Wanderlust, distraction, quiet

I’m reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines now. I’ll spare you the several things that give me pause about his whole enterprise, but this is a passage worth reading, and I think it holds up well even without context.

 

“I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.

Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.

Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?

Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.

One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was distraction (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.

Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?

All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.

My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us – from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe – for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.”

-Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, 1987, p. 161-2.

I started doing zazen the final semester of my senior year in college. It was a pretty rough patch in my life, and it helped me get past the general the noise in my head around the terror-of-the-future. (Aside: I think my life would have been a whole lot better if I’d have kept up with it.)

I came to a lot of the same conclusions that Chatwin attributes to Pascal above, about our inability to sit quietly in a room (in fact, maybe I somehow encountered that quote along the line, because those were exactly the words I used in my own head about the subject).  And it led me to the belief that I had to at least temporarily separate myself from the people around me who not only had more trouble sitting quietly alone than I did but who were hell bent on turning up the volume knobs.

There’s something to the idea of doing journeys on foot that I find appealing too, which is something to take up later.

3 thoughts on “Wanderlust, distraction, quiet”

  1. Sounds like a load of old cobblers to me. Or more accurately, it may be true for some but not for all. Here it is the New Year, and I’m sitting in a house that’s been mine since I was 22 when my mother died (and I’m now 56), and that contains many of the things that were in the houses I grew up in. I’ve been a few places, but I have no desire to wander; I live most of the time in a New York City apartment that I only intend to leave feet-first. Here’s the lyrics of Stan Roger’s song “Lock-Keeper”:

    You say, “Well-met again, Lock-keeper!
    We’re laden even deeper that the time before,
    Oriental oils and tea brought down from Singapore. ”
    As we wait for my lock to cycle
    I say, “My wife has given me a son.”
    “A son!” you cry, “Is that all that you’ve done?”

    She wears bougainvilla blossoms.
    You pluck ‘em from her hair and toss ‘em in the tide,
    Sweep her in your arms and carry her inside.
    Her sighs catch on your shoulder;
    Her moonlit eyes grow bold and wiser through her tears
    And I say, “How could you stand to leave her for a year?”

    “Then come with me” you say, “to where the Southern Cross
    Rides high upon your shoulder. ”
    “Come with me!” you cry,
    “Each day you tend this lock, you’re one day older,
    While your blood runs colder. ”

    But that anchor chain’s a fetter
    And with it you are tethered to the foam,
    And I wouldn’t trade your life for one hour of home.

    Sure I’m stuck here on the Seaway
    While you compensate for leeway through the Trades;
    And you shoot the stars to see the miles you’ve made.
    And you laugh at hearts you’ve riven,
    But which of these has given us more love of life,
    You, your tropic maids, or me, my wife.

    “Then come with me” you say, “to where the Southern Cross
    Rides high upon your shoulder. ”
    “Ah come with me!” you cry,
    “Each day you tend this lock, you’re one day older,
    While your blood runs colder. ”

    But that anchor chain’s a fetter
    And with it you are tethered to the foam,
    And I wouldn’t trade your life for one hour of home.

    Ah your anchor chain’s a fetter
    And with it you are tethered to the foam,
    And I wouldn’t trade your whole life for just one hour of home

  2. John, that’s wonderful, and it’s given me a bit to think about.

    I think the ‘lust’ part of ‘wanderlust’ captures that idea a little too: it’s desire, a temporary state, and, like any kind of desire, chasing and fulfilling it can be an endless treadmill.

    … processing …

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