I'm very much drawn to the mind and writings of Californian author, activist, feminist, environmentalist and cultural historian Rebecca Solnit, and her way of seeing the world. If a book is extra-special, I often find myself marking passages, taking notes, copying out quotations. The reason is: I don't want such exciting thoughts and ideas, such arresting tropes and expressions, simply to disappear into the ether. I want my memory to be jogged; and these joggings prompt me back into the lush experience of the whole book.
Recently I read through some notes I'd made on A Book of Migrations, Solnit's book about Ireland. You can't really call her travel books 'travel' books; they are an uncategorisable pot pourri of history, geography, politics, anthropology, ecology, environmentalism, personal anecdote and first-hand experience — so different from the gimmicky, laugh-a-minute, populist travelogues of the Bill Bryson school. A Book of Migrations is full of penetrating insights, sharp and fresh observations, imaginative connections. She writes beautifully, finding metaphor in everything. Her phrases and figures of speech can be lyrical and poetic, though she also has her feet placed firmly on the ground. And sometimes she reveals a wry sense of humour, casting an owlishly beady eye on the world.
Here are some of my marginalia and brief jottings; I hope they stimulate you too.
Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place.
One climbs the mountain to see the valley.
Walking round the Dublin Natural History Museum, Solnit sees the stuffed animals as imperial souvenirs, and calls the museum itself a lexicon of form.
She calls metaphors the transportation systems of the mind (brilliant, this, I think). Metaphors are the way we make connections between disparate things, the way we make creative sense of the world. Machines can not make these intuitive, aesthetic connections. We make contact with Creation through metaphor. The first symbols were animals, then plants, then words. Human beings first as nomads (birds), then settlers (trees).
Every cell in the human body is renewed every seven years.
Travel: a series of discomforts in magnificent settings.
Contrast between Academia and New Ageism: the Academic accentuates too many distinctions between cultures; the New Ager blurs too many differences between cultures. Solnit seeks the middle ground between what she terms the fuzzy (New Age) and the icy (Academe).
Nietzsche says that truth is a metaphor we have forgotten is a metaphor.
Wilderness without wildlife is just scenery. (An American wildlife expert.)
Two things are alike up to the point of their differences.
Masculine England and feminine Ireland (Ireland raped by England).
The freemasonry of the road.
Things seen to rise gradually out of their surroundings are infinitely more real than things which suddenly bump up in front of one.
She is not taken in by the folksiness, the shamrock image, the professional charm of the Irish. She is refreshingly realistic about landscape, doesn't write about it in clichés as 'pretty' etc. She sees landscape as it properly is — in the context of people, geology, history, politics, culture.
Reversing the popular view, she hates B & Bs, viewing them as an enforced intimacy, a miniature 'colonization'!
She likes recounting short chance meetings, impressionistic personal encounters — then interpreting them, contextualising them. Every chance encounter is the beginning/middle/end of a story only glimpsed incompletely.
Identity as destination not origin (an anti-Eden myth). (NB This echoes the Existentialist position of existence before essence.)
National identity is based as much on forgetting as remembering.
Walking — or upright bipedalism — is the common point of origin for all human beings.
She describes tomb uprights with a slab on top as being in defiance of gravity or celebration of balance.
Every place is both exotic and local.
The Irish: 80% drunk and 20% depressed (cheeky!).
Efficiency is an unfriendly virtue, and no one I met in Ireland seemed afflicted with it.
The mobile person sees the landscape as static . . . but the stationary person sees that everything around is changing.
Ireland is not rocklike or static, but is always changing itself.
Birds are rooted in Irish culture: swans are incarnations of human souls. The symbology of birds: the soaring imagination, freedom, escape, spiritual energy, song.
The Irish exile (e.g. James Joyce): no longer belonging to where one comes from, yet unable to become part of where one has ended up.
This may be one of the under appreciated pleasures of travel: of being at last legitimately lost and confused.
I like inconclusiveness, like a conversation that will always need more to be said . . .