Travel always disrupts a form of identity. Animals always prosper in a given habitat even when they must rove within it, but humans contrive annoyance at stability within a habitat and long to drift here and there, in search of adventure, discovery, or idle curiosity.
The appeal of travel is ubiquitous. Homer’s The Odyssey is a perennial favorite of writers ancient and modern. The classic embodies adventure within an acknowledged requirement or inevitability of returning home to stability, identity, domestication. The adventures are tantalizing because we know that the hero, after pleasure, will return to a warm fire or dry shelter, there to savor memories. This is the masculine dream that mingles rakishness with the hearth, reconciles the raging and final denouement of both hormones and instincts.
An Asian tale postulates a question put to a Tibetan yogi: “How do you get enlightenment?” “Leave your country,” the yogi replies. Bodhidharma left India for China, and Japanese sages left Japan for China (but returned). How many emigrants have imagined a promised land, from the Hebrews of Egypt to those journeying from Europe to America, or some version in history even since? But is the yogi’s reply true?
A few sociologists postulate that the genetic makeup of emigrants and adventurers leans toward the same material rapacity, the getting-rich, the finding of gold, the embodied crusader, explorer, mercenary, or risk-taking financier. All live with the goal of movement, change, and progress, a value that came to embody virtually every scientific and social paradigm throughout the last five centuries. Even the average person is eager to see new things while savagely defending their narrow world view.
Perhaps the hunter-gatherer instinct survives in this ironic way. Primitivism extols the virtues of the untrammeled and uncivilized, making the point that, after all, look at to what brink of collapse and extinction technological civilization has brought us. But is this remark not the primitivist’s very weakness? — to have projected the wandering, adventurer’s restlessness onto what evolved from their eventual weariness as civilization. The hunter-gatherer bequeathed aimless extermination (several species were probably hunted to extinction by them), ever in search of new prey, to modern civilization.
The historical agriculturalist or peasant does not trust travel, or even the inhabitants beyond the mountain within their purview. Their distrust is not founded on animosity but is more akin to the animal’s instinct to maintain its habitat, knowing subconsciously that change can be irrevocable, that the place where one is presently situated can be the universe. Not that the typical peasant will articulate this, any more than the animal will. Nor will the adventurer reduce his restlessness to mere genetics, though he has clearly lost touch with the present and with nature itself.
Travel by bus or train (not on a fast and mindless jet akin to the fictional time machine) in a distant or foreign land. A sense of wonder may well up, translated now into a sense of amusement, alienation, bewilderment, or fear, according to vicissitudes of life that now prompt the travel. Comfortable people project a sense of extension, like the happy child who accompanies the parent without fear as long as the parent is within sight. Perhaps the pilgrim will be focused on a specific goal, regardless of circumstances. But the less comfortable may sense the inherent restlessness that strange sites project, a sudden rootlessness, a not-belonging. This feeling is deeper than the heroic adventurism of Odysseus.
The experience is not merely of being out of habitat or without a home. The experience can encapsulate a rootlessness embedded within life itself, within the universe, where everything ought to be home, everywhere ought to be habitat, at least to humans no longer “mere” animals, no longer dependent on the mechanics of life but on the mind’s ability to abstract ways of living. But except for the adventurer and the comfortable — and for the modern mind — this sleight of hand about being a citizen of the universe cannot hold up. We have failed to transcend our animal nature, failed to get to that point of consciousness that does not need anything, less a home. But in the name of ideology we insist, and in the name of progress destroy our very habitat.
The restless try to cheat the ill feeling, and many succeed, often at the expense of others who suffer at the hands of the hunting-preying instinct of the mobile. But the restlessness, which is rooted in religion but contradicts nature (which, however, we will never appropriate) is not a failure of evolution. It is only a continuity of animal being, added to which is the wound of consciousness. Our destiny is to always feel this restlessness, to always long for a habitat that is familiar, congenial, recognizable.