August 2008

The Nation Reviewed

The wanderer

By Robyn Davidson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“‘So what of this notion of exile?’

‘No,’ he says, ‘exile is too pretty a word. Can you reframe that?’

‘Homelessness?’

‘No, that's wrong - because I have a home.’

‘Metaphorically speaking, I meant.’

‘No. It's very simple. It's not exile; it's more to do with not being absolutely connected to where I am.’”

So said the ever-precise VS Naipaul.

You feel most foreign when you no longer belong where you did. You left home assuming the possibility of return. But soon enough home sinks out of sight, dissolves into mists, and you find that you do not belong anywhere. You have lost the centre with which to compare elsewhere. Everywhere is elsewhere.

The life of a traveller has countless assets, but the liabilities require more attention. A traveller - a citizen of the world - is supposed to be enticed forward by the unknown. More often she is pushed from behind by circumstance. Apart from the psychological dislocations, there are physical strengths required for making oneself at home anywhere. The packing, unpacking, shifting, forgetting, list-making, leaving behind, buying, borrowing, rearranging, washing, making-do, heaving, lifting, collapsing; the socket and phone-line frustration; your important papers and books somewhere else and no piano and no one to help you. You live like a comet - bits of yourself trailing behind, refusing to catch up. You burn yourself out.

You are something like a plate-spinner in a circus act. You set a plate spinning on its pole, grin and bow; then the second, then the third. You are all confidence and élan. Now the fourth fifth and sixth plates; the seventh. The first plate wobbles. Another crashes to the ground. You hurtle from plate to wobbling plate, the epitome of human futility.

Often, sedentary people envy you, because they cannot imagine how exhausting it is to keep the plates spinning. They imagine that peripatetic lives are full of excitements denied to themselves, free of the burdens that they must shoulder. They are right, but only half right. They forget that fitting in just about anywhere must also mean that you belong nowhere in particular. The envy can express itself positively, as romantic longing, or negatively, as resentment. In both cases, the wanderer becomes a repository for the wishes of the sedentary, and is discouraged from authenticity.

You return to a place, to the people you know there. While you have been shifting from country to country, they have barely moved. You will, therefore, be able to guess the tenor of their lives more easily than they can guess yours. They will assume that your life, like theirs, has not undergone fractures and resettings. You will have to adjust to their world; they will not be aware that you are doing so. You will find that all the other parts of you have no place here, and you must put them away somewhere, like costumes. This can be literal. The clothes you wear in one place look silly in another. You must pack not just for different climates, but for different versions of yourself, for different audiences.

You must insert yourself into a conversation which locals hold to be universally relevant but which you know is a mere eddy in the great current of talk. Buried in this conversation will be a local ideology: an accepted grammar of shared beliefs, reinforced over time, like calcium laid down in a bone. You will know that there are conversations going on in the world that have equal moral validity to this one, yet are incommensurable with it. One of the assets of such a life is that you do a great deal more listening than talking. You learn a lot. But if you cannot share what you know, you are a ghost hovering outside the closed circuit of the living.

Wherever you go, it's the same. By having come, you have begun to store up the pains of going away. Each goodbye is a foretaste of the final goodbye. The wanderer must be able to withstand these particular forms of alienation and loneliness - and at the same time be able to tolerate the feeling of being a multiplicity that could at any moment unravel. The sedentary, on the other hand, have a better chance at confidence in the self, because its solidity is seldom challenged. If the spinning plates are those bits of you that belong in, have been formed by, different places, peoples and situations - if they are, to use an ugly phrase, fragments of an identity - who will you be if they crash?

Our lives have less to do with volition than with accident and habit, though this truth is obscured by our need to believe we are running the show, that we have a self of our own making. A Frenchman will think that being a Frenchman is the most natural thing in the world, and that everything not-Frenchman is a variant of the norm. It will be hard for him to think of himself as an accidental Frenchman. He would fight and die for his Frenchness, even though, had his mother hopped on a boat the day before he was born, he would end up fighting and dying for Englishness.

So what is a self? And can we do without it? Could we aspire to being more like gerunds than nouns? It would certainly pull a rug out from under our chronic narcissism. An increasing number of cognitive scientists, certain postmodernist thinkers and the Buddha seem to concur here. There is no fixed, intrinsic entity called a self, they say: it's a necessary illusion. A sense of self is an emergent property of complex components, modules, in the brain. The genius of the Buddha was to face the truth, and to steer between nihilism (nothing exists at all) and ignorance (belief that the illusion is solid).

I live in London, I live in India; I used to live in New York and Alice Springs and various other places. Recently I moved back to Sydney, after 30 years away. I know different sets of people in these different places. Their difference exists not just in the horizontal (the same stratum or type, just living in different continents), but in the vertical. Occasionally an individual or group from one of my terrains will straggle across a border into another, but this is rare, and usually unsuccessful. The fragments are, to a high degree, discrete. In order to glue them into some kind of coherent shape, I have had to sacrifice grace to speed, and depth to spread.

Just a few days ago I was in Sydney, speaking another language, immersed in another atmosphere. Now Australia is behind me, but close enough that I can put myself back there: the smell of morning coffee and dishwashing liquid; the nervousness in my belly of feeling India approaching, like some big disturbance out at sea - the waves reaching me there on the shore. In my kitchen, on the last day.

Then this place: remembered, forgotten, now present and real again. I used to call it home. It is now a neutral location requiring no commitment. I am in transit, my life suspended.

Yet there is consolation in the vocation of the guest. Being a guest and rootless can be difficult, but we're all guests of life. It's good to be a guest and to try to leave the place a little better than you found it.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

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