The Mind of the Traveler

by Eric J. Leed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1614

Eric Leed is well aware of the immensity of the task he has set for himself in trying to write a history of travel and its implications for intellectual and social history in general. Fortunately for his readers, he has not allowed himself to be deterred by that fact. Instead, he has outlined some of the major areas for research, passing lightly over some, delving deeper into others, all the while keeping a careful balance between the academic prose suitable for his subject matter and the brisk journalistic style appropriate for the wider audience he no doubt had in mind for the book. The sheer weight of material to be considered in such a study is daunting, but Leed deftly maneuvers the reader through it all using a combination of narration, analysis, and quotations from both travelers and observers of travelers.

Not counting the introduction and epilogue, the book has three major sections. They are at once thematic and chronological, covering literary, philosophical, and social histories of travel while at the same time gradually bringing the reader (with much jumping forward, backtracking, and the leaving of a few dead ends) up to modern times. This can be disorienting at first, but in the end it proves on the whole to be at once a reasonably clear ordering as well as an entertaining presentation of a difficult subject. From the start, it is clear that, though Leed is a historian, history is only one of the perspectives from which he has chosen to examine his theme. Interestingly, he actually quotes more from anthropologists and their kind than from observers from any other discipline. Arnold Van Gennep, Victor Turner, Mircea Eliade, Bronis aw Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, James Gibson, and Gregory Bateson are some of the more famous names that appear, usually more than once, in Leed’s list of references. This gives the book a decidedly ethnological flavor within the historical framework Leed uses to unify the threads of his combination story-and-argument. It turns out not to be a bad choice, since ethnologists may well understand the interface between primary experience (including travel) and the construction of social reality (including the historical understandings and interpretations of travel) better than anyone else.

The first section is called “The Structure of the Journey” and deals with many literary manifestations of travel, mostly ancient and medieval. Leed does not make a systematic distinction between literary and historical expressions of the structure of travel, perhaps because history is bound up with literary documents, and also because of Leed’s dependence upon ethnographic accounts of ritual passage. The latter emphasis lends much to the book and ties together pieces of data that otherwise would remain frustratingly underanalyzed. Furthermore, Leed tries to make the historical/literary connection via perceptual studies—seeking perhaps a kind of “universal grammar” of travel. Still, here is perhaps one of the weak points in Leed’s presentation, since literary and ritual versions of structure are inevitably more developed and purposeful than their historical counterparts. Thus, history looks more organized in this book than it may well have been, but in compensation the literary expression of the structure of travel is well analyzed indeed.

Departure, passage, and arrival, the three major components of the structure of travel (at least in its literary form), have distinct meanings, according to Leed. Departure has long been connected with heroism and yearnings after fame. Passage itself is often reported to produce altered mental states and even altered identities, something Leed explores in greater depth in the third section of the book. Finally, arrival is associated with conquest, eroticism, or...

(This entire section contains 1614 words.)

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both. Again, Leed has not systematically differentiated between different kinds of arrivals (homecoming, arrival at distant goal, conquest). Though he is aware of different types of travel, and particularly different types of arrival, he seems to see more significance in the similarities than in the differences. Synthesis of this kind is certainly useful, but precise analysis in the classification of types of travel would also be helpful.

Part 2 of the book (“Philosophical Travel”) takes a closer look at travel as a part of intellectual history, especially in the West. To be sure, Leed mentions Egyptian, Indian, and Judeo- Christian philosophical and religious traditions regarding travel and travelers, but it is in the rise of scientific observation that Leed sees the most fruitful results from the experience of travel. Having passed from nonobservational (resisting the “lust of the eye”) to romantic (highly subjective and personal) cultural attitudes toward traveler’s observations, the West finally legitimated the “objective” observational stance, helping to give rise to modern science, especially in the biological and geological sciences.

Leed astutely connects philosophical attitudes toward travel with travel in both time and space. In other words, travel to Egypt to see the pyramids is also in a real sense travel in time back to the ancient world of the pharaohs. Conversely, interest in another time usually involves interest in another place or places, since history is rarely played out over and over again upon the same locations. Ultimately, this time-space duality, extended backward in time and connected with the change in cultural attitudes toward observation in the West, contributed mightily to the discovery and promulgation of evolutionary theory.

At times, it seems Leed ventures a bit out of his field. When he suggests that blood is sacred since it is used so much to mark thresholds, he not only begs the question as to why blood, and not something else, should be used for such a purpose, but also ignores myriad associations of blood with life, sexuality, and procreation that in themselves would make the choice of that substance a logical one for marking other sacred objects, including thresholds. Another somewhat dubious assertion is that from the fourth century on sacred sites and sacred texts came into being simultaneously. Leed may be on better ground here, since he is a historian, but it seems much more likely that site- connected events produce traditions that are then reduced to texts. Yet such observations are so jarring precisely because, on the whole, Leed has confined his observations to those for which he can and does make plausible defenses.

It is striking to note the degree to which a sacred filter through which travel has been experienced and interpreted has operated both historically as well as in traditional (often considered “primitive”) societies. This reaches far beyond the ideas of pilgrimage and rites of passage into the idea of travel as a type of religious experience and even a mode of human existence understood sacrally. As Leed explains it, even the shift to more secular-scientific interpretations was validated by changes in the (Western-Christian) theological climate of the time, allowing first an enjoyment and appreciation of foreign elements encountered in travel and then a distancing in the observation of those elements so necessary for the rise of modern observational and classificatory modes of thinking.

The third section of the book, entitled “Travel and Identity,” is at once the most intriguing and the least developed. This is not so much a result of the lack of space dedicated to the task as it is of the subject matter itself. It is in this section that Leed comes the closest to a full-fledged taxonomy of travel types: the individual merchant journey or caravan, the military expedition, nomadic and seminomadic associations, individual trips taken for pleasure, and so on. Here Leed has made a good start in what one hopes eventually (from him or another) will become a full classification of travel types at several levels—social, historical, and literary. One of the most intriguing ideas he puts forth in this section is the suggestion that the organization of the state (at least as far back as the Greek versions) has its roots in nomadic military associations and expeditions. His point is that the organizing principles of the state—charismatic centralized leadership combined with the implicit or explicit consent of the governed—are precisely those found in military ventures, especially once an army is far from its homeland and able to function as an independent entity. Leed points to the fact that historically many a military expedition has ended in the founding of a city or cities and that it is the process of self-organization through group travel and travail that doubtless produced this effect. In this way, traveling military expeditions could come “home” to a far-off land by simply founding another city and thus extending their homebound identities to the new location.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book is that no one has done it before, at least not like this, and not in modern times. Much has been written about travel, but most of it has been like the data from which this book was constructed—anecdotes, observations, diaries, and the like, but never a full-fledged attempt at an overview, an introduction, an analysis of travel as a human activity as well as of its effects on social and cultural being. It is almost shocking that it has not been done, or even attempted, on this scale before. That much more remains to be done goes without saying, but Eric Leed has started this particular journey. It is up to those who will to finish it.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. March 31, 1991, p. 33.

Choice. XXIX, September, 1991, p. 172.

The Christian Science Monitor. June 28, 1991, p. 13.

Houston Post. July 28, 1991, p. C6.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, February 1, 1991, p. 156.

Library Journal. CXVI, March 1, 1991, p. 105.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 24, 1991, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, April 7, 1991, p. 22.

The New Yorker. LXVII, August 12, 1991, p. 78.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, April 28, 1991, p. 3.