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The Problem with the 'Against Travel' Essay
A belated reply to Agnes Callard
The irony wasn’t lost on me; Agnes Callard’s quasi-viral New Yorker essay on the ills of traveling was published when I was in London, on the final leg of an excursion that was purely for pleasure. The sharpest rebuttals to Callard came from Christian Lorentzen and Freddie DeBoer. I agree with what they have written, and Christian’s travel reminiscences are particularly enjoyable. As with other projects, I had meant to publish my own rebuttal much sooner, but travel, the holiday, and final edits on this magazine story got in the way.
Now, here I am, back in America for a while. For those who didn’t read Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, she argues that travel offers little enlightenment and “turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best.” She cites Emerson, Chesterton, and Pessoa to make her case, elucidating on travel’s “dehumanizing effect” and insisting it cannot, as possibly promised, transform us at all. “The single most important fact about tourism is this: we already know what we will be like when we return,” Callard writes. “A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love.” Indeed, my excursions to Europe and Japan have not remade me, as permanent exile or another advanced degree might. Callard doesn’t like that we inject so much virtue into the act of travel, a sentiment I would echo anywhere. The privileged and the pretentious declare that travel must have meaning. It needn’t have any.
Finally, though, Callard heads for the rhetorical jugular. “Imagine how your life would look if you discovered that you would never again travel,” she tells us. “Travel splits this expanse of time into the chunk that happens before the trip, and the chunk that happens after it, obscuring from view the certainty of annihilation. And it does so in the cleverest possible way: by giving you a foretaste of it. You don’t like to think about the fact that someday you will do nothing and be nobody.” This is intended as the trump card, the gotcha—this calling up of annihilation. You travel because you want to hide. You travel because quotidian life will only remind you, relentlessly, how insignificant you are, that every action you take is leading you toward death that can only be delayed, never defeated. And you, gormless mortal, coo and caw from your double-decker tour bus, unwilling to confront what is really out there: nothing. Nothing!
Callard’s got you. “You will only allow yourself to preview this experience when you can disguise it in a narrative about how you are doing many exciting and edifying things: you are experiencing, you are connecting, you are being transformed, and you have the trinkets and photos to prove it. Socrates said that philosophy is a preparation for death. For everyone else, there’s travel.”
Except, except—can’t this be written about literally anything? Isn’t toiling away at a PhD in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, as Callard once did, merely “obscuring from view the certainly of annihilation”? What’s the purpose, really, of publishing in an outlet like the New Yorker when you’re going to end up dead and every last copy of the prestigious periodical will either decay into plant matter or be swallowed up, billions of years from now, by our dying sun? We putter about with our travel; we also do the same with making love, rearing families, going with the boys to the bar, painting sunsets, or watching whatever Indiana Jones movie is out now. Every banal act—and every creative act—can be construed as little more than filler from the moment of birth until death.
Imagine how your life would look if you discovered that you would never again … watch professional football? Eat at Chinese restaurants? Jog around the park? Hang out with your dog? For the last seven years, I have played in a Sunday morning fastpitch softball league. Before then, I played in a Sunday afternoon slowpitch league. Before then, I played baseball for more than a decade. What has any of this amounted to? I am not a Major Leaguer, let alone someone who was ever considered for the draft. And even if I were, I’d be dead one day anyway. I like to write and publish, like Callard. What is all of it, really, but busywork until my body decomposes in the soil? Splitting that “expanse” of time? We should all lock ourselves indoors, perhaps, and think hard on what’s to come. I haven’t cried hard enough.
A word on travel: it can be ameliorative, and those who tend to be most dismissive of it usually have, in Callard fashion, hopscotched across the world. In the essay, she notes she was in Abu Dhabi, where I’ve never been, and Paris, where I visited for the first time in January. She was born in Budapest, a city I’ve never been, and lived in Rome, a city I’ve been. She is a cosmopolitan of the first order. Now that she has sampled enough from the travel trough, she is here to scold others who dare do the same. Better to stay home, she says, after spending almost a half century doing the opposite.
But as I noted already, I am in sympathy with some of her argument. For about 12 years, from August 2010 until June 2022, I left the United States exactly one time. In 2016, I was invited to a tech conference in Lisbon to talk about politics on a series of panels. I had just turned twenty-seven, and all of this was very exciting. Funnily enough, I hadn’t realized, upon making the commitment, the panel would overlap with Election Day. I watched Donald Trump deliver his victory speech with a swarm of horrified Europeans. I had to explain to my parents, over the phone, the newly empowered Jared Kushner would probably not sic the FBI on me, even though I had quit his cherished publication only months earlier. One of Trump’s campaign theme songs was the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and the choral arrangement of the opening verse was stuck in my head at the time. The most memorable part of Lisbon was the American embassy on Election Night. Never again will a collective of human beings be so extraordinarily confident about the outcome of anything. Overall, I remember the loneliness of that trip because my girlfriend couldn’t come with me.
I didn’t travel much in my twenties because I worked a lot and had less money. I spent several years as a full-time newspaper staffer, suffering hour-long commutes and unpaid overtime. I scrounged for vacation days. I regret not pushing back harder against my bosses in that period—I let work take priority over my personal life—and I will, to this day, resent some of them. At nineteen, I had studied abroad for one month in Italy, and at twenty, I went with several friends to Barcelona for a week. Other than Lisbon and a couple of family trips to Canada, that was my international travel. Then Covid came and I began, like so many others, to feel regret. The borders were all shut. What if I never left the country again? What if I never had these experiences that people like Callard had already hoarded for themselves? In 2022, I found myself with more time and more money—when you’ve got both, travel is suddenly feasible. First, my girlfriend and I traveled California, driving from San Francisco to San Diego. Then we went to Italy, hopping from Rome to Florence to Venice. In January, we went to Paris for four days. In April, Japan. In June, Ireland, Scotland, and England.
In all, it was a decent amount of travel packed into a 13-month period, and I am very glad it was done. I regret nothing and loved all of it. I beheld Big Sur. I scaled Arthur’s Seat. I ate sushi off a conveyor belt. I saw baseball played on three continents. None of this has made me stronger or smarter, or elevated me to a higher metaphysical plane. Callard is right: I am still myself. I am still, like all of you, closer to death. What I have done is enjoy my time. My very precious, rationed, leaking away time. If most of living is an accumulation of memories, I have accumulated, and I will sift through these memories, happily and hungrily, until I can’t remember anymore. I have proudly prepared for what’s to come.