“Adventure” Means Something New These Days

Cartoon from Puck, by Joseph Keppler and Bernhard Gillam (via rawpixel)



Adventure: An Argument for Limits. The title of Christopher Schaberg’s latest book is the perfect oxymoron: a frisson of thrilling risk followed by a grim grown-up reminder of constraint. I linger on the first part because the idea of adventure excites me. Invoking it can reframe any daunting challenge, turning passive misery into deliberate action and making me feel brave and open. I also use the word to reassure my husband (the grim grown-up in the marriage) or the scared dog who lived in a cage until he met us. “It will be an adventure,” I say brightly when we are hopelessly lost or embarking on anything that strikes either man or dog as a potential disaster.

Schaberg, who is director of public scholarship here at Washington University, began in a less manipulative spirit. He had seen a James Bond movie in which a mother tells her little girl—to prepare her for a dramatic chase through Norway’s fjords that involves the chasers flipping off cliffs and getting blown up—“We are going on an adventure.” So he repeated the line with his three-year-old daughter—to prepare her to go grocery shopping with him or look for roly-polies in the backyard. Soon she was asking first thing every morning, “We going on a venture today?”

When I tell Schaberg I am eager to read his venture, he is diffident. “It’s a strange little book,” he warns. That it is, wonderfully so, and packed with wry insight. He carries us from the old definition of adventure, with its thrilling danger and heroism, through the late-stage capitalist spin and into the collective, painfully real challenges that ought to redefine the concept—except that we would rather fly to Mars than face them.

“We’re all confused and conflicted about what risks we want to take and those we’d rather avoid,” Schaberg observes. “Live on the edge. Push the envelope. No fear.” Try using those slogans during lockdown, as you come home from the grocery store and wipe down the cookie package with bleach. Try using them when a sick young man carries an automatic rifle into a kindergarten. When more than one million gallons of crude oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Adventure needs revisiting.

“It’s a term that I find myself alternately invoking in earnest and sneering at,” Schaberg admits. The prospect of adventure can galvanize us—or lure us with a cheapened, glammed-up surrogate. How do we reform the word? By introducing limits, Schaberg says. No more Wild West, no more colonialism, no more gleeful waste of supposedly unlimited resources. Instead, a reinvention that will remind us how useful and accessible real adventures still are.

Until we manage that, adventure will remain, for most of us, a sales slogan. “SHOP OUR ADVENTURE COLLECTION” urges a Free People catalog, the QR code “superimposed on the far bank of a wide river.” We are invited, Schaberg writes, “to spectate, to follow, to purchase—to tap repeatedly on a phone screen.” Even the catalog models are “basically loafing,” not interacting with their beautiful surroundings, not using their outdoor gear. “Adventure, such as it is, remains off the page, inaccessible. The rugged landscape is rendered a fashion runway.”

He digs up another catalog ad about adventure, this one promoting a collaboration between Orvis and Brown Folks Fishing. The copy, he notices, urges the reader to…go online. “Not get outside and enjoy nature now! Not learn about white privilege. No: just go online.”

Then there are all those chartered adventure trips, the ones that package the experience, tame its dangers, and provide a guide and a script and delicious snacks along the way. “Are they real adventures? Or just reel, technically spooled and played out, predictable and photo-ready?” You can hear Schaberg’s heavy sigh as he wades through all the adventures promised by SUVs, gaming consoles, energy drinks, cameras, toys, sports gear…. “So often, adventure is just another name for tasteless consumer capitalism.”

Meanwhile, the real adventures keep coming. In New Orleans, Schaberg lived through floods and hurricanes, and he can guess what the future holds for all of us. Could we not work to clean up the environment and steady the climate and call that an adventure?

Instead, Elon Musk is offering us space travel. Turns out “adventure” does have a new use: romanticizing (and justifying) space tourism and settlement. See, we can still colonize, just now on Mars. “I can’t think of anything more exciting,” Musk enthuses. He “assumes we have a right to be there in the first place,” Schaberg adds dryly. Once again, we are anointing ourselves as entitled to swoop in, lay claim, and make use of whatever we find—then leave behind our trash.

“The stretched panorama shots and fuzzy landscapes beamed back from the rover reveal a recycled fantasy of wilderness: Mars as a rugged open place just beckoning to be explored, conquered,” Schaberg writes. But why strap ourselves into cramped spaceships and abandon this planet? The real adventure is to change the material world we have made—by embracing limits. Restraining greed and hubris. Working—patiently, with diminishing resources—to heal Earth. “Committing to it in new ways, changing our practices, slowing down, and, in the words of Donna Haraway, ‘staying with the trouble.’”

Aw, that’s no fun. Not so long ago, men wrestled alligators on camera; climbers scaled Everest; swimmers crossed the Channel. The rest of us watched, rapt, forgetting to breathe until Neil Armstrong set his foot on the surface of the Moon or Philippe Petit walked a high wire between the Twin Towers or Evel Knievel flew his rocket-powered cycle 1,600 feet across the Snake River Canyon.

Now we click right past Go-Pro videos of parachuters, body surfers, cliff divers, bungee jumpers. In our real lives, only angst, a secret affair, or a gym workout makes our heart race. Weird foods from other cultures can be found on the shelves of the Piggly Wiggly. Traveling anywhere was once an adventure; now even a transatlantic flight is humdrum, a dreary ordeal meant to be navigated on auto-pilot, shoes slipped off and on, boarding pass flashed from a phone, sleeping pill popped.

What did “adventure” mean in the beginning? The etymology surprises me: the word comes from the Latin advenire, meaning “to arrive.” Its short form, “venture,” also means risking loss (as in venture capital), but the main connotation is to go forth in a dangerous journey or undertaking. So we have a juxtaposition of seeming opposites: adventure as going and coming, setting out and arriving. What is common to both senses of the word? We are not just staying home, sprawled on the sofa, watching a virtual world.

Choose your own adventure, as a travel agency might urge. But choose it carefully.

“Adventure,” Schaberg concludes, “is a matter of spending time well.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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