Insanity and the Traveling Life

Speaker's Corner: In an essay adapted from a talk to writing students, Jeffrey Tayler makes the case for a life of mad (but not unhinged) adventures

01.21.09 | 8:33 AM ET


There’s a lot to be said for having plans in life, but little to recommend a planned life. True, writers need something like a plan—a proposal, to be specific—to sell a book or an article idea to an editor. In fact, a successful proposal is a plan, describing the subject, why it’s worth knowing about, and how the writer intends to research it and present his results to the reader. But living according to a plan—college, job, promotion, buying a house, marriage, child one, child two, setting up a 401K, retirement, dotage and death—I’ve never seen the sense of it. In fact, my own writing career began with the rejection of such a planned life—with, in other words, a revolt, a revolt inspired by reading. In light of the materialistic mania and money-making prospects of the 1980s, when I came of age, this revolt seemed, to many I knew then, a senseless risk. In retrospect, though, I see it as my first step toward independence and pursuing the profession I was meant for, toward becoming alive.

These days, given our foundering economy and increasingly tenuous job security (the French aptly call this combination la précarité), such a revolt seems less absurd. In fact, it may be, in our current circumstances, nothing less than the sanest approach to realizing ourselves—as writers, as global citizens, as human beings. What humanity needs today more than ever are risk-taking truth-tellers, educated challengers of group-think, divergent yet informed voices—in short, learned rebels against the status quo, against a world order based on destructive consumerism and consumption, deepening injustice and deprivation. We’re sliding toward potentially disastrous international conflicts over dwindling resources, toward a future of planetary despoilment and environmental mayhem. Yet we can choose to tune out the coming peril by cocooning ourselves in multimedia entertainment, in all sorts of customized trivial pursuits—a luxury we can ill afford. The answer, for writers, and especially travel writers, is not to jettison the new media, of course, but to rediscover human truths that our reigning culture of frivolity obscures, and then to head out, defying convention, to the world’s untrammeled but still significant corners to report engagingly on what’s happening there. The writings that sparked my own private revolt are the subject of this essay.

I came upon my first “liberation author” more or less accidentally. At university I’d been studying Modern Greek, and I made my first trip overseas to Greece, in the summer of 1982, between my junior and senior years. The only book in Modern Greek I’d heard of then was “Zorba The Greek,” by Nikos Kazantzakis. One sweltering afternoon in the dusty cement backstreets of Corinth I wandered into a bookstore and bought a copy. The story concerns a certain Alexis Zorba, a middle-aged man of the earth, vagabond, laborer, brawler, and luster after women and wine, and his younger, contemplative bookworm boss (afendiko, in Greek, his name we never learn), who narrates the novel in the first person. In the port of Piraeus, the boss meets Zorba by chance while waiting for a steamer, and hires him to help him open a coal mine on Crete, where he’s headed. In luminous yet austere Grecian environs of white sand, sun-bleached stone and emerald sea, the two are thereafter thrown in together, and struggle to get the mine working.

By today’s standards we might call the boss depressed. Though young enough, well-off, and apparently not bad-looking, he’s suffering, plagued by doubt, hamstrung by convention and his own considerable learning, feeling that his life is slipping away. Between the impulse and the action falls the shadow of his erudition, his incessant questioning. He can’t even pursue the gorgeous, black-clad young widow giving him the eye, calling him to her bed.

Zorba slowly teaches his killjoy boss, mostly by example, but also though spontaneous reprimands of arresting clarity, the virtues of pursuing one’s passions, sating one’s appetites, and living in the moment. “When you’re toothless,” Zorba shouts, “it’s easy to say, ‘shame on you ... don’t bite!’ But when you’ve got all your thirty-two teeth ... In his youth, man is a beast, a savage beast, and he eats people alive!” Zorba loves life, and sees everything as if for the first time. He dances away his fears, relishes what his hands can grasp, his eyes can see. To satisfy one’s lust, slake one’s cravings, and move on: “afto tha pi eleftería!” (“That is what freedom really is!”) Zorba declares. For him, freedom, eleftería, is what being human is all about.

To be sure, Zorba’s idea of freedom is shot through with selfishness. Be that as it may, there’s something madly exhilarating in its potentials. As Zorba revels in his freedom, often on his boss’s dime, the boss frets and rationalizes, unable to let go, ever sane, always sober. For Zorba, who has tried the conventional life and rejected it, sobriety is death, and a degree of intoxicating madness (a sort of a willful spontaneous lunacy, in his view), the only way out, there being no rational solution to the mundane, stifling absurdities hemming in our lives. The greatest madness of all, Zorba tells us, is to have no madness. We either embrace it and flourish, or reject it and wither, dead in soul though bodily breathing. We must forsake the future and be here, now. Through action, we must vanquish our fears about our flaws, about the failures we leave behind and the inescapable doom ahead. The boss listens, and finds oblique confirmation of Zorba’s words in the Buddhist scriptures he’s reading, in the liberation from hope and fear they preach.

As their mining fortunes wax and wane, the boss manages to find happiness in “a glass of wine, a handful of chestnuts, a hut to call one’s home, the stirring of the sea.” This is modest progress he owes to both Zorba and the Buddha. Finally, the boss aims higher, and answers the widow’s call, learning firsthand of pleasure, compassion and grief.

There’s much more to the novel than that, but my summary suffices for our purposes. I took away from “Zorba the Greek” the idea that life confronts us every day with the chance to begin anew and become our own masters. We script our days and so must answer to ourselves for our happiness and misery. We are free and have choices, Zorba told me, no matter what our situation is. Zorba was, after all, a poor man living on the edge in an impoverished country; his boss, a conflicted soul and a failing miner. Yet Kazantzakis portrayed them both as striving, growing, and heeding the imperatives of truth. Most of all, Kazantzakis gave me, in Zorba, a hero to emulate, an ideology of freedom, choice and dignity, and, not least, a philosophical justification for having a rollicking good time, for drinking, making love and being merry. The path to understanding, Zorba showed me, leads through the often messy byways of personal experience—at times selfish experience, but experience nonetheless.

Zorba wasn’t the culmination of my search, but rather the start. I reread the book many times, always finding in it something inspiring. After a summer in Greece and a senior year divided between Florence and Madrid, I heeded Zorba’s call to act and passed seven months wandering across the then-socialist countries of Eastern Europe, falling in and out of love in police states, accumulating decidedly messy personal experience of the Cold War and its victims in ways no university could teach. Still, I wasn’t entirely prepared for freedom of the sort Zorba espoused. I returned to the States to study Russian and Eastern European history in graduate school. At university, though, as I grew ever more desperate and bored with the dry prospects of the academic life before me, I met, in book form, my second liberational benefactor, Leo Tolstoy, and the tragic hero of his novella “The Death of Ivan Il’yich.” Ivan Il’yich Golovin was a court functionary.  His life story, Tolstoy tells us, was “the simplest and most typical and most horrible,” the story of a middle-class fellow neither too smart nor too lively, but decent and pleasant enough to slip through his days with few hitches. Ivan Il’yich marries Praskov’ya, who’s recognized as the most attractive, intelligent and sparkling girl in his milieu. He approaches marriage with the same degree of rectitude as he does his profession, and plucks rectitude’s commensurately modest fruits, which suit him fine. His prospects remain satisfactory, his career, all told, on the right track. But then, just when he expects to advance up the ladder, he’s passed over for promotion. Nevertheless he persists, taking matters into his own hands, and finds another well-paid position. It seems he’s saved himself.

Suddenly, though, fate intervenes. Ivan Il’yich falls ill. A strange taste in his mouth and stomach pains presage a fatal malady. In trying to comprehend and cure his illness, Ivan Il’yich, for the first time, snaps out of his quotidian torpor and truly comes alive. He starts thinking. He’s always rationally accepted the possibility that someday he would die. After all, in school he’d learned the syllogism: “Kai is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, one day Kai must die.” To Ivan Il’yich this seemed eminently reasonable but applied only to Kai. Still his illness worsens, and he gradually comes to understand that, at age 45, death, his death, is approaching.

At this point his behavior and past choices, all reasonably calculated to accord with convention, catch up with him. His wife finds caring for him a nuisance. He yearns for compassion, but save for his son, all in his family have other plans, their own concerns. He has little emotional hold over them; he means little to them. He’s always supported them materially, but he’s never done much else, never gotten to know them. He’s seen them as little more than supporting characters in the drama of his life.

Ivan Il’yich begins to have doubts. Maybe he hasn’t lived as he should have? Impossible: he’s followed the path the higher-ups in society have laid out for him. Then comes the soul-shattering epiphany: that’s exactly the problem. His choice of wife, his career, his striving after prestige, all were comme il faut—and all wrong, all a sham hiding the truths he really needed to grasp, the truths about love, life and death. He asks, “I’m leaving this life knowing that I’ve wasted it all, and I can’t do anything to set things straight, is that right?” Just how else he could have lived, he can’t say; such answers can’t be conjured up instantaneously. But had he understood death, he would have found the right way to live. It’s too late anyway. The agonizing throes commence, he groans and moans in pain and remorse for three long days, to the supreme annoyance of his family and neighbors, until he rattles out his last breath.

Tolstoy makes his point rather obviously here. When we accept uncritically what others counsel us, the path they prescribe for us, we risk losing for naught the one thing we possess in inevitable yet mysterious finitude: time, the numbered days of our lives. Implicit in all having been comme il faut for Ivan Il’yich but still not right, in fact terribly wrong, is the notion that he had a choice.

As did I. After receiving my master’s, with Ivan Il’yich’s cries of remorse sounding in my reawakened mind, I quit my PhD program, never to return, and lit out for North Africa and points beyond.

Kazantzakis and Tolstoy, writing in different languages in different centuries, hit on one truth: our life is what we make of it. For me, another writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, amplified this truth and stated it more succinctly in his essay “Existentialism is Humanism.” There Sartre laid out the bare bones of existentialism, to which so many of his contemporaries objected, finding it heartless, God-denying, even nihilistic. Our existence, he wrote, precedes our essence, what we are as people. Our life has no intrinsic value. We have to create our self-worth, come up with our own reason for being, and validate it through action. Man is “nothing less than the sum of his acts, nothing but a series of undertakings,” he wrote. We’re only what we make of ourselves—a pitiless verity that has prodded me onward during dark days, weeks, and even months, in grueling expeditions on the Congo, in Siberia, in India and elsewhere. Not that I’ve always succeeded, but I’ve come to see defeat in a grand endeavor of my own contrivance as better than victory in whatever comme il faut careers that others might devise for me.

Sartre makes it clear that we have to search outside ourselves for meaning. We have to venture into the world and act. What to enact, then? The pleasures of the flesh and palate that Zorba touts tend to diminish with the years, providing a refuge less and less secure against doubt, against the fears of mortality that assail us. At some point we find ourselves facing the Void, the knowledge that our lives, no matter what we experience or achieve, will end in mortal failure, obliteration, a handful of dust. With tomorrow so darkly predestined, how do we find happiness today?

For one of the greatest novelists ever, in any language, madness, fantasy and travel came into play in an answer expressed in a unique opus that now occupies a spot so high in the Western canon that we may lose sight of it. Captured by pirates off the coast of Barbary, imprisoned for five years in Algiers, Miguel de Cervantes drew on a life of misfortune, romance and daring to write “Don Quijote,” the most original travelogue of all time. We all know something of the plot, even if we haven’t read the book. An aging landowner of middling means is dwelling on the bleak Iberian plateau of La Mancha. Bored, bereft of purpose, yearning for glory, he has delved into the romantic tales of chivalry popular in his day and become madly (or so it would seem) obsessed with them. He abandons his manor and sets out on horseback as a knight errant, as a caballero andante by the name of Don Quijote de la Mancha. For the sake of valor and the love of his “maiden,” Dulcinea, accompanied by his “squire” Sancho Panza, he tilts at windmills, slaughters soldier-sheep, rescues damsel-hookers and embarks on many other misadventures. Like our lives, “Don Quijote,” as a book, goes on and on, until one day, its hero, broken and exhausted, fesses up—he’s really Alonso Quijano el Bueno, once gloriously mad, now sadly sane—and dies.

Don Quijote, or Alonso Quijano el Bueno, escaped the prison of days through willful insanity, by turning his life into the stuff of fiction. In one early moment of lucidity, though, he utters a synoptic truth that Kazantzakis, Tolstoy and Sartre would surely have affirmed: “cada uno es artífice de su ventura”—we’re all authors of our destiny.

“Don Quijote,” which I read for the first time only five years ago, confirmed for me that we must abandon our manor and extinguish our flame through action, that we need a Quixotic dollop of madness in our veins to buck convention and strike out on our own. But now I find I’m less taken with Quixotic endeavors per se. The multiple crises our planet confronts demand a saner, more critical application of our talents and energies than when I came of age. We now need writers who can journey beyond the boundaries set by guidebooks and report from the earth’s ragged edges in critical, innovative ways on people who have no claim to celebrity, glamour or even newsprint column inches. We can taste the bittersweet freedoms of life on the road, a life whose course we can chart to accord with all our heroic, individualistic ideals, while setting out to meet those of whom few among us may be aware, but whose supposedly isolated lives could well bear on our own, as borders dissolve and we come to share problems and a destiny on an endangered planet.

Even for writers and journalists this requires bucking convention, for in reporting, as in other fields, group-think often predominates. Remember the run-up to the Iraq war, when most American media fell in lockstep with the Bush administration and its attack plans. Reporters and columnists who couldn’t read a street sign in Arabic, knew nothing of Islam, and lacked any insight into the Middle East, used their pulpits to call for war and lead us into hell. The conclusion we may draw is this: Writers need to get out into the world, but before banging away at the keyboard, they must study languages and history, they must educate themselves. Limited knowledge of foreign languages is, by the way, the unacknowledged, better said hidden, Achilles’ heel of too many foreign correspondents in the English-speaking world, and constitutes a damning professional disability for which there is no excuse given the responsibility these correspondents bear for the education of their public, and, by extension, the conduct of their governments.

New arenas of exploration beckon. The vast hinterlands of India and China cry out for informed reporting, for people with fluency in Hindi and Mandarin and regional languages, cultural agility and a knowledge of histories still largely unfamiliar in the West. In fact, for travel writers these days, China and India offer the broadest expanses for adventure, for melding quests for personal fulfillment with needed reportage, for bridging gaps between us and peoples who were, until recently, isolated by ideology, religion and geography. Theirs are the windmills at which you might most beneficially tilt—if you’re wisely mad enough to try.

So, finally, the message is clear: We must never willingly, consciously, sanely, consign ourselves to aging, decay and death. Like Quijote, with Zorba’s lust for life and liberty, we must fight to the finish, heedless of convention, for time is short. “Ceux qui vivent sont ceux qui luttent” (Those who live are those who struggle), wrote Victor Hugo. In this struggle lies our salvation. We must never desist from the struggle, we must not surrender to the eternity that will be our lot, sooner or later. Tilt at windmills, fight on and record your battle for posterity. Those are my last words to you today.

(Adapted from a talk delivered at the Paris American Academy, July 7, 2008)

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

6 Comments for Insanity and the Traveling Life

Nathan 01.21.09 | 3:01 PM ET

Excellent essay, Jeffrey.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’ll admit that I got goosebumps a few times as I read this.  “Willful insanity”—that’s great.

Through existing literature and your own interpretations, you have put in to words many of my own thoughts about why I quit my “good” job to travel around the world for a year without a plan—much more coherently than I’ve been able to, I would add.  ...Now I just need to decide what to do when the year is over.

I’ll save the big decisions for later, but, for now, I can at least plan on adding some new books to my reading list.  And reading your essay again.  Thanks for the inspiration.  :)

malia 01.21.09 | 3:22 PM ET

i had to click on this to see if this was the talk given last summer at the paris american academy! for those interested, rolf potts gives an amazing writing workshop every summer in the month of july. jeffrey tayler was one of our guest speakers in rolf’s creative nonfiction class. truly inspiring! if you’re interested in travel writing (or any type of writing really - they cover all genres!) i’d recommend checking out pariswritingworkshop [dot] com. it was a great program and i can’t recommend it enough.

on a personal note, i quit my job as a paralegal in july 2009 and last year spent 9 months traveling through southeast asia and the pacific. it was supposed to be a 6 month trip in asia, but i wasn’t ready to quit yet and i was truly enjoying writing about my travels, so i signed up for the writing workshop in paris, even though my travel budget was gone by then. now, i’m broke but i don’t regret a second of it. i’m back to a semi-stable job for the moment, but my entire perspective on life and travel has changed, and as soon as i can save up enough money, i’m planning ot hit the road again.

thank you, jeffrey, for continuing to inspire me and for reinforcing the fact that it’s ok to not have a “plan” for where life is taking you…

Roger 01.21.09 | 5:28 PM ET

Jeffery, you are amazing. I’ve read “Siberian Dawn” and several of your articles. If I could designate someone to be my alter ego, and do all the things I wish I could do, you might be it.

John M. Edwards 01.23.09 | 11:47 AM ET

Hi Jeffrey:

This is quite a penetrating essay into the question of how life is lived in the first place. Do we pick safety and comfort, and a job within walking distance of our domiciles, or do we grab a backpack and live life through geography, collecting places to write about? Oh, experience. Anyway, I prefer “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” to any number of soap operas and dime novellas. The poet Shelley romantically died by drowning, while Dirk Applebaum (just some guy) expired anonymously through cardiac arrest. Let’s strike out into the unknown with the highflyers this time.

John M. Edwards

Arun 01.25.09 | 9:32 AM ET

At a time when I was going through days of reflection and trying vainly to build some proper direction to my way of life, Taylers essay struck me real hard. Thanks for sharing.

As usual, worldhum continues to bring the best of writings even through 2.0 avatar. It is rather unfortunate that your partial feeds make me miss some of these gems. :(

Gennaro 01.26.09 | 12:08 AM ET

It takes quite a bit of courage to think outside the box. To live according to a different cort of plan. There’s nothing wrong with the standard set-up: home, 2.5 kids, etc, but there is also room for other paths.

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