Thursday, September 12, 2013

Literary Tourism

Last summer my family went on a trip to California. We landed in San Francisco and immediately started exploring. I'm not sure if I can express what an interesting city San Francisco is, a completely walkable city of connected neighbourhoods. We might have liked it as much as we did because of many features it shares with Toronto. 

One thing the city of San Francisco does not share with Toronto was literary tourism. This doesn't mean that Toronto doesnt have a literary history, but there is nothing about it  that is recognized publicly or in the sense that one might travel thousands of miles to experience a part of it. Toronto literary history does not have the cache that might attract a pilgrim -- we just aren't very good at myth-building. This might be said of every Canadian city, actually, and to be honest it is something that appeals to me quite a lot about Canada: nothing has happened here that has, in the grand scheme of literary history, made an ounce of difference. 

So in visiting San Francisco it became obvious that there are places where literature is a significant part of the cultural tourism. But what was strange were the emotions I experienced in the literary places I visited: City Lights Bookstore and the North Beach neighbourhood; the exhibition of Ginsberg's photographs at the Jewish Museum, Jack Kerouac Lane, to name a few. Each neighbourhood I visited seemed to have a literary component that was one of the reasons to visit. I confess, it was incredible to see these places and to be a voyeur-pilgrim who had made his way across the globe to come close to something that was considered by many to be important, a cultural phenomenon regarded with a sense of honour and value. But at the same time I found myself experiencing a growing sense of bewildering anger. The same feeling occurred visiting the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur -- it was great to be there but at the same time I found myself infuriated for no reason that I could reasonably explain. 

It has been two months since I visited California, and I may have reached some kind of answer, however vague or stupid. Partly it has to do with stereotypes that literary tourism offers hapless pilgrims: I can't know anything about it, really. It is like reading a translation and realizing that you're not reading the book but an approximation; partly it has to do with the sadness of realizing that the past is encased in a kind of mellification the world created; but mostly, it has to do with gazing around at the present and considering what might become the literary tourism of the future. The latter issue contains some of the saddest things I could possibly imagine, and the terror of what might be simmers deep within me alongside the hope that humanity will end rather than have any of it become a history sanctified by a collective acknowledgement of its worth. 

11 comments:

  1. "history sanctified by a collective acknowledgement of its worth "

    I think that the disappointment and disgust you speak of is a very important, desirable aspect of literary tourism. As Nicole Watson points out " to go to a place by the light of a book is at once to declare the place inadequately meaningful without the literary signification provided by the book, and to declare the book inadequate without this specific, anxiously located referent or paratext."

    I think we are bound to be disappointed by visiting 'place' in search of meaning and pleasure. And that it is this tension between the real and the text, the imaginary, the past, the anti-real, that haunts us, forces us to think seriously, as you have, about 'place' - about the 'presence of an absence'

    ReplyDelete
  2. HI Nigel -- ridiculously, I have just stumbled upon my own blog and found your post. It is fascinating to me in light of having just published A by André Alexis, which is all about literary pilgrimage and the, as you say, 'presence of an absence.' I appreciate your thoughts, even if they have been slowly travelling to me via my own bloglessness.

    ReplyDelete