Space/Time and Travel


From the title, this sounds like a science fiction post. Sorry. Nothing so imaginative. In my last post, I talked about my reaction to something Patti Smith wrote about traveling in French Guiana in 1980. I said "I not only wanted to be there, I wanted to be there at that time." Travel is not just spatial, it's temporal. We tend to think of it first in spatial terms, a place you've been. Been there, done that. Imagine the difference between saying: I was a student in Berkeley in the 60s and I was a student in Berkeley last year. It would be hard to claim that they're the same "place."

There are endless examples of how space and time interact for the traveler. Perhaps you've heard of the famous Parisian Brasserie, La Coupole. You can learn a little more on their website: "Painters such as Derain, L├ęger, Soutine, Man Ray, Brassai, Kisling and Picasso were elbow to elbow--sometimes with their fists raised... Aragon met Elsa and Simenon dined with Josephine Baker. Breton slapped Chirico and Kessel downed his glasses. An unknown writer with tiny round glasses, Henry Miller, took breakfast at the bar; Matisse sipped beer while Joyce lined up his whiskeys." Well, you can visit La Coupole. Have a coffee or a glass of wine, maybe an overpriced meal and imagine days gone by. The decor evoques the past. No doubt, it's fun to sit and imagine the past. You might even get some insights into historical figures and the culture they inhabited. Still, the place is only important for what it was. You wish you were there at "that" time. You're left feeling that you've missed something, not that you've achieved something (except maybe for your bucket list).

A few weeks ago, I was in San Francisco and stopped by City Lights Books, famous for its connection to the Beat Poets. But there was no Ferlinghetti, no Ginsberg, Bukowski, Snyder, or Rexroth. When it's a case of relatively recent history, at least you can imagine what a place was like. That's not the case with ancient sites - the Acropolis, Chichen Itza, Angkor Wat. In these places, we can't even imagine what life was like. I'm not sure, but wasn't the Acropolis inhabited by a bunch of philosphers in togas? Oh, and Chichen Itza - human sacrifice, right? Angkor Wat? No idea!

If we're fortunate enough to visit a place at a unique moment in time, that makes for profound memories. Beijing was quite a sight when the streets were jammed with bicycles. That was still the case well into the 90s. There were few office towers. Steel and glass was not the dominant architecture. Crowds would gather round a non-Chinese face. A few years later the streets were jammed with automobiles and buildings had sprung up everywhere.

East Berlin, separated by the Wall from West Berlin, seemed like another world. Hard to say which was stranger, the drab, austere police state of the East or the fact that West Berlin existed as an island of Western culture (and decadence) completely surrounded by the communist East. It was a disconnect that can never be relived.

Which brings me back once more to Patti Smith! Her trip to Guiana was a sort of pilgrimage on behalf of an aging and infirm French writer whom she reverred: Jean Genet. He was a favorite of writers and poets in the 70s, a French counterpart to the Beat Poets. He had hoped to be incarcerated in an infamous French penal colony in Guiana, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, but it had closed too soon!  Patti Smith had read about this in Genet's Thief's Journal, so she decided to go there and bring him back some rocks - provide a vicarious visit. She didn't know Genet personally.

Reading her book, I get the feeling that the notion of being born too late shapes her thought and her art. A Beat at heart, she tries to recreate their world in the present, to modify not space, but space/time. Of course we all do this, though perhaps not to the same extent. Any visit to an historic site, is certainly an attempt to cross that space/time divide. But let's face it, even if a neon sign outside claims otherwise, that pub where Joyce drank, the apartment where Hugo lived, these places aren't really there.

Nope, haven't been there, haven't done that.



"We sat back and surveyed the room, conscious that the writers we so admired had spent many hours conversing in it together. They are all still here, we agreed, and walked back to the hotel." (Smith, Patti; M Train, pp. 226-7)

It's always a good sign when you start a book and it immediately sets you off in pursuit of your own thoughts. I didn't know that the travel theme would be dominent, that M Train would contain a series of pilgrimages to places linked to writers that inspired Patti Smith. The lines above are about the Cafe de Paris in Tangier, frequented by writers. Clearly she finds a presence that others, like me, are unable to find. It's funny that as I began the book, I started down a road that so diverged from the road she takes. In the end, one thing we can agree on, whichever camp you belong to, travel on!

Check out the book: Patti Smith. M Train. New York Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

By Kevin O'Neill


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