Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Ordered South": The Spatial Sense of the Invalid in Robert Louis Stevenson's Early Travel Essay

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Ordered South": The Spatial Sense of the Invalid in Robert Louis Stevenson's Early Travel Essay

Article excerpt

In his essay, "Crabbed Age and Youth," Robert Louis Stevenson poses the question, "What if there were no centre at all ... and the whole world a labyrinth without end or issue?" and then offers an answer: "There is no centre to the maze because ... the centre is everywhere." For Stevenson the traveler, the issue of a center, a fixed point of departure or destination, a definable periphery, is directly related to his deteriorating physical and emotional state. In the 1874 essay, "Ordered South," Stevenson presents the reader with an example of the spatial and temporal subjectivity of the invalid as he travels by train from an unspecified "north" to an unidentified "south." Though the traveler's mind receives and interprets the many visual images before him as the train, a moving longitudinal line, splits his physical and psychological world in two, the illness that compels him south determines his distorted relation to all things and forces a retreat into imagined time and space. Ultimately, Stevenson speaks with his own voice as he recognizes the need for the man, the artist, the invalid, to map his own horizons and locate his own "centre": the "everywhere" of the creative mind.

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In his essay, "Crabbed Age and Youth," Robert Louis Stevenson questions the means and measurement of a man's progress "if there were no centre at all [...] and the whole world a labyrinth without end or issue," and then offers an answer: "There is no centre to the maze because [...] its centre is everywhere" (66-67). For Stevenson the traveler, the issue of a center, a fixed point of departure or destination, or a definable periphery, can be directly related to his deteriorating physical and emotional state. In his most famous travel essays and books, Stevenson successfully sublimates the invalid persona to that of the exotic, adventurous explorer. But in his 1874 essay, "Ordered South," published with "Crabbed Age and Youth" in Virginibus Puerisque (1881), (1) Stevenson offers an example, unique in his canon, of the spatial and temporal subjectivity of the invalid as he sets out by train from an unspecified "North" to an unidentified "South," the first in a lifetime of journeys in search of health. More than in any other later work, Stevenson permits the reader to view all direction and space only in relation to the invalid's troubled imagination, and the directions of north and south take the form of synonyms for the past and present life of the invalid traveler, time frames that become more and more indistinguishable as the material landscape recedes from his touch. The journey itself becomes a metaphor for the invalid's struggle to find his own place in the world, map his own course, and ultimately reconcile the distance between the attainable and surrendered dream.

Years before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the twenty-three-year-old Stevenson had already suffered from diphtheria, rheumatism, pneumonia, pleurisy, chronic fevers, sore throats, depression, bronchial hemorrhages, and perhaps syphilis (McLynn 56). (2) By the time Dr. Andrew Clark prescribed a journey out of the damp Scottish Highlands southward to the renowned French resort of Mentone in November 1873, Stevenson, prematurely stooped by the burden of time spent in pain and fear (he weighed only 118 lbs.), sensed an early death. Unable to walk for significant distances, he wrote Charles Baxter of a premonition that he "may not recover at all" (Letters 369, 395). In a letter to Frances Sitwell written while in Mentone, Stevenson confessed: "If you knew how old I felt. I am sure this is what age brings with it; this carelessness, this disenchantment, this continual bodily weariness; I am a man of seventy; O Medea, kill me, or make me young again!" (374). In the essay to come out of this experience, "Ordered South," this "carelessness" in terms of direction, destination, and movement creates a confusing mental labyrinth. The traveler, trapped in the physical body of an invalid, attempts to move, an incongruous act in itself, and the movement, the motion, is clearly the objective, not the empirical journey or destination. …

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