In the poem ‘Questions of Travel’, Elizabeth Bishop explores why we travel and what we, as travellers, want from the experience. The poem takes the form of a series of rhetorical questions that combine to constitute a critique of tourism as a means by which to acquire cultural capital or purportedly authentic experience. When Bishop asks, halfway through the poem, ‘must we dream our dreams / and have them, too? / And have we room / for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?’ (1983: 93) she draws particular attention to the traveller’s paradoxical and untenable desire to categorise, catalogue and thus somehow possess the various ephemeral experiences of travel. ‘Questions of Travel’ gently mocks the traveller’s impulse to collect both material and imaginary souvenirs that can be neatly packed in a suitcase to take home. As the poem progresses, Bishop shifts from examining foreign space and the exterior world to exploring the interior territory of the modern traveller, wondering what desires precipitate the journey and asking, in the ﬁnal lines, ‘should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?’ (Bishop 1983: 94, emphasis in original). I begin this chapter with Bishop’s poem because it alerts us to the diﬀerent, sometimes contradictory, motivations for modern movement, thus setting the stage for a more thorough examination of the nature of the acquisitive desires that propel the journey in modern travel ﬁction. Furthermore, the shift that ‘Questions of Travel’ enacts from examining physical to psychological spaces suggests that travel, in modernism, entails not so much a pursuit for the fulﬁlment of a particular desire as an interrogation of the very nature of desire. It is this aspect of travel – a desire for material, cultural or imaginative
acquisition – that I concentrate on in this chapter, considering four novels by two modernist writers: Henry James’s The American (1877) and The Ambassadors (1903), and E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and A Passage to India (1924). While the previous chapter considered travellers whose journey promises to transform the self, in this chapter I turn to journeys that oﬀer but ultimately question the possibility of acquiring something for the self. While acquisition is often a mode of self-transformation, I pay particular attention to what it means in modernist literature to travel with the deﬁnite idea of gaining something or accomplishing a speciﬁc goal. These novels depict
travellers whose journeys, like the hypothetical traveller’s journey in Bishop’s poem, are primarily motivated by the quest to acquire material, cultural or imaginative capital. The central characters in James’s and Forster’s novels initially ﬁgure travel as a romantic quest to transform themselves and their circumstances. However, as each novel interrogates the very nature of travelling desire, the experience of travel becomes a vehicle for unravelling and consequently re-examining the traveller’s quest for ‘authentic’ experience or for appreciable personal gain. James’s and Forster’s characters adopt at least three travelling identities –
the pilgrim, the quester and the tourist – all of whom are motivated by the desire to get something from the experience of travel. E. Alan Morinis’s typology of pilgrimage suggests one loose travel category within which we can place these novels: he describes journeys that are ‘undertaken to accomplish ﬁnite, worldly goals’ as ‘instrumental pilgrimages’ (1992: 11). For Morinis, the goal of such pilgrimages is traditionally ‘obtaining a cure for illness’, but he notes that ‘instrumental pilgrimages are undertaken for almost any conceivable reason’, from ‘restoring lost hair to the head’ to ‘ﬁnding a good marriage partner for a daughter, [ … ] helping an ailing business, and so on’ (1992: 11). While I engage with Morinis’s deﬁnition of instrumental pilgrimage here, the adaptive alteration in terminology that I make from ‘instrumental pilgrimage’ to ‘acquisitive pilgrimage’ highlights the perhaps surprising tie between Morinis’s discussion of a particular religious tradition and those criticisms of modern travel as an anti-spiritual pursuit of material goals that adhere to what David A. Fennell terms as ‘the commoditisation theory’ where the spaces of tourism are ‘looked upon merely as commodities to be sold or leased to vacationers’ (2006: 130-1). Such similarities suggest that, while an acquisitive pilgrimage might seem like something of an oxymoron, the quest for spiritual knowledge cannot be simplistically divided from the quest for material gain. The novels considered in this chapter complicate the binary opposition between material and spiritual journeys, showing that acquisitive travel can follow a spiritual model and, conversely, that spiritual travel can have acquisitive aims. In other words, as Morinis’s work shows, acquisitive desire is not necessarily at odds with spiritual programmes: the tourist who ventures abroad in search of cultural gain has much in common with the pilgrim who undertakes a journey in search of spiritual remedy, for each of these travellers hopes to get something. My understanding of the acquisitive pilgrimage also converges with John
McClure’s deﬁnition of the modern quest and the genre of the late imperial romance. Building on the work of Martin Green and Patrick Brantlinger, McClure suggests that ‘by the end of the [nineteenth] century, [the] partnership between romance and imperial expansion was under strain’ (1994: 2) and posits a modern form of the imperial quest that embodies a search for lost romance, mystery and mysticism in the now purportedly rational and secularised spaces of modernity. Yet James’s and Forster’s novels not only
depict but also undermine and complicate the acquisitive model of the quest that their characters undertake. The quest, as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, among others, remind us, is an archetype or ‘monomyth’ that embodies the search for meaning or truth, the overcoming of trials, the attainment of prizes and the safe return home (Campbell 1949, Frye 1957). It is a narrative trajectory that depends upon recognisable heroes and villains, rewards and punishments, as well as the clear division of the spaces of home and abroad. These novels unravel the expected narrative trajectory of the quest by showing quests that are impossible to achieve, insuﬃcient or unsatisfactory. Their ﬁctional travellers ultimately renounce the desires that originally motivate their quests, and it is the recurrent yet apparently oppositional tropes of desire and renunciation as they appear in James’s and Forster’s novels that particularly interest me here. We might be tempted to read the trope of renunciation as a straightfor-
ward rejection of the acquisitive pilgrimage. Certainly, all four novels undermine the possibility of easily purchasing an authentic experience or transformed self. These novels also explore the ethical repercussions of the acquisitive model: they ask if getting something always means taking it away from someone else, and they question what it means to see a foreign space only in terms of what you can get from it. The quest for acquisition is thus shown to be a false and destructive way of engaging with another country or culture, and, as they reject the quest model, the novels simultaneously turn away from imperialist modes of travel. Nonetheless, it is too simplistic to suggest that these works write the quest only to reject it. The novels show quest and renunciation to be two sides of the same coin: the experience of the quest is what allows the characters to imagine renunciation, and, furthermore, renunciation, in all of these novels, leads to strange gain. Critics, and Jamesian critics in particular, frequently associate the trope of renunciation with self-denial and asceticism. Yet renunciation gains a more positive meaning in these texts, suggesting a new travelling ethics that lies apart from equations of proﬁt and loss. In a further twist, these novels suggest that renunciation is not always either utterly ethical or straightforwardly ethically preferable to more acquisitive modes of engagement with foreign place and peoples: there are diﬀerent motivations and modes of renunciation, just as there are diﬀerent models and meanings for acquisition. In Late Imperial Romance, John McClure critiques the hidden imperialist programme of ‘heroic spiritual romances which enact the rediscovery of mystery and depict the disillusioned individual’s strong resignation from the world of political engagement’ (1994: 12). For Forster and James, the distinctions among spiritual, ethical and political modes of engagement with the world are much more ambiguous and are complexly rendered in their works. The American, The Ambassadors, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Passage to India rewrite the spiritual quest in order to allow room for a political and ethical re-engagement with the world, albeit on terms diﬀerent to the traditional acquisitive model.