November 15, 2008

"Intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way -- hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual..."

I want to talk about this passage from a footnote in the David Foster Wallace essay "Consider the Lobster" (at page 240 in the paperback essay collection):
My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place or context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way -- hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all... To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant, but essentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
My questions:

1. Is Wallace saying anything about travel in general, or just intranational travel, or just travel that deserves the label "tourism," or just tourism that is also "mass"? If he's not saying something about travel in general, what is it about this subset of travel that deserves this special loathing?

2. What do these feelings have to do with being an American, and what is "pure" and "late-date" about it? Haven't there been "alien, ignorant, greedy" travelers all over the place and throughout the ages?

3. As we know, Wallace was deeply depressed and ultimately committed suicide, and is that the main thing that passage means?

4. On page 237, Wallace tells us that "lobsters are basically giant sea insects" -- lobsters and insects are all arthropods -- and that they are "garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff," so if we become "an insect on a dead thing," we're like the lobster, right? And therefore we shouldn't eat lobster, presumably. Or should we? We are after all hateful, in that view, so why spare the lobster?

36 comments:

jdeeripper said...

Wallace was deeply depressed and ultimately committed suicide,

PUPPY CAM!!!!!!

Hurry he's there now!!

Ann Althouse said...

Jd...

Good answer!

rcocean said...

Sneering at mass tourism as "constricting" etc.? That's so old it was a cliche in Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene day.

Tourists now go on "anti-tourist" tours to show "authentic" they are.

Trooper York said...

Well now he's touring hell. How is that working out for him.

Palladian said...

"1. Is Wallace saying anything about travel in general, or just intranational travel, or just travel that deserves the label "tourism," or just tourism that is also "mass"? If he's not saying something about travel in general, what is it about this subset of travel that deserves this special loathing?"

It's because "all the wrong people" do it. It sounds like the standard complaint of all self-assured enlightened sophisticates. He traveled and saw fat Americans from flyover land and that upset him. He's just implicating himself as a literary device so that it's not so much of a snobbish complaint. Or, also likely, he hated himself and that hate bounced back to him off of everyone and everything he observed.

2". What do these feelings have to do with being an American, and what is "pure" and "late-date" about it?"

Again, a device used by "intellectuals", especially ones who spent time reading "critical theory". They love to write "late-date" America or "late-period" America, because it has that thrilling post-America, fin du monde quality about it.

"Haven't there been "alien, ignorant, greedy" travelers all over the place and throughout the ages?"

Yes, but they weren't nearly as nice as travelers generally are today. They often traveled and instead of giving money to the natives in exchange for things, they killed them and took their things and their money.

"3. As we know, Wallace was deeply depressed and ultimately committed suicide, and is that the main thing that passage means?"

Probably a piece of the puzzle, to paraphrase Citizen Kane. The excessively nihilistic worldview of post-modern "intellectuals" is very dangerous to people who already have psychological problems. Depressives often find validation in the philosophical negativity of leftist critical theory.

"4. On page 237, Wallace tells us that "lobsters are basically giant sea insects" -- lobsters and insects are all arthropods -- and that they are "garbagemen of the sea, eaters of dead stuff," so if we become "an insect on a dead thing," we're like the lobster, right? And therefore we shouldn't eat lobster, presumably. Or should we? We are after all hateful, in that view, so why spare the lobster?"

Hard to say. Given what I know about DFW and the worldview of his milieu, the human is always the bad actor, the hateful party in all things and his final act testifies to that. In the end he cared more about the lobster than he did about David Foster Wallace. One was worth his mercy, one wasn't.

Christy said...

Trooper, because, as we all know, "Hell is other people," not so well.

John Stodder said...

I think DFW has a point. I don't think it's Waugh-like snobbery or planet-weary eco-accountability that drives that passage. I think it's about the experience of being a tourist, which is what you are, no matter the size of your footprint, if you're a Californian in Indonesia or a Wisconsinian in France.

For someone as bookish as DFW, it is easy to fantasize that you are discovering great treasures of art and knowledge for yourself, because you're not surrounded by people discovering it at the exact same moment.

Over the past decade, when I travel, I tend to return to the same handful of places where I can feel like I'm somewhat more at home and I can set my own course, or just hang out. I'm sure I'll do more tourism before I die, because some things just have to be experienced despite the sense of alienation he describes. But it's not optimal.

EDH said...

intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way -- hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all...

Isn't this the same old elitist, internationalist pretention? Indded, the kind that might make you feel like you're too good for this world?

Thus, we peel away the levels of anti-American snobbery:

You're an "alien, ignorant, greedy" rube if you do travel intranationally.

You're an "alien, ignorant, greedy" rube if you don't travel internationally.

You're an "alien, ignorant, greedy" rube even if you do travel internationally, but do so without matching "my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all.."

Original George said...

The paragraph you excerpt above is as good an example of bad writing as one will find on a Saturday afternoon. E.B. White's dachshund Fred would have chewed it to bits.

dbp said...

Lobsters are cannibalistic. If we are like them and like them, then we should eat them. Just like they eat each other.

Seven Machos said...

Well, a really great passage. It nails everything I hate about tourists. That's for sure. But, really. Am I like that as a tourist?

former law student said...

I went and read the article online, which provides more context. Wallace was complaining that being a tourist, arriving at festival time with a kajillion other tourists, isolated him from really experiencing the time and the place, and from interacting with the locals as other than a lobster to be boiled and then to have the meat sucked out.

Intranational tourist: This is a bit of guesswork on my part, but I would say that Wallace would have expected to be feel isolated in a foreign country, because of the strange culture and language, but not in his own.

But yet Wallace wanted to "live outside and above it all." I would say he wanted to have the upper hand, to be able to criticize the local scene and not to be just another mooing steer going to slaughter.

2. While it may be trite, I would distinguish travel from tourism. Travel enables you to interact with locals, and have a local's experience. Mass tourism forces you to interact only with your fellow tourists. Your only interactions with the locals are economic: You see the sights, sleep in m/hotels, eat where the tourists eat, and buy souvenirs. None of this is "authentic." Again, the tourist is isolated from the locality, as much as he may want to participate in it and learn about it.

In my experience, the more popular a place is with people who don't live there, the more they hate tourists. "Late-date" may mean only that tourist events are swamped as never before, exacerbating this tourist-hatred.

3. Feeling isolated from one's fellow man sounds like a symptom of depression to me.

4. Lobsters, like other animals, suffer when they are prepared for our food. We as tourists suffer as we submit to being used as economic sustenance by the locals.

nansealinks said...

COMPARE:

Lobsters go topless on the beach. No one cares. No one knows the difference between male and female lobsters

Many tourists go topless on the beach. Many are over 50 or even 60. No one cares. Sometimes you have to look hard to tell the difference in males and females, too.

CONTRAST:

Tourists don't wear rubberbands on their claws when locals fish them from their fake habitat in the market. Quite the opposite: they have their claws open and pinching either wallets or rock hard bottoms.

Synova said...

I don't know what he was talking about, and it does sound like he was depressed.

I think that there may be a way to travel and keep the feeling of wonder, but it's done by not connecting to the new place... it's done by maintaining distance.

A woman on a chat list I'm on recently said she was going to Milan that day and had to check on her plane ticket. I said that Milan sounded so very exotic and got an LOL in response, because, she said, she grew up there. Which was sort of what I was meaning to get at. Of course it wasn't exotic for her and wasn't it *funny* that it sounded exotic to me?

And I said that it had reminded me of what another lady on the chat list had said about traveling alone through China and Mongolia on her way home after living and teaching in Korea (and before that, New Caledonia, IIRC)... and that was that every where you went was ordinary for the people who lived there, and very shortly, for you too. They were all just places with people.

And that is my experience as well, having lived overseas. No one thinks of themselves as picturesque and quaint and whatever life you live is what is ordinary.

jdeeripper said...

Palladian said...He traveled and saw fat Americans from flyover land and that upset him. He's just implicating himself as a literary device so that it's not so much of a snobbish complaint.

Duane Hanson's Tourists II

The excessively nihilistic worldview of post-modern "intellectuals" is very dangerous to people who already have psychological problems. Depressives often find validation in the philosophical negativity of leftist critical theory.

I remember being very bothered by Eeyore the Donkey in the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons. I was a child in a bad situation and I remember thinking they shouldn't show that to children because he was so depressed. It was demoralizing. It really bothered me.

On the other hand Tigger was grrrreat!!!

William said...

I travelled alone when younger. In the back of my mind there was always this wish to find some perfect place where the good people would find me one of them and the pretty women would find me irrestible....In some parts of Latin America, having blonde hair is not a disadvantage, but, by and large, my quest was not a huge success. Still, the motorcycle diarrhea of the journey made me feel that life was an adventure with infinite possibilities... Nowadays I travel with tour groups. Everything, including me, is packaged and predictable. I like it better this way. As you get older, infinite possibilities seem scary and confusing. If I ever encountered the one perfect place, I would be heartbroken because my discovery would have come too late in life.

dualdiagnosis said...

That's the problem with life sometimes, it is depressing.

AlmaGarret said...

I've read two of DFW's books - both were collections of essays. I would take issue with those who are saying he was writing as a typical elite snob etc. Until the last few years of his life, he lived in Ilinois in a smaller college town (not Chicago) - can't remember which one at the moment. He always came across to me as someone who tried very hard NOT to do the whole smug elite thing. After he died, I recall reading something about his dislike of New York. He was a Midwesterner after all.

If you read his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" he describes the cruise ship experience very cleverly, but never sounds as though he's looking down his nose at the people he meets. That was particularly evident in the descriptions of his dinner table mates.

I'm not sure he hated himself - to me he seemed (in his writing) to be painfully uncomfortable in his own skin.

ricpic said...

Growing up in New York you always knew the heart of tourist New York was Rockefeller Center. And that just by wandering a few blocks in any direction from RC all those tourists would become travelers. But they never did. Strange.

Or maybe not so strange. Most people don't want to be travelers. They want to be tourists.

Want to be a traveler? Simplist thing in the world. Hold your finger over a map of the United States. Wherever your finger comes down, go there. Peoria. Scarsdale. Murdo, South Dakota. You'll be a traveler. A vanilla milk shake in a roadside joint full of the locals on a blazing hot day in Murdo. Alive? Nothing like it. But people don't want that. So they miss out. Their loss.

Zeb Quinn said...

I can't see how any of what he says is attributable uniquely to intranational travel, "lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction" loom every bit as large in international travel.

I've driven from coast to coast nonstop several times. I found it exhilarating. Everyone should do it at least once.

Ann Althouse said...

Yeah, I love intranational travel, by car, across the open landscape. I didn't think the prejudice against intranational travel was fair. The prejudice against tourist traps is, of course, appropriate.

Meade said...

"I've driven from coast to coast nonstop several times"

Adult diapers?

blake said...

5. Wherever you go, there you are.

You can't take a vacation from yourself. (And if you can, you don't need to take a vacation with your body.)

Do any of us have to travel very far to find the exotic? It seems like I can just sit still and watch the world change around me.

Synova said...

I like tourist traps!

They are their own special, unique, slice of Americana.

The most fun part is that they're all the same, with all the same jumble of crap to buy. It's almost like stopping at McDonald's to eat. But there are differences, too. In New Mexico McDonald's offers green chili on the side. ;-)

Sure, the refrigerator magnets are all made in China and the Indian blankets are from Mexico, not anywhere near the little truck stop you're at, but where else are you going to find bins of polished stones stained unlikely and unnatural colors? (How *do* they color *rocks*?)

I almost enjoy tourist traps more as a local than while I'm traveling.

Zeb Quinn said...

Adult diapers?

I stopped for fuel and that.

ron st.amant said...

I grew up in a resort area. There was definitely an anti-tourist sentiment from parts of the immediate community not directly tied economically to tourism.

However I think it is simply the natural inclination to regard with contempt 'the other'.

We become familiar in our surroundings, our patterns of living, and any intrustion especially on a large scale, is unsettling.

When someone comes into that community or network, it's rather easy to feel that hesitation on the part of the 'locals'

The more homogenous the place, the more that natural bond to protect from 'the other'.

Even in places as diverse as San Francisco and Toronto(I've lived in both and they pride themselves on their multiculturalism and diversity) there are pockets of homogenous social networks that behave the same as rural areas of uni-cultural character.

Meade said...

Razzing with affection, Zebster.

When he's on a non-stop tour,
what goes on in Zeb's trousers?
Zeb's trouuuuuu...sers.

Ann Althouse said...

"You can't take a vacation from yourself."

Drugs.

Not recommending it. Just saying.

Paddy O. said...

I live in a place that's considered a tourist destination, where half or more of the homes in the area are vacation homes.

I get what he's saying, in a way.

As Andy Goldsworthy says in Rivers and Tides it can take ten years to really get to know a place. This isn't only about the look or street names. It's about the feel, the attitude, the speed of a place, the rhythm and sounds. When someone moves into my neighborhood, for instance, they often are initially noisy, bringing in the frenzy of the lowland suburbs. But, after a while there is a calming.

It's easy to tell a tourist around here. They're the ones who look crabby, don't smile or say hello on the street, don't make eye contact. They don't 'get' what here is, even as many of them have owned a second (or 3rd) home here for many years. They don't even realize what they don't get, and yet take up the space and very rarely contribute a positive aura to the place. They absorb, they emit trash, light, noise that interrupts the regular atmosphere.

Tourists like Wallace is talking about don't really want to know a place for it's reality or fullness. They want to absorb an experience, checking off a variously formed list, then move on to something else. There is little contemplation or even real observation.

What's sad to me is that it seems like Wallace wasn't that type, but got professionally involved in being that type, meaning he spent a whole lot of time pretending to be someone he wasn't.

He wasn't himself with people who didn't know where they were.
He was intimately familiar with that which was inherently alienating. Lost familiarity with what he valued in himself. No wonder the depression overtook him. And those who profited off his dislocation still feed off the dead, tourists of his slow, perceptive dying.

blake said...

"You can't take a vacation from yourself."

Drugs.

Not recommending it. Just saying.


Thanks for the disclaimer. Some impressionable child might wander in and think drugs are a good idea.

Chip Ahoy said...

jd, I love your puppy cam. They're the cutest little things in the universe of cuteness, all snuggled up piled on one anther at one end of their doggie bed.

Dudley Do-right said...

" but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way -- hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all... "

Well, heck. All Wallace needed was a pilot's license and an old Cessna 172. General Aviation to the rescue....every flight an adventure.

For all the high & mighty rhetoric, it seems his thinking never got off the ground.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

"You can't take a vacation from yourself."

Drugs.

Not recommending it. Just saying.


Even worse. Then the real you, the one that you supress, comes out without the filters that keep us able to believe that we are who we would like to think that we are.

"It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you."

I found this to be quite profound. Living in a resort/tourist destination this struck me as being very insightful from the "tourist's" perspective. It is a dual edged sword. The intranational tourists bring income and economic activity, but at what price to the local community?

PJ said...

He just should have gone when he was younger and cuter, then people would be happy he was there for some other reason than money.

Paddy O. said...

Video games are another way to take a vacation from yourself. Live another, more exciting, life for a while and have all kinds of different, and exciting, problems to replace the sometimes discouragement of the same old, not nearly as interesting, problems.

Cheaper and more socially acceptable, in most circles, than drugs.

knox said...

Even worse. Then the real you, the one that you supress, comes out without the filters that keep us able to believe that we are who we would like to think that we are.

Now, that's depressing!