There's the geography of maps, where the objects are a town, a river, a mountain, and then there is the subjective map, where the objects are all object-events: getting lost, coming home, being-in-a-strange-apartment. The subjective map has a very different scale - it measures not inches, miles, or kilometers, but uniqueness and repetitions. For instance, the geography of getting lost depends upon its position in the scale of encounters with a place - getting lost in the same place the second time is a harder thing to do, and eventually, if you keep coming back, you aren't lost at all and the lostness that you once experienced seems like a dream.
To understand this human dimension of geography is to understand, at least on an initiatory level, the lure of the traveler’s story. “Human dimension” – I used to be suspicious of all phrases that included “human” in them, since they struck me as engaged in the cloying project of smoothing out the vast spaces between different persons and communities. Now, I understand them more in terms of a kind of tuning, or registering, of the ghostly. The holy ghost has become the dimly lit, ever fleeting, universal subject. The human is just glamour.
In the case of America – or to use that corporate cutout name, the United States – the traveler’s books preceded the founding and have continued on down to the present day. From John Smith to Jean Baudrillard, description of the curiously blank there, the x that marks the spot, is associated (by a logic that is more libidinal than syllogistic) with prophecy or prediction about that ‘there’ that’s not there. Its fixer-upper possibilities. Get rid of the natives (who will later be said to have “disappeared” – a true discovery, that word, which drifts from the Indian peoples to the Tumpameros and Montoneros of Uruguay and Argentina in the 1970s – drop em from airplanes, put them on reservations, starve them by killing the buffalos, that kind of thing. The there must be made ever more blank – away with the trees. Away with the African-American neighborhoods. Build highways and parking lots. Get the white settlers into the suburbs, away from the atomic bombs. Away then with the factories – we will all be richer, the cheap goods in Walmart, the LBO wealth – when we resite those manufacturers in Mexico or China or the Dominican Republic. The fixer-upper urge is our true inheritance from the original white settlers.
This is the puzzle that sticks in the craw of Henry James, whose American Scene is an excellent book to page through if, as it happens, one is a returning expatriate. Such as me, myself and I. Go, at random, to James’ chapter on Washington, D.C., and you see him, too, feeling that blankness that is barely submerged by settlement and business.
“… quite as the explosion of spring works, even to the near vision, in respect to the American scene at large — dressing it up as if for company, preparing it for social, for human intercourse, making it in fine publicly presentable, with an energy of renewal and an effect of redemption not often to be noted, I imagine, on other continents. Nowhere, truly, can summer have such work cut out for it as here — nowhere has it to take upon itself to repaint the picture so completely. In the "European" landscape, in general, some, at least, of the elements and objects remain upon the canvas ; here, on the other hand, one seems to see intending Nature, the great artist of the season, decline to touch that surface unless it be first swept clean — decline, at any rate, to deal with it save by ignoring all its perceived pretensions. Vernal Nature, in England, in France, in Italy, has still a use, often a charmed or amused indulgence, for the material in hand, the furniture of the foreground, the near and middle distances, the heterogeneous human features of the face of the land. She looks at her subject much as the portrait-painter looks at the personal properties, this or that household object, the official uniform, the badges and ornaments, the favourite dress, of his sitter — with an " Oh, yes, I can bring them in ; they're just what I want, and I see how they will help me out." But I try in vain to recall a case in which, either during the New England May and June, or during those of the Middle States (since these groups of weeks have in the two regions a differing identity and value), the genius in question struck me as adopting with any frankness, as doing more than passively, helplessly accept, the supplied paraphernalia, the signs of existing life. The business is clearly to get rid of them as far as may be, to cover and smother them ; dissimulating with the biggest, freest brush their impertinence and their ugliness.”
Nobody is as diffusively cutting as Henry James. Indeed, I think of him as, under all the heavy vestimentary rhetoric, the true American weirdo – not Poe, not Sylvia Plath, not Bobbie Dylan.
The last time I hit the States was, I think, 2018. That’s a long gap for me. The waves of the pandemic, combined with the political news, made me think of the U.S. as more than usually crazy. But when we bought the tickets in the summer, we thought the cray cray was, if not over, at least tempered and teased into a vaccinated state of health comparable to any other. Just our luck, and the luck of all travelers this Christmas season, that the covid mounted a return, a battle of the Bulge in which the good guys, this time, lost, and there we were in the midst of it. For this reason, we never made the leg of the journey to New York City – just visited my family in Atlanta.
My expectations were low. I figured we would be challenged on the street as masked liberals. This turned out to be a wild exaggeration. In fact, my impression from the first was of the large disconnect between the official story of the U.S., told by the media and public opinion – that game of three card monte, mounted by thumbsuckers – and the ordinary, banal life that flows through the streets, the houses, the schools, etc. Atlanta is an evidence that the world has landed, all unknown and unrecognized, in the American hinterland. Everywhere there are Korean churches, Indian fast food places, Asian restaurants managed by Jamaicans and Jamaican restaurants managed by Japanese, a wholesale integration that makes life so portlike. All the white blue collar class – according to the elite – are racist as fuck, but the elite are the least integrated class in the country, while the working class, white collar and blue, is incredibly mixed. I go into, say, the Brass Pro Shop at Sugarloaf Mills. Now here, if anywhere, the politics is plain. It is a vast hunting and fishing and outdoor outlet with a large pro-NRA insignia on the wall near the cash registers. Yet the customers I saw busily choosing their gifts – fishing rods for Grandma, a box of bullets for Uncle Lester, etc. – were an Atlanta metro crosssection of ethnic origins and friendly dispositions. I was there to buy some outdoor ornaments for some people on my Christmas list and I found them and nobody paid a lick of attention to the masks we were wearing. A third of that crowd was with us, in the mask wearing department. True, the ritual that I believe makes Paris a safer place – the requirement to show the vax pass before you go into a restaurant or public facility – was incredibly not in place. So we were careful. Not, though, too much more careful than we would have been in Europe.
It is, after all, a universal fuckup, and the spread and monthly renewal of the pandemic follows the trod and true byways of the neocolonial system. It is not just the States that drives the fuckup. One effect of visiting the U.S. is, actually, to have a better sense of proportion about the U.S. – which, in spite of the endless intrusion of its media, is just a country like any other.
I’ll have more to say when I think about how to say it.