Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Isle of Innesfree

What I’ll remember most is wind in the green leaves, clouds scudding across gray skies, wind on water, and gray stones of wall, church, and ruin.

People, of course. Friendly, overly helpful, smiling people. And tourists, crowds of them on city streets. I’ll remember them, but I’ll try not to think of the tourists. I’ll try, in a way, not to think of myself, a sheep in the pond, out of place.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a grand visit. But there is something disturbing about the relationship between tourists, such as me, there for a day or a week or two, and the people in a place observed.

Perhaps it is the same with ethnography. But ethnography, owing to longer stints in the field and different aims, might wriggle something real out of the encounter. I hope that’s the case. With tourism, it’s not impossible, but it’s less likely.

On Rathlin Island, after a long walk in the rain, we ordered tea in a harbor cafe from a young couple just starting out in business. They told us of growing up on Rathlin. A glimmer of their authentic delight in having found a way to stay on the island leaked out in that quiet moment, the gloom of the rainy day held off by weeping windows. "Have a scone," she said. "They're homemade. There's nothing quite like homemade."

As I tramped Irish lanes I found myself thinking oddly of perversion. Not that I wanted it. Or that Ireland is any more disposed to perversion than anywhere else on the planet. But I remembered reading an essay by Thomas Nagel in an undergraduate philosophy class that defined sexual perversion as an absence of mutual arousal. The idea was that good sex happened between or among mutually aroused participants.

It is perverse then to make love to a shoe, which does not return the affection.

What has this to do with tourism? Tourism is mutual, isn't it? Tourists want to be there and, for the most part, the people there want tourists, and not just for money. I gathered that many Irish people appreciated our interest in them and their country. Still, the encounter, though consensual, isn’t entirely mutual. What I mean is that my interest in them wasn’t quite met by their interest in me. Our interests were fundamentally different from those of an ordinary interacting community.

Let me explain. I went to Ireland as a tourist but inevitably also as an anthropologist, wanting to encounter people being themselves. I wanted to meet farmers and clerks and carpenters and fishermen and gardeners as they went about their lives being farmers and clerks and so on.

Instead, especially in heavily touristed areas, I found people actively involved in performing for, or at least catering to, people like me, relying on an idea of what they thought we wanted. Likewise, since as a tourist I was anything but involved in the everyday course of my own life, but instead oriented toward the life of others different from me and my own community, I too was self-consciously performing. I wasn't being my ordinary self. Visitor and visited were looking past each other into their respective imaginations.

In other words, a tourist seeks a relationship with an “other,” but the other is not being himself but performing his understanding of what the tourist wants from him. The other is not there, not in the way the tourist seeks. Meanwhile, the other seeks a relationship with a tourist, but the tourist is not herself but performing a role, a peculiar sort of role, as traveler, observer, visitor, a self-conscious role, based on her understanding of what the other expects. Each becomes an object of an other’s fantasy. They look to each other but, doing so, look past each other.

This raises the thorny issue of "authenticity." Can we ever be authentic, essentially ourselves? Conversely, can we ever be inauthentic? Indeed, there is something true even about a false performance from a false person. We are always ourselves, even when we perform roles for others. But we are always performing for someone. If that's the case, we are never "ourselves," always a construct, a product of situations.

The point here is not to settle the paradox, simply nod to it. The point is to remark on how difficult it was to encounter people in tourist areas of Ireland without the taint of tourist play.

One night we were having dinner in a wee restaurant in Ballymena. We asked the waiter for recommendations of what she thought we should see of her country. She lunged to the task with great and generous Irish zeal, and produced a list of the top ten tourist sites of Ireland, the very places we hoped to escape.

Of course, even passing ships feel each other’s wakes. The alienation I describe is not absolute. An individual’s subjectivity leaks out. Relation is possible, though sadly rarer than we like to think.

Of course we should travel. Alienation occurs to some extent in all relations, even the most intimate. We should not stop traveling any more than we should stop associating. We can strive, I think, to let ourselves leak out for one another, like that couple on Rathlin, and in so doing, stimulate the other, however distant, to do the same, in some approximation of mutuality.

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