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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Last Port of Call: Adrift in Search of 'The Thing'

Drifting occurs, for Roland Barthes (1915-1980), whenever he does not "respect the whole." Describing drifting as akin to bobbing around like a cork in the waves - motionless while all else swirls around you, bound to the world though only by a pivotal thread - what Barthes the ever-adventurous literary theorist wants to slip away from through drifting is "the sociolect" - that is, the social language into which we are born, through which we come to see the world and interact with it, and from which we very rarely get a break. For Barthes, traveling in Japan is his entry-point to the drift. Bobbing around in a language and culture he does not understand - can make neither heads nor tails of - the whole is denied him. Adrift in a sea of meaningless signs and symbols, abandoned by anything remotely resembling a common sense notion or a friendly cliche, what it all adds up to is beyond him, what it all actually means draws a blank. And so, for what seems like the very first time in a very long time - let's say, since he was a baby, peering around at a world composed of tiny details that did not yet add up to a whole, that had yet to be transcribed into sociolect - Barthes looks around him and sees things for what they are: just things. And Japan, through his eyes, becomes a wondrous place: sensuous and exquisite, all surface and no depth. A walk through Tokyo is like being immersed in a thousand haiku: each detail to which his eye is drawn is a "snap" that exists for itself and itself alone; the scape of the land recedes as the scope of the micro puffs and swells. It is a world of floating ephemera and for once, the drifters are the ones in the driver's seat. Drift, Drive, Thrift, Thrive...Their etymological roots go way back, entangled together in purposeful pursuit until somewhere along the way, mid-19th century to be precise, they part ways: Drift taking a detour, hitting the long and winding road and a seemingly aimless one at that; Drive,Thrift and Thrive pressing onward, expedience their mantra and arrival on their mind. But suddenly it's all changing, it's all drift, drift and drive. The drifters even have their own Starter's Kit (www.mythogeography.com) and the latter-day Situationists are taking over our cities, turning counter-tourism into the new soupe du jour. Tokyo, Paris, London, Montreal...It matters little whether the city is foreign or known to you. Barthes found his way out when language failed him but the drift doesn't end there: if you're getting on board the Debord train then any old urban straitjacket will do. Guy Debord (1931-1994) - drifting force behind the psychogeographical movement and a founding member of the Paris-based Situationist International group - couldn't stand the way advanced capitalist cities were turning their inhabitants into creatures of habit: trudging the same monotonous path between home, work and leisure on a day-in-day-out basis; navigating familiar streets as if on automatic pilot; using the terrain in precisely the way it was designed to be used by well-intentioned urban planners. Non! Non! Non! cried Debord. For where, in all of this predictability, was the encounter of "pure chance"? the "utterly new and authentic experience"? that "spontaneous exploration  of urban landscapes guided by aesthetic instinct" alone? Exactement! cried Debord. It was nulle part! And so, he led the way in evolving a method for moving through the city - the drift, the derive - that was attentive to its "zones of distinct psychic atmospheres," that picked up on how the ambiance could change dramatically from one section of a street to the next, that said pooey to Jiminy Cricket's insistence that you always let your conscience be your guide, that used as field guide your bodily impulses and repulses and your emotional ups and downs, that turned your average Sunday afternoon stroll into an act of pedestrian rebellion that was anything BUT pedestrian. But I digress. I drift. For in fact, where our salon evening actually started out - our last, as it happens, in this current series built around the trope of The Traveller - was light years ahead of Debord, of Barthes, of Crab Man mythogeographer Phil Smith teaching the art of walking sideways through his drift-driven (drive-driften?) heritage tours of England's national treasures. No, where it all started was with American-born poet Hilda Doolittle, or H.D. as she came to be more minimally known (1886-1961), and her creation, alongside Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington, of a poetry movement called The Imagists. The year was 1913 and it all happened over a cuppa in the tea shop of the British Museum. As for the movement itself, it was short-lived - fizzling out just four years later as World War I raged on, and the hopes and dreams of a whole generation went up in smoke. But for a brief time, Imagism was synonymous with literary Modernism and H.DImagiste was the 'It' girl of poetry. What made the movement so important was its bare bones focus on The Thing - it's stripping away of all the flowery language and hyperbole that had come, courtesy of the Romantics, to define poetry, and its determination to evoke, in a few deft strokes of the pen, an image that stood in, stood for, stood up to The Thing itself. Which naturally, led us on a wild if drifting goose chase of The Thing in poetry, in philosophy, and OF COURSE (the point of it all!) in travel...Bringing us into dialogue with vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) whose advice, in a nutshell, was to get closer to The Thing through entering It (easier said than done, we concluded)...Providing the perfect segue to The Avon Lady whose door-to-door traveling salesmanship (sic) we transformed into a 21st Century counter-tourism drift, and her jingle - "Ding-Dong, Avon Calling!" - into a riff on the etymological roots of, of all things, Thing (from the Low German, Ding). Busy? You bet. A Parkour-style bounce across terrains as diverse as haiku-writing and mis-guided events planning and Bergsonian time travelling? Nobody ever said that going Adrift of an evening was going to be a walk in the park. Wishing you'd been here? Reflecting back upon where we had ventured in the course of this journey together - Afloat, Abroad, Astray, Alone and Adrift - we brought the series to a close with a nod towards the future: a Philosophy Club session entitled 'The Art of Losing' in the Autumn, and a new salon series kicking off in January 2015. So you can be here, when we're there...New members are always welcome, and if you live in the Montreal area and would like to join us, check out our website for contact details. If you don't live in the Montreal area, wine women and philosophy has a penchant for road trips. Again, see our website, where you will find details on how to go about organizing a one-off salon evening in the venue of your choice. We extend a heartfelt thank you to all our members, whose participation in this latest salon series has been exciting, inspiring and enriching. Below, you'll see a few of them crafting haikus...We'll be posting the fruits of their labour in the days to come.