Saturday, November 3, 2012

How do you get from A to B if you have no alphabet?

I was recently talking with my wonderful dissertation group, consisting of Kara McShane and Laura Bell, about traveling. Though we are all three writing about different texts (and Laura is writing about nineteenth-century literature, whereas Kara and I do medieval), all of us are dealing with travel in some way. We were thinking the other day about how frequently we answer distance questions with time. "How far is it to your apartment?" "About ten minutes." We very often measure length of distance with how long it will take to traverse it. We measure distance in minutes, in hours, in days. "A day's drive" can mean different things on different days and for different people, but we all understand that it means the limit of how far a person could travel on a given day. All of this got me thinking about the word "journey," which clearly has its origins in the French jour – day. A journey, then, is how far you could get in a day, the pre-modern equivalent of a day's drive. Before speedometers and gps systems and google maps, how would you tell someone how far to travel? How would you orient yourself on a trip? How would you negotiate between spaces?

As a Californian, the most tangible experience I have of day's travel is of learning about the missions that dot the expanse of the state. As a history-loving child in a fairly new state, the missions were exciting to visit when I was growing up because they were some of the oldest buildings around. Through them, I had a tangible connection to the way that cultural and historical change had occurred in my state. I made a model of the San Carlos Borromeo Carmelo Mission in fourth grade for school, and I poured over the history, architecture, landscape of that mission. I was so proud of my model because my dad helped me cut the top layer from cardboard and then paint the wavy part of the board red to create the roof tiles of the building. This was, for me, a crowning achievement of my elementary school career. What I couldn't replicate, however, was the geographical and temporal connection between my mission and the rest of the missions. An isolated model of a mission, or even an isolated visit to one mission, misses the larger network of the 21 missions that run up the Pacific coast. The missions are all a day's horse ride apart, since the Spanish missionaries would ride a full day and then stop to build another one. The distance between these buildings, then, is not one of miles but one of time travelled. Length as time is literally written onto the landscape in California. The Spanish missionaries colonized and converted the Pacific coast one day's ride at a time. By building actual edifices to mark the journeys and by planting European crops around these missions, the colonializing progress up the coast alters the landscape as well as the culture of the region. Missionaries marked their day-long movements with adobe and timber and stone, and each building also served as a locus for the spread of Spanish language and religion and culture and flora and fauna.

The missions are interesting for my thoughts on distance as time because they represent a larger teleology, both of linear progress up the coast and of the colonization and conversion of the locals, and yet each point on the line of missions is of equal importance. It's not about making it to the northernmost or southernmost mission, but rather about the presence of missions along the whole length of the state. It is, to give into the inevitable cliche, about both journey and destination. Perhaps the answer is that there's a larger movement up the coast, but yet each mission also represents its own destination. The line is made up of individual journeys. And though we no longer ride horses to get from one spot to another (or, rather, I never have), we still think of movement across the state or country or world in terms of segments of travel.

When we answer distance questions with time we collapse time and space. But often such a collapse serves a particularly teleological way of thinking. I answer that it takes ten minutes to reach my apartment because I assume that you plan to go from point A, here, to point B, there. What happens, then, when there is no destination in mind, when we know neither point A nor point B? This, as anyone who knows me might have guessed already, leads me back to the idea of rudderless ships. In the ocean, when the directions one could travel are endless and when no point can be permanently marked as A or B or anything else, how can we conceive of a journey? With no oars, with no sail, with no observable landmarks, distance is unmeasurable. And perhaps, on a journey, unmeasurable distance leads to unmeasurable time. Perhaps this is why, as I have mentioned before, Custance travels for "years and days" in the Man of Law's Tale. We don't get specifics about time (how many years? how many days?) because neither time nor space nor the connection between them is clear on a rudderless voyage. Custance doesn't know how far she travels, how long she's at sea, or where she's heading. Her boat floats in all directions for some amount of time. Fate has a larger plan for her, as the Man of Law makes clear, but fate isn't quantifiable, and thus can't be productively measured in time or space. I guess, if you don't know where you're going, you really have no choice but to focus on the journey.


  1. I love everything that you’ve said here, Kristi, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about pilgrimage. It dawned on me, as I was reading your wonderful account of the dynamic between time and distance, that the romance Sir Isumbras focuses far more on the years the hero spends on his pilgrimage than on the physical length of the journey. In fact, we don’t ever get a clear indication of where he comes from, nor do we get a sense of where he ends up; we know that he’s somewhere in Europe at the outset, and that he ends up somewhere in the Levant at the close. This vagueness prevents us from establishing a clear sense of distance, as a result. What we do know, however, is that his journey is painful and arduous, and we learn that not only through his suffering bodily harm and decreases in social station but through the persistent reminders of how long it takes him to complete his journey. I’d honestly never thought about Isumbras’ journey in quite that way, so many thanks for opening my eyes to this perspective!

    On a related note, I kept thinking about the Camino as I read your post. On the one hand, pilgrims are required to walk at least 100km if they want their journey acknowledged as a true pilgrimage; this requirement does, at least in some respects, prioritize distance in ways quite different from what you’re describing here. At the same time, however, pilgrims are not required to complete their 100km in any particular given time frame. They all walk along the same route, but at necessarily different paces. Moreover, at least for me (as a curious, potential pilgrim), the length of the Frances route meant far less to me than the amount of time it takes to traverse it. In fact, that was the first question I asked someone about the route. I knew how far the journey would take me, but knowing the length of time (roughly 6 weeks to do the entire 700+km route) made it much more concrete.

    Pilgrimages certainly differ from the rudderless ship journeys you describe in the sense that they do have a very real destination point. At the same time though, I wonder if the image of the rudderless ship could, in some respects at least, model the internal journey that the pilgrim undertakes. Pilgrimages are meant to fundamentally transform the pilgrim in some way (however subtle or quiet), and I wonder if that kind of travel corresponds at all with what you’re seeing. I think, in particular, of one of the women followed in The Camino Documentary. She described herself as a mess, as someone who needed to find herself again. She decided to walk the Camino to start that process, and so for her, making it to Santiago de Compostella still mattered a great deal, but so too did her goals of emotional healing. In this sense, pilgrims like her (there are many other kinds of pilgrims) seem to share a lot with Custance; they come to the Camino unsure of who they are and equally uncertain of where they will end up after the journey, but hopeful that the journey will lead them to a better place.

    1. Thanks for your fantastic and thought-provoking reply, Kate!

      I am seeing Isumbras in a whole new way now in response to what you've written above. The lack of clear time and space in the romance very much resonates with what I've been thinking about recently, and also with your own recent work on pilgrimage. So often we think of pilgrimage as about destination -- a pilgrimage to Rome or Mecca -- yet the actual act of making the pilgrimage is crucial. It's not about how long Isumbras's journey lasts, but the fact that he makes this transformative journey at all. There is some sense of time in that he chooses it now rather than later in the beginning of the romance, but once that choice is made, he's propelled into action by the sudden misfortunes that befall him. It's the way he responds to these misfortunes that makes up the journey. You've really got me thinking, Kate -- I think I'm going to need to reread Isumbras and a few other romances now.

      I also really like your point about the Camino as a Pilgrimage which does require a particular distance (isn't that a bit like a dissertation with a minimum page count which can be reached in different ways and at many paces?). Like you, the distance meant little to me until you paired it with the average time of 6 weeks. It's that time that makes it real to me. Even though it's a specific place and a specific distance, though, it seems like that the journey itself is privileged more than we might think. the fact that pilgrims must travel a certain distance to count as a true pilgrimage means that it's not just about getting to the end, but about really making that full trip to get there. If it were just about the destination, it wouldn't matter how you got there or how far you travelled. But the required distance and mode of travel means that arriving there only achieves its full significance as part of the larger journey. I especially love your point about walking the same distance on the same path but at different paces. Again, that sounds a lot like grad school to me!

      The idea of pilgrimage as emotional travel as well as literal travel also really resonates with me. The woman you describe, unlike Custance, has chosen this journey. But she clearly sees the journey as an internal one as well as an external one. And that, to me, seems crucial for pilgrimage. After all, the critiques of pilgrims in the later Middle Ages often centered around the idea that pilgrims were just using the pilgrimage as an excuse for tourism. That they weren't really experiencing the spiritually transformative parts of the process, but instead were just traveling. I, of course, feel like travel of many kinds can be transformative, but the fact that these critiques existed indicates that people saw a kind of pilgrimage occurring in which, though the distance was still traversed, the intent and experience of the traversal were lacking. The intent and experience, then, imbue the travel with the necessary meaning. It's not just journey or destination, but also the way in which the traveller engages with both.

      I hope that you share more of your interesting work on pilgrimage, Kate. I have a post in the works as well on peregrinatio pro amore dei, which is pilgrimage via rudderless ship. This is a kind of pilgrimage without destination at all, where the very act of placing yourself into the hands of fate constituted the journey. I think that will connect nicely with some of what you say above about pilgrimage and Custance.


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