The Tourist and The Pilgrim

The Tourist and the Pilgrim

Self-consciousness is such a debilitating thing. Even writing these words now, I feel as though everyone I’ve ever met is looking over my shoulder, ready to heckle at the drop of an infelicitous phrase or tut as I heap on latinate words or sneer at my pretensiousness. If only I could let myself go and stop worrying over things, I might get actually achieve something . . .

I wrote that paragraph the day before I set off on my Ulysses pilgrimage. For far too long I had been deferring the decision over what I was going to do with my life and I hoped that getting out of the country would inspire me. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to find myself – I know someone who went to the Himalayas to find themselves and came back an accountant – rather, I wanted to extract myself from my London routine and get some perspective on things as I turned twenty-five.

The 16th of June 2004, as well as being the day after my birthday, was the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday. Ever since I forced myself to read Ulysses as a callow eighteen year old, I had wanted to make a pilgrimage to the places described, using the book as a kind of unwieldy and out of date Rough Guide. I imagined myself thinking about the ineluctable modality of the visible in the day and drinking Guinness at night. Or, if that sounded a little pretentious – as it did when my barber asked me where I was going for my summer holiday – I could just say I’d always wanted to visit Dublin.

The first thing that strikes you about Dublin is how very British it is. Although Ireland has only been independent from the mainland for 80 years, you’d think that there’d be something strange or disorientating. But no, the shops are the same, the roads are the same, the signs are the same, the people are the same. Only the grinning faces of the candidates for the European elections, posters of whom adorned every single streetlamp, served as a distraction from the surburban monotony. Having spent the previous night sleeping on a cold, hard airport floor, I began to feel run-down. Things got worse when I arrived at Isaac’s Hostel and was told that my room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours. I protested, but they were curt, telling meleave my bags and explore the city.

Another observation . . . unlike London, Dublin is a city with blue-collar work, the docks are home to more than just yuppie flats, and thus, throughout the day, articulated lorries belch fumes through the streets. After half an hour walking through ugly traffic-filled streets, I was wretchedly ill. My nose was streaming, my head clouded over and my eyes were raw and stinging. By the time I reached the National Gallery, my eyes had turned into two angry red welts, my throat was sore, and my legs were giving way. Despite having thoughts only for my poor decimated body, with its throbs and its pains, I still managed to admire the first rate Goyas and Caravaggio. As a tourist, you should never waste an opportunity to become cultured.

Back at the hostel, I was given one of those capricious cards that pass for keys these days and, after much effort, finally got into my room. Dumping my bags on the floor, I fell back onto the least comfortable bed I’ve ever encountered. The pillow was even worse, being not much more than a small bag of bony feathers. And what was that rumbling sound? It’s only the clatter of the train that will go past my window every half an hour until midnight. Isaac’s is an apt name: just to stay there is an act of faith and the beds are good only for being sacrificed on. Why me? I cried. What did I do?

The next morning – after a night of noisy trains, itchy eyes and feverish dreams – I wasn’t at my best. Muttering curses under my breath to anyone who crossed my path, I managed to locate the correct bus stop for Dun Laoghaire despite not knowing how to pronounce it (only later did I discover it is said “Dun Leary”). I got on and curled up in the corner seat. Compared to the foetid air of Dublin, the sea breezes of Dun Laoghaire were incredibly invigorating. I even started taking an interest in my surroundings, noting regretfully the absence of seaside kitsch.

Looking back on it now, I realise how important my illness was in the epiphanic revelation that I was to have in the Martello tower; for illness is a great teacher. At the University of Life, illness is a distinguished professor with many honorary degrees. Health, on the other hand, is a poor PhD student whose thesis is never finished. Illness makes you re-examine your life, to correct whatever it is you’re doing wrong. In many ways it is a better holiday than any travelling can be, because it is a holiday from yourself. Illness changes the physiological self, allowing you to see the world without the usual delusions.

The Martello tower was my Canterbury, my Mecca, the destination of my pilgrimage. This was where Joyce set the opening chapter of Ulysses . . . (Stately, plump Buck Mulligan . . . the scrotumtightening, snotgreen sea . . .) Around me, Americans with bulging bumbags and baseball caps, took photos of each other. One proudly held up an unread copy of the book. These people aren’t pilgrims, I thought, they’re just tourists. Sitting beneath the parapet wall, I felt a queasy nausea: I knew then that I wasn’t a pilgrim either, I was a tourist. And not just in Dublin, but in life . . .

Modern tourism was born on the 5th of July 1841, the day when a group of Leicester temperance campaigners set off for a rally in Loughborough on a train chartered by Thomas Cook. What distinguished this particular journey from all previous journeys was the fact that it was packaged. That is, the whole thing was organised by an agent for the convenience of the traveller. Since then the tourist industry has grown exponentially. People joke about degrees in hamburgerology, but Leisure and Tourism is now a well-established academic subject. It’s so easy to travel these days – with cheap flights and fast motorways shortening our sense of the distances involved – that we think nothing of it. When we get to our destination, there is always plenty of distractions in the form of museums, theme parks, and heritage sites. These two things – convenience and distraction – not only define tourism, they are the twin gods of modern culture. Television, mobile phones, computer games, online journals, mp3 players, Starbucks, digital cameras, PDAs, the list goes on and on – are all part of the contemporary drive towards increased convenience and increased distraction. This is, in short, the age of the tourist.

On top of the Martello tower, I had seen that my whole life was based around deferring the inconvenience and monotony of existence. I was forever diarising, jotting down notes, and taking photos of things to experience them at a later date. I listened to music through headphones everywhere I went, a soundtrack to a spectacle of my own making. I never allowed myself to be bored, I never took thoughts to their natural extremes; there would always be a distraction. It became impossible not to multi-task. I would eat dinner and read a book while sitting in front of a computer that had numerous programs and files open. Music on the stereo, perhaps pushing a shoe off that I couldn’t be bothered with earlier, unwilling to concentrate on one thing, shirking away from the depths of life, yearning for placid superficiality, yearning for the characterless non-space of superstores . . . this may be a exaggeration, but not much of one.

The tourist is happy just observing, taking his photo and moving on. For the tourist, it is only the destination that matters, the rest is non-space. The tourist ethic is shallow, unspiritual, undigested. It turns the world into an airport with banal attractions at either end. Supermarkets, airports, motorway service stations, pubs, retail parks – all are or are becoming anonymous units for processing people. It’s not so much that there is more of everything these days (TV channels, radio stations), rather that what there was has been diluted. Individuality is dissolved in eight billion webpages, ambitions flow into the gutter of celebrity, all the world is a pop idol stage . . . Really, how are we to live in these dark days?

The answer, I think, lies with the pilgrim. For the pilgrim, the journey is just as important as the destination; without the journey, the destination doesn’t really exist. The pilgrim has rituals instead of routines; experiments instead of renunciations. Dandys, bohemians, and decadents are all pilgrims, investing meaning in the journey of life with their aesthetic concerns, understanding that it is in the details of existence where value is to be found. Indeed, self-consciousness need not be the debilitating thing it had been before I went to Dublin. Without the whip of progress towards a destination point, which makes every journey a painful one, self-consciousness can enhance life. What would you rather be, asked J.S. Mill, a fool satisfied or a Socrates dissatisfied? A surprising number of people opt for the former, others confess to being dissatisfied fools, but I aspire toward the latter, even if it means corrupting the young and drinking hemlock.

When people say “go with the flow,” I immediately imagine being carried helplessly along by the current, ahead of which is a waterfall and certain death. Going against the flow may be harder and slower, but through doing so you also become stronger. The Pilgrim expects and willingly confronts inconvenience and inertia. Rather than striving for the flat line of contentedness, the Pilgrim understands that one cannot experience the highest highs without also experiencing the lowest lows. To the pilgrim, rock bottom is a trampoline. It was time to start performing some experiments in living.