Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

"The Great Affair Is to Move": Stevenson's Journeys

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

"The Great Affair Is to Move": Stevenson's Journeys

Article excerpt

The pioneering impulse was strong in Stevenson: travel prompted self-exploration, investigation of the human psyche, and significant innovation in narrative strategies. His "kinetic method" identifies him as a harbinger of Modernism and, with his agnosticism, locates his work in the movement from Absolutism to Relativism, which is further reflected in his engagement with the concept of evolution - of humankind, of the earth, and of fiction itself. Stevenson's writing throughout is characterised by the interplay of values of motion and stasis. Sophisticated techniques such as fragmentary form and free indirect narration require the reader's alertness on the journey through the text.

Keywords: kinetic; Relativism; Modernism; narrative experimentation; reader response; Scottish writer-adventurers; evolutionary theory; stream of consciousness; duality; free indirect narration; Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Weir of Hermiston; "On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature"; Henry James

Movement is everywhere in Stevenson. His life was a compulsive quest, his style honed yet fluid, his narratives characterised by their momentum. He is kinesis personified. Restless physical energy is paralleled in challenge to orthodoxies. In both his agnosticism and the shifting perspectives of his narratives Stevenson is in the vanguard of the shift in values from Absolutism to Relativism which dominated mid- and late-nineteenth century thought.

In Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) Stevenson offers a forthright statement of what he is about: "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move" (Stevenson 2004: 35); to which in The Cevennes Journal, the diary whose material forms the basis of Travels, he adds, "and to write about it afterwards, if only the public will be so condescending as to read it" (Golding 1978: 54). The implications for the practice of Action of this emphasis on motion and flux are evident from Stevenson's comment on Balzac's technique: "I wish I had his fist - for I have already a better method - the kinetic - whereas he continually allowed himself to be led into the static" (Smith 1948: 267). In his essays and his exchanges with Henry James, Stevenson gives direction to theorising about fictional practice; in his experiments with narrative and formal strategies as means of shaping reader response he points forward to Modernism (Sandison 1999).

Stevenson is one of a line of Scottish writers motivated by personal restlessness, the desire to extend their horizons, whether in the quest for health abroad or liberation from the constraints of life in the homeland: Smollett spends much of his latter years in France and Italy; Boswell espouses the cause of Corsican nationalism; Gait sails the Mediterranean with Byron, is a pioneer in eastern Canada, and combines literary and mercantile careers. There may be a case for viewing such Scottish adventurism - both physical and cultural - as both a response to the competitiveness which the Union of 1707 engendered and a challenge to Presbyterianism's emphasis on life as a "given", a reluctance to surrender to a brooding fatalism bred of Calvinism. Equally, account should be taken of precedents such as the numbers of Scottish scholars in the Low Countries in the later Middle Ages or the remarkable example of William Lithgow who spent nineteen years (1609-28) wandering in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. His Peregrinations (1632) includes illustrations depicting Lithgow in the Libyan desert; in the ruins of Troy wearing Turkish apparel; tied to a tree by thieves in Moldavia; and strapped to the rack in Spain. Less adventurous physically, William Drummond explored a range of cultures via the books in seven languages which his library housed. These precedents were there to inspire Stevenson, confirming Muriel Spark's shrewd assessment a century later that for the Scot exile was "a calling" (Dunn 1992: 8). …

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