Does travelling engender a sense of kinship with humankind – or is it just too much like hard work? Tom Hodgkinson stays at home and ponders…
Do idlers travel? As a naturally stay-at-home sort of person who’s quite happy with a chair, a book and a beer, but who feels vaguely guilty about not travelling, I remember being delighted many years ago to discover that the word for “travel” derives from the Latin word trepalium, meaning a three-pronged instrument of torture. (Trepalium more recently has been taken up as the name of a French Death Metal band and a dystopian French mini-series about a society split into two halves: the Actives and the Jobless.)
The French word travail meaning work is also practically the same word. Travel, then, means work, possibly dangerous work, and work is what we idlers are trying to avoid. Travel has always has been fraught with troubles and worries, bandits and border guards, getting scurvy, losing all your money, your boat sinking in a storm, running out of food, getting arrested.
So I eagerly sought out the great stay-at-home books like Huysman’s A Rebours which is about a wealthy recluse who studs his pet tortoise with precious jewels, and of course Journey Around My Room by the beautifully named Xavier Le Maistre, an 18th-century aristocrat who, in order to recover from injuries sustained in a duel, found himself in lockdown for 42 days.
There’s also that lovely quote from Pascal encouraging us to stay in:
Sometimes, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. A man wealthy enough for man’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it.
The reverse has happened, and the wealthy now travel the most.
But having said all of that, it’s obvious that for the keen traveller, the highs outweigh the lows. Like magic mushrooms, travel can serve to reduce self-importance, disable the ego and encourage you to feel a sense of oneness with the world and become, in Socrates’ term, a true cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, free of jingoism, nationalism and prejudice.
Travel can also give the traveller a blissful feeling of a suspension of toil as well as guilt-free naps in hammocks.