I typed this annotation a year ago, or more-- then the author of the book FOUND me, here! I am so very lucky. He likes my pictures of yarn...
...bewilderment is not usually fun. Confusion is what we don’t want. Knowledge, information, clarity and good sense are what we cling to and seek. And yet… p. 3
I wonder if perhaps all writing is travel-writing: a character gets from “here” to “there,” even if the “getting-to” is as slow as Proust and even if the locale changes as little as a Flannery O’Connor tale. I read to look for a shift, and to shift my view of the world. I wonder if all reading is travel-reading…
Frederick Ruf suggests that we travel because we seek danger, because (like a Flannery O’Connor character) we need a violent shaking up. He suggests we love the failures we endure in travel, noting how we highlight travel’s hardships after a long trip. And he suggests we travel because we seek that odd state of altered consciousness that can only be found when moving, that we seek a form of “trance.” Ruf’s writing style evokes this same trancelike quality, a kind of readerly hypnosis, a loss of the outside world, and I can’t for the life of me define “how” or “why” just yet.
Bewildered Travel is not notable for form, and in fact reads almost formlessly. Most parts of the seven chapters could easily be dropped into another of the chapters without seeming out of place. There is no chronology, no plot, no narrative. The essays themselves meander, window-shopping around the globe and throughout the history of travel writing. The book is not systematic. I’ve no idea how Ruf decided to end the book, how he felt satisfied. I’ve not decided for myself if the book is really “finished.” Each little portion of the book raises a thousand new questions, exhausts me.
Ruf’s language intrigues on a sentence level and paragraph level. The book is so full of sentence-puzzles and subtle repetitions, reworkings of theme. More than once I’ve lost my bookmark, and just as I’m swooning over something utterly “new,” I realize I’ve already read that section, though it seemed fresh and urgent all over again. I can read each paragraph over and over. How does he do that?
First, Ruf asks questions about human nature. Why do we leave home? Why do we “go” anywhere? What is it we hope to find when we walk away from the nest we’ve so carefully feathered? Frederick Ruf suggests that our home lives form a surface, and the purpose of travel is to trouble and “rupture” that surface. Bewildered Travel asks why, what we are seeking, why this human need to leave and to rupture, what purpose is served by travel, and Ruf turns the question a myriad of ways. Is it a pilgrimage? What holiness does pilgrimage serve? Is it “commerce with the ancients,” as traditional travel writers assumed? How much of the goodness of travel is achieved by the “trance-state” of altered consciousness of driving or flying? What do we hope when we meet strangers? How does the experience of travel affect our experience of our own bodies?
Throughout Bewildered Travel, Ruf surveys travel writing from Matthew Arnold’s earnestness, to the first travel guides, to Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. In his theory that we travel to rupture surfaces, Ruf pulls in the writings of Flannery O’Connor (though she doesn’t travel) to say perhaps we are looking to get knocked in the head, to forget who we once were, to be transformed. Perhaps we love danger, secretly. Perhaps we are coming to terms with death just by walking onto a plane.
Some books are so quirky as to be endearing—take a book like Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. Ruf’s work asks similar questions, but without the humor that provides Percy with a safe distance from the reader. Ruf’s heart is deeply mired in mystery in an intimate way Lost in the Cosmos could never approach. I see Ruf’s shyness, his reticence when a Cuban woman motions he should step down a dark hallway with her—he doesn’t go, but he wonders if he’s missed something. He envies another travel writer who encounters strangers “by touch.” He describes being mugged less than half a mile from his own home, saying “travel” needn’t be any further than one’s own threshold.
I can’t say what is so compelling about Ruf’s writing. Perhaps it’s an artful formlessness that is so like travel itself. He suggests we travel for the trance state, for the delirium, and I like his writing precisely because it evokes that mystery he names so well. Though I’ve finished reading the book, I’ll continue reading the world Ruf names, to ask questions of my surfaces, ruptures, and what about travel makes us rise to occasions and thrive on disruption.
In commentary, I continue to wonder how to describe writing residencies for my non-student friends, what enlivens me and why. I hold closely Ruf’s notions about the surfaces of my home-life being ruptured like a violent knock in the head, of the travel-trance of sleeplessness, of being “other,” and the questions about travel and, essentially, strangers, though I come to know these students well. What is this odd thing I hop on a plane and fly “away” to? Why the excitement to pursue hours of academic content, for heaven’s sake? Must I fall in love with everyone? My neighbor Jennie came to The Glen Workshop this year, and she tells me maybe she’s never really met me before. I tell her everyone is much bigger at residencies. “You touch everyone here,” she exclaimed. “And they like it,” I replied.
There is no adequate explanation of residencies. Bewildered Travel is the best approximation to date, of how astonishing and beautiful this low-residency study pattern is, how bewildering, how disruptive, and how good.
In the first, second and third drafts of this annotation, I find myself repeating “I don’t know what it is Ruf does to write like a snake charmer.” I look for clues in the balance of scene, summary and reflection. Ruf chooses distinct, powerful scenes, but most of the book is reflection. Much of the reflection is repetitive, turning phrases like one of those colored-cube toys, about the disruption of surfaces. I think also about disrupt and rupture, the abrupt sound of the words (“abrupt,” too, I know…) and I think of the smooth sound of “surface.” Often he summarizes an incident mentioned earlier in the book, or stops to fill out a scene painted earlier in the book, to puzzle it against a new scene. Well-crafted reflection is a peculiar art, and since I tend to write more as a story-teller, I’m envious, intrigued, and I want to see more. I’ll look at the book again—it’s truly too good to put down, even after several reads. Like those colored-cube puzzles, I find I can’t keep my hands off it.