beautiful as the ancient one that was broken?' The old master said, 'If you do the work that you do from a loving heart, then you will always be able to make something beautiful.'" (160) Matthew Parris' experience in Bolivia demonstrates how his experience taught him this truth about the spirituality of beauty on the journey.
Beckley, Bill, ed. Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, New York: Allworth Press, 1998.
Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993.
Miller, David. Selected Poems, Exeter, UK: Stride, 1997.
O'Donohoe, John. Anam Cara, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Parris, Matthew. Inca-Kola: A Traveller's Tale of Peru, London: 1990.
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