ON THE NARROW ROAD TO THE KASHIMA SHRINE
What does it mean to travel? What kind of advantage comes from this? Strangely, traveling, as modest as it might be materially, coming closer to asceticism than splendor, brings status and distinction in so many cultures. Long before the modern invention of grand tour or aristocratic travel, and then of mass tourism, Bashō traveled on his narrow road to the deep north to accomplish and to distinguish himself as a cultured subject (1). Travel was his way of fulfilling literature, getting back to the source of ancient poetry. Stepping into the path of the dead poets, he was gradually becoming a poet himself. Going beyond received education, coming down to the source, to the primary emotion connected to a place, a view, a certain pine tree that was not even the same any more. Into the deep North means down to the illo tempore of the first text. Also down to an initiatic death, becoming a weather-exposed skeleton, the sore wind blowing through his heart (2).
I reconsider my rejected application for that grant destined to vulgarize knowledge among high-school students and young adults. I'd proposed to write and promote a website, a blog, offering weekly a kind of literary reportage, presenting difference and otherness, and also the adventure and thrill of being a scholar. I thought it's important to supplement somehow our closed horizons, the narrowness of our identity, our blindness to universalism, to the uniqueness of human condition, inside and outside the European Union. They considered this proposal unworthy of attention.
Nonetheless, I am myself the last instance to judge which of my projects should be realized and which are truly unworthy of attention. Yes, in its primitive version this project shouldn't be realized. I see no point in writing such things in Polish, trying to tempt high-school students and young adults into reading them, advertising them on book markers and pencils distributed in public libraries. But still I believe it's worth the while to write it in English, as I do now, searching for my own definition of a cultural travel. Somewhere between Bashō, Victorian aristocrats, itinerant scholars of the Islamic world (3), and many others, and myself.
Bashō travels to places he had read about in ancient poetry, and it is a curious way of taking literature seriously. I think we miss it, we are too Borgesian. We believe that books are worlds in themselves, and that humanities are just a game like soccer, in which novelty is the score, no matter what we actually do talk about. This is the shallowness of our peripheral minds, yet another aspect of it: we think the world is unreal.
There is a deep, a secret correspondence between literature and travel, far beyond seeing the autumnal full moon over the mountains of Kashima Shrine exactly as described by Teishitsu (4). In such a sense, my own travel to any country would only partially be a true one, because I might see so many places that correspond to no dead poet of mine. Nonetheless, those blank spaces are essential as the sources of future readings. Serendipity of a travel is a way of stepping outside a received cartography.
Or a way of finding most unexpected correspondence with internal reality. In Sighișoara, I saw on old cemetery of German settlers. Strangely, it corresponds to a dream I had once and again, years ago. Perhaps the deepest point of the travel is such an immersion into the inner landscapes, palimpsests forming a world that is truly mine, and so pervasively, so essentially real. The emergence of meaning appears at the intersection of place and that interior image, unseen – and yet seen.
And that dream was in itself a palimpsest of a different place I saw as a child, traveling: another German cemetery, in northern Poland. An early discovery of a cultural absence. I wrote about a similar dream on my other blog (Temptation of the Desert), and I called it Père Lachaise. I wrote about my strange tenderness towards the remnants. Perhaps it was the moment of an unconscious discovery of my own presence confronted with absence, my own responsibility for the things gone by. Epiphany, not only of a live culture in books actually read, but also of a world fulfilled and made real in the actuality of a travel. The pathos of a live poet in front of the Kashima Shrine.
1Matsuo Bashō, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin Books, 1966.
2Expression used by Bashō in a haiku embedded in the haibun under the title “The records of a weather-exposed skeleton”, in The Narrow Road, op. cit., p. 51.
3This in a special reference to the Malaysian scholar Farish A. Noor and his travelogues Qur'an and Cricket. Travels through the madrasahs of Asia and other stories, Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books, 2009.
4“A Visit to the Kashima Shrine”, in The Narrow Road, op. cit., p. 65.