Words and Worlds (of Travel)


The following is an excerpt from a future book by Jafe Arnold. 


“Travel.” What a peculiar word.

The verb “to travel”, nowadays so often and so widely associated with pleasure and leisure, is owed by the English language to the old French travailler, i.e., “to work hard”, “to toil”, derived from the even older traveillier, “to torment”, “to inflict suffering.” In its original, vulgar Latin borrowing, such referred quite literally to the act of (and even a specific device for) torturing. The Latin-cum-French meaning of such “travelling” has survived in English in the cognate “travail.” Less than a thousand years ago, this Latinate term replaced the typically Germanic Old English faran, “to go”, from which modern English speakers have been left with “fare”, in the sense of a fee paid for going somewhere, or “to fare”, i.e. to end up in particular (good or bad) circumstances, as when one bids another off on their travels – or travails – with the parting exclamation “farewell!”

One might dare to intuit a glimpse of the atmosphere of that world in which faran was replaced by such “travelling” in the vocabulary of that island whose future language would overwhelm unprecedented swathes of the globe. In the medieval Western European world, if one could or should leave their land at all, traveling could be anything but a peaceful, leisureful luxury. Passing through woods was no mere trail hiking, but traversing a realm in which one could be beset by robbers, demons, the ghosts of lore, or the terrifying sound of the clanking metal of enclosing foreign troops. At the same time, in much of that Europe, in the religious consciousness of many who traveled, the world of nature and paths was no longer living, teeming with Gods and Goddesses, spirits and mythical creatures, and sundry elements of the sacred, pulsing cosmos as it had been lived before in antiquity, but was now a dark, harsh, profane Earth upon which one could only pray for salvation to a distant Father and Son. Transcontinental travels were undertaken for pilgrimages or wars for this God, and the lands in which one might arrive on such campaigns, or on trade or exploration routes, were likely to be utterly foreign and cruel. One might never return alive. At the same time, compared to still recent, not to mention ancient times, the world was still a map being created, albeit one increasingly closed between fiefdoms, borders, and settled peoples living by iron and plow. Any sense of “traveling” in the positive sense must have been associated with that genre of tales of heroic “quests”, the most purposeful “journeys”, or the most cathartic “wanderings”, the last of their kind before a fundamentally new era of traversing and “colonizing” the face of the Earth. “Travelers” in the modern sense would have by default been suspicious figures, whether spies, missionaries, conmen or madmen, each of whose actions or utterings could precipitate imprisonment, torturous interrogation, and death. In all such cases, “traveling” was, without a doubt, an endeavor the likes of which are unknown and even inconceivable to many who “travel” today.

Since the time the medieval English inherited such a painful word, traveling may very well seem to have become a much easier, more common, painless affair. For no small part of the world, traveling is no longer a deed of foot and fortune, of setting off on a journey whose path is never a certainty, but a more or less passive, straightforward “commute” by vehicle or vessel with evermore amenities, “offers”, and automation. Over the past half a century, “traveling” and “travelers” have even become intelligible vocabulary and familiar phenomena across virtually all continents. The half-asleep street vendor in a provincial Vietnamese town can sight and laboriously pronounce “travelers” with just as much semantic discernment as the scientists welcoming visitors to an outpost in Antarctica, the old waitress smiling at “passers-by” in the nostalgic diner of some Route 66 town, or the young sales agents at info-points and souvenir shops in the old quarters of countless European cities, and so on. Whenever, wherever, however, and in whatever capacity one “travels”, one seems to be awaited in advance by the categorization of that word whose transformation and whose connotations have become something given, something “universal.”

The world and word of traveling have indeed changed dramatically – one is tempted to say qualitatively – since the pronunciation of “travel.” Within only the last several decades, in the West “traveling” has become a globalized industry, market, fashion, and so-called “lifestyleism” which hordes of the financially equipped have turned into a lucrative “sub-culture” to the point that any talk of “travelers” and “travel” has acquired an inherent “commercial” and, in some places, even debaucherous, decadent connotation. Most iconically, in only a handful of years “backpacking” has gone from a form of traveling still requiring a degree of courageous undertaking, plunging into the unknown, and relying upon one’s own capacity of orientation, to become a multi-billion dollar industry with hostel, bar, and restaurant chains even in locations which still yesterday were considered inaccessible and inhospitable. In the new age of new (and so-called “social”) media, the whole range of travelings, from the packaged-touristic to the extreme-adventurous and even religio-spiritual, is no longer even restricted to those who at one point or another actually physically engage in such, but is a seemingly infinite visual stream accessible on any device at any time and anywhere. Travel accounts are no longer associated with the unique, transformative experiences of the few, with oral tales or prized manuscripts lost or preciously passed along centuries, with world-historic revelations of first conscious contacts between foreign humanities, of ambitious reconnaissance reports, or with the eternal literature of odysseys. Rather, travel is now available to all in a constant projection of individual video clips, smartphone selfies, blog blurbs, algorithmized advertisements, and links to “buy now.” It would be no exaggeration to say that traveling is now easier, more accessible, more infrastructured, more globally uniformed, and hence more “doable” and more facilitated than ever before. Nearly completely enframed by networks and resources conducive to traveling, the covered, entangled , suffocated face of Earth paradoxically appears to be evermore open and inviting. This “tied-together” world for traveling has also, let us note along the way, generated a veritable cognitive dissonance between the new generations of those who travel, those survivors who endeavored to travel under previous modes, and even more so the vast masses who have not traveled or are now under the impression that they have never traveled. To a definite extent, the new global “meaning” of “travel” and the designation of “travelers” has crowded out and seems to have forever left behind all previous travelings in the distant country of “history.” The old word for travelling seems to belong to a remote, alien world of a dark past whose mysteries and myths have long since been “enlightened”, “tamed”, and “shelved.” At times, one may come across remnants of old travelings on the bookshelves of hostels, on the televisions of hotels, in the historical blurbs of tourist brochures, or in anecdotes off the tongues of employed tour guides, but such appear as of no fundamental significance to the traveling and travelers of today, whose itineraries they litter as one among many light “curiosities” on the side.

History, however, contrary to that which is taught and thought in the countries which often emit such modern “travelers”, is much longer, much wider, and much deeper than the medieval and modern Western worlds attached to these words. And this is to say nothing of everything before and beyond history. In fact, if these two associations of traveling, that of an uncertain labor and a guaranteed pleasure, were all there is to the word, notion, and possible worlds of traveling, then there would be no world at all. Just as the human being is always in the world, so has traveling, in every possible sense of the word, always made the world. In the distant Paleolithic, in the depths of the Stone Age beyond which the human gaze can seemingly look no intelligibly further, our ancestors already sailed between and walked across continents – and to extents and in fashions which are only slowly dawning in their “complexity” on the positivist minds of many anthropologists and archaeologists (a very peculiar class of travelers in their own right). That the people of distant prehistory would have spread out across what to us seems to simply be the given world, but which to them was an entire open cosmos of worlds and species, in steady chains pursuing only material attractions – such a picture not only has nothing to do with the known practices of migration, but has nothing to do with “human nature” or the “human condition” which we owe to them. The people of prehistory, by all accounts, did not trail, but leapt first and forth in bounds along coasts, through forests and across and up mountains, between continents and deep into the bowels of endless caves where they decided to engage in art so stunning that Picasso allegedly exclaimed “In tens of thousands of years we have invented nothing!” What was travel to primordial man? We are all, if anything, the products of his travels. What was travel to the first boat-builders on ocean coasts, to the first tamers of horses amidst the endless horizons of the steppe, to the first inventors of the wheel, to the countless millennia and people before such who populated and traversed the face of the Earth on foot? Traveling is, without a doubt, rooted deep in the human unconscious, shaped as such was for the first time by those who traveled worlds for the first time, a travel and, without a doubt, in some senses travail aimed at that all too human goal of “beyond.”

The vast realms of prehistory, its formative motivations and experiences which saw humans constantly travel beyond the horizons, may remain a mystery, but the descendant ancient world whose languages we can still faintly make out was not silent on the heights and depths of traveling. On the contrary, traveling was a due purview of the ancient Gods and an endeavor of heroes and wisemen. Thankfully, the first great works of literature, the travels of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and the Argonauts, have not yet been cancelled from school curricula. But who remembers the mysterious travels of Aristeas or the legendary journeys of Perseus and Hercules? If the holy travels and travails of the Buddha and Jesus Christ are still relatively known of, then we have long forgotten to behold Apollo, the God who traveled like the Sun to the mystical land of Hyperborea at the Northern reaches of the world, or Hermes and Odin, Gods of travels associated with the highest wisdom, and countless other divinities in whom was manifest a dimension of traveling which has been largely forgotten, obscured, and even denied for centuries. In the ancient Hellenic homeland which gave birth to Philosophy as we have known it, “to theorize”, theorein, originally meant to travel to another city or country to witness its religious ceremonies, to experience its Gods and mysteries. We might also recall here the meditations on this term of the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who discerned in the etymology of theoria the components “thea”, i.e., the appearing presence in which something shows itself (cf. “theater”), and horao, meaning to look over something closely, attentively, intimately, whence the “theoretical life”, the bios theoretikos so valued by Aristotle, as “the way of life of the beholder, the one who looks upon the pure shining-forth of that which presences…the beholding that watches over truth.” Only upon accomplishing travels and such extensive theorizing could one aspire to become a respected philosopher, and it is often only those who traveled from whom we have written works – those which still inspire and are being deciphered today. Without a doubt, the ancient world, with its many more dimensions, beings, lands, and originary theories than the present, is the first place we have to look back to rediscover a special sense of traveling and what it might mean to engage in theorizing travel. In this world, home to so many more and different words and worlds of traveling, one finds traveling ubiquitously associated with the highest states of wisdom, vitality, and even immortality. On his deathbed, Socrates described the journey of the Soul in life and its travels after death and between incarnations as the ultimate, existential concern of philosophy, that is the love and pursuit of wisdom as such. For the ancestors of our whole present cycle of cultures and civilizations, travel was not a leisure, but a journey, an existential – whether “spiritual”, “intellectual”, or “soulful”, as you wish – culmination of seeing, thinking, and experiencing of a quality which the ancients knew as quintessentially suprahuman, divine, sacred, above, beyond and yet within all…

“Journey”, too, is owed by English to Old French and Latin, the former’s journée implying an activity the length of a day, specifically a day’s worth of travel / travail, and the Latin diurnus, “one day”, “day” being dies, referring to sunlight (which is, in fact, related to deus, “God”, literally “luminous one”). A journey, thus, is what one undertakes with daylight, in the visibility of sunlight, in the light and relative discernibility of illuminated clarity. The “diurnal journey”, forgive the etymological tautology, is a matter of waking, daytime consciousness. The French anthropologist Gilbert Durand conceptualized the “diurne” as one of three “regimes” or “modes” of the imagination, namely the one which underlies the vertical postural reflex, the mental operation of dividing and establishing distinctions, of setting boundaries and paths. The diurnal imagination of traveling is that which establishes and pursues a plan, an itinerary, heads towards a destination, and affirms a sense of accomplishment. This underlying reflex of “journey” and its relation to “traveling” might at first glance seem to be self-evident: to travel, to journey, means to go upright into a world in which one is ready to walk upwards, forward, and through, to discern, to distinguish, to pursue. The ultimate goal of a journey, a transformation, a distinction, is perhaps closest to ancient understandings and practices of travel as a commitment, an experience from and with which one “theoretically” returns. Certainly, most momentous journeys in one way or another come to be interpreted or spoken of as “spiritual” in the sense of existentially transformative, and pilgrimages belong to this category. On the one hand, this sense of “journey” already contradicts our contemporaries’ notion and practice of “travel” as leisure, as a pastime, as opposed to the diurnal “active-time”, the “breakthrough”, “verticalization”, the assertion of light, order, and goal instead of a passive tourism, a dependent traveling in the modern sense. On the other hand, while this diurnal capacity is undoubtedly one of the basic, essential modes of man, we must admit that journeying is not always a set advance, a successfully assertive dismemberment and arrangement of the self and reality. On the contrary, some of the most revelatory, transformative journeys are those which, instead of straight lines, proceed in circuitous wanderings, whether allowed for or entirely unplanned, left to the seeming “spontaneity” of perception, realization, and revelation. In this, let us remark in passing, might lie the value of the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin’s thesis that most of hitherto canonical Western Philosophy since its Platonic precedent, i.e. that which has led to and shaped (or perhaps more accurately, has been led to and shaped to be believed to have led to and shaped) the Modern world, is based on a particular overemphasis or over-interpretation – or perhaps misevaluation – of the diurnal mode, whereas in antiquity (and beyond) we find quite other forms of philosophy which are less strict, less rigid, less confined to order and the rules of “daytime”, strictly “conscious”, diaeretic logicism – modes which might correspond to Durand’s other regimes of the imagination. Philosophy involves journeying in many ways and realms. And one can hardly doubt that journeying is not absent in darker, less clear, more amorphous experiences, in dreams, visions, altered states of consciousness, and seemingly aimless wanderings.

“Wandering” is another link in the semantic circle revolving around traveling which demands our appreciation. In our English-language context, here we are on original Germanic ground. The ancestors of the ancient Germanic tribes who would make their way around Europe, overthrow the Roman Empire, take it over for themselves, and raid and explore the world from Vinland and the British Isles to the Italic peninsula, Rus and Byzantium, knew a word in the likes of *wandrōną, i.e. turning, winding, and weaving about, perhaps never with a goal but always with an effect. Let us recall the often-quoted assessment that it was the Germans who exhausted both Philosophy and Modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries, turning and winding the word-worlds of Logos, “Being”, and “Nothing” to unpredictably fateful ends with which each great German philosopher, from Hegel to Heidegger, proclaimed to have brought hitherto wandering to an impasse from which the real journey must now begin.

Of course, “wandering” also has negative connotations, in the senses of both the vagabond and the hedonist meandering without duty, commitment, or vision from place to place, experiencing life only as a passive field of pleasures to be taken whenever one is in the right place at the right time. Without a doubt, this wandering is familiar in the case of many modern “travelers.” On the other hand, given the right mind and perceptive capacity, one wonders if there is anything more truly “traveling” than wandering, i.e., allowing the path or journey to assume a subjectivity of its own in the face of which, as opposed to against or giving a face to which, one experiences travel and theory as something other than “normal”, everyday, waking, rationally-striving life. Is life itself not an unexpected wandering and open wondering which no one can plan in any way in advance? Any journey, any travel, any path, like any world, is only such insofar as it always poses in the very least the possibility of eluding its farer’s expectations, diurnal divisions, and “framing.” Being in the world is always, to a decisive extent, being within a wandering and wondering that are at once the “mystical” showing and “illuminated” seeing of the world. This, perhaps, is the greatest argument for the inauthenticity of the “traveling” of the Modern world, a world which we can only see as already framed, already strictly and only diurnal, already belabored and traveled, around which we only follow set, hollowed-out paths.

In traveling, journeying, and wandering, we are, first and foremost, seeing. And what we see in these words, like so many others, are the last, faint legacies of worlds and travels far remote from our own. As words, traveling, journeying, and wandering imply whole worlds in which their sayings acquire meaning, where their actions are not only possible but persistent and concern fundamental pursuits of Being which, always within a particular world, in fact create,  reveal, map, and arrange this world and its possible realms, dimensions, and experiences. In these words and worlds, we find ourselves confronted with a massive difference rising before us like a wall. On one side, we have the Modern world, the world of Modernity, in which traveling, journeying, and wandering are no longer “by default” authentic, existential modes whereby one can attain to the heights of worldview, the depths of apperception, and horizons as such. Nothing is conducive to such today. On the contrary, traveling is just another commodity, another packaged “deal”, another outlet for the exertion of simulacra. We hardly remember what it means to travel, for which we have to turn to the writings of previous eras with the hope of finding within ourselves the capacity to imitate such today – “imitate”, because long gone are the days of originary traveling. Those who remember and wish or those who more or less spontaneously, driven by some unnamable impulse to seek to travel today, are engaging in a labor of loss, waging an uphill exertion at the peak of which there is seemingly nothing left to see besides the next outpost of a McDonald’s or the same idle chatter of das Man in bars hardly differing from those back home. The most open and vertical of traveling intellects find the contemporary world so hardened so as to seem a long-since expired shell, while the ignorant yet horizontally aspiring can hardly encounter anymore those hierophanies which made travels, journeys, and wanderings the revelations they once were to distant ancestors who knew no such appellation as “travelers.” The Modern world of traveling, thus, is qualitatively, paradigmatically different from that on the other side of the wall, a side of which we can only catch glimpses from strained hoisting, try to remember from before our times and the wall’s, and occasionally step over in our imagination…

Those who would sense in the above diagnosis a sense of “pessimism” would not be mistaken. However, no testimony is ever written out of pessimism alone. More often than not, such pessimism is intended to highlight and reach out to touch, to intuit the very outermost boundaries of a present trajectory which has not yet been completely, irrevocably, absolutely reached, but is none other than such: a trajectory. Otherwise, one would be writing a vulgar “history.” The world has certainly hardened with us, we have certainly forgotten what traveling is and entails, and we are certainly less capable of and open to traveling than ever before – and this trend, this era, is the most certain travel ahead of us. When Francis Fukuyama declared the “End of History” in 1992, i.e., the end of a world of diverse systems, cultures, and ideologies, we heard the “End of Travel”…

And yet, as with the “End of History”, despite all the processes and efforts of the latter, of Modernity, the end has not yet arrived. Diverse cultures, languages, times, and spaces still remain by inertia. To an ever acceleratingly lesser extent, worlds which can still show themselves to us through the words of traveling remain. Ruins and ruinings are, after all, very valuable seeings – seeings which perhaps carry more potential than if they were to be still upright and “given” as they once were to very different eyes. The cause of traveling is not yet lost to Modernity and Postmodernity – and yet, in its losing, it holds much to be regained.

In this situation, true travelers, or those who strive to be true to a long lost traveling, bear an altogether peculiar and special ontology. Traveling as endeavoring to relive travel against entropy, against the corrosive stream, can be experienced as something far more eye-opening and potentially far further traveling than the most ascendant, authentic travels of the ancient world in which, compared to our times, traveling was still a given. There is something to be said in the old English saying that upon digging a hole deep enough, one finds themself back on a heightened surface in China.

To travel means to move within and with whole times and spaces, whole worlds, whole languages whose words and worlds are different than our own. In the ancient worlds, this was a given, an absolute granted, a stream of consciousnesses into which the outstanding could wade. In our world, this is a challenge, an impossible dream, a labor of loss, a nostalgia, an effort whose very consciousness requires a long, complex, over-worded philosophical journey and wandering with no guarantees but rather every seemingly “given” force working against it.

To remember or reconstruct “traveling”, to initiate or embrace a new word for such, and to travel henceforth – these are immense, fateful tasks requiring, if attempted at all, volumes of scholarly tomes by some, idiosyncratic trips of consciousness by others, sober impressions drawn from countless unconscious interlocutors, the forays of elites and the sways of masses, hitherto known and hereby undeciphered genres of writers and readers, pathfinders and followers, continents and islands, outspoken revelations and concealed esotericisms, vast overviews and concentrated aphorisms, and many more manifestations which, like traveling, have long since become exertions. In all and in between, we must learn to travel again...