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April 05, 2006

Travel and Theory: Voyages and Visions - (Eds.) Jas Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés

Posted by Jeremy Black

Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel
edited by Jas Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés
Pp. vii+344. London: Reaktion Books, 1999
Paperback, £16.95

Travel is currently a fashionable topic, and there has been much theoretical discussion about the nature of identity. This volume is far from innocent of such speculation, but is anchored in a series of varied and interesting essays each of which are valuable in themselves.

The whole is brought together in a very lengthy (56 page) introduction. This is helpful because all too frequently such collections lack focus. The editors locate their theme of travel as a quest, and of travel literature as a fundamental part of a system of empirical narrative practices.

They argue that the succession of cultural paradigms that have sustained travellers' quests - wisdom and salvation, education and science, progress and civilisation - have all eventually collapsed. Travellers' tales, real or fictional, have repeatedly served to build, reinforce, question, alter and destroy these paradigms. The editors close with science fiction, an indication of their scope. The contributions include: Rubies on European travel narratives in sixteenth-century America, a world in which history and myth co-existed; Wes Williams' more detailed piece on Montaigne's views of how travel changes us; and Peter Burke's use of François Bernier's Voyages in order to probe critically Said's theory on the Western construction of the Orient. Bernier was sympathetic to Indian culture and willing to use India to criticise France.

Melissa Celaresu considers views on Naples in the late eighteenth century and the nature of cosmopolitanism. Michael Bravo takes the issue forward by looking at James Rennell and British geography in the early nineteenth century. Nigel Leask turns the authorial vision on Mexico in the nineteenth-century, not least through William Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico (1843). Peter Hansen compares Alpine guides and Himalayan sherpas, and discusses how the sherpas constructed a heroic identity as climbers. Kasia Boddy looks at changes in the position of Europe in the postwar American imagination as assessed through fiction. Edward James concludes with a wonderfully informed discussion of science fiction. He asks how does one,

make a journey through absolute nothingness interesting?
A fascinating and wide ranging volume.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.


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