Interview with Gideon Lewis-Kraus: ‘A Sense of Direction’
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures talks to the author about pilgrimage, authenticity and traveling in a world of infinite choices
04.25.12 | 10:07 AM ET
In 2009, Gideon Lewis-Kraus was hanging out in Berlin, with no particular idea of where to go or what to do next, when he got an email from Tom Bissell. Years earlier, the two had met in a bookstore where Lewis-Kraus was working, and they’d stayed in touch. Bissell reminded him that Lewis-Kraus had promised offhandedly to accompany him on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile, 1,300-year-old pilgrim’s route across Spain. So the two writers set off together. Their journey on the Camino was replete with drama, blisters and epiphanies, and afterward, Lewis-Kraus wanted more. He started looking up other pilgrimages, like the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan and the Rosh Hashana pilgrimage in Ukraine, and he went, dutifully toting his never-finished copy of “Middlemarch.” These journeys now make up his new book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. Frank Bures talked to Lewis-Kraus at his home in Brooklyn, New York.
World Hum: It sounds weird to say that pilgrimages are hot, but it seems that pilgrimages are on the upswing. Is that your sense? And if so, what do you think is the draw for modern travelers?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: This book started out as a series of emails from the Camino de Santiago, and after the first one, my friend Ralph wrote to me from Berlin and, half-jokingly, said that as long as I could find a way to argue that pilgrimage was the hottest new thing in international youth fashion, I probably had a book on my hands. He and I had a whole subsequent exchange about the various ways we could get a trend piece about Recently Secularized Medieval Pilgrimage into Thursday Styles, you know, alongside the pieces about man dates and how some people in their 30s still have roommates and other people think their friends raise children badly or whatever. It was a joke at the time, but the weird thing is that it actually seems alarmingly plausible now; over the three years that have passed since I started work on this book, all of a sudden so many more people know about the Camino, in particular, and have plans to do it—it was like 300,000 people last year. And there was that Martin Sheen movie about the Camino, which actually wasn’t nearly as terrible as it might have been.
At any rate, one of the questions that runs through the book is how we might account for this appeal. There are a lot of particular and idiosyncratic answers, I think, but the abstract explanation that seems most convincing to me runs something like this: In medieval times, when life was so narrowly circumscribed, religious pilgrimage was pretty much the only excuse a claustrophobic peasant had to leave his or her stupid little village, so a pilgrimage was an exercise in novelty and adventure under the banner of obligation; now, so many of us feel so surfeited with choice, the idea of pilgrimage has gained appeal as an exercise in obligation under the banner of novelty and adventure. The whole thing only works if you’re operating under the assumption that you’re doing this because you feel like you have to, like there will be some dire consequences if you cheat and take a bus. Of course there aren’t any such consequences, but the point is to play by the rules. There’s more to it than that, but in a broad sense this is one of the organizing principles of the book.
And how do you define a pilgrimage?
That’s a really good question, and as I found out it’s trickier than one might think at first. Part of what interested me so much about pilgrimage as a concept—what made me think it might work as a structure to hang a bunch of other stuff (questions of restlessness and purpose and forgiveness) on—was that, the more I read and talked and thought about it, the more capacious the idea seemed: Pretty much anything can be described as a pilgrimage. People talk about pilgrimages to Graceland or Cooperstown, or to see Saturn Devouring His Children at the Prado, or just to Flushing to get good soup dumplings, so one of the challenges I faced was how to limit the discussion. There’s a whole bit in the book where I talk about why, for example, I chose not to convert to Islam to go on the hajj. But what it ultimately came down to, for me, was the idea of pilgrimage as pretext: It’s an arduous (which, obviously, means very different things to different people, but the implication is at least some minimal experience of inconvenience or austerity) trip where the eventual arrival is generally besides the point, at least in retrospect.
A lot of people you walked with on the Camino de Santiago seemed concerned about “authenticity,” yet the pilgrimage itself is (for the non-believer) artificial?
That’s right, a lot of people I encountered on the way said things like, “Well, this used to be a really serious religious thing, and now it’s just one more backpacker jaunt, it’s not what it was, it’s not meaningful anymore, it’s not authentic anymore.” In the style of Bishop Berkeley, it was pretty easy just to kick that rock. Like, this total maceration of my buddy’s heel looks pretty serious and authentic to me, you know? And there are two of my toenails over there, and those look pretty authentically no longer on my actual toes. And those 500 miles we just walked, those seemed pretty plausibly authentic. In the end, your reasons for doing it matter much less than the fact of your doing it. That seems to me a reasonable rejoinder to carping about authenticity in any sphere.
So how can we redefine our idea of what constitutes an authentic travel experience for the modern era? Or has the word simply outlived its usefulness?
I guess I’m just hard put to think of what it could mean, at least what it might conceivably mean in an abstract way. It depends completely on what you’re trying to get out of any given travel experience, and “authenticity” is almost always a red herring. One of the things I talk about in the book is that when we experience anxiety about “authenticity” what I think we’re frequently worrying about is the cost of our decisions, or the awareness that we lack some foundational right to choose one thing or another. Talking about the authentic is often what we do when we the overfed and privileged are discussing the fetish we cultivate for lives that look unchosen, for lives that are inherited, and thus seem to us unbeset by the anxiety of choosing one thing over something else. We juxtapose the inheritances that structure a traditional society with the sense of total arbitrariness we feel about our own lives, and we long to be relieved of the burden of choice by just being told what to do.
As I say in the book, I think this kind of dynamic is what drives the impulse to make a big deal out of, you know, eating where the locals eat. But that’s so problematic for so many obvious reasons. Like, a lot of people in little street stalls in Thailand love to eat their pad thai slathered in ketchup. Personally, I think it tastes gross. Maybe that’s a trivial example. But, to me, all of these examples are trivial in their own ways. My feeling about authenticity is that we’re all best off when we don’t worry about it too much and just get on with the business of trying to travel in ways that feel meaningful to us, for whatever reason.
In your book, you take issue with the writer Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. In particular, you objected to his statement: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.” I gather what he’s saying is that it’s getting harder to have an original, non-mediated experience. But I also wonder about the other side of this. Do you have any thoughts about the effect social media and future broadcasting—that kind of self-consciousness—might be having on an experience like pilgrimage?
This is one of the running bits in the book, about whether all of this note-taking and email-writing and Facebook-checking en route has in any way spoiled the experience for anybody. And, again, it’s easy to fret in the abstract about the mediation of experience when you’re sitting at a desk somewhere. But the actual practice of the pilgrimage makes those worries seem so unnecessary. The accumulation of actual experience just moots the hell out of these questions. One of the things I tried to show by talking about email and Facebook and whatever else was just that these things ended up getting woven in as just another aspect of the experience, and in some ways I think the sense of connection fostered by social media gave the whole thing an interesting and surprising additional dimension.
As we were approaching Santiago, over the last week or 10 days or so, the people who had friended us on Facebook were posting status updates about how far away they were and how much time was left, and rather than draw us out of our own experience it somehow deepened it, to think that this person we walked with for a few days and got to know in this bizarrely intimate, liminal way was now only six hours ahead of us and closing in on the goal and that we would probably never see him or her again; they’d existed in our lives in this ghostly way, and now they were continuing to exist in a totally different ghostly way. It enhanced the sense of fragility, of how crucially provisional the whole experience had been.
So you finally finished “Middlemarch”?
I did finish Middlemarch! But only once I’d come back to New York; I never did read it en route, though I carried around a paperback copy for years, long after it had become nothing but a pure symbol for What I Might Otherwise Be Doing Right This Instant. But as soon as I read it I realized that it’s the kind of book that reveals itself to you at the proper time. I’m glad I’d never gotten around to it earlier, because I wouldn’t at all have gotten the right things out of it. There’s that famous Virginia Woolf line everybody quotes about how it’s one of the few English novels written for grown-up people, and it was only in the process of working on this book that I think I became enough of a grown-up to appreciate it. At least I hope that’s the case.