The Case for Travel




Agnes Callard is someone I want to like. A woman in philosophy who writes clearly and readably about topics important to us all, and does so with honesty and humor? Rare, and to be treasured.

Except she keeps pissing me off.

First, a profile by Rachel Aviv—who always probes with sensitivity and intelligence—leaves me wary. Callard has an affair with a student because he makes her happy the way her husband used to, then grows disenchanted just as she did with her first husband. Rather than explore her own impulses, she reaches the conclusion that “marriage is a preparation for divorce. It’s a preparation for the time when you won’t need another person in order to think.” Furthermore, she decides, it is impossible to commit (“in advance,” she says, though what else would qualify as a commitment?) to loving someone “a lot, at any given time.” She emerges from the profile as cool and bold—but not someone I want defining marriage.

And now she is making “The Case Against Travel,” which she sees as a showy farce.

Surely she means only touristy travel, the shallow and mindless sort. She says as much in several places. Yet her quotes are all from cranky ancients who preferred to stay home, and she continues to use “travel” and “tourism” interchangeably, damning the lot of it—which feels sloppy for such a fine philosopher. Callard does not worry overmuch about how her words will land. Again, this is a trait I respect—except when she lets such a beloved baby slide down the drain with the bathwater.

I crave travel. Money, work, pandemics, and circumstance have kept me from doing much of it, but even a three-day road trip exhilarates me, and the handful of other countries I have visited left a permanent mark on my psyche, my memories, my aesthetic sensibility, my world view. Callard says this does not happen. She says travelers nearly always return unchanged. She gives an example of touring a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi (I am jealous already) and explains that she has “no interest in falconry or falcons” and was therefore unmoved by what she saw there.

How anyone can be unmoved by such magnificent creatures is beyond me, but to each their own. Her worry is that the falcon hospital “is and will continue to be shaped by the visits of people like me.” To extrapolate, that the world’s destinations are dumbed down by the perceived preferences of bored tourists.

She may have a point, if we are talking about amusement parks and the aptly named tourist traps. But I seriously doubt that the falcon hospital will alter its mission, and the coolest sites I have visited cater to those who appreciate their significance. What troubles me is how little credit she gives our species, when it comes to sparking a new interest or appreciating with fresh eyes. “If you usually avoid museums, and suddenly seek them out for the purpose of experiencing a change, what are you going to make of the paintings?” she asks. “You might as well be in a room full of falcons.”

Exactly. And many people would be moved by the falcons and the paintings, and they would leave eager to learn more. Entire careers and philanthropic projects have been born in just this way. For Callard to be correct that “travel is a boomerang” that “drops you right where you started,” we would have to be incapable of curiosity, openness, learning, and change.

Her pessimism puzzles me; she is hardly incapable of curiosity and openness and learning. But she is a woman of strong opinions, and one who probably spends far more time in her head than her heart. They do not always play well together, and she is candid about that struggle. But she remains unmoved by sentiments she assumes have been manufactured or drummed up for the occasion. Travel “turns us into the worst version of ourselves,” she maintains, “while convincing us that we’re at our best.” In short, your big trip is not the transformative adventure you yearn for; it is merely a way of splitting time into chunks and returning with stories and trinkets to distract you from the idea “that someday you will do nothing and be nobody.”

A denial of death, or a preparation for it. Okay, but only if just about everything we do—art, love, work—is the same sort of denial and preparation. I find it easier to see travel as an affirmation of life. Done right, travel allows (and in fact requires) empathy. It helps us develop patience and resilience when we are out of control. It offers a chance to connect with people (and animals, places, customs, ideas) unlike anything in our previous experience. It brings humility, as our habits and importance shrink, and a jolt of confidence, as we learn we can make ourselves at home anywhere. Travel offers a creative burst of novelty. A reminder that we all rely upon the kindness of strangers. A way to deepen the bond with our traveling companion and make new friends at the same time. A chance to wonder and marvel. And, at the risk of sounding like a destination brochure, a trove of memories we can draw upon for the rest of our lives.

So many people reacted against her essay that Callard issued a caveat on Twitter, posting: “Spent this morning in an argument, the result of which was me conceding that the claims in the piece probably apply better to older travelers (precisely the sort who would assert, ‘I love to travel’) than to young people, for whom I grant travel is more likely to be transformative.” More stereotypes? The coolest traveler I ever met was a woman in her nineties who had crossed the world, sometimes on the back of a camel, meeting people everywhere she went, her eager warmth sailing over the barriers of language and custom. And there are plenty of young people who travel only to drink pina coladas on a beach.

Still trying to fathom Callard, I reread earlier pieces. Often, she writes about loneliness. “As a child, I had trouble forming friendships,” she notes, adding that she turned to reading and imagining the characters as her friends. “If you have engaged in this kind of fantasizing, you know that the thrill of creativity eventually collapses into a feeling of emptiness. This is the moment when loneliness hits…. One is often loneliest in the presence of others because their indifference throws the futility of one’s efforts at self-sustenance into relief.”

When falling in love with the man who is now her husband, she writes, “I didn’t realize how lonely I was. You don’t see it. It’s like the air that you breathe, but when you see that you can be relieved of it there is this weird way in which the relationship exacerbates the loneliness.” By the time Aviv profiles her, Callard is using her second marriage to work out that particular sort of loneliness. Diagnosed with autism in her thirties, she seldom mentions the condition, but she does say it might account for her indifference to convention and compromise. Could it also exacerbate her loneliness, even in the presence of others, and might that reinforce her assumption that travel fails to change us?

I ask because, for me, the real joys of travel transcend the scenery; they come from exchanges with other people. (Even the long-dead, when you visit their places and soak up their life’s work.) Conversations take interesting turns, break open new ideas, and remind you how much humans hold in common. Listen to a seasoned traveler (Callard insists that you will be bored, but do it anyway), and you will hear stories about the people in a place, the interactions, how they drew the traveler into a dance or cooked for her or wound up having a mutual friend….

Tourism’s engine is the itinerary, its goal the pics and keepsakes and passport stamps. Often there is no time to engage with other people. But travel, done with an open heart, stitches new connections. It is a way to not feel lonely.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.