The traveler’s game

I loved this gem from the lately-late Claude Lévi-Strauss, about the fruitless yet fascinating mind games the serious, studious traveler often plays, trying to decide what era would be the best time to visit a certain place or certain culture. Lévi-Strauss finds this ultimately depressing, but I suppose there’s good news in it as well: that the best time to experience culture is always, conveniently, now.

And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape: the less human societies were able to communicate with each other and therefore to corrupt each other through contact, the less their respective emissaries were able to perceive the wealth and significance of their diversity. In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lose on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in the same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should.


from Tristes Tropiques, p.43, by Claude Lévi-Strauss (translated by John and Doreen Weightman), 1955

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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