I've noticed a recent slew of literary pilgrims joining the ranks of Destination Literature of late, travelers eager to see the world through the pages of literature, whether it be Finding George Orwell in Burma (Emma Larkin) or Chasing the Devil: A Journey through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene (Tim Butcher). Most recently, in Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, Bronte's Grave, scholar Simon Goldhill explores and critiques the Victorian obsession with literary tourism.
I have been on several literary pilgrimages, including one that, a few years ago, took me to Wiemar, Germany, following in the footsteps of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Over the past year I've continued my pursuit of Goethe on the page, through his impressive Italian Journey. In these pages, I discovered that the impulse to pilgrimage to literary sites, still very much alive today, is also much older than the Victorians. In 1786 Goethe himself traveled to Italy, longing to see what he termed "classic soil." Before traveling he describes a "secret malady, or mania" that possessed him. "My passionate desire to see these objects [of literature] with my own eyes had grown to such a point that if I had not [traveled]...I should have completely gone to pieces."
Last night Goethe and I set sail off the coast of Sicily, passing landmarks that, previous to this journey, existed in my mind only in the mythical landscape of Homer's Odyssey: Charybdis and Scylla. "Now I feel, not that I am seeing them for the first time," Goethe writes, "But that I am seeing them again."
For the skeptics out there (such as Anne Trubek, who last year published a satirical Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses) who fail to find significance in the abandoned houses and empty landscapes of dead authors, reading of past travels can also connect one more intimately with the present moment. According to Proust, the memoirs of dead authors act as the “slender bridge thrown between the present and an already distant past…which joins life to history, making history more alive and life more historical.” Reading of Goethe's travels into the ancient world not only made me aware of the past, it awakened me to my own present moment.
As Goethe passes through Messina, a city that had just been ravaged by an earthquake, he observes the makeshift shelters erected in the aftermath of the natural disaster:
"...a barrack town was hastily erected in a large meadow north of the city. To get a picture of this, imagine yourself walking across the Romerberg in Frankfurt or the market square in Leipzig during the Fair. All the booths and workshops are open to the street. Only a few of the larger buildings have entrances which can be closed, and even these rarely are, because those who live in them spend most of their time out of doors. They have been living under these conditions for three years now, and this life in shacks, huts and tents, even, has had a definite influence on their characters."
I've never been to a Frankfurt market, but I could easily picture Messina's barrack town after wandering through Dewey Square in Boston the day before. It was a cold, blustery fall day, and the citizens of Occupy Boston were busy securing tent stakes and erecting tarp barriers to protect themselves from the wind. The towering buildings of the financial district loomed ominously around the square. The sturdier members of the group lined the sidewalk bordering the makeshift village and held signs (Tax the Rich, We are the 99%) to passing vehicles, some of who honked in support. Others huddled together in small groups, passionately but peacefully debating the present moment in which we find ourselves.