Geoff Dyer and the Ethics of the Secular Pilgrimage

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In his latest collection, Geoff Dyer investigates what tourists are really seeking when they travel to find themselves.

By Helena Fitzgerald

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(Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

The word “tourism” was first coined in 1811, not coincidentally around the same time the colonial Grand Tour was enjoying wide popularity among the upper classes of Britain. Tourism, in its current form, derives directly from this ruling-class tradition. British aristocrats invented the Grand Tour as an artificial coming-of-age exercise for their scions, a sort of international version of a land-owner walking the length and breadth of his property to familiarize himself with its landscape, conditions, and tenants. The Grand Tour sent a young man into a series of encounters with the unknown — largely a euphemism for spending money in foreign cities, going to bed with women of a different social class than he, and maybe seeing some art in between.

While today we tend easily to criticize such colonialist traditions, we are not very far removed from them. The grand tour is still the source document from which all modern tourism originates. Modern tourism still depends on the assumption that places, cultures, and societies are consumable things, that experiences beyond the familiar can — and should — be quantified and purchased as a way to make oneself interesting, to demonstrate a preening engagement with the larger world.

The pitfalls of tourism are the primary subject of White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World, Geoff Dyer’s new collection of essays. But more than that, tourism has been the central concern of Dyer’s larger body of work. In this collection as in many others, his writing skips dizzyingly over the borders between non-fiction and fiction, offering himself, the non-fictional author, as an untrustworthy narrator. As is more traditional in fiction, the protagonist here is not a font of knowledge nor a moral authority, but a bumbling, suspect, sometimes sinister critique of how tourists justify and insulate ourselves. Dyer’s persona throughout his entire body of work has been that of the tourist. And while not all of Dyer’s writing focuses on travel, the kind of criticism he pursues — a blending of art-critic reflection and deeply personal narrative — is the same approach that the tourist takes to visiting a foreign country. The art critic applies similar approaches to a painting or photograph as the tourist does to a place. For the tourist, the whole world is a museum, everything neatly labeled and displayed behind glass, offered for consumption and observation, not participation.

The secular pilgrim seeks the self with the blinkered focus of a tourist trying to find a restaurant on a map. The world’s purpose is to frame a mirror into which the traveler can gaze unobstructed.

At the same time, this equation of tourist and critic takes on the very nature of criticism: Dyer’s skepticism extends to his narrator, who views human experience the same way a tourist views the life of a city.

Not that a curated experience of a place is a wholly negative thing. There are benefits, legitimate if limited ones, to the tourist’s perspective. In the opening of his essay about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, as he drives through Utah’s desert, Dyer posits, “Perhaps you have to be British … to grasp properly the immensity of the American West.” This hypothesis is the heart of one sort of tourism: In coming to a place when it is foreign to you, in approaching it with fresh eyes, you manage to see its beauty and grandeur in a way unavailable to those for whom the daily life in a place obscures the place’s wonders.

But to see a place’s grandeur and beauty is always in some way to diminish that place, to pave over the smaller things, the day-to-day experiences of its residents, to Photoshop out the realities and the hardships. This kind of live-action editing is part of what we revile about tourists. Nowadays even the mainstream travel industry abhors tourists; almost any travel guidebook includes sections on how not to be a tourist, while numerous travel companies base their brand on this “anti-tourist” premise. The travel industry’s race to promise its customers that they are not tourists has led to an endless parade of meaningless euphemisms for tourist, all of which sound like the person who talks about that time they “lived” in Paris when they mean that they visited for two weeks. Instead of tourists, we are now “travelers,” “jet-setters,” “global nomads,” “couch-surfers,” and “explorers.” Perhaps the thing that most demarcates the tourist today is the desire to prove that they are not a tourist.

Dyer’s exploration of the tourist as a persona is a deeply self-conscious one, and he digs into it relentlessly, making sure to enact every cliché expected of the tourist. In his essay on Tahiti, Dyer begins by explaining: “I was traveling to write about Gauguin and the lure of the exotic,” then talks about Gauguin’s decision that “the only way to prove himself was to go live amongst the savages.” The recurring colonial language here reminds the reader of tourism’s imperialist roots. Dyer writes about the banal inconveniences of travel, how travel is mostly sweaty, uncomfortable, and selfish, and how, by seeking transcendental experiences, the tourist misses those experiences entirely. He interrogates the idea that travel can ever be successful, or anything other than at once miserable and suspect. With somersaulting slapstick language, Dyer sends up the tourist’s fixation on chasing “experience”: On a failed expedition to see the Northern Lights, he complains: “This was our only chance to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the Northern Lights Experience.” In the same essay, he cites tourism’s link to Victorian explorers and the way in which tourists actively seek to align themselves with this dubious heritage, noting that a hotel in the wilderness of Norway is “sufficiently makeshift to impart a Shackletonian quality.”

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White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World. (Photo: Penguin Random House)

Dyer makes frequent allusions to the Garden of Eden, a lampoon on modern travel’s overuse of all words related to paradise, and also on the earliest travel writing, in which explorers such as Christopher Columbus gave names to trees and flowers and animals, as though these things only existed once spoken aloud by a European man. Finally, to make his tourist persona complete, Dyer gives his brand of travel a name to distinguish it from tourism, returning again and again to the concept of “the secular pilgrimage,” a term about which he is at once mocking and deeply sincere.

In a religious pilgrimage, the pilgrim seeks something outside the self. This goal places them within a community of seekers and a long cultural tradition. The phrase “secular pilgrimage” attempts to place the tourist in a similarly meaningful context. The grand tour endures robustly today, almost unchanged except in the aims of its advertising campaigns. There are people who would rather die than be called tourists, and these exemplify the heart of modern tourism. They are Dyer’s secular pilgrims, on a mission not to find God but to find themselves. The secular pilgrim seeks the self with the blinkered focus of a tourist trying to find a restaurant on a map. The world’s purpose is to frame a mirror into which the traveler can gaze unobstructed.

Dyer’s travelogue addresses the obvious criticisms leveled against secular pilgrimage, and even when he mounts a defense of the secular pilgrimage, it’s also a way for Dyer to criticize the role of tourist from within. One way to frame the secular pilgrimage is as a journey whose intent is communion with the great works of art; paintings, sculptures, and museums stand in for the temple or gravesite, and the Old Masters stand in for God.

Dyer seeks out art and its origins in many of his pilgrimages, including excursions to land art sites such as Walter DeMaria’s Lightening Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The essay on Lightening Field is perhaps the most convincing portrait of art-trip as secular pilgrimage, while his trip to see Spiral Jetty paints a more perfectly relatable picture of such journeys, in which nothing is as grand, as beautiful, or even as large as it was in photos or in anticipatory imagination, and in which revelation arrives quietly, in a small fractions, and only as Dyer gets ready to leave the art site.

We think we are refreshed when we return from travel because we have opened our minds, but in fact we are refreshed in the way one might be refreshed after a long sleep.

Another version of this pilgrimage is one that seeks not works of art but the artists themselves, an intellectual’s version of the Hollywood Celebrity Home Tour. Dyer visits Gauguin’s burial place in Tahiti, and, in an essay titled “Pilgrimage,” the house where Adorno lived out his exile in Los Angeles. These experiences skid closer to revelation, as Dyer falls away from the broadly satirical, from the register of self-mockery, and reaches for a legitimate communion.

But in the end he still evinces the futility of such visits, how little meaningful trace any of us leave on the surface of the world once we’ve departed it. Visiting what was once Adorno’s home, Dyer meets not the spirit of the philosopher but the current resident of the address, a young woman in sweatpants who has never read Adorno and isn’t sure how to spell the name. The encounter is with a boring, real-world human, not with a God-like ghost. We search for something larger than ourselves and find only the world we already know.

Our lives are full of secular pilgrimages, the small ongoing struggles through which we move daily. Travel does not provide a shot at true transformation, so much as an escape from reality. We think we are refreshed when we return from travel because we have opened our minds, but in fact we are refreshed in the way one might be refreshed after a long sleep. The yearning to place ourselves at the mercy of something larger than ourselves and be transformed by it is common across religious and non-religious experience alike. Travel is a logical place for those with means to go looking for it.

Dyer’s book recounts the inconveniences of travel in great detail — the general tenor of the book is mild-to-medium annoyance. In a culminating flourish, Dyer posits this aggravation, this disappointment, as the very thing we seek when we travel. Travel allows us to escape ourselves by means of a logistical masochism, much in the way religious pilgrims subsumed themselves in the ritual humiliation of the body.

The secular humiliations in Dyer’s experience of travel — too-small airplane seats, expensive meals, boring guided trips — are sillier and more familiar than religious masochism, but they serve a similar purpose. In the 19th century, men who set out to the South Pole or the “dark continent” were often seeking to test themselves, to find some more rich and challenging vein of human existence than the soft comforts of an inherited lifestyle back home could offer. This analysis at last leads back to the central critique of travel: We place ourselves in intentional difficulties because we know we can retreat from them.

Collections of essays betray their intentions in their naming; Dyer’s book takes the name of the essay at its center — the shortest piece, in which the author travels the least distance and has the least happen to him — as the key to the rest of the book. In this essay, Dyer’s acrobatic self-awareness, his linguistic retreat through narrative to criticism and seamlessly back again disappears.

The essay tells a simple story in sheepish, empty-handed language: Dyer and his wife are driving through Texas when they pick up a black hitchhiker. The man looks kind and trustworthy, if down on his luck. Shortly after that, they pass signs warning “Do Not Pick Up Hitch-Hikers Near Detention Facilities.” Dyer and his wife become silently but perceptibly terrified. After a long silence, the hitchhiker attempts to re-assure them, telling them the story of his life and, by implication, his conviction, imprisonment, and release.

We never have the opportunity to weigh and judge these details because Dyer doesn’t listen to them. He starts narrating his own impressions of the hitchhiker, and then realizes he’s missed the hitchhiker’s explanation. He pulls over at a gas station, and the hitchhiker goes to the bathroom after Dyer promises he will not drive off and strand him there. The minute the hitchhiker is gone, Dyer and his wife drive off and strand him there. Dyer’s wife asks the self-evident question: “Do you think that was racist?” and while they discuss whether what they did was wrong, Dyer simply concludes, “I could imagine how he felt and I was glad that I was not him feeling these things, and I was glad, also, that it was just the two of us again, safe and in our car, married, and speeding toward El Paso.” The man he picked up, and then abandoned, is a traveler; Dyer is a tourist.

The essay is nasty, brutish, and short. It is upsetting and leaves a sick feeling at the pit of the stomach. More so than any of Dyer’s more obvious pronouncements, theories, or observations, it is the most staggering and spot-on indictment of tourism in the book, and a perfect portrait of the person traveling to a culture beyond their own, and then departing — the basic dance diagram of tourism. We come in, observe that which is not us, and then leave, feeling safe, retreating inside the glass of the car or the plane or the hotel, glad to be ourselves, empathy extending only so far as to be able to imagine how someone else feels and be glad that we are not them.

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