Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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Off on the Wrong Foot

Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, an Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas , by Gary Geddes, Harper Collins, 2005 Hardcover, $34.95 (ISBN 0-00-200100-4, if you’re ordering).

The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things by Gary Geddes is an “adventure-travel” book of a sort that has proliferated over the past couple of decades. Christopher Ondaatje wrote such a book about Sir Richard Francis Burton in India, Grant Buday about Luis de Camoens in Goa (in India), Wade Davis about Richard Evans Schultes in the Amazon, and Charles Montgomery about his grandfather in Melanesia. Americans are into it too, some of them predictably staking pushy claims to Canadian myth. Tony Horowitz cruised the Pacific in search of Captain Cook, and Cecil Giscombe cycled Ontario, Alberta and BC in search of Giscombe-ness as epitomized by John Giscombe, discoverer of the shortest water route from BC to Alberta. There’s even a parody of the genre. Paul Quarrington has tracked God Himself (a female God wouldn’t have messed up so badly) through the Galapagos Islands, the agnostic’s version of Eden.

Geddes is tracking fifth-century Buddhist monk Huishen, who, according to the Liang Shu, the records of the Liang Dynasty, was “a monk from Kabul with a strange tale of adventure, a fantastical voyage to and a forty-year sojourn in lands beyond the eastern sea.” The record says nothing about his missionary work beyond the suggestion that he spread the Word. Some, like Geddes, believe that the lands he lived and maybe proselytized in were the Americas.

Travelers have always flocked to sites important in the stories of the Great Departed. Bruce Chatwin’s immensely popular In Patagonia (1977) re-invigorated this feature of travel by superimposing over descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants detailed cameos of the famous people who had been there earlier—Butch Cassidy, Thomas Cavendish etc. The ghosts came to life. Gavin Young’s In Search of Conrad (1991 – Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for 1992) is a prominent example of what became the next step – focusing on one hero and “walking a mile in his shoes” as Ondaatje puts it.

Such an undertaking involves not just following in the hero’s steps, as Davis and Ondaatje do, literally, but also simulating his means of travel. Horowitz sails for a time on a reconstruction of Cook’s ship Endeavor (it has an engine and flush toilets). Buday does a year’s stint as a sailor to see what it’s like to be at sea for months at a time as Camoens was, and Geddes takes a container ship from China to Seattle because Huishen would’ve gotten to North America by water. Quarrington floats around the Galapagos on a small cruise ship. Only Giscombe takes a radically different mode of transportation, but there is a good reason. Giscombe has only one arm; canoes are out, but roads follow rivers, and bicycles move at about the same rate and are similarly open to the elements and the locals. The ubiquitous bus, a feature of many of these journeys, especially Geddes’ and Buday’s, is always good for this, its tortures serving as a convincing substitute for those inflicted by horse, donkey, or cart. Buses facilitate similar contact with locals and other travelers, and in many parts of the world they move at a similar speed. The important thing is that strong tastes of the subject’s difficulties and experiences in the landscape must be conveyed.

Also central to this kind of travel writing is the affirmation of some sort of empathy with the dead hero. For some of these writers this is easier to depict. Montgomery and (in a way) Quarrington have genetic connections, Giscombe suspects one, and Davis is Schultes’ student. With writers like Ondaatje, Horowitz, Geddes and Buday, the connection has to be more subjective. It must be extremely subjective when there is little information on the subject, as with Geddes and Buday, especially Geddes. But walking a mile in a personal hero’s shoes should lead the writer to a growing identity with that hero, and a deeper insight into the writer’s own character.

Gedde’s book fails to do this. While he is good at describing what he sees and at cameo portraits of guides, drivers, other travelers etc, and while his visit to Kabul took courage, and while he is uncomfortable enough at times (especially in the buses), and while he is willing to look at himself in relationship to his hero and consider living up to that hero, he doesn’t go deeply enough into duplicating Huishen’s likely journey or identifying with Huishen.

Geddes flies over the Taklamaken Desert and most of the Americas and takes breaks to attend a daughter’s wedding and another daughter’s delivery of a new grandchild. When he is poking around, as in Kabul, Peshawar, Haida Gwai, Chiapas and Guatemala, he seems to have objectives other than Huishen in mind. And he makes little progress in identifying with Huishen.

Geddes’ problem starts with his initial affirmation of empathy for Huishen. Huishen’s missionary work, the spreading of the Word, is Geddes’ point of departure, but the connection he draws between himself and Huishen seems contrived and more than a touch pretentious: “Here was a man of courage and faith setting out into the great unknown to cross a perilous ocean in a small vessel, to risk everything for a dream [the establishment of Buddhism in a new and hopefully less threatening place]. As a young boy, I had imagined becoming a missionary . . . . That project and the faith that fueled it eventually gave way to the equally rigorous dream of art, a different sort of religion and one that promised as little in terms of money or recognition or success. As a writer, I could identify with the renunciation that surrounded Huishen’s remarkable journey into the unknown.” Geddes goes on to say that his own journey, like Huishen’s, will have serious import. Geddes will “shake up . . . the arrogance and enthnocentricity of . . . the West” by proving the fact of “pre-Columbian Asian influence” in the Americas.

There are two problems with this. First, nothing in what we see in this book of Geddes’ life indicates a lack of recognition, money, or success. He turns out to be a very well-off man, a retired university professor, well-traveled, with a property facing the Olympic Mountains, “the sea lapping at its foot,” and a boat. He has achieved considerable recognition—many publications, acknowledged support from the Canada Council and his academic institution. Perhaps he renounced his wife and his children, as he imagines Huishen doing and as Buddha himself did, but that is never specified and seems unlikely given that Geddes is in regular contact with his three daughters. He has lots of supportive and influential friends, too; a full-page list of these appears in the back of the book and includes travel writers like Ronald Wright, Terry Glavin, George Woodcock and Robert Bringhurst.

Second, Geddes’ journey is too much of a lark in that he is endlessly distracted from it into other things. That leaves him a long way from being able to pull off the act of renunciating the world that he maintains, over and over, is essential to art and which he indicates must have been a major element of Huishen’s personality. Mainly, Geddes’ distractions spring from a kind of acute anxiety about the human suffering he sees around him or knows about from the histories of the places he visits. This anxiety sets him mucking about, in the liberal-left range of the political spectrum of course, for solutions, like his central one about fighting Western ethnocentricity by proving pre-Columbian Asian influences in the Americas. In this he is much like his friend, the anarchist-academic George Woodcock, whose published verbal maunderings through Peru, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Tibet and the South Pacific are remembered now only for taking travel writing to new levels of boringness.

Early in the account, near the geographical starting point of Huishen’s journey, while Geddes’ Afghan visa application is being processed, he spends his time interviewing representatives of aid agencies and talking to refugees along the Afhanistan/Pakistan border. He does similar interviews in Kabul. He has letters of introduction and specific questions to ask – though he never thinks it politic to ask them—about UN employees exploiting child labor in the weaving trade, and about Taliban atrocities. He generalizes about the ravages of tribalism that seem to have caused the present situation, that long ago drove the Buddhists east out of Afghanistan, and notes that this is a powerful theme in his own Scottish heritage. In a particularly Woodcock-eyed way, he connects that tribalism to the “corporate tribalism currently thriving under the umbrella of democratic capitalism.” He arrives at profundities like, “Rigid fundamentalism in all its forms – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish – thrives on ignorance and oppression. So, too, do ideologies of the extreme left and extreme right.” About Taliban atrocities – which he compares to those of Pinochet in Chile, he thinks: “the Taliban had no monopoly on fundamentalist madness. And I was hardly an apologist for western justice, where murderers get off with the aid of clever lawyers, where fair trials are often subverted by deals and plea bargaining, and where jails are overloaded with members of our black and Native communities.”

These musings are admirable as a kind of liberal pre-consciousness that, once ordered by logic, Roberts Rules of Order, or the contexts of fiction, could deserve the dignity of print and action. Indeed, they read like notes for articles – and Geddes does say that he “toyed with the idea of writing a few pieces to show the ‘human face’ of Afghanistan,” though he ultimately decided that it not politic to do this because it might endanger his sources. But what are these notes doing in this book? Here, they can be taken only as an attempt by Geddes to exhibit in himself the thoughts and feelings of Huishen, of a decent man whose concerns about the state of humanity have led him to renounce the world in favor of Buddhism and missionary work just as Geddes has renounced money and fame for art.

But Huishen, Geddes realizes, would regard his musings as “subjective claptrap” Huishen would’ve been practiced in techniques of transcendence, of clearing the mind of the noise of the world and the fear of death. Huishan, faced with Geddes’ problem in Kabul of getting out to see the destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas, would likely have donned a burqa and snuck out to them. In their books, Davis and Buday commit such impolitic acts (Buday usually by not being able to keep his opinions to himself), but not Geddes. And Geddes also realizes that his own incessant traveling, even that to hotspots like Nicaragua and Chile with the pretense of serving as a witness to injustice and suffering, and even one assumes the trip to Asia and America to prove pre-Columbian Asian influence in the Americas, would be suspect. What, he asks, comes out of these travels? What good does he do? Would Huishen have had the guts to confront the Maya on their inhuman religious sacrifices? Geddes admits that he travels, really, “in order to escape the vortex of subjectivity, to get away from home where the whirl of self in the static world left me dizzy, unsettled.” It is ironic, Geddes says, in view of his quest for Huishen, that Buddhism recommends against travel: “Cause the people not to treat death lightly and not to wander off to distant places.” Or, “the further you go, the less you know.”

This is honest stuff as far as it goes, and it fits with the portrait of Huishen as an alter-ego that develops in a series of “messages” from Huishen that are dictated to Geddes in dreams or times of sickness and extreme disorientation. This automatic writing could easily be seen as an overly transparent device to connect with the exceptionally elusive Huishen, but it works because Geddes is doing, and is adequate to, the writer’s job of contextualizing a character who is, to start, little more than an idea. The Huishen that Geddes creates seems real, and he is Geddes as Geddes would like to be: “I was delighted by the voice, the sarcastic tone, which seemed to me much more intimate and interesting than the rest of my conscious and deliberate jottings.” Dead on.

Alas, Geddes can only achieve this desired state when he in unconscious. The world is too much with him. Geddes denies Huishen: “Against a backdrop of post-9/11 fear, uneasy peace in Afghanistan, threatened war in Iraq, and a maddening cycle of suicidal attacks and revenge in Israel and the Palestinian territories, my imagination and bag of literary tricks were simply not up to the task of writing a whimsical narrative about an obscure Buddhist monk.”

”Whimsical narrative?” That’s not what Geddes promised at the beginning. “Bag of literary tricks?” Even if that’s how Geddes really, under all the fancy rhetoric about art, regards his art, at least those tricks take him away from the “claptrap” in his head. “Obscure monk?” The point is to make him less obscure by walking in his shoes.

Distraction is caused by lack of purpose. Geddes certainly knows how to write; he just won’t, in this book, get down to it. What happened to the renunciation required by art, that ties Geddes to Huishen? We expect to see that renunciation exercised. The first step would be to see himself sarcastically, as a fool, as Geddes/Huishen sees himself. In an interesting scene, one of Geddes’ daughters advises him to be careful in his travels, even though she understands that “you like to challenge your safe life with something that makes you creative and aware.” Geddes appreciates her concern, but questions her sense of his mission: “I believed this trip . . . to be about something deeper.” But that something deeper is never specified except in the most abstruse and high-sounding terms: “once you begin to contemplate the past, there is no turning back and no end of disturbing vistas . . . . The healing of art . . . came not from avoiding, and certainly not from looking back through the comforting lenses of tranquility or nostalgia, but from confronting and capturing the terror in the form of art.”

What’s a reader to do here: genuflect, or barf?

As to proving pre-Columbian Asian influence, Geddes blithely assumes that it exists and retreats into paranoia when archaeologists tell him it doesn’t. He suspects a conspiracy, supposing that archaeologists are afraid to confront or explore obvious evidence of Asian contact because they fear reprisals from the Haida and Maya whose sites they are investigating and who do not seem to feel that their people needed pre-Columbian Asian contact to come up with zero, accurate calendars, and statues of fat guys in the lotus position.

Consequently, his methods remain amateurish. He gravitates to what Europeans generally see as the really impressive manifestations of indigenous culture, the sites of the Aztec and (mainly) Maya, looking at the configurations of remains in burial sites and statues of fat guys who “tienen postura en flor de loto.” Later, on Haida Gwai, he engages in a similar pursuit, joshed by trickster Haida friends who keep assuming the lotus position while they eat, listen to music, or carve.

They could be right in making fun of him. Perhaps Huishen ended up landing in Alaska and his influence can be found Dorset and Inuit shamanism. Or maybe Geddes should be looking in Asia for the influences of the Haida and Maya, both of whom certainly had the means to make it to Asia. The wasting of talent, good will and government grant money on a “whim” – no matter how high-toned the description of that whim—indicates serious personal flaws that the reader expects – nay, desperately wants—Geddes to confront. After all, he’s such a nice, well-intentioned guy.

But the confrontation never happens. Geddes fails to follow Huishen into any personal transcendence, any renunciation that would lead to art. The “automatic writing” that he does, in his dreams of Huishen, sketches, in cameos, the person that Geddes wants to be. But there is no attempt on his part to actually be this way and, lacking a personal quest o
this sort, the walk in Huishen’s shoes goes nowhere specific: “I calculated that I had already traveled almost thirty thousand miles, visited seven countries, sampled several dozen cultures, and gone deeper into history than I’d imagined possible in such a short time.”

”Deeper into history?” The tough-minded Huishen, noting that Geddes remains as self-absorbed, self-righteous, and defensive at the end of his journey as he was at the beginning, likely would’ve written “deeper into self-aggrandizing bullshit than I’d imagined possible in such a short time.”

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John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

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