Walker Percy and the Recovery of PlaceBy Ari N. Schulman for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
[This post is adapted with permission from “GPS and the End of the Road,” an essay in the anthology Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister.]
In a 2009 article in the New York Times, the travel writer Henry Shukman admitted that he was “disappointed” the first time he saw the Grand Canyon: after enduring a long traffic jam in the drive from Los Angeles, “When we eventually managed to park, and walked to the rim, the scale of the sight off the edge was so great it was hard to muster a response. It was so vast, and so familiar from innumerable pictures, it might just as well have been a picture.”
Many other writers over the years have made similar remarks about their travels to other places: William Least Heat-Moon, in his travelogue Blue Highways (1983), recounts that New Mexico’s Mogollon Rim “was a spectacular place; the more so because I had not been anesthetized to it by endless Kodachromes.” Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place (1977), agrees that a place “may lack the weight of reality because we know it only from the outside — through the eyes as tourists, and from reading about it in a guidebook.” Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel (2002), claims that “where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, and where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted.” Tuan concludes: “The fleeting intimacies of direct experience and the true quality of a place often escape notice because the head is packed with shopworn ideas. The data of the senses are pushed under in favor of what one is taught to see and admire.”
The novelist Walker Percy anticipated these observations in his 1958 essay “The Loss of the Creature” (collected in The Message in the Bottle). He begins with the question: do modern tourists see the same sight today at the Grand Canyon as García López de Cárdenas, the first European to discover it, did when he first stumbled out of the mesquite upon the gaping expanse?
The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated — by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon…. If it looks just like the postcard, [the tourist] is pleased; he might even say, “Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!” He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time. The highest point, the term of the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.
Percy outlines a number of ways in which the sightseer might avoid this disappointment, each of which involves avoiding his expectations of the place. One such strategy is “getting off the beaten track.” Or he can take the beaten track but in an unbeaten sort of way: Percy notes the feeling of good fortune when a family visits the canyon and, finding it unexpectedly empty, can report to friends, “We had the whole place to ourselves.” Henry Shukman chose just such a strategy on his return trip to the canyon: he went during the winter, when, as a park ranger told him, “You’ll more or less have the place to yourself.” In a more extreme example, Percy describes the effect of a hypothetical national disaster or global near-apocalypse, in which the infrastructure for “seeing” the canyon is ruined, and the visitor there is able to recover that sense of awe about the canyon — to see it as if for the first time.
In short, Percy says, the sightseer “sees the canyon by avoiding all the facilities for seeing the canyon.” Our assumption is “that the Grand Canyon is a remarkably interesting and beautiful place and that if it had a certain value P for Cárdenas, the same value P may be transmitted to any number of sightseers.” But this is belied by our experience, as the accounts of the travel writers and the general appeal of strategies like “getting off the beaten track” attest. As William Least Heat-Moon discovered during an unexpected detour, “little is so satisfying to the traveler as realizing he missed seeing what he assumed to be in a place before he went.”
What Percy and these other writers are getting at is that just as important as what we see in the world is how we go about seeing it. We are adept at identifying points of interest, but pay scant attention to the importance of our approaches to exploring them; our efforts to facilitate the experience of place often end up being self-defeating. What Percy’s strategies aim to do, in part, is to put the traveler into a state of willingness and hunger to encounter the world as it is, to discover the great sights with the freshness, the newness, that is so much of what we seek from them. Alain de Botton also describes this attitude as the solution to the guidebook problem, and identifies it as the mode of receptivity….
The strategies that Percy describes for avoiding the tourist’s dulled experience all involve subverting our expectations of a place in some way or another. But these strategies still require a consciousness of our expectations: getting off the beaten path is a negotiation (even if a contrarian one) with the pre-formed idea of a place, rather than with the place itself. And soon enough, getting off the beaten path becomes incorporated into the approved, expected experience: witness the advertisements for SUVs and sporting gear that now use that phrase as a slogan. Indeed, the presumption of location-aware technologies is that place can be a sort of consumer artifact, a packaged item in a showroom awaiting evaluation and purchase.
But this presumption doesn’t fit our actual experiences of place. In his essay “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time,” Edward S. Casey, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University, disassembles the ideas we have piled atop our experience of place, suffocating our understanding of it. Our Cartesian and Newtonian mindset regards space as the inert medium of the universe onto which places cling: “space is absolute and infinite as well as empty and a priori in status,” while places are “the mere apportionings of space, its compartmentalizations,” and the sensory experiences of sight, sound, smell, and so forth are mere “secondary qualities.” Space, we might say, is like the empty walls of a house, and place the furniture and paintings added later as decoration. Visiting places and traveling through the world must then be like touring a giant museum, gazing at the pictures and artifacts. This is the mode of travel presupposed by the users of location-awareness technology: it tells them, first, where to go, and second, what to see in what they are looking at — permitting them to leave without ever stepping outside the confines of the guided and certified experience, and into actual exploration.
But however useful and appropriate the Cartesian formulation is for our mathematical understanding of space, the quality of our experience is quite different. As Casey observes, places are not secondary things in the world, because we cannot grasp the abstract realm of “space” except in and through whatever particular place we occupy at any given time. When we describe the universals of which a place is a part, it is as an abstraction from these so-called “secondary” qualities that are actually first in our experience. In short, as Casey says, “We come to the world — we come into it and keep returning to it — as already placed there.”
This primacy of our qualitative experience indicates that even the notion of “receptivity” only begins to account for our engagement with sights and places. As Casey notes, “perception is never entirely a matter of what Kant calls ‘receptivity,’ as if the perceiving subject were merely passive.” And, echoing another philosopher, Casey adds in his book The Fate of Place (1998) that “the perceiver’s body is not a mere mechanism for registering sensations but an active participant in the scene of perception.”
Indeed, the very notion of engagement means that we cannot treat places as mere sensory data, as sights: we cannot truly experience places simply by arriving and gazing at them, even if attentively. Being in a place, rather, means doing in it. But places are not mere bundles of stuff to do — activity tables in a museum to supplement the paintings — any more than they are mere accretions of stuff to see. A place is a realm of affairs for Nature and for humans; the term of our first entry into a place is recognizing our individual potential to be involved in those affairs. When we sense that potential, it manifests as a sort of invitation to enter into them — a “solicitation to action,” as Matthew B. Crawford puts it — a beckoning to discovery, of the place and of our selves, through what we might encounter there and how we might face it. This is the element crucial to seeing a place: discerning what it invites us to do and answering the challenge.
The demand that a place first makes of us is to be able to move in it as our bodily selves. The tourist at the Grand Canyon has a far better chance of “seeing” the canyon if he goes for a hike in it than if he stands gazing at the rim, mightily attempting to behold it (even though he can, in a literal sense, see more of it from the rim). This motion need not be directly a matter of the body; any machine that a person enters and controls as a vehicle of his own powers will do: whether he drives an airplane, a car, or a wheelchair, some relationship between agent and place is formed. As the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry discovered, each of these machines functions as a different sort of body that permits an encounter with different aspects and scales of a place.
Central to the demand to move in a place is the demand to find one’s way through it. It is the most basic requirement for gaining access to a place — physical access to its features, but also access to those features as experientially meaningful. It is one of the results of learning to “internalize” a map or a set of directions through a place: the qualities of the place itself become “internalized,” taking on new meaning for the traveler. In internalizing bird’s-eye directions, one gets the lay of the land, the depth and configuration of space, that helps tie together the disparate components of a place into a whole; in internalizing landmark-based directions, the sites and features of a place gain significance. It is a crucial part of our first real entry into the revelation of place — a revelation that must be worked for, achieved in stages and through struggles; that can never be simply told or taught.
Through this struggle, place gains an experiential shape. The features of a particular place begin not just to look different from the features of another place, but to feel different and mean something different. Go to a city and find your way to somewhere new; take a walk or a drive through the streets of Washington, D.C., and you will begin to feel how it is a different place from Austin or San Francisco or New Orleans or Paris — how your possibilities for action are different and so too your possibilities for being. Finding your way around is how you begin to escape the realm of mere location and sight, wresting from it place and that elusive sense of the place.
In short, finding our way around engages us in the way we need to snap us out of the alienation facing Percy’s tourist at the Grand Canyon, and to form instead the basis for a connection with the place: a purposive encounter with it whereby we can “get at it.” For López de Cárdenas, as for the natives who came before him, it was impossible for the canyon to be a mere sight because it was a tremendous obstacle; a thing that must be conquered to pass; a possible site for injury and death, or for shelter, food, and water; an opportunity for riches, prospect, and conflict. Its features — a towering crag, a boulder, a valley, a thick of brush, the river at its core — were apprehended in terms of passability and possibility. Only relatively recently has it even become possible to regard the Grand Canyon as merely a sight — to stumble groggy off a tour bus right at the edge, without any sense of having traversed the distance there, and be faced with the challenge of perceiving the thing in itself.
Something like the sight that faced López de Cárdenas is still available to us; but it is and must be a struggle to see it. When we circumvent, by whatever means, the demand a place makes of us to find our way through it, we deny ourselves access to the best entry we have into inhabiting that place — and by extension, to really being anywhere at all. One Wired magazine writer noted at the conclusion of an essay lauding location awareness, though without any apparent sense of irony, this qualification: “I had gained better location awareness but was losing my sense of place.” Indeed, there is a doublethink at work in regarding GPS and the technologies built upon it as engendering “location awareness,” when their aim is to permit us to traverse a place with the minimum necessary awareness of it — to shrink place, as the name suggests, into the mere location best fit for experience by a disembodied machine.
Ari N. Schulman is executive editor of The New Atlantis. The complete and fully referenced version of this essay can be read in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, published in 2014 by New Atlantis Books/Encounter.