The genesis of a diary. I did not even look for being a foreigner. The travel as coincidence. No need to repeat that I was not feeling ‘good in my own skin’, as the French formula says. A preposterous taste for Black American culture. And especially its music, equally inaudible to both my parents and my friends. “Don’t hesitate! Go!” The moment of salvation from a copy editor hardly known to me, one freezing day of Parisian October 2006. Ten months later and I stepped into the land of dusty cowboys, of the capitalist Big Mac, of spectacular modern hedonism.
“So here we are in Egypt, ‘land of the Pharaohs, land of the Ptolemies
land of Cleopatra’ (as sublime stylists put it)” 1
No doubt that a nomad curiosity and questionable social skills had already led me to believe that, perhaps, writing could be, for me too, my own terrain of success. The one activity that would survive the simultaneous test of time and threat of boredom. But until then, my literary climax culminated in long pessimistic e-tirades with a benevolent teacher, and failed attempts to solve eternal philosophical riddles (‘Can we trust reason?’, ‘Why should we live?’, ‘Is there anything behind suffering?’) (under 400 words). My out-of-fashion PC was chuckling. But then, suddenly, as a foreigner, I had a subject to address, and undeservedly, an expert status. Being abroad was the long-awaited experience that gave my writing a raison d’être. I just had to be attentive, to observe, and to transcribe it for my co-nationals. The world and its linguistic translation. Straightforward.
I started modestly. A few brief notes, daily, to remember what to mention in my (artistically suspect) weekly blog article. I had become – my sister loved the pun – The Uncle Sam. Writing to remember. That was my beginning. The real writer goes even further: his entire life choices are directed towards reminiscence. Flaubert, roaming around the brothels of Kena:
“I walked through those streets and walked through them again, giving baksheesh to all the women, letting them call me and catch hold of me; they took me around the waist and tried to pull me into their houses—think of all that, with the sun blazing down on it. Well, I abstained. … I abstained deliberately, in order to preserve the sweet sadness of the scene and engrave it deeply in my memory.” 2
On my side, there was no need to explore the red lights of Kirksville, Missouri, to start my free fall in memory-mania. The daily scribbling soon lost its initial humility to become full-fledged paragraphs, and then, greedy pages. Mid 2013, nearly two thousand days later, and certainly more pages even. Tirelessly, every morning, once out of bed, I write. Others start smoothly, with a shower, a glass of milk. My little addiction does not take it so lightly. Not-forgetting-in-order-to-retell had become systematically-writing-whatever-I-do. The genesis of an obsession.
“We spend the afternoon stretched out on the bow of the boat,
on Raïs Ibrahim’s mat, talking
—and not without a certain sadness and bitterness—
about that old topic:
literature—sweet and never-ending obsession!” 3
But what happens when the travel has no expiry date, when the backpacker becomes a full-frame foreigner? The writing reverie is not anymore a parenthesis within a settled and expectable domestic survival. It is the permanent state of one’s reinvented existence.
The question of writing as an obsession is in fact at the heart of any travel. In an era where worldwide wifi and cheap machines have stuck their tongues at exhausted handwritings, too few travelers manage to resist the temptation of fantasizing themselves as writers. Or even better: as novelists or poets. Do we travel and write or travel to write? Far stretched pseudo-ethnographic descriptions and endless photo albums would make their denial doubtful. But what happens when the travel has no expiry date, when the backpacker becomes a full-frame foreigner? The writing reverie is not anymore a parenthesis within a settled and expectable domestic survival. It is the permanent state of one’s reinvented existence.
Why don’t we stop to write? Perhaps because we may well risk to have no other choice but to surrender to the moment. Perhaps we write because simply living life is not enough. Between domesticity and anonymity resides writing. It is the comfortable middle way that avoids the weight of the actual presence of the friend, the relative, the colleague, while providing an illusion of presence, as well as an ego reassurance: “I am having a worthwhile life.” Worthwhile enough to be told. Endlessly hoping to arouse the (rare) reader’s enjoyment, only stimulation for those who have lost their newcomer’s eye: [Flaubert, to his mother] “And I often think of the Others, too, my darling! I cannot admire in silence. I need to shout, to gesticulate, to expand; I have to bellow, smash chairs—in other words I want others to share in my pleasures.” 4 The writer, especially that of the traveler race, cannot complain more. The most exotic of sceneries and encounters are around him, and yet this is still not enough for him. Travelling has failed in setting his encounter with the real, the ultimate alterity. Tragically, the traveler continues to be himself, even in the most faraway lands. One solution would remain: giving up writing… but he resists. Writing is his excuse for not facing, alone, naked, the simplicity and the pleasures of the world. ‘The moment’, his ultimate literary description, is precisely that which he cannot enjoy for what it is. A world must be disrupted by a word.
And then, the artistic aspirations. Once the initial reports of modern-days Claude Lévi-Strauss exhausted, the writer looks for more. To fuel the writing machine, he must aim at the higher league; he must attempt the big literary leap. Building a distinctive, pleasant and profound style to establish one’s aesthetic touch. The content is there, all around, ready to be picked and reused. The missing link is the style. But after all, both are one and the same. Mens sana in corpore sano. Perhaps the content seems redundant and lifeless because its expression lacks elegance. Therefore the verdict is clear: “I do not know what to write anymore. Or rather: what I write does not satisfy me anymore.” 5 Even a slowly meliorating style is sadly vulnerable when it comes to putting down to words the uninterrupted everything that constituted the foreigner’s recent past:
“One has to live such an experience, in its length, the length of tens of hours spent in the streets, at the rate of a few minutes every day, the hundreds of empty discussions with nearly every face in the neighborhood, of rarely verbalized tensions with the neighbors, or the expressions of local joy, generally misunderstood… and then, proofreading a draft and finding that one’s prose is so away from reality.” 6
Or, more creatively, half a year later:
“After the radio silence, I discover the telegraphic message:
not enough free time / even less inspiration / India is at times hard to bear / often hard to understand / so to recount it, let’s not talk about it / my wisdom struggles to catch up with the pace of adventures” 7
It is not only a matter of personal inspiration. Language itself is brought to its limits when experience becomes more profound. Flaubert, near Thebes:
“Behind Luxor, towards Karnak, the great plain looks like an ocean; the Maison de France is dazzlingly white in the moonlight, as are our Nubian shirts; the air is warm, the sky streams with stars; tonight they take the form of semi-circles, like half-necklaces of diamonds with here and there a few stones missing. What wretched poverty of language! To compare stars to diamond!” 8
A weakened imagination, a muzzling language… one escape enters: procrastination. And it never lacks justifications. Flaubert had recourse to this strategy:
“You can see that there is much to enjoy in all this, and plenty of opportunity to utter stupidities about it—something which we abstain from as much as possible. If we were to publish anything it would be on our return. But between now and then, let nothing transpire.” 9
Instead of simply declaring an armistice, the writer calls for a truce. His half-failure could open him to unsuspected new horizons. He could try to live for the sake of life alone; to experiment without taking notes, without reporting, without retelling. But between him and writing, it is an old story. The paradox of the unsatisfied writer: just like the accustomed lover, he is unable to realize that the rupture can also lead to finding better, fuller ways of existence. Writing is the writer’s old lover.
When delaying does not suffice, when the slowness of the world calls for the eventful inner life of the written, Flaubert and I resort to another tactic: auto-derision. Flaubert, to his mother:
“I enjoy life; line follows line. And when I have no more to say I read it over, as a sort of farewell, and whisper to it in my thoughts: ‘Go quickly! Kiss her for me!’ Lines of handwriting kissing! Am I not silly? Let’s not overdo it!” 10
The writer never writes to himself; he imagines, and hopes, that there will, ultimately, be a reader. And a proper audience, beyond and after the single recipient of a letter.
What is humor bringing to Flaubert’s writing? He could have erased this instance of silliness if he really found it shameful. Or perhaps we are here in front of the uncensored creative flow of a writer, more at home in the legendary ‘travel notes’ and other ‘epistolary archives’ than anywhere else… The writer never writes to himself; he imagines, and hopes, that there will, ultimately, be a reader. And a proper audience, beyond and after the single recipient of a letter. Perhaps the writer resorts to humor as a safety net, to gain the sympathy of the reader, even and especially when his talent, inevitably, softens. Acknowledging his prosaic banality, he tries, perhaps in last resort, to – at least! – initiate a smile on his reader’s face.
Writing as obsession, writing as style, writing as limitation, writing as humor, and finally, last trope, writing as trauma. A break between two writing sessions, the writer skims through old manuscripts and realizes:
Three years of printed diaries on my desk
Possibly the most depressing reading
I have managed to make of myself a nostalgic man.
Writing as attachment. As reinforcing the sweet fantasy of “knowing” that one’s life was meant to be tragic. Nostalgia was one of the few flaws for which I could proudly claim a virgin past. Leaving Delhi triumphant like an Olympic champion, highly charming (!) and with an auspiciously tight academic summer, I was not short of optimism: “All this sounds so true, all of this pleases me so much. Until today, I always preferred my present to my past. So here is my last lesson, for the remaining of my Indian stay and for the rest of my life: trying to continue on the same path.” 11 Not only did writing refrain me from living the instant, it would now properly create more suffering. Ten months later, my odds have finally become more reasonable. Reading the hefty tomes of Sam’s Story is always a flagellating temptation, to remember what my life used to be, and what it was supposed to become. Still consuming the addictive torture of my past through intravenous, it must be that the pain is not enough, because half a dozen .doc files are still waiting for my insignificant notes, and even today, I am incapable of stopping all the scrawling.
Image courtesy: SB
|Two Frenchmen in the Orient
|EXPLORE THE SERIES
|Two Frenchmen in the Orient
|The Writing Traveler
|Imagining the Locals
|On the Aesthetics of Despair
- Gustave Flaubert and Francis Steegmuller, Flaubert in Egypt: a sensibility on tour: a narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s travel notes & letters (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 79.
- Ibid., 128-129.
- Ibid., 144.
- Ibid., 176.
- Samuel Buchoul, “La Leçon, part. 2,” Indianasam (blog), November 25, 2011, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2011/11/25/la-lecon-part-2/.
- Samuel Buchoul, “Les indiens parlent aux français,” Indianasam (blog), March 3, 2012, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2012/03/27/les-indiens-parlent-aux-francais/.
- Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 164.
- Ibid., 81.
- Ibid., 176.
- Samuel Buchoul, “3 Years,” Indianasam (blog), June 27, 2012, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2012/06/27/3-years/.