Monday, August 19, 2013

The "superfluous man" travels ... Indeed!

The evening prior to flying out to Costa Rica, I was at an event where I met a guy who had done quite some traveling himself.  We talked, among other things, about VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux.   Not unusual at all for people with wanderlust to have read Naipaul and Theroux.

We wondered who, between the two of them, would be a more pleasant person to chat with one evening.  From what I have read about Naipaul, having tea with him is not how I would prefer to spend my time.

It seems like accomplished writers are not necessarily the most pleasant people around.  Snarky, backbiting, egomaniacs they often tend to become.  But, boy do they have insights on life!

So, I set aside the messenger and focus on the message, of which there is plenty.  Even in this short interview with Theroux.

Consider this take, for instance, on traveling itself:
When I’m traveling, I feel small. You see how big the world is, how small you are, how you don’t really matter, how you can’t effect much change, you can’t bring something back.
Exactly!  If ever students ask me what I gain from travel to places that are very different from what I am used to, I tell them it is one humbling experience.  As Theroux himself said in a different context, which I noted in a post a few months ago:
A traveler may have no power, no influence, no known identity. That is why a traveler needs optimism and heart, because without confidence travel is misery. Generally, the traveler is anonymous, ignorant, easy to deceive, at the mercy of the people he or she travels among. The traveler might be known as “the American” or “the Foreigner,” and there is no power in that.
Traveling is one heck of an educational experience about life; it certainly gives us that perspective which might be hard to gain when we stay put in our own respective villages where we have the identity, the influence, the power.

Travel is a phenomenal way to understand how much we don't really matter in this cosmos.  I mean, if I go to Costa Rica and feel that way, then imagine how we humans ought to feel about living on this planet, which is, as Carl Sagan so poetically put it, "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Theroux notes:
At least I can say “I put in an effort and I tried to see it.” To see things as they are makes you free—to see things as they are, not nostalgically, not as you wish they were. Just to see them.
So, why the " "superfluous man" in the title?  Over to Theroux, again:
There’s also a Russian expression that my son passed on to me, the idea of being superfluous. Not temporary, but the “superfluous man.” It’s a 19th-century concept that you don’t really matter. You’re just drifting, like a ghost figure....
If I don’t have something that I’m writing, something to think about, something to direct my attention, then, yeah, I feel temporary and superfluous.
Aren't we all temporary and superfluous drifting along on the grand cosmic stage!

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