It is a difficult matter to make the most of any given place, and we have much in our own power. Things looked at patiently from one side after another generally end by showing a side that is beautiful. (RL Stevenson)
Enjoying unpleasant places is not as odd as it first sounds.
After all, who ever said that travel was only ever about finding that perfect place where everything was just as we would wish it? Not Pico Iyer, who in an essay for Salon, Why We Travel (published in 2000) noted that “never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are to the difficulty that precedes them”, or Lawrence Durrell, who said:
Let the tourist be cushioned against misadventure; but your true traveller will not feel that he has had his money’s worth unless he brings back a few scars…No, the mishaps and disappointments only lend relief to the splendours of the voyage. (from Reflections on Travel in Spirit of Place).
So Stevenson, in his 1874 essay On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places considers what travellers can gain from unpleasant places, how their state of mind can also affect their reaction to a place and how, with the right frame of mind, there is enjoyment to be had in almost any place.
Stevenson’s view is that we learn to live with the unpleasantness and “dwell lovingly on what is good, and shut our eyes against all that is bleak or inharmonious.” For Stevenson, spending time in unpleasant places can be satisfying and, once we stop for long enough in a place and bring our imaginations to bear on it, “we forget to some degree the superior loveliness of other places, and fall into a tolerant and sympathetic spirit which is its own reward and justification.” He notes, by way of example, that several weeks in unpleasant countryside did more to quicken his sensibilities than much longer periods in places he would have found more obviously attractive.
Stevenson also observes that in visiting unpleasant places, we learn “to come to each place in the right spirit”. That our own state of mind is an important factor in our reaction to any place is something Alain de Botton reflects on in his book, The Art of Travel (“[my] eyes were intimately tied to a body and mind which would travel with me wherever I went and that might…negate the purpose of of what the eyes had come there to see.”).
As Stevenson expressed it:
Nor does the scenery any more affect the thoughts than the thoughts affect the scenery. We see places through our humours as through differently coloured glasses. We are ourselves a term in the equation, a note of the chord, and make discord or harmony almost at will.
Stevenson notes the important effect that unpleasant places will have on the writer, who “weaves something out of all that he sees and suffers by the way” and takes “their tone greatly from the varying character of the scene; a sharp ascent brings different thoughts from a level road; and the man’s fancies grow lighter as he comes out of the wood into a clearing.”
However, he considers that “wherever a man is, he will find something to please and pacify him”, provided he looks for it in the “right spirit”.
Ultimately therefore, Stevenson forms the paradoxical view that one can live almost anywhere, even if it is not possible to spend a few pleasurable hours there. And, to prove his point, he describes a time he spent on rugged, wind battered coastline and the pleasure he derived from being in a physically tough environment, the contrast of finding shelter from the wind and the strong impression of peace he received while there.
So, travel to unpleasant places can be satisfying, rewarding and even pleasurable or, to put it another way:
Travel works best when you’re forced to come to terms with the place you’re in. (Paul Theroux in The Atlantic)
Stevenson’s On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places can be found online at Project Gutenberg or is available to download as a free Kindle ebook: