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Aldous Huxley : Why not stay at home ?

Aldous Huxley in his garden in Sanary, France

Extract from :

Aldous Huxley

Stories, Essays And Poems



"Some people travel on business, some in search of health. But it is neither the sickly nor the men of affairs who fill the Grand Hotels and the pockets of their proprietors. It is those who travel ‘for pleasure,’ as the phrase goes. What Epicurus, who never travelled except when he was banished, sought in his own garden, our tourists seek abroad. And do they find their happiness ? Those who frequent the places where they resort must often find this question, with a tentative answer in the negative, fairly forced upon them. For tourists are, in the main, a very gloomy-looking tribe. I have seen much brighter faces at a funeral than in the Piazza of St. Mark’s. Only when they can band together and pretend, for a brief, precarious hour, that they are at home, do the majority of tourists look really happy. One wonders why they come abroad.

The fact is that very few travellers really like travelling. If they go to the trouble and expense of travelling, it is not so much from curiosity, for fun, or because they like to see things beautiful and strange, as out of a kind of snobbery. People travel for the same reason as they collect works of art; because the best people do it. To have been to certain spots on the earth’s surface is socially correct; and having been there, one is superior to those who have not. Moreover, travelling gives one something to talk about when one gets home. The subjects of conversation are not so numerous that one can neglect an opportunity of adding to one’s store.

To justify this snobbery, a series of myths has gradually been elaborated. The places which it is socially smart to have visited are aureoled with glamour, till they are made to appear, for those who have not been there, like so many fabled Babylons or Bagdads. Those who have travelled have a personal interest in cultivating and disseminating these fables. For if Paris and Monte Carlo are really so marvellous as it is generally supposed, by the inhabitants of Bradford or Milwaukee, of Tomsk and Bergen, that they are — why, then, the merit of the travellers who have actually visited these places is the greater, and their superiority over the stay-at-homes the more enormous.

It is for this reason (and because they pay the hotel proprietors and the steamship companies) that the fables are studiously kept alive. Few things are more pathetic than the spectacle of inexperienced travellers, brought up on these myths, desperately doing their best to make external reality square with fable. It is for the sake of the myths and, less consciously, in the name of snobbery that they left their homes ; to admit disappointment in the reality would be to admit their own foolishness in having believed the fables and would detract from their merit in having undertaken the pilgrimage.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of Anglo-Saxons who frequent the night-clubs and dancing saloons of Paris, there are a good many, no doubt, who genuinely like that sort of thing. But there are also very many who do not. In their hearts, secretly, they are bored and a little disgusted. But they have been brought up to believe in a fabulous *Gay Paree,* where everything is deliriously exciting and where alone it is possible to see what is technically known as Life. Conscientiously, therefore, they strive, when they come to Paris, to be gay. Night after night the dance-halls and the bordellos are thronged by serious young compatriots of Emerson and Matthew Arnold, earnestly engaged in trying to see life, neither very steadily nor whole, through the ever-thickening mists of Heidsieck and Roederer.

Still more courageously determined are their female companions; for they, mostly (unless they are extremely ‘modern’), have not the Roederer to assist them in finding Paris gay. The saddest sight I ever saw was in a Montmartre boite at about five o’clock of an autumn morning. At a table in a corner of the hall sat three young American girls, quite unattended, adventurously seeing life by themselves. In front of them, on the table, stood the regulation bottle of champagne; but for preference — perhaps on principle — they were sipping lemonade. The jazz band played on monotonously; the tired drummer nodded over his drums, the saxophonist yawned into his saxophone. In couples, in staggering groups, the guests departed. But grimly, indomitably, in spite of their fatigue, in spite of the boredom which so clearly expressed itself on their charming and ingenuous faces, the three young girls sat on. They were still there when I left at sunrise. What stories, I reflected, they would tell when they got home again ! And how envious they would make their untravelled friends. "Paris is just wonderful. . ."

To the Parisians, the fable brings in several hundred milliards of good money. They give it a generous publicity; business is business. But if I were the manager of a Montmartre dancing saloon, I think I should tell my waiters to act their gay parts with a little more conviction. 'My men,’ I should say to them, ‘you ought to look as though you believed in the fable out of

which we make our living. Smile, be merry. Your present expression, which is a mingling of weariness, disgusted contempt for your clients and cynical rapacity, is not inspiring. One day the clients might be sober enough to notice it. And where should we be then ?’

But Paris and Monte Carlo are not the only resorts of pilgrimage. There are also Rome and Florence. There are picture galleries, churches, and ruins, as well as shops and casinos. And the snobbery which decrees that one must like Art — or, to be more accurate, that one should have visited the places where Art is to be seen — is almost as tyrannous as that which bids one visit the places where one can see Life. All of us are more or less interested in Life — even in that rather smelly slice of it that is to be found in Montmartre. But a taste for Art — or at any rate the sort of art that is found in galleries and churches — is by no means universal. Hence the case of the poor tourists who, from motives of snobbery, visit Rome and Florence, is even more pathetic than the case of those who repair for the same reasons to Paris and Monte Carlo. Tourists ‘doing’ a church wear a mask of dutiful interest; but what lassitude, what utter weariness of spirit looks out, too often, at their eyes !

And the weariness is felt, within, still more acutely because, precisely, of the necessity of simulating this rapt attentiveness, of even going hypocritically into raptures over the things that are starred in the Baedeker. There come moments when flesh and blood can stand the strain no longer. Philistinism absolutely refuses to pay the tribute it owes to taste. Exasperated and defiant, the tourist swears that he won’t so much as put his nose inside another church, preferring to spend his days in the lounge of the hotel, reading the continental Daily Mail.

I remember witnessing one of these rebellions at Venice. A motor-boat company was advertising afternoon excursions to the island of Torcello. We booked our seats and at the appointed time set off, in company with seven or eight other tourists. Romantic in its desolation, Torcello rose out of the lagoon. The boatmen drew up at the side of a mouldering jetty. A quarter of a mile away, through the fields, stood the church. It contains some of the most beautiful mosaics in Italy.

We climbed on shore — all of us with the exception of one strongminded American couple who, on learning that the object of interest on this island was only another church, decided to remain comfortably seated in the boat till the rest of the party should return. I admired them for their firmness and their honesty. But at the same time, it seemed to me rather a melancholy thing that they should have come all this way and spent all that money, merely for the pleasure of sitting in a motorboat tied to a rotting wharf.

And then they were only at Venice. Their Italian ordeal had hardly begun. Padua, Ferrara, Ravenna, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Perugia, Assisi, and Rome, with all their innumerable churches and pictures, had still to be looked at, before — the blessed goal of Naples finally reached — they could be permitted to take the liner home again across the Atlantic. Poor slaves, I thought; and of how exacting a master !"


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