The Superstition of Travelling


“The soul is no traveller.” 

This bit of apocryphal nonsense comes to us from the venerable Ralph Waldo Emerson, who goes on to talk about the “superstition of travelling”. 

The benefits of travel are imagined?  If that’s the case, I’ve wasted my life.  Passport stamps are pretty much my biography. 

Emerson criticizes his fellow Americans for rambling abroad to soak up culture.  If we had any “self-culture”, he said (over 150 years ago), we wouldn’t clamour for a fix of Rome or Montmartre or Epidaurus. 

The essays in Emerson’s (recently republished) “Self Reliance” preach hard against imitating.  A person is a country unto himself, he says.  We ought to grow a culture unique to the needs of our own inner and outer geography.  Existence wants us “as is”.  But we don’t trust our own “isness”.  We hold up Olde English, or Tuscan, or Classical Greek as the ultimate “isness”.  “But,” says Emerson…

“Those who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth.”

Culture evolves around those who stay in one place, who insist on being themselves, says RWE.  This would be the creative crucible for originality in music, architecture and food.  England-Italy-Greece: cheddar-parmigiano-feta.  Is that what Emerson is saying?  And the soul much prefers its own cheese – so why leave home to nibble on other milk products, however well they might be cultured?

Fine – I get the point – authenticity arises from within.  What I don’t buy is that soul has preferences.  Soul is more like a quality of being (anywhere).  It signifies a state of awareness.  Just like meaning, soul isn’t a “thing”.  It’s not some cheesy substance, and therefore… 

Soul cannot be the subject of a sentence!

The soul is no traveller?  That’s nonsensical.  Yet we continue to eat up all this soul-talk.  We desperately need a radical switch in perception. 

Soul is the journey observing itself.  (It’s more like a verb.)

From Berlin to Byron Bay to Buenos Aires (or staying right here in the West Coast rainforest), soul is recognition of the underlying truth of things.  It’s the acceptance of that truth.  If we insist on subjecting the S-word to nounhood, let’s call it our “spiritual self-confidence”. 

And what better way to develop such a thing than by breaching the barriers of our comfort zone. 

By hitting the road. 


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  1. says

    Glad to be back reading this ever thoughtful blog.
    How would one value the qualities of home without making comparisons. I’m amazed that that our last Liberal Leader was considered un-Canadian because of years spent out of the country.

  2. Rick Lewis says

    I love this post – a provocative and useful counter-argument to an elegant idea. The culture that springs from staying in one place reminds me of the practice of meditation and the riches it can produce. Whether we physically travel I guess is beside the point – perhaps the real definition of travel is that we open to our experience fully whether we’re logging miles or sitting in our backyards. Such openness is the only thing that “moves” us.

  3. says

    I’m glad you bring up the notion of “sitting” and its concomitant “movement”. You take the discussion to its next level. Perfecto. This is what blogging is all about! Thank you.

  4. McGoo says

    “Here, also it is good,” sayeth some old Zen monk. (responding to his companion who was beckoning him to leave where he was for something better).
    Wherever we roam or stay at home, we are always Here.

    Perhaps Emerson was pointing to the ‘weakness’ of escapism and avoidence of challenging ennui and boredom on the homefront after witnessing a lot of (rich) culture vultures flapping around in America bored out of their skulls.

  5. Don Meuse says

    Travel is an extension of childhood, or discovery, or both! Waking up early on a sunny summer morning in the fullness of childhood is about as good as it gets in life. The rash and eager intensity of childhood adventure is too soon gone, and by age ten we are begining to grieve the loss of that particular innocence. By age sixteen the world is much with us, and expectations begin to drag us down into modern civility. When we are in our twenties we have fantasies of ‘the good life’ of wandering the highways and footpaths of distant places that are seen from afar as being ‘romantic.’ Unless we were born with a trust fund to support us, this desire to travel to find the best in ourselves (or so we imagine) is sporadic and not quite what we imagined. Later in life we have resources and take vacations in exotic places like Sussex and Provence; and then we are called back home to get more resources. Then time passes and travel, or the lack of it, becomes an individual sport. When we were four on a summer’s day it mattered not at all where we travelled, for it was always good; but at 60 it isn’t always good, though it may always be interesting. I think our last travels are a search for lost childhood, lost innocence, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unless you are a PJReecian, you no longer travel naked to the world; you, me, most of us, are encumbered with the accoutrements of our time and age, such as medical considerations, property management, and so on, and seldom find our way to the images we carry in our mind, not that there’s anything wrong with that, for halt and lame as we may be, and encumbered, the spark of childhood discovery, exuberance, and innocence calls to us from somewhere, and if we can answer the call, that is a good thing. And if we can’t we still dream about innocence and discovery, and still make plans long into the years.

  6. McGoo says

    Thanks, Don Meuse, for that confirmation of what one of my dearest friends said to me recently. “I am happy,” she says. “I travel in my mind, everywhere.” Crippled by rheumatoid arthritus, the longest journey she takes these days is across the living room with two walking sticks, but her imagination knows no bounds. Our early experiences are the worlds we create for visiting any time.


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