We’re at the start of an insane four week tour. Tennessee, North Carolina, Chicago, North Carolina again, Chicago again, Indianapolis, Dubai, Seoul, home. I’m pretty proficient by now when it comes estimating luggage weight, packing quarters for the coin laundry, collecting frequent flyer points and so on. As I packed I was thinking about how to be good traveller in the more, forgive me, spiritual sense. Being present, open-eyed, keen-eared, not letting experiences go to waste – it’s an ongoing project. It’s why I’ve resolved to write more about our trips (no, for real, I mean it this time.) And I’ve realised a lot of it comes back to lumping and splitting.
Bear with me. I’m writing on a plane and it gets abstract up here. So, right, when I was studying Vladimir Nabokov at university, I read up a bit on his work as a lepidopterist, and came across this distinction in the scientific community – at least the corner of it concerned with the private parts of a moths – between “lumpers” and “splitters”. Lumpers are the people who see the world through the prism of “oh, this is like that other thing”. Splitters say, hold on, it’s actually different in these important ways. Nabokov was a classic splitter, never happier than when pointing out the difference between one insect’s genitals and another’s. Science needs both, was this guy’s point.
So does travel. Much of the fun is in the splitting, in spotting the differences, calculating how much to tip, trying the local seafood, figuring out whether somebody’s being rude on purpose. But travelling far and wide and often encourages the brain to lump, and to spot similarities or what Robert Macfarlane would call rhymes. There are the obviously lumpen, globalised aspects of travel – airports, motorways, malls, theatre dressing rooms don’t vary all that much – and then there are the unlikely connections. The barbecue dish in Manila that reminded me of something you ate in São Paulo, and something else in Texas, for that matter. A walk through the snow in Milwaukee that echoes a similar stroll in Moscow. But if you’ve seen it all before, why bother exploring? Splitting is a necessary corrective: look closer and you realise that no two Italian cities make the same pasta sauce.
I’m a natural lumper for the same reason I read old books: I buy into the idea that human experience is more or less consistent across centuries and cultures. With this in mind, and because I’ve been away so much this year, I recently read The Odyssey. I was expecting a rollicking yarn, but I struggled. Homer was really the original lumper, and the formulae he uses are pretty alien to our narrative sensibilities – every dawn is fresh and rosy-fingered, and whole fight scenes are repeated almost verbatim. The sameness became claustrophobic to me, or maybe the difference did.
I think I’ll fare better with Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I love Greene, who of course was one of the great travellers, and this has been on my list for a while. Also packed: Christmas music to learn, Teach Yourself Italian book, winter coat for Chicago, shorts for Dubai, and a phone well stocked with episodes of This American Life, which are THE best defence against long road trips, and the source of 90% of my chat. So I would urge you to get on board with it, but then I’d have to steal some new anecdotes.
(By the way, speaking of TAL, you should check out Ira Glass’s interview with the composer Nico Muhly from the other day. Muhly’s a lumper in the best sense and talks glitteringly about the threads connecting his work with Philip Glass or Ravi Shankar or Thomas Tallis. I dig it when creative people are upfront about working within a tradition. He’s also a crazy good blogger and I’d be very happy to write about my musical travels with half the fleet-footed wit he does.)
Right. These in-flight movies won’t watch themselves. Stay tuned for the next episode, in which I arrive in America after a month of sobriety and get Tennessee-sippin’ frisky. Probably.