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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, January 17, 2005
    On noticing what we have already seen
     
    I was at one of those church do's the other night where a group of genuinely concerned middle-class folk listen intently to a person from the two-thirds world describing their life / work / situation. Listening with goodwill and grace but also with what can seem like an unwitting touch of condescension. In this case it was a teacher of mentally-handicapped children at a school in Tirunelveli, South India. She and her colleagues do fantastic work, though hopelessly understaffed and underfunded. And with such dedication and grace.

    Listening to her around the room, those who 'know' South India (they've been there on tour) nodded in faux-recognition at observations she made. Not me, though. And so over Bombay Mix and a cuppa Indian afterwards I felt I had to admit to one much-travelled colleague that I'd hardly been anywhere at all, outside of these isles. He looked aghast. I said, "But I've travelled a lot in my head." It didn't seem to convince him. But I'm comfortable with that.

    And, having reached the end of The Art of Travel I'm comforted by Alain de Botton's closing chapter describing Xavier de Maistre who - in the eighteenth-century age of exploration, when people were pumping out worthy tomes such as such as Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent - famously wrote Journey around my Bedroom, a work every bit as thorough and descriptive as his much-travelled contemporaries. And far easier to accomplish, requiring only a pair of pink and blue cotton pyjamas for the journey.

    De Maistre was challenging the common distinction people draw between a 'boring daily life' and a 'marvellous world' outside. Trying to show that there are marvels in the mundane, if we look closely enough for them. Later Nietzsche drew on this idea to say,

    When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences - their insignificant, everyday experiences - so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others - and how many there are! - are driven through surging waves of destiny the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much.

    And de Botton's conclusion follows through:

    We meet people who have crossed deserts, floated on ice-caps and cut their way through jungles - and yet in whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed. Dressed in pink and blue pyjamas, satisfied by the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.

    There's plenty more on that, from all sorts of angles, in de Botton's excellent book. Plenty to encourage me to keep on happily travelling in my head, if not (as I don't wear any) my pyjamas.