"Out of My Country and Myself I Go": Identity and Writing in Stevenson's Early Travel Books
Clunas, Alex, Nineteenth-Century Prose
Although Stevenson criticism has almost ignored his early travel works, these books offer valuable insights into his identity as a writer. His journeys in France and Belgium allowed him temporarily to escape the cultural constraints of home and to use this estrangement to experiment with new, though evanescent, forms of selfhood. His journeys were propitious occasions for writing because he inscribed himself thereby in mobile, aleatory narratives that eschewed purpose. His journeys and his writing united in being undertaken for their own sake. Both were "pure, dispassionate adventures" that accepted the instability of world and self, thus opening a space in which he could imagine that they were new again. Although he knew that this sense of originality might be illusory, he preferred his illusion to others' reality because it permitted him to write.
The two books by Robert Louis Stevenson that I wish to focus on here are among his earliest published works: An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Standing at the beginning of his literary career, these travel books (especially the latter) have been read by many, frequently reprinted and anthologized and quoted, and yet attended by relative critical silence. Favorable contemporary reviewers like Grant Allen settled on the double-edged word "charming" as the most appropriate descriptor (Maixner 64-66). They found in these modest travel narratives a welcome relief from mid-century earnestness and responded to their vagabond air, admiring them as much for what they did not attempt as for what they did: Neither book had a doctrinal axe to grind and both eschewed weighty disquisitions on national character and history. In his Preface to Inland Voyage, Stevenson announced to his readers this lack of seriousness:
I wonder, would a negative be found enticing? for, from the negative point of view, I flatter myself this volume has a certain stamp. Although it runs to considerably upwards of two hundred pages, it contains not a single reference to the imbecility of God's universe, nor so much as a single hint that I could have made a better one myself.... 'Tis an omission that renders the book philosophically unimportant; but I am in hopes the eccentricity may please in frivolous circles. (xv-xvi) (1)
Since then, "charm" has lost its value as a term of critical approval, although the word has stuck (see, for example, Fussell 416). Stevenson's most recent biographer makes nothing of them as literary productions (McLynn 106-110, 134-137) and shares Daiches' view that critical discourse is justifiably silent before them because they are superficial and immature works (World 44). With the exception of some positive remarks in Bell's 1992 biography and Saposnik's astute, but brief, discussion of Stevenson's travel writing, this dismissive silence constitutes something of a critical consensus. (2) Thus, a general aim of this essay is to find a way of speaking about Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey, and to attempt a description of what they are and what they do as a way of restoring their energy as writing. This will allow us to understand how these "dulcet experiments" (Furnas 439) really matter to the development of Stevenson's identity as a writer.
We might call the narratives nonteleological, to distinguish them from travel reports that originate in some specific purpose, whether that is a destination or an intellectual discovery that makes the journey meaningful. The term nonteleological is cumbersome, but it is useful because it may be applied to both journeys and texts as a way of naming this absence of a drive towards a goal or destination or conclusion. A much-quoted passage from Travels with a Donkey specifies this intransitive spirit:
Why anyone should wish to visit Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. (130)
We see here a disavowal of purpose and knowledge expressed metaphorically in terms of the journey itself. That is to say, the writer's lack of interest in these specific places (Luc and Cheylard) implies a more general skepticism about travelling purposefully in search of knowledge. His attention is so vagrant that he is, in the phrase Henry James uses of some of his own European travels, "systematically superficial" and thus ill-equipped to receive or to communicate any deeper reality than what happens to meet the eye (314).
The passage, furthermore, reveals an implicit conversation between Stevenson and French aestheticism, and this helps us to understand what he is negating when he denies that he has any power to enlighten his readers. (3) The phrase 'travel for travel's sake" is an obvious echo of "l'art pour art" and to aesthetic doctrines and practices that assert the autonomy of art and decry its didactic utility. We can indicate the connection between aestheticism and travelling by noting the link between Gautier's Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) and his philosophy of the intransitive, as he expresses it in Voyage en Espagne: "The pleasure of travelling lies in the journey and not in the arrival" (Romantic [translation of Voyage en Espagne] 265). To be fixed on one's destination is aesthetically disabling, like didactic purpose in a literary work. A pure aesthetic (or seeing) requires distance, achieved through artistic discipline and estrangement, that releases the visible, freeing it from the contaminations of purpose, moral utility, and custom. Thus, according to Gautier, the aesthetic traveller is capricious, free, observant. Baudelaire's characterization of "les vrais voyageurs ... qui partent pour partir" can be heard in Stevenson's words, too, and to the same general effect that the authentic traveller seeks experience for its own sake, not as a path to some other goal. In positing this latent dialogue between the narrators of Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey and these French influences on his writing, we have specified an important link in Stevenson's mind between travelling experience and aesthetic activity--his journeys are nonteleological because they are, in the first place, occasions for writing. Even if that is granted, though, we still have not explained why journeys were such propitious occasions for writing, and it is to that question that I want to turn now.
As observed above, both works betray an indirect concern with aesthetic matters, particularly with what it might mean to be an artist, a writer. What kind of journey would a writer undertake? What would he notice and why? Above all, what kind of seeing subject would a writer be, and how would this subject be present in his writing? This last question is the most important one. He is intensely conscious that his writing is constructing a subject--the author, Robert Louis Stevenson--who is not necessarily identical with the "actual" Robert Louis Stevenson. He is specifically aware of how the journeys provide a chain of experiences, of places, where he can experiment with his emerging authorial self in its undetermined relations to what is commonly called the world and to a reading public. (4)
The second and more specific aim of this essay, then, is to examine the relationships between Stevenson's journeys and narratives and his experiments with identity, which he saw as preparation for transforming himself into an "artist." This examination will allow us to advance some thoughts on the epistemological and ontological significance of journeys for Stevenson's writing. In short, I wish to describe in Stevenson's case what Michel Butor calls "the intense bond ... …
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Publication information: Article title: "Out of My Country and Myself I Go": Identity and Writing in Stevenson's Early Travel Books. Contributors: Clunas, Alex - Author. Journal title: Nineteenth-Century Prose. Volume: 23. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1996. Page number: 54+. © 2001 Nineteenth-Century Prose. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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