Movement and Location: A Brief Comment on Meaning in the Literary Experience
The original intention in putting together this commentary was to canvas the relationship between travel and what might be thought of holistically as the literary experience—that amorphous, hard-to-pin-down world which writers and readers share between them. At the outset of such a project, one hopes to delve, artfully if possible, below the surface of the topic, to pull at the threads of its deeper metaphorical potentials. As early notes begin to come together (or fail to do so), one finds things to be a little less straightforward. The usual philosophical question arises: What does this thing actually mean anyway? Here are a few abbreviated entries under travel from the Oxford English Dictionary (2023):
- The action of travelling or making a journey, esp. to distant places or through foreign lands.
- More generally: the action of moving or passing along a course or path, or over a distance.
- The motion of a device or some part of a mechanism, such as a piston, that is constrained to move along a fixed course during operation, such as in a circuit or to and fro; (also) the distance through which such a part moves.
Arguably, the underlying theme here is movement, and its inevitable counterpart location. Indeed, travel as a concept does not really work without either movement or location. Both words, incidentally, comprise the title of a song by the Punch Brothers, the lyric of which captures something of the dramatic, or perhaps poetic, potential of travel (see below). Taken from its original musical setting, spending a considered moment with the text offers an opportunity for a moment of readerly poiesis; a useful term which describes the bringing into being of new things, historically by human creators. While the word provides a helpful term with which to identify the ‘making’ aspect of creative practices (such as, but not limited to, writing), it can also be understood in relation to other parts of the literary experience. One may, therefore, consider the act of reading also to be one of poiesis—that is, one in which the reader constructs new meanings through the practice of immersion in a given text.
Did he ever live
In those three and twenty years
For a thing but movement and location
If she’d raised her voice
Not her sparkling shallow eyes
To indict my movement and location
Would the battle be lost?
You can watch the tapeLyric to Movement and Location (Punch Brothers, 2012)
You can try to hit your spots
But don’t do it for anything but the love of movement and location
Or the battle is lost
Understanding contemplative acts such as reading, listening, and viewing as sites of poiesis helps to explain the meaningful, poetic potential in placing seemingly unrelated artefacts in the orbit of one another. Consider again, for instance, the lyric above. Did you sit and ponder? Did you breeze past it? Its point here is not to serve as an object of traditional analysis, but as one of poetic, readerly potential; one which offers perhaps a more dramatic or romantic insight into the subject of travel which may not be wholly attained through the reading of expository prose.
While travel has certainly been imbued with a degree of poetic charge in both the literary world and more broadly general life (the OED assigns it quite literally a proverbial status), there are those who have challenged the need to venture afield in search of a meaningful story. One excellent passage to this effect is the following, from the British essayist G. K. Chesterton. Though the quote that follows is lengthy, it offers a richly textured elaboration as to the value of poetic introspection.
The other great literary theory, that which is roughly represented in England by Mr. Rudyard Kipling, is that we moderns are to regain the primal zest by sprawling all over the world growing used to travel and geographical variety, being at home everywhere, that is being at home nowhere. Let it be granted that a man in a frock coat is a heartrending sight; and the two alternative methods still remain. Mr. Kipling’s school advises us to go to Central Africa in order to find a man without a frock coat. The school to which I belong suggests that we should stare steadily at the man until we see the man inside the frock coat. If we stare at him long enough he may even be moved to take off his coat to us; and that is a far greater compliment than his taking off his hat. In other words, we may, by fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and fulfil their mysterious purpose. The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent like the giant in my tale. But the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.G. K. Chesterton, excerpted from Tremendous Trifles, re-published in 2015
Others are in agreement with Chesterton’s ideal of deeper seeing. Consider Natalie Goldberg’s commentary on the topic in Writing Down the Bones (2016). As Goldberg tells us, “original details are very ordinary, except to the mind that sees their extraordinariness”. The literary experience is of course in the mind of the writer and the reader, and whether one comes to the party with a sense of the fantastic (or a sense of poverty, both Goldberg’s terms) is to some extent a choice.
Of course, neither Chesterton nor Goldberg appear to be in disagreement with the idea that travel offers useful creative opportunities. Indeed, in some branches of the literary enterprise, travel is baked in by definition—consider journalism, and the correspondent writing from some place in which activities of interest are unfolding. The common thread here, perhaps, is the pursuit what Chesterton calls primal zest, however it is to be found. The point of the literary experience is that it broadens the tapestries of meaning that inform our moments, our lives, and our culture. This is, of course, rather difficult to achieve with the banal; without a sufficient supply of Chesterton’s primal zest. While commentators such as Chesterton and Goldberg suggest that the apparently banal features of our worlds are indeed likely to contain rich interior complexity, access to this complexity—to a rich poiesis—likely requires tenacious contemplation; a practice challenged no doubt by the rapid-scrolling pace of life in today’s world. As noted at the outset, the literary experience is a shared one, and it follows that the responsibility for the quality and depth of that experience rests with the reader as well as the writer.
Chesterton, G. K. (2015). Tremendous trifles: Essays. Open Road Media.
Goldberg, N. (2016). Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within [Audiobook]. Sounds True.
Oxford English Dictionary. (2023). Travel. Retrieved from https://www.oed.com/
Punch Brothers. 2012. Movement and location [Song recorded by the Punch Brothers]. On Who’s Feeling Young Now? Nonesuch/Warner.
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