I touristed pretty hard this past week. I went to Colorado on family vacation, and no local-roasted coffee was left untasted, no microbrew remained unsampled. I stood next to a rented mini-van and stared at a bull elk as it stalked a suburban shopping development and become progressively more agitated that it was being co-opted into a photo-op for a crowd of random consumers of nature. Perhaps the elk didn’t consider itself a product. Perhaps it only wanted a small donation for posing. I didn’t particularly care, I just stood next to the other sightseers and unabashedly enjoyed the unique experience. Later, I rode up a ski-lift to the top of a mountain where we took a couple photos, sighed over the beauty of the aspen trees, and then rode back down. Sadly, I had to fly home before the family sampled the deliciousness that is Casa Bonita.
When I travel, the tendency has been to wrap myself up in knots of introspection. My first instinct has been to reject the typical pre-packaged Disneyland experience because it makes me feel like a rat in a cage, kind of like David Foster Wallace that one time he lost his mind on a cruise ship. Second, I try to find an authentic experience by heading off the beaten track, eating where the locals eat, and eschewing tour guides. Then, I question everything. Is my authentic experience merely a slightly hipper, more snobbish appropriation of the tourist experience? Yes, it very much is. So, it’s back to the crowd in an ironic recollection. I become an everyman. I wear tourist t-shirts and eat sopapillas at Casa Bonita by raising that little flag on the table to alert the waiter.
There are levels upon levels of irony and self-consciousness here, and the interior of my soul is more twisted than Bach’s Musical Offering. I know the problem is me and I’m a weirdo and if there’s one thing people don’t mess up it’s vacation. I have to say, though, that all the introspection has been worth it (and honestly, overthinking stuff is kind of its own reward, so I’m not sweating it), because I think I’ve got this whole vacationing thing finally figured out. It wasn’t easy, though, and I had to work through a whole lot of Walker Percy essays to put the pieces together.
First, let’s start with the problem of the totally un-recollected tourist. Father Dwight Longnecker recently complained about some questionable habits that arise due to defects in the way modern man perceives the world. He writes,
I couldn’t help observing the bizarre behavior of a good number of my fellow visitors to the Uffizi. After filing through the obligatory security check, we trooped through the galleries with the crowds, but instead of stopping to look at the pictures, a good number walked into the gallery, aimed their smart phone cameras at one picture after another, snapped a photo, and moved quickly on.
It wasn’t only the Uffizi that was baffling;
I witnessed the same odd behavior at the monastery of San Marco. There, Fra Angelico’s sweet and simple frescoes are preserved in the monastic cells, and you wander through the old friary poking your head into each cell to see the artwork. There too, tourists simply walked up to the cell door, aimed their camera, clicked, and moved on.
What has gone wrong with tourism? Why has modern man become a collector of photographs, not only of famous artwork, but also food, animals, and assorted seascapes and landscapes? Longnecker, after talking to a friend, tosses out the idea that perhaps it is greed, the desire to own an experience or thing and add it to the catalogue of stuff I’ve “done.” All of this becomes even worse when a person like me notices how strange touristing behavior is, gets super awkward about it, and does a deep dive into mental exercises in authenticity and irony.
Walker Percy noticed the problem, too, and wrote about it in his essay, “The Loss of the Creature.” If you’re already shaking your head at how badly I’ve over-thought this, buckle up because Percy is just about to hit the gas. He writes,
The assumption is that the Grand Canyon is a remarkably interesting and beautiful place and that if it had a certain value P for Cárdenas, the same value P may be transmitted to any number of sightseer—just as Banting’s discovery of insulin can be transmitted to any number of diabetics. A counterinfluence is at work, however, and it would be nearer the truth to say that if the place is seen by a million sightseers, a single sightseer does not receive value P but a millionth part of value P.
In other words, a tourist attraction is often considered a product to be consumed. It has a certain, quantifiable value. If I see the Grand Canyon, I will gain P amount of value to my life. This gets right back to the question of greed. If we now view novel experiences as products to be consumed, then of course we will want to document, accumulate, and generally collect these experiences. It wouldn’t make any sense to linger in front of a Fra Angelico painting when just in the next monastic cell there’s another waiting to be consumed. The more the better, so get moving.
Percy notices, though, that what actually happens isn’t the successful collection of an experience but a total loss of the object, writing that touring,
Is the one sure way not to see the canyon. Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is—as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated.
The Grand Canyon is no longer a natural wonder to be confronted, to sit in awe of or wrestled with as an obstacle. It is now a pre-packaged bus tour with photo-ops. The viewer arrives with expectations of what it will look like and what sorts of feelings will overwhelm his soul as he stands at the viewing point. If he is ever confused about this, various gift shop items will make clear what the experience is meant to be.
The problem is, consuming experiences in this way is a trap and everyone knows it. Even if we don’t admit it to ourselves, we know that we are bored, thus the phenomenon of the serial photographer who quickly moves on and clearly misses the whole point. It isn’t that these people are philistines, it’s that the object to be confronted is lost and they know it. There’s no way to get at the Grand Canyon anymore or really, truly see the Sistine Chapel because both are packaged in a consumer experience and take place surrounded by crowds of gawkers. How can I possibly understand the Sistine Chapel unless I pray in it? And how can I possibly pray in it in the context of a typical tourist? You cannot, so the object itself must be abandoned in favor of what we actually can possess, and what we can possess is the experience. We can consume, we can photograph, etc…
One answer, and this is how we know that all tourists are actually pretty cognizant that there’s a chasm between the object and themselves, is to leave the beaten track. Under the right conditions, everyone loves to do this, so much so that the tour guides now sell their pre-packaged tours as having inside access, skipping the usual lines, and showing customers little known secret places that no one else will see (Cruise ships, though! What’s the deal with these? They break all known rules because there is literally no way to go off the beaten path and I, for one, cannot understand the appeal. Maybe it’s the comfort of the ship combined with the authenticity of the shore leave? Someone help me understand what I’m missing).
Percy has already anticipated the, “off the beaten path,” maneuver and doesn’t believe in it. He writes,
The tourist leaves the tour, camps in the back country. He arises before dawn and approaches the South Rim through a wild terrain where there are no trails and no railed-in lookout points. In other words, he sees the canyon by avoiding all the facilities for seeing the canyon. If the benevolent Park Service hears about this fellow and thinks he has a good idea and places the following notice in the Bright Angel Lodge: Consult ranger for information on getting off the beaten track— the end result will only be the closing of another access to the canyon.
What happens is not actually more authentic. It is simply a more sophisticated way of consuming. I might be consuming the best, most local cup of coffee where all the townies hang out and there are no tourists, but I’m still coming at the experience with a certain symbolic complex involving hipsterism, snobbishness, and whatever form of consumerism that Apple Computers has exploited so efficiently. I’m looking for a certain type of authenticity, one that is pre-packaged by a certain sub-set of people.
So, what is one to do but make a triumphant return to the tourist routine? Percy even anticipates my ironic, post-tourism attitude, which has led me in the past to, for example, visit Graceland where I happily gawked at Elvis’s wall of televisions while wearing a bright orange Arkansas t-shirt purchased from a gas station around the corner. Percy writes that a true encounter with an object,
May be recovered by a dialectical movement which brings one back to the beaten track but at a level above it. For example, after a lifetime of avoiding the beaten track and guided tours, a man may deliberately seek out the most beaten track of all.
It’s like he was spying on me. But who wants to live life ironically. It’s just a desperate attempt to forestall the inevitable. At this point in the argument, we come up against similar territory that Percy has covered in places such as his Theory of Hurricanes. The tourist has no hope, so in order to have a real experience something must intrude, like a disaster, a sickness, or a glitch (we had the whole place to ourselves!) He describes two tourists who get lost and find themselves in an unmarked village that’s in the midst of a corn dance. He writes,
Now may we not say that the sightseers have at last come face to face with an authentic sight, a sight which is charming, quaint, picturesque, unspoiled, and that they see the sight and come away rewarded?
It isn’t that simple, though. Nothing ever is:
Possibly this may occur. Yet it is more likely that what happens is a far cry indeed from an immediate encounter with being, that the experience, while masquerading as such, is in truth a rather desperate impersonation. I use the word desperate advisedly to signify an actual loss of hope …“This is it” and “Now we are really living” do not necessarily refer to the sovereign encounter of the person with the sight that enlivens the mind and gladdens the heart. It means that now at last we are having the acceptable experience.
The self-consciousness is killing me, and it is so incredibly similar to what I have experienced. This last paragraph is a turning point in Percy’s argument, and he spends the rest of the essay diagnosing why it is that the symbolic complex infects absolutely every area of our lives, why we must photograph works of art and move on quickly, why tourism becomes an exercise in introspection, irony, and confusion, and even, as he will explain, why we don’t even really know how to read poetry anymore. Spoiler alert – It all has to do with a loss of the sovereignty of the human person.
Part two to follow – “Why we can’t read poetry good.”