He’s living proof that travel don’t broaden the mind; instead, it renders a man banal.

This declaration in Nights at the Circus might surprise the reader of Angela Carter, whose work stands out for sudden geographical relocation and indeed dislocation of every kind. As for Carter herself, it was a two-year spell in Japan that really made her take off creatively. Why should she of all people say such a thing, apparently in all seriousness?

The concept of travel is an important one for a magazine dedicated to Europe and all things pan-European. In an age of Ryanair, with fully free movement of people within the EU in January 2014 fast approaching, travel is more available to more Europeans than ever before. And on our continent, the assumption that travel, among other things, broadens the mind has a long pedigree.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)Painting of a ball by Wilhelm Gause

The Grand Tour was a way for North European aristocrats of the Enlightenment to show they had seen a life beyond their local routine of hunting, balls and bossing people about; its appeal in Nordic countries was reputedly due to its reflection of old Norse myths. Epistolary novels such as Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes and Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Peruvienne provided a discreet way of criticising the author’s native country: the exotic perspective allowed a more objective point of view which made such criticism more palatable for the reader.

The idioms speak for themselves: it seems naturally to follow that simply by travelling, the traveller ‘expands his horizons’, becoming a ‘man of the world’ if he is English, or if he is Romanian, an ‘om de lume’. Of course other motivations for travelling do exist, but the intrinsic attraction of getting a place on the Erasmus Programme, or of crossing Europe to work as a barrista, is that it will enrich our minds and CVs, besides perhaps our bank accounts. And we have all met the recently-returned Interrailer who relies heavily on their new international experiences when trying to chat people up or impress them.

At least, we assume we shall reap such benefits. But are we mistaken? Could travel instead make the mind banal, perhaps even narrowing it? Donald Farfrae in Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge charms his way through the small English town largely on the strength of his exoticism. A mild-mannered, handsome Scotsman who first appears singing of his deep yearning for his ‘ain countree’, he cuts a romantic figure. He finds his fortunes rise while those of quick-tempered, impulsive local Michael Henchard stumble. Farfrae is in fact flaky and shallow: his character disappoints the initial expectations of passion and reflection, and he himself is unabashed to admit that except for a few minutes’ tuneful indulgence, he has no wish to return to Scotland. But it takes a good half of the novel for even the reader to notice this: for the townsfolk, the song itself suffices to colour in his personality for a considerable time. The mere fact of relocation provides an excellent mask, a prefabricated personality.

For Henchard on the other hand, it is the firm decision to settle that facilitates his gradual redemption, while a return to the road accompanies his final demise. A century earlier Candide, the naive eponymous protagonist of Voltaire’s most famous work, is permitted to achieve a degree of modest wisdom only once his slogs across the eighteenth-century world have taught him the value of staying put.

The reactionary traveller is notably manifested in E.M. Forster’s Room with a View. Characters such as Miss Bartlett or Mr Beebe are as all-British as Walser, the subject of that statement in Nights at the Circus, is all-American. The view only makes them seal up their room more tightly, becoming (if that is possible) more prudish and boorish in the liberated setting of Florence. Forster opposes this mindset to a more favourable approach to life – and to travel. Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine, undoubtedly does develop her character more fully in the challenges and inspirations of that same setting.

Escapism and mind-broadening can be found without necessarily moving far
Yet the Florence of A Room with a View seems itself a rather idealised version: a handy method with which Forster can introduce a new set of values. What Nights at the Circus shows is that escapism and mind-broadening can be found without necessarily moving far. Indeed, magical realist works have used the distortion of reality to encourage the reader to question conventional thought in the same way that epistolary novels once used travel. However, now that travel is no longer an abstraction but widely available, it can no longer be used in such a way. Carter’s incessant games with language (‘This is some kind of heretical possibly Manichean version of neo-Platonic Rosicrucianism’, the supposedly unschooled heroine Fevvers suddenly notes) unseat the reader no less than the circus’ ambitious tour to Russia (which as part of both East and West is perhaps the ultimate mysterious travel destination in the western imagination). When the circus train in Nights at the Circus supernaturally explodes while hurtling through Siberia, with the tigers shattering like glass, it is the wild tundra that now becomes our only connection with the world we know, our only comfort.

Photo:  AJC1 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The circus is led by a brash, bumptious character called Kearney who styles himself ‘Colonel’ (and who would probably be played by Will Ferrell in a film adaptation). A cigar-chomping American in an Uncle Sam costume first and foremost, like Farfrae he roots his personality in location. For him to stay interesting or impressive, that location must always be a foreign one where he can appear novel. He thus relies on travel to sustain his image: back in Kentucky (or indeed, anywhere that had got used to his adopted identity) he would simply look like someone on their way to a fancy-dress party. Kearney’s posturing utterly fails when he tries uses these foils, in particular his money, to seduce Fevvers: as he slumps in a drunken stupor, she pulls from his fly ‘a string of little silk American flags’ which seem to supplant his very manhood.

Even this American identity is itself rather bogus: ‘born in Kentucky he may have been, but no Dixie patriot he!’ Besides its role in introducing the world to the joys of fried chicken, a distinctly American dish, Kentucky is also remarkable for having been, just forty years prior to the action of Nights at the Circus, an especially confused, flip-flopping border state during the Civil War. But Kearney nevertheless co-opts it for his facade, as he brings his product to new locations where people need no longer move to encounter strange places such as his mythical United States.

Travel – or, as in the case of Kearney’s self-marketing, interaction with other societies – for its own sake will inevitably involve the distillation of a foreign place into a conveniently unitary, imagined synthesis. Nights at the Circus is peppered with references to the necessity that a show should continually mystify its public. Travelling can provide a similar pleasure to that of watching a circus performance: the successive discovery of parcels of this mystery, with a further pleasure in their classification. ‘French courteous. Spanish lordly. Italian amorous. German clownish’: thus Jean Gailhard, in his 1678 Compleat Gentleman, neatly sums up the nationalities that would be encountered on the then nascent Grand Tour. A narrow-minded satisfaction can be derived from the process of simplifying the world into one’s home country, and a series of ‘Others’, each representing a single set of ideas. That Other might be Forster’s implausibly tolerant Florence, Kearney’s pure American Kentucky, or the Russia that is popularly dismissed with a reformulation of Churchill’s words about ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ so that we can stop trying to understand gulags, vodka, Rasputin and Putin.

Walser, perhaps the Lucy Honeychurch of Nights at the Circus, nevertheless does develop as the work progresses. As he ceases to be simply an observer, the reporter we meet at the beginning, he grows on Fevvers and his character is made ever more manifest to the reader. But it is hardly the travel alone that does this. Nor is it even the challenges he faces when chased by homicidal clowns or deposited alone in a vast, snow-covered pine forest: at the outset of the story, he has ‘not experienced his experience as experience’, having previously survived similarly florid dangers partly thank less to his bravery than to his emptiness, his own lack of beliefs. Distracted by his travelling, ‘himself he never found, since it was not his self which he sought’. His transformation instead occurs as a response to successive assaults on his self-esteem and general world-view, culminating in his spell in the company of a shaman by which time he can no longer explain away the weirdness of his surroundings by reducing it to a category of foreignness, because this time he is wholly immersed in complete unfamiliarity and un-reason. Bereft of his psychological crutches, he is forced to learn the language of the shaman and of his work, finishing the process of his self-transformation which eventually leads him, the first admirer to succeed, into the arms of the previously unattainable Fevvers.

And herein lies the meaning of Angela Carter’s observation. Adapting oneself (and indeed one’s self) to new experiences may well broaden the mind; but the fact of changing location does not. Remember this while trying to chat people up.

Cover photo: Simon Pielow (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • retro

    Timothy Beyer studied International and European Politics at Edinburgh University. Interests include gender and (gradually) learning Arabic.

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