'I hate voyages and explorers,' Lévi-Strauss writes in his Tristes Tropiques (1955). So what is he doing, he asks himself, in producing this account of his expeditions?
Must I relate so many insipid details and insignificant occurrences? Adventure has no place in the ethnographic profession: it is merely a form of servitude, it burdens effective work with the weight of weeks or months lost in travelling; idle hours in which informants disappear; hunger, fatigue, sometimes illness; and always those thousand duties which consume the days in pure loss and reduce the dangerous life in the virgin forest to an imitation of military service . . . That it calls for such efforts and vain expense to attain the object of our studies confers no value on what one should rather regard as the negative aspect of our métier. The truths which we travel so far to seek need to be stripped from such dross to have any value.
Well, one knows all too well what he means, and we need not classify his great Tristes Tropiques as 'travel writing'. On the other hand, one should not be too dogmatic, or anyway too hasty, in arriving at a definition of 'travel writing'. One would suppose that it must involve a journey. Henry James's Italian Hours is neatly planned as a progress from one Italian city to another, yet the 'journey' aspect is given hardly any significance; instinct tells us not to class it as a 'travel book'. By contrast, in the case of Goethe's Italian Journey, it is the journey itself, which is by no means altogether planned and develops rather like a work of art, that counts most. One could even, metaphorically, call it an 'explorer' narrative, for it is partly a work of self-exploration.
LRB 18 December 2003 | PDF Download