“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.”
― Nikolai Gogol
It began with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the journey will always have the appearance of being static, but only because of the overwhelming fact that thought does not seem to travel from its visibility outside. I had begun the novel years before and my imagination was more or less at a complete disconnect back then due to being rendered almost paralytic by information without emotional content. Means of escape dwindled as the straight lines of structure appeared more firm and, though I had momentarily gathered myself together whilst reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick years before, I still felt like the central character Ishmael, lost at sea and abandoned to a sometimes unforgiving nature. So to be able to pick up War and Peace after many years of silence, of watching and daydreaming, wrapped in music without words to explain, cloistered in abstract and isolated concepts and notions of difference and latent meaning everywhere without the means to direct myself towards it.
Tolstoy’s novel took me almost an entire year and its stuttering progress was like a film that could only be shot in five minute reels each time but was worth all the difficulties. I found a certain confluence had appeared, a certain mutual understanding that I had not encountered before except within myself. It has always been within, though, this latent understanding, and the novelist or writer directs it and speaks it if given the opportunity. As I was to later read in Emerson’s Self- Reliance, I understood that the concept of genius or of creativity was mostly being capable of having a good angle, a mirror-like awareness and an ability to see inside of people, rather than make surface guesses which undermine reality. What I found in War and Peace was a transcendental philosophy cast in with a sense that everything ends, that everything has a certain fate. Caught between two concepts, between two “sides” both Russian and French, between mankind and nature, the novel began to unfold many unrealised ideas; especially that of the depth of the individual and also a new perspective on the landscape of humanity in this place.
Tolstoy’s ability to make sense appear in the world through described movement, through the quiet reflective scenes in nature and when beauty was emptied of its apparent meaning; when the causes of life’s meaning were gradually, rather than narrowed, made more mysterious, more ineluctable and far more rich and complex than could be seen before, the novel began to take a complete grasp over me. It was then that I understood that I was travelling and seeing things for the first time, Tolstoy’s protagonist Pierre explaining with powerful clarity to a friend in suffering the words and philosophies of Alexander Herzen, who was always to admit that the lines of humanity could not be traced, and that the complexity rendered beauty and life possible. Tolstoy himself rendered life possible through anti-historical conclusions, statements that made history seem so much emptier of prior meaning and content. The novel was a means of travelling beyond identity and of seeing connection in whichever direction I may have gone next.
And perhaps this was the point of remaining entirely static but travelling as far as possible at the time within myself; to really unthread all that apparently permanent material and look at it for the first time was a perfect prelude to a wider journey through ideas and even memories. My travels became attempts to remember, and to find a certain connection with people that as a child there is a sense of but it is lost in the already-existing language, the forms of learning, and the already-mapped destinations. That learning is as much like putting yourself outdoors and seeing the world with your own eyes is something that became of tremendous value, that having eyes to see was just as important as to be able to take them somewhere. The intention was to loosen off all the values that are simply given and to try to create patterns of understanding within myself, to see the process and not just the idea. In short, to see the world not as in a frame, but as in a place where everything is possible; in which a human face not only contains expression but is a tower of optimism and a cellar of regret, of unexpressed subconscious longing.
Then there was Don Quixote, miraculously written by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605, in which imagination became the reality, in which absurdity became romantic (this also worked the other way around), and where the reader was brought to a new idea of reading; that there is no actual need for narrative or consistent structure within a novel for it to take the reader places and it is rather an ecstatic, meaningful lack of process. The pages teem with expansive tragicomic scenes which are pushed forwards by the Don Quixote’s absurd yet hugely entertaining struggle to serve his invented path as a knight errant, a life that he imagined for himself from the pages of so many stories of chivalry and heroic knights serving a noble cause. The novel really pushed the boundaries of the self, and Don Quixote’s unselfconscious humanity perhaps had a role in invented this self-understanding that is now so useful for making sense of life, and sharing its internal depths.
It would be impossible to write a tolerably concise article on three years of going further into the depths of imagination, and explaining in a short article all the different discoveries, but it was a useful prelude to travel, to begin to know myself and notice that there are maybe no limitations upon man except in how the body can travel; the imagination is endless, and even timeless. Seeing this inside of other people was the next step forward, seeing possibility and a new set of eyes which changes through language and climate, through life experiences. Creating a depth and articulation within myself, and recalling (as Marcel Proust would demand of me whilst reading In Search of Lost Time) the past so that it did not separate me too much from other people; realising that understanding myself was the first condition of really wanting to feel in another language and to go to another place and to actually liberate yourself within imagination and make a return with an entirely new way of looking at structure, of avoiding it for the more impermanent and fleeting ideas, the ideas that always appear richer because they are host to change and to possibilities. I found that the need to know myself as a part of this world preceded my need to find myself in another continent; rather see everything for the first time, without any coloured perception or any expectation or need to control differences.
In that I found myself successful, and I slowly walk through the deepest memories and parts of my imagination whilst finishing a three year long travel, which was only a prelude to going somewhere for the first time, and truly the first time. Books lie scattered everywhere and a library is complete, and like the Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, I know that it is one of many and that it has its own well-honed quality, has moved the reader to new places within himself, and will certainly move more. The nature of reading is always different and this journey was more or less an unconscious effort to see parts of myself in other people, to feel that this place was somewhat limitless, and it has appeared that way. Now I learn languages amidst the almost finished works of men who died for a certain clarity and vision. Perhaps the whole meaning of this was to understand that meaning always changes, and that this is what is so entirely beautiful, this constant inconstant. The discovery of the self through travel, or before travel, or during travel; it depends on what sort of person you are and what needs you have. It took a lot of time to liberate myself from myself and from a notion that I was always unchanging, always a certain identity that I would see in the mirror. And now I know that this is not true, and I am not so caught up in definitions when the underlying process is what is most substantial. So I now see the world with new eyes, eyes which will hopefully see the depth in every individual rather than a reflection of myself.
Kieran Donnan is a history graduate working on his first book called The Ocean is at War with the Shore. He has an interest in translating languages, philosophy and literature, has worked on several radio and newspaper projects, and is looking to travel and translate into different languages ideas about communication and ways of seeing social interaction differently.