Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Circle of Life
Before reading further, press play and immediately come back to this page.

Okay, that's better. This post needs that certain special something. The uplifting sounds of World Music. The powerfully spiritual whole-earthiness and oneness that unites us within the notes.

Geography used to fire the imagination. Descriptions of new and wondrous exotic places inspired literal adventure and literary exploration. Think of Speke & Richard Burton, Stanley & Livingstone, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, and the tales of Rudyard Kipling. Even cinematically, this sense was brought to screen in figures such as O'Toole's dashing Lawrence of Arabia and the fictional globe-trotting adventurer Indiana Jones. There is a richness to these ingredients. Unfamiliar sights, sounds, places, and people.

Somewhere along the way all this got tossed aside. These depictions were artifacts of colonialism, ethnocentrism, and stereotype. The romanticized figures and places of geography: Ghurkas, Bantus, Zulus, pygmies, the Congo, Borneo, the Amazon have instead been replaced by antiseptic discussions of cultures, diversity, environments, and ecosystems. Ah yes, gripping stuff!

Indeed, the shift in view may be all well and good in a values sense, but it certainly has eroded the imaginative. In its place we're offered up a sort of theme park celebration of geographic exotica: Disney movies of boy lions, grooving emperors, Hakuna Matada, and culturally empowered warrior princesses. Episodes of Survivor replete with carved wooden tikis, smiling grass-skirted villagers and "Circle of Life" style soundtracks. When it comes to the world scene, I like Bono and all, and the attention to Africa that he raises. But Bono is no Burton. Burton is, afterall, the figure who raised the western world's attention to the exotic and sensual delights of the Kama Sutra. I think it is safe to say that Bono's awareness raising of third world debt relief doesn't exactly compare.

This leads one to ask, Has the world become boring? Has everything about the planet become familiarized to the point where all we can do is talk about it in scientific terms: cultures, climates, biomes, ecosystems, environments? Has all the world's richness been watered down to the where all that remains for the imagination is the appreciation of World Music, batik prints, and the animated figures of Timon and Phumba?


At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed, there are very few places in the world that remain truly exotic to me these days. Used to be different.

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Ernesto said...

Every time I go somewhere -- even somewhere I think has been documented down to the last pebble -- it's all different than the book. Especially if you stay away from the chain restaurants... Even big modern cities like Madrid feel exotic if you get a chance to just stay for a while, and wander around outside the tour group. Heck, there're places in Northern New England that feel pretty exotic (some of those little towns up along the Canadian border). I guess if exotic means that nobody's ever been there before, then there isn't much that is, and there never was.

On the other hand, I can see what you mean about a certain demystification with travel -- as everybody in the world becomes a Travel Channel "expert" in the cultures of each place they go. That tagline, "be a traveler, not a tourist" is fine as far as it goes, but may also contribute to a certain affected air of nonchalance no matter where one goes -- which I reject to some degree. Sure, do the research, and sure come with respect for the people who live in the place you're coming to, but man, you should be able to be amazed by it, too.


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