I’m in Patagonia. Yesterday, I attached metal spikes to my shoes and hiked to the top of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The day before, I took a boat ride on Lago Argentino and saw glaciers, icebergs, and rainbows arcing off the lake. I took lots of photographs.
I won’t print these photographs. I’ll post them to my Facebook page and possibly Instagram, and after that initial posting it’s unlikely that I’ll ever spend much time flipping through these online albums. What is the purpose of these pictures?
What, for that matter, is the purpose of sightseeing? We make more or less elaborate plans in the hopes that we’ll gain access to some sort of experience that is more transcendent or meaningful or enjoyable than our ordinary experience. From the moment we reach our destination, we evaluate the quality of our trip. Was the food authentic? Was the landscape beautiful? Was this all worth it? Given that traveling for pleasure is a privilege denied to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, what could “worth it” even mean? Is this exclusivity a part of what makes traveling pleasurable?
In his wonderful essay “The Loss of the Creature”, Walker Percy examines the experience of sightseeing. He focuses much of his essay on the Grand Canyon– or on the experience of visiting the Grand Canyon, noting that it is “almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon…and see it for what it is.” Percy argues that this is because the canyon is no longer available to the sightseer as a manifestation of natural beauty:
The Grand Canyon…has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind…by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.
Thanks to the weight of cultural significance and expectation, it is impossible to simply see the Grand Canyon. What’s more, Percy notes:
Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sight-seer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years…
Writing some fifty years ago, Percy was grappling with the problems of photography and experience in ways that seem incredibly prescient. How does our desire to record experience affect our capacity to experience? What purpose does this act of recording serve?
Returning to the Grand Canyon, Percy argues that the massive weight of expectation and cultural significance attached to the canyon inhibits the traveler’s ability to simply perceive the thing. Thankfully, Percy offers a variety of tactics and scenarios by which the sightseer may “recover the Grand Canyon”. My favorite is this:
[The canyon] may be recovered in a time of national disaster. The Bright Angel Lodge is converted into a rest home, a function that has nothing to do with the canyon a few yards away. A wounded man is brought in. He regains consciousness; there outside his window is the canyon.
This last example embodies everything I love about Percy’s writing: it’s playful, direct, poetic, and boundlessly humanist. Splicing Percy’s essay with my own poorly articulated thoughts does not do the thing justice, but I’ve given you a good enough taste to convince you to read his piece in its entirety. It’s well worth it.