By Julie Kalman
This is a piece about subjectivity. And while we’re on the topic, let’s just stop for a moment to talk about me. When the weekend paper delivers its fullness at the breakfast table, I don’t stop to read the travel section. It’s the first to go into the recycling bin. Travel writing bores me. And so do travel photos, ever since I can remember being forced to feign interest through someone else’s slideshow narrative.
Perhaps, then, I’m a glutton for punishment, but I have spent the last year reading dozens of travel accounts from the nineteenth century. Travel writing tends to slip between disciplinary cracks. It is not literature of the highest order, nor is it straightforward archival material. Yet travel works were highly popular in nineteenth century France, and this fact, if nothing else, must move the curious cultural historian to ask why. I have an answer, too: life was less than settled in nineteenth-century France. The Revolution may have introduced the concepts of nationhood and citizenship, but French men and women spent much of the next century (and some might argue the one after that), settling on a shared understanding of these terms. While the French drew on tradition and ideology to conceptualise their ideal of the nation, they found inspiration equally in the travel account. Elsewhere could be a site for imagining the nation; ideals and utopias, disgruntlement and desire, all could take shape on a blank, foreign canvas. It is no coincidence that some of the greatest writers in a century when writing was truly great, also wrote travel accounts. Flaubert, du Camp, Nerval, and Gautier can be counted among them. The novel and the travel account were in many ways equal mixes of reality and fiction. Writers would use a fictional or exotic canvas to tell stories of themselves. If their works are fictional, they are also political, and often based on deeply felt impressions of their own world. The tension between fiction and fact is underscored by the fact that Alexandre Dumas produced travel works, but these were written at his desk, at home in France.
Edward Said has written, most evocatively and convincingly, about the way the exotic could be shackled to the needs of the political. But he assumed that this was always for the purpose of domination. He was wrong about that. Travel literature might reify the exotic. It might paint Arabs as primitive and lazy. It often did. But it also called on stereotypes of the foreign in order to stereotype the familiar. Elsewhere could be a place for imagining the nation. Travel writing could be a forum for the expression of criticism. Materialism, capitalism, the loss of Catholicism’s legitimacy, individualism: all of these criticisms were levelled at France through the medium of the travel account that could describe how things might be, by describing somewhere else. Théophile Gautier might not figure among the very greatest that creative Paris produced in the nineteenth century. He was, nonetheless, a man of wonderful insight and wit; a keen observer of his age, and an enthusiastic traveller. Gautier worshipped art. He hated the cynical materialism that he felt defined his era. In Italy, Spain, Russia, and Egypt, he found purity. He, himself, wished to be Oriental. “It seems to me,” his friends reported him as saying, that he had “a Muslim soul. I need blue sky. I will go to the Orient and make myself into a Turk!” In the Orient, in fact, Gautier – who so hated the “civilisation of factories and coal,” – found himself.
And isn’t that the nature of travel writing? Nineteenth-century French writers travelled not to lose themselves, but for precisely the opposite reason. They went elsewhere for the purpose of self-discovery and self-expression. It is in this sense that travel writing is a deeply subjective genre. And if it was thus in the nineteenth century, arguably, it is still so. This might make for irritation for impatient and intolerant readers such as me, but it’s a golden seam that can lead to a mine for the historian.
Julie Kalman is a Senior Lecturer in history at Monash University. She is a specialist of nineteenth-century France and her writing to date has dealt with the interplay between French and Jewish history in this period. Her most recent publications include the articles “The Jew in the Scenery: Historicising Nineteenth-Century French Travel Literature” and “Going Home to the Holy Land: The Jews of Jerusalem in Nineteenth-Century French Catholic Pilgrimage,” and her book, Rethinking Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century France.
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Image credit: Portrait of Théophile Gautier by Nadar. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.