In Noa Noa, his diary of the South Seas, Paul Gauguin wrote that with the death of King Pomare of Tahiti the last vestiges of ancient tradition had disappeared. “A profound sadness took possession of me....It was the Tahiti of former times which I loved. That of the present filled me with horror.” The real Tahiti was gone: “It was too late.”
Fast forward a century, and the British essayist Geoff Dyer, visiting Albert Camus’s Algeria begins, “I’m here too late. Too late in the day, in the year, in the century.” For Dyer, “nothing of the culture celebrated by Camus survives.”
As a theme in travel literature this anxiety about belatedness is not a tributary but an Amazon. It either opens travel accounts, closes them, or saturates them entirely. It is also a staple of tourist brochures promising “off the beaten track” access to, say, the “real, unspoiled Mexico.” Finally, it functions as a trope in book titles such as Capri and No Longer Capri; Lost London; Lost Shores, Forgotten Peoples; and, famously, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. If anthropology is elegy, as Lévi-Strauss thought it was, so are tourism and travel.
I’ve come to the Andalusian town of El Morche, which was obscure when I lived here 50 years ago and is still obscure today. Nobody, apart from its inhabitants, seems to recognize its name. It didn’t occur to me in 1966 that I was seeing the “Old Spain.” The guardia civil still wore shiny tricorne hats of the kind García Lorca wrote about in “Romance de la Guardia Civil.” The women all wore black, in perpetual mourning. The men, including laborers and fishermen, wore dowdy suits and black armbands. There was only one road (there still is one road, but now it’s four lanes instead of two), and the buildings—stores and homes, were small, one-story, along the beach. There were no resorts. On Saturday night most of the village population—could there have been 40 in all?—walked up and down, back and forth on this lonely road.
Fifty to a hundred years ago nobody cared about going to the beach. The white stucco pension where I lived in El Morche had no windows facing the sea. The sea was seen by the locals—it seemed to me—as a stinking, cold, violent place where, if one had to, one caught fish. Who would want to jump into it half-naked?
Today people do jump in–not locals of course, but foreigners. But, even today, El Morche, with its string of tall resort hotels, is not pretty. The sand is grey and coarse, more like gravelly mud than sand, and the waves pound brutally. (A few miles east, toward Nerja, the beach begins to answer the promise of the brochures.)
As for North Africa, visible from El Morche on a clear day, I’m told by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, the Guatemalan novelist who lived in Tangier in the latter days of Paul Bowles, that the tea shops in the Casbah where we smoked kif in the 1960s are long gone. He says there are more and more new shanty towns of people from the interior, ghettos of immigrants who come to Tangier as their last stop on the way to launching their assault on the fortress of Europe. But that was only 15 years ago. That means that what I experienced—the tea shops, the kif we smoked in long wooden sepsis, with spare clay bowls in case one broke–that was the real thing. And yet, when I lived there, I thought I had missed it.
According to Paul Bowles I had missed it. Fifteen years before I was there, Bowles wrote that “Tangier was never the same after the 30th of March 1952,” (referring to the riots that presaged the end of the International Zone of Morocco). “The only thing that remains is the wind.”
It would seem that no matter where you go, and no matter when you get there, you’re too late.
It was Lévi-Strauss who coined the word entropology for the study of things winding down and burning out and who noticed something peculiar about this situation. It is not that the disappearing act of humans and human groups is illusory. The disappearances are real. It is rather that in the living present—that of the observer as well as of the observed—a sense of belatedness and of elegy prevails. The Nambikwara, one of the tribes Lévi-Strauss studied in the Amazon, thought they themselves were mere derivatives, shades of the real Nambikwara who’d gone before. And now both—or rather, all—incarnations of the Nambikwara are gone. That’s not a matter of perspective: their language, their customs, everything that made them what they were, is gone. There are no Nambikwara.
It is true that in his own explorations Lévi-Strauss sometimes adds his voice to Gauguin’s and Dyer’s lament: “I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendor of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted, and spoilt....” But he stops and corrects himself: “I know the texts too well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing data and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment.” He sums up the problem:
In short I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveler of the
olden days who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, of almost all of which
eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn or disgust; or I can be a modern
traveler, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lose on both counts....
Reality recedes from us, offering, as the post-structuralists said, only traces—so that we are faced with infinite, insuperable deferral. Lévi-Strauss had searched for a state which even Rousseau admitted “no longer exists, has perhaps never existed, and probably never will exist” but the idea of which we nevertheless require in order to grasp our present situation.
Yet, what Lévi-Strauss found would seem to have circumvented illusion: Being “luckier than Rousseau,” he had discovered such a state in a society which was not merely vestigial. He had searched for a society reduced to its most rudimentary expression. “That of the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find in it was individual human beings.”
This latter claim suggests that beyond the Land of Too Late lies the Land of Just in Time. Norman Lewis, for example, writes nostalgically about the town in Catalonia where he once lived: “The Riviera-style development of the Mediterranean coasts of France and Italy had not yet taken place here. The beaches were empty and the holiday crowds were still to arrive. Tiny fishing villages remained roughly as they had been for centuries in full possession of the charm of the past.” Of course he is writing in the past tense.
And in the last paragraph of Summer Doorways, the poet W. S. Merwin sums up his life of travels:
The move away from the valley of the Ceira would lead through years in which,
again and again, I would have the luck to discover, to glimpse, to touch for a
moment, some ancient, measureless way of living, of being in the world...an
entire age just before it was gone, like a summer.
An entire age just before it was gone.
We may feel that the real Capri, the real Brazil existed long before and that all we have before us are sad vestiges, artifacts crafted this morning and hurriedly antiqued in the back of a shop by natives eager to sell a past unknown even to themselves. But it turns out that I knew—by today’s lights—the “real” Tangier. I knew the real Guatemala, the real Andalusia, and, to return to the South Pacific with Gauguin, the real Pago Pago, where in the village of Vaitogi I lived for two years in a fale style house on the beach with my wife and two adopted dogs. That’s all gone. As Gauguin said of Tahiti, no one can ever “relight the fire the very ashes of which are scattered.”
The trouble is, when we finally realize that our sense of belatedness is unfounded, that we were not in fact too late, it’s too late.
Jeffrey Gray is the author of Mastery’s End: Travel and Postwar American Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2005) and co-editor (with Ann Keniston) of The News from Poems: Essays on the New American Poetry of Engagement (University of Michigan, 2016) and The New American Poetry of Engagement: A 21st Century Anthology (McFarland, 2013). His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Atlantic, The Literary Review, MidAmerican Review, Notre Dame Review, and others. He has also translated Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The African Shore (Yale University Press 2014). He was born in Seattle, Washington, and has lived in Asia, the South Pacific, Europe, and Latin America.