'The God of Walkers'

Bruce Chatwin & the Theology of Travel
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In one of many meditations on wandering in Bruce Chatwin’s 1986 novel-cum-travelogue The Songlines, the travel writer challenges the notion that real asceticism can be found only in monastic life. “The founders of monastic rule,” he argues, “were forever devising techniques for quelling wanderlust in their novices. ‘A monk out of his cell,’ said St. Anthony, ‘is like a fish out of water.’ Yet Christ and the Apostles walked their journeys through the hills of Palestine.” For Chatwin, traveling is not merely a spiritual act—it is the self’s purest expression.

Of course, Chatwin (1940–1989)—one of the twentieth century’s most noted fabulists—hardly seems a likely transmitter of spiritual truth. Chatwin’s travel writing, which includes such classics as In Patagonia (1977), includes less reportage than fiction: to “do a Bruce,” according to Chatwin’s early employer Sotheby’s, was to spin a fanciful yarn. Chatwin himself gleefully recalled “counting up the lies” in one of his travelogues. Chatwin’s approach to travel writing was to consider the worlds he traveled—the Australian Outback, the wilds of South America—as raw material: a canvas on which to paint the story of himself.

Yet, scattered through the bagatelles and tall tales that characterize Chatwin’s work one finds moments of profound, even aching spirituality. He casts travel not merely as an act of self-invention, but as an act of sacrifice, of “sloughing-off” the world and discovering the self anew. For most of his career, however, Chatwin could hardly be considered a Christian writer. After a brief and perfunctory flirtation with Catholicism (his wife Elizabeth was Catholic), Chatwin seems to have settled into a comfortable agnosticism. In his notebooks, he describes his life as “a search for the miraculous [in which] at the first faint flavor of the uncanny, I turn rational and scientific.” Still, Chatwin’s obsession with travel—with the twinned ideas of wanderlust and rootlessness—becomes a kind of theology of its own. Organized religion was useful only for those lethargic or unadventurous enough to remain in one place: “My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.”

Traveling, for Chatwin, is the purest possible spiritual act. In his notebooks, Chatwin himself characterizes his lifelong search for the world’s nomads—the ultimate wanderers—as a “search for God.” Chatwin’s own “search” ended at the foot of the Cross. Late in life, Chatwin visited the Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos in Greece, where he apparently underwent a spiritual transformation. He describes the experience in his Notebooks with uncharacteristic brevity and simplicity: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. There must be a God.”

Nicholas Shakespeare, Chatwin’s biographer, deems that a watershed moment that prompted a quiet, virtually private spiritual journey toward Orthodox Christianity—cut short by his untimely death from AIDS. (Chatwin’s friend, then-Bishop Kallistos Ware, recalls Chatwin’s desire to return to Mount Athos for formal baptism.) Perhaps it is too neat to read Chatwin’s theories of the spiritual qualities of wandering as a direct precursor to his final, unfinished voyage into the Orthodox Church. Yet such moments of spiritual clarity in Chatwin’s thought—in perpetual tension with Chatwin’s tendency to embellish and even lie about his travels—challenge us to explore what it means to travel theologically.

 

WHEN WE TRAVEL, are we simply looking for an escape from the routines of work and social life? Or does the act of leaving home behind fulfill a deeper spiritual need? Of course, the idea of travel is inextricable from the language and practice of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Old Testament is dotted with wanderers and wayfarers—from Cain to Abraham; so too the New Testament, with the evangelical peregrinations of Christ and his apostles. (Indeed, Chatwin refers to the Old Testament God as a “God of the Way,” linking Yahweh’s preference for Abel over Cain to the former’s nomadic life as a shepherd.) Those who travel may do so to expiate their sins—as Cain does, as do, on a broader scale, the Israelites in exile. At other times, those who wander do so to evangelize, to seek spiritual comfort, to mark the assumption of a new life governed by different rules (think of Christ’s disciples). Travelers suspend their memberships in a given community, a given social order; they occupy a far more liminal space.

Chatwin frames his own understanding of travel within this context—The Songlines teems with references to biblical vagabonds and medieval pilgrims alike. Yet Chatwin’s interest is broader still. His “search for nomads” leads him far beyond the Christian tradition, from the reaches of the Australian Outback to the depths of Patagonia. In the nomads Chatwin studies he finds a cultural analogue to his own vocation as a traveler, “restless after a month in a single place, unbearable after two?” Travelers, nomads, those who wander—all such people, Chatwin argues, represent humanity in its most perfect state: a kind of moveable Eden. As Fr. Flynn puts it in The Songlines, “The church...was wrong to picture Aboriginals as being stranded in some dreadful limbo; their condition, rather, resembled that of Adam before the Fall.”

Chatwin roots his argument in the inherent fallenness of the settled state. To be settled, he claims, is to have succumbed to the lure of material and physical comfort. Like a collector, the settled person is “protected by a stuffing of possessions from those [they] would like to love, possessed of the tenderest emotions for things and glacial emotions for people.” The world of the settled self is not the end of exile—an earthly realization of the “promised land”—but rather a denial of spiritual reality. A “wayfaring stranger,” as the American folk hymn puts it, lives in the material world, but is not of it.

The “wanderer in [our] soul” is the part of us that “linger[s] over such words as ‘Xanadu’ or ‘Samarkand’ or ‘the wine-dark sea,’” Chatwin writes in The Songlines. That impulse is not a sign of neurosis, but rather evidence of our calling to something more. It is evidence of the fundamental insufficiency of the settled, worldly state. As Chatwin writes in his essay “It’s a Nomad, Nomad World,” it is “hardly surprising, then, that a generation cushioned from the cold by central heat, carted in aseptic transports from one identical house or hotel to another, should feel the need for journeys of mind or body, for pep pills or tranquilisers, or for the cathartic journeys of sex, music, and dance.”

Like the Christian ascetics of old, Chatwin’s imagined nomad “whittle[s] down” his property” in order to travel easily on the road, freeing himself from the psychic obligations of material excess. As Fr. Terrence says in The Songlines, “Today...men had to live without things. Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves onto the soul, and telling the soul what to do.” To exist in motion, by contrast, is to be freed from the stagnancy of easy comfort, “to feel the needs and hitches of life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot, and strewn with cutting flints,’’ as Robert Louis Stevenson put it in Travels with a Donkey.

Yet to “come down off this feather bed” requires renunciation not merely of the material but also of the social. To leave home is to leave behind external markers of identity: one’s position or social routine. In this sense, Chatwin suggests, traveling is essentially an act of pilgrimage. In The Songlines, he examines the Islamic tradition of the Hadj in light of traditional Aboriginal migration patterns: “The Hadj...was itself a ‘ritual’ migration: to detach men from their sinful homes and reinstate, if temporarily, the equality of all men before God.”

Chatwin challenges his audience to examine how the act of travel “detaches” them—presumably settled readers—from their home communities. We are who we are partly because of the familial and social order that surrounds us. On the road, we are forced to detach ourselves from familiar assumptions about who we are and where we are going.

The liberation theologian Joerg Rieger explores that sort of detachment in his book Traveling. He considers the act of travel to be a necessary theological corrective to the “parochialism” of a faith tradition rooted in our home churches. “Often, communities of faith respond directly to the interests of their geographical locations with little awareness of this fact and with little awareness of how parochial many of these interests are in a society where neighborhoods are structured according to racial identities and class status,” Rieger writes. We conceive of a God that looks like us, like the people around us. Our theology is, consciously or unconsciously, anchored in the racial, economic, and cultural makeup of our own “settlements.” To travel is to enter a liminal space—what Rieger calls “the margins”—where we are no longer bounded by borders. “For those who exchange their privileges for being on the road, narcissism is no longer an option, whether it is the narcissism of the individual, the family, the church, the nation, or of those who benefit from the global economy while billions suffer,” according to Rieger.

Yet Rieger does not restrict the “exchanging of privileges” to long-term travelers, those who spend years or even decades on the road. All travel, he hints, offers the traveler the opportunity to disengage from the stagnancy of the everyday. “The power of the act of quitting should not be underestimated. Even those who merely travel in order to escape from the everyday can learn to identify with the disruptive qualities of travel, as what is disrupted are precisely the structures of dominant power.”

In taking such an approach, Rieger provides us with a potential response to what is arguably the most problematic element in Chatwin’s thought: his obsession with wandering is virtually without content. The place to which the wanderer wanders is largely immaterial. Such a view, at times, privileges the perspective of the traveler over and against the experiences of the people in the lands he visits. For Chatwin, the great fabulist, so prone to “doing a Bruce,” those who inhabit the lands he travels are all too often objects, rather than subjects in their own right. They exist only to be altered, re-imagined, subsumed into Chatwin’s overarching self-narrative. The Aboriginals of the Australian outback and the gauchos of Patagonia risk becoming mere Chatwins-by-proxy. They don’t tell their own stories. He has them tell his. Even in conversation with friends, he had trouble letting them get a word in edgewise. In his remembrance “Chatwin Revisited,” Paul Theroux recalls that “if you told him something, he would quickly tell you he knew it already, and he would go on talking.” The worst thing about “monologuers,” according to Theroux, “is their utter lack of interest in whomever they happen to be drilling into.” And yet “he was such a good talker that you didn’t care that he alone bounced the conversational ball.”

Chatwin, for all his passion for nomadism, was hardly the kind of ascetic he admires. He was, after all, an inveterate art collector and chronic overspender. At times, Chatwin’s unexamined privilege—as an upper-middle-class white male adventuring among the poor—make him an unsympathetic narrator. He could also be an unsympathetic interlocutor. Any authentic theology of travel, Rieger suggests, must rest not only on the self’s experience of leaving home, but also on the content of such experiences. For travel has the potential to bring the self into authentic contact with the unknown, the other. The true traveler does not only “disengage” from the status quo, but also engages with the worlds he explores. He meets shopkeepers in Istanbul, shepherds in Kosovo, locals and other travelers alike. He learns new idioms, new ways of self-expression, new truths. That is integral to developing and deepening authentic religious experience, according to Rieger. It is only when we are challenged to endure what Rieger calls the “shock of difference” that we, in turn, learn to recognize the presence of God in the world, in “other places and community.” That is how we learn to dismantle the conceptions of a God we have created in our own image, and come to recognize God in the image of others.

 

OF COURSE, THIS KIND of authentic “theological” mode of travel has little in common with the all-inclusive Mediterranean cruises and five-star getaways that line the pages of travel magazines. Neither Chatwin nor Rieger would suggest that the kind of insularity provided by luxurious resorts—so many of them in poor countries—offers much spiritual fulfillment. Indeed, such “luxuries” do quite the opposite, promoting a corporate vision of comfort in which the same few amenities are presented in uniform ways, in environments where “it is not even necessary to know a few words of another language,” as Rieger puts it.

To travel authentically—to leave behind the comforts of home, to embrace our own vulnerability as strangers abroad—such an act is more than a modern-day pilgrimage. It is an opportunity to look beyond one’s local church-community, to come to terms with a truly catholic theology in which various perspectives provides us with a glimpse of the God that transcends them all.

Yet in Chatwin’s wanderlust—and our own—it's worth analyzing the very root of our longing. The writer and theologian C. S. Lewis, after all, spent his adolescence in thrall to the idea of “Northernness”: a passion for Norse myths and images that came to shape his Narnia books—a longing Lewis came to identity with the concept of Sehnsucht: a longing for what has never been, or can never be, in this world. In a 1959 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, Lewis characterizes his longing as a theological one, a desire to return home to the country of God: “It is just when there seems to be most of Heaven already here that I come nearest to longing for a patria. It is the bright frontispiece which whets one to read the story itself. All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”

At the close of The Last Battle, the final Narnia book, Lewis’s characters do precisely that: discovering that the long dreamed-of country of Narnia is itself just a proxy for “Aslan’s own country,” moving “further up and further in” toward an ideal that even Narnia, with its fully-realized Northerness, could not match: a final home, which is the end of all our wanderings, in the kingdom of God.

Published in the February 12, 2016 issue: 

Tara Isabella Burton is a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, where she is working on a doctorate in theology and literature. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, National Geographic, the Atlantic, and elsewhere.

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