Article & Book: Albert Camus on awareness, happiness, travel & Algeria

For what gives value to travel is fear

This well known quote attributed to Albert Camus often appears in lists of top travel quotes.

In this short but thought provoking article from the fantastic Brainpickings, Maria Popova puts that quote in its intended philosophical context by looking at Camus’ essay Love of Life from Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Camus’s quote is more about being outside the comfort zone of our normal daily lives than a prescription to embark on dangerous adventures to incite a state of anxiety. 

Explaining that adherence to routine can lessen our capacity for happiness, travel plays a valuable role in breaking that routine:

 
Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.
Camus expressed a similar idea in his notebooks:
 
What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.
Rather than happiness, therefore, Camus tells us it is awareness we should wish for. 
 
As Maria Popova puts it, “Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness” and travel can bring us out of that trance.
 
While we should not waste time, simply filling time or being busy is not the same as not wasting it “if in doing so one loses oneself.”
 
Therefore while travel can help heighten awareness, it is important to think about how we travel and whether we are simply filling time and losing ourselves, if we want to reap its full benefit.  
It is intersting to note that when travelling and being stripped of all that is familiar, we are likely to fel ‘soul-sick’ and that travel is an experience which can bring ‘contradictory intoxications’.  
 

Those interested in Camus’ writing on place should seek out his Algerian Chronicles.  While more a collection of reportage and political pieces than a traditional work of travel writing, Algerian Chronicles explores an exile’s relationship with the country of his birth as it undergoes a period of crisis.

Algerian Chronicles is a selection of Camus’ journalism about Algeria written over 20 years from 1939 “when almost no one in France was interested in the country, to 1958, when everyone is talking about it.”  

It was compiled and published in 1958 in response to the Algerian War at a time when Camus felt desparate about the country’s future and was torn between two positions: 

These texts summarize the position of a man who, having confronted the Algerian plight from the time he was very young, tried in vain to sound the alarm and who, being long aware of France’s responsibility in the matter, could not approve of either a conservative or an oppressive policy – from Camus’s Preface to Algerian Chronicles.
In her excellent review of Algerian Chronicles for The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud picks up on this theme of Camus’ bifurcated spirit and how he wrote about it frequently, quoting him as saying:

The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me, one where memories and names are preserved in measured spaces, the other where the wind and sand erases [sic] all trace of men on the open ranges.
The first section of Algerian Chronicles explores the economic causes of the crisis through articles written in 1939 describing the famine in Algeria’s Kabylia region.  Their publication led to Camus’ first exile as he was forced to look for work outside of Algeria (although he soon returned).  

The other pieces were written from the perspective of an outsider, albeit one intimately familiar with the country, or at least from the the perspective of someone caught between two places, and examine the development of the crisis, assess its (then) current state and propose a possible solution.

 

“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city. —Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959 (quoted in Claire Messud’s review for NYRB)

The New York Times‘ review of Algerian Chronicles is available here, Jermey Harding’s review for The London Review of Books is here and The LA Review of Books‘ review is here.

Book: Emily Hahn, Maharajahs & Tigers

Tiger House Party: Last days of the Maharajahs
by Emily Hahn

Doubleday & Co (1959)

A headline in a British newspaper I was skimming through read “Indian Princes Threatened with Extinction.”  It made me wonder.

This short but interesting book collects together four feature articles which were originally published as a series in the New Yorker magazine in 1958.

Emily Hahn reports on how India’s 600 or so dethroned princes were faring in the period not long after partition and India and Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947.  

Never fully part of the British Empire, the princely states were semi-independent.  As arrangements for the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan (East and West) proceeded, creative negotiation was needed in some cases to persuade the princes to join India rather than Pakistan.   Dethroned, the princes were given no formal role in the new constitution and were transformed from rulers of states with powers of taxation to citizens almost overnight.

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Nevertheless, although divested of all formal power, the former princes were merely down but not out and remained as a social class.

While the princes were getting used to their new order, Hahn was invited by the Rajah of Bundi to a house party at Phoolsagar Palace to celebrate his 37th birthday.  Hahn considers the history of the royal family of Bundi and their descent from the sun and, as well as attending the Rajah’s birthday celebrations and of course describing the party, she joins a tiger hunt, goes flying, takes part in the festival of Holi, visits the old royal palace and also meets the Rajah‘s daughter Princess Kitten.  

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Hahn is not Bundi’s only literary claim to fame.  Rudyard Kipling visited Bundi and is supposed to have written (or at least have been inspired to write) his novel Kim here.  He also wrote the poem, The Last Suttee about the death of the king of Boondi, whose wives mourn his passing and prepare to throw themselves on to the funeral pyre in defiance of the English ban of the traditional practice of suttee.

In 1887/8, Kipling also toured Rajahstan (known as Rajputana at the time) for the Pioneer in Allahabad and wrote a series of letters for them.  The letters which were collected and published as Letters of Marque (available online here, and here) contain his famous description of old Bundi palace:  

To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city. But a detailed description of it were useless. 

By the time Emily Hahn visited Bund in the 1950s, the royal family had all but abandoned the old palace and moved in to Phoolsagar which, built in the 1940s, had more modern comforts.  Hahn is an entertaining and witty guide to life inside the Rajah’s household, more so because of the wry perspective she gives on the women in the Rajah’s life and the ‘proper’ place of a woman during a tiger hunt…    

As well as being available on Amazon, Last Days of the Maharajahs is also available in the New Yorker’s archive or free online at the Internet Archive:

Emily Hahn had a long and prolific career as a journalist and author.  She wrote over 200 articles for the New Yorker over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those), and made her final contribution at the age of 96.  In addition, Hahn travelled widely and wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects including her extensive travels.  

Read more about Emily Hahn’s travels here on Travel Without Moving, more about her life in the New York Times obituary, here, or more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here