The First Travel Writer

There is a long timeline of world history in my mind that throughout my reading life gets filled in slowly with each document, each classic. The original text of this travelogue, written in amateurish Latin, was probably written in the early 380s. It was later copied in the 11th century by a monk in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, south of Rome, and then discovered in a monastic library in Arrezzo in 1884.  This English translation finds us now through the work of several translators and collaborators, this version printed in 1919.

Itirerarium Egeriae begins mid-sentence, whole sections having been lost to the centuries since the initial writings of that singular and impressive pilgrim. She was called Egeria (or Etheria, Aetheria, Etheroiua or Eurcheria), and she wrote of her journeys to see Biblical landmarks that were, to her and her peers, venerated or holy.

The travelogue is a fascinating record of her stops at places still known today, both by modern maps and through Biblical reference.  It is interesting to discover which places were in fact holy in her time, and which have since been assigned sanctity by other men (yes, always men).

In these writings, we learn that in the year 380, a Feast of the Nativity was celebrated on January 6th, not on December 25th and it is interesting that of all the martyriums she visited, she made no reference to Christ’s tomb or place of death, even though it is reasonable to claim that the site, at least, had begun to be venerated as early as the late 4th century.

In this book, we get a rare look into the very early days of Christianity, approximately 380 years after the death of Christ, and around 67 years after emperor Constantine I issued his edict ceasing the persecution of Christians. Sixty-seven years isn´t that long, and since then the ambiguities of this particular period seem to me to have been filled laboriously with obfuscation, revised histories, complex and conflicting interpretations and myth, the frustrating lack of details and even context having been glazed over with declarations of revelation and faith that seem more to serve particular people than the acquisition of knowledge.

The primordial Christian church was more monastic in nature, the notion of “congregation” and collective worship had just begun.  Solitary men and small groups, we would now call them hermits, inhabited caves and humble living spaces, and lived chastened lives. The concept of hymns and hymn singing had only just begun as well.  Holy Week was already celebrated with its recognizable symbols and rituals: children waving palm leaves, the cross as a symbol of adoration, the taking of Communion on Maundy Thursday.

Egeria refers to what we would call the Bible with several names, some of which only appear in this document (Scriptura Canonis for example, means “Scripture of the Canon”, which to me implies an attempt at a common standard, or the beginnings of a universal, all-inclusive tome).  She quotes most often from the first five books of the what we now call the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch, and in a pre-Vulgate Latin.

The text is a great education in monasticism, vulgar Latin and the origins of the Mediterranean Romance languages, and it is a wonderful account that is arguably one of the first travelogues, rich in references to landscape, politics and subjective interpretation of the world through journey.  Also, the writings seem to have been written and orally related not only by a woman, but also to women, a circle of ladies who gathered to share stories and religious devotion. And I am once again prompted to ponder the gems of literature, art, philosophy and politics which have been lost or destroyed throughout the centuries at the clumsy hands of entitled men.

 

 

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A Window on Russia

Photo by Robert Capa, book cover credit: Penguin Books (reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000).

” The old, old thing came up, that always comes up: ´Then why does your government not control these newspapers and these men who talk war?´ And we had to explain again, as we had many times before, that we do not believe in controlling our press, that the truth usually wins, and that control simply drives bad things underground. In our country we prefer that these people talk themselves to death in public, and write themselves to death, rather than bottle them up to slip their poison secretly through the dark.

They have a great deal of misinformation about America, for they have their yellow journalists too.  They have their correspondents with little knowledge, and they have their fiery typewriter soldiers.”

 

***

 

In the aftermath of World War II,  John Steinbeck and legendary war photographer Robert Capa went to the Soviet Union on a trip of cultural exploration. That was all it was.  They endeavored to avoid politics and polemics.  And although Steinbeck was more or less a disillusioned intellectual, at the time fed up with the status quo of the world and perhaps with his own work, they went not as communist sympathizers or angst-ridden activists, rather they wanted to write about and to photograph what was left of humanity after the devastation of war.  They certainly found it–simple, yet happy villagers, destroyed landscapes and industries, austere and suspicious Muscovites, broken men and families, inquisitive Soviets–and they also found a mundane, quotidian totalitarianism still in its infancy. Capa, accustomed to more action (the invasion of Normandy, Spanish Civil War), was even bored at times.

This is a modest little book, a long report for the New York Herald Tribune, (ironically, not quite a rich as his Log from the Sea of Cortez, an excellent memoir of his collecting marine specimens in barren Baja California), and a wonderful peek into the daily lives of simple Russians.  The book seems to have been a response to the strong curiosity that Americans had about Russians and Russia, and it at once shows us what we have in common and our fundamental, eternal differences.

Steinbeck often chooses humor over generalization, and of course he demonstrates keen powers of observation that never stray into condescension or veiled contempt.

Throughout the book, Capa´s photos are placed right alongside Steinbeck´s commentary, although I wish Penguin would have included better quality shots. For more high-resolution photos by Robert Capa, explore Magnum´s wonderful collection (click here).

Death at Our Elbow: Saint-Exupéry’s High Adventure in Literature

“They gave him a plane with an altitude limit of seventeen thousand feet; the highest Cordillera peaks are over twenty-two thousand. And Mermoz took off in search for the gaps. … Forced down at thirteen thousand feet on a plateau with sheer sides, he and his engineer searched for two days for a way down. They were trapped. So they played their last card. They launched their plane towards the void, bouncing cruelly over the uneven ground until they dropped over the cliff edge. As it fell the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz brought its nose up as it headed for a ridge, brushed up the against summit, and with water gushing out of every pipe burst by night frost, crippled after just seven minutes in the air, he saw the Chilean plain below him like a Promised Land.

The next day he went up again.” 

— Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939.

Imagine that you are flying a plane over the Sahara desert, and you crash, somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo.  You and your navigator nearly die of thirst until you are rescued by a Bedouin on a camel.  How would you write about the experience?

In the 1930s, most of North Africa and the Andes, as well as much of the Mediterranean, was without charted air routes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of the “The Little Prince”) and his flying buddies, like Mermoz, cut through the unexplored airspace of these ends of the earth. These solitary men, willing subjects in dubious and slapdash expeditions and sorties, belonged to a particular moment in modern history. They lived in an era that is just out of sight, dipped below the horizon, an era filled with experiences and dramas that must now forever be recorded in books. The travel writing at these times was still often defined by firsts, where places were yet undiscovered, and a writer could come before all others to take a stab at putting the experience to the page (nowadays, travel writers have other challenges). The settings in these stories are drawn with the glow of Nazi bombs below, or at the hands of the elements, through a vulnerability that only a pilot can know.  There is an irony though, that no matter how adventurous the life of a man or woman is, reading about it is almost always a disappointment, something like listening to someone talk about their dreams. The copious quantity of stories to tell does not guarantee that those stories will ever be told, much less told well.

It is impossible to know if Saint-Exupéry was aware of that unspoken curse that adventurers are almost always denied the tools to produce good writing, but often in Wind, Sand and Stars, we get the impression he is making an effort at literature. In North Africa and Spain, his charts were marked not only with vectors and flight ceilings, but with scribbled-in notes that told a stories, like the orange grove to watch out for at the end of the runway in Guadix, Spain, or the elderly man and his wife in Lorca who wait on their farm like a lighthouse for passing pilots in the night, or the small tributary off the Ebro river that spawns thirty species of flower and sometimes wanders across the runway there, tearing a crack in the earth that would destroy a plane’s landing gear.

In the form of a letter of admiration, Saint-Exupéry tells us about another comrade, Guillaumet, who crashed his plane in a high-altitude snow storm, and walked for days in the blizzard, where if he’d just lied down, he never would have risen again from the blanket of snow. He writes, quoting Guillaument in a letter to him, “In the snow… all you want is sleep….But I said to myself: ‘If my wife thinks I’m alive, she’ll believe I’m on my feet. My comrades believe it too….I’m a cowardly bastard if I don’t keep going.'”

Although many of the stories in Saint-Exupéry’s books spring to life from crises, they are not merely some collection of diary entries. The true driving force here is Exupéry’s ability to translate the complexities of the human experience within the absurd drama of war and the novelty of the rugged, unexplored regions of the world, and indeed within the flying machines that are thrust into both.  And we are thus fascinated by his getting on

Exupéry sets off in 1938 to fly from New York to Tierra del Fuego. He crashes in Guatemala, fracturing his skull in several places. (photo from http://www.thelittleprince.com/work/the-autor/)

with the business of living, albeit in extraordinary times.  This was the stuff of travel writing in the 1930s and 1940s, but only the good works have survived.  Today, it is more difficult to be interesting, the substance of many travel books only being the crises themselves, even worse crises that are self-inflicted, or sometimes contrived altogether. Exupéry proves his worth as a writer in many ways, and he’d probably be an excellent storyteller even in boring contexts.  To me, his work rises above other banal travelogues because he makes sure that the stories will be remembered not as sensational shock pieces (in war, perhaps so abundant as to be trite), but more so as stories with eloquence that can penetrate even the most uninterested reader, or now, the modern reader dulled by overexposure to images and information.

Flight to Arras begins with Saint-Exupéry and another pilot being briefed on a reconnaissance flight into Nazi-occupied France. It is a mission that will likely kill them. But he keeps to a rare kind of wisdom and honesty, mostly refraining from melodrama. In the book he writes with a sense of desperation and humor, in a well-chosen mix of tenses, of stress-induced quarrels with colleagues and on the checklists and practical duties that a pilot or captain does, duties done more compulsively in the midst of life-threatening danger.  He can bring the entire war to a private microcosm:

 “… the battle between the Nazi and the Occident was reduced to the scale of my job, of my manipulation of certain switches, levers, taps. This was as it should be. The sexton’s love of his God becomes a love of lighting candles.”

The honesty of his experience at first seems disarming and endearing, but in fact it only exposes a simple and powerful notion: how a man behaves when he has already accepted that he is going to die.

It is perhaps not so ironic that Exupéry probably did meet his end at the hands of a German fighter plane.  In 1998, fishermen near the island of Corsica dragged up Exupéry’s name tag in their nets.  His disappearance, a long-running mystery, happened in 1944, in airspace carpeted by Nazi radar and thick with the buzz of the Luftwaffe.  One can wonder, if in those last moments, he faced the permanence of death with the grace and clarity of his literature.

“It would be easy to write a couple of fraudulent pages out of the contrast between this shining spring day, the ripening fruit, the chicks filling plumply out in the barnyard, the rising wheat—and death at our elbow. I shall not write that couple of pages because I see no reason why the peace of a spring day should constitute a contradiction of the idea of death. Why should the sweetness of life be a matter for irony?”

— Flight to Arras, 1942.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, France, 1933. Source NY Times online Author Distributed by Agence France-Presse