Thursday, August 22, 2013

In Motion: The Experience of Travel by Tony Hiss


In Motion: The Experience of Travel by Tony Hiss defies classification. Ostensibly it’s about travel, and it is, especially about what Hiss dubs “Deep Travel”. But Hiss is a talented writer and has an inquiring mind such that his book works much like Montaigne’s Essays: wondering here and there around a common theme. In some authors, of course, this can prove irksome and off-putting, but in this book, I gladly found myself following Hiss’s detours and by-ways as we explored Deep Travel.

Hiss doesn’t ever definitely define Deep Travel, but this is another potential defect that signals that the search is still underway. As a preliminary, we can say that Deep Travel is that journey, around the corner or around the world that alters our consciousness. Our mind, in its structures and perceptions, alters as we face a new landscape. Thus, while walking home during the 2003 NYC blackout, the hyper-city of NY alters without the flow of electricity, and Hiss experiences views and perspectives that he’d never encountered before. He also draws on the work of others, such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose meditation from a bridge crossing a river in the Balkans provides a verbal portrait of this same type of experience. Hiss transitions from experiences of travel as such into psychology, beginning with the great fountainhead of American psychology, William James, and then drawing upon the more recent insights of the late Edward S. Reed, an “ecological psychologist”. Indeed, a list of psychologists, anthropologist, paleontologists, and other writers and thinkers could go on for some length. Hiss explores here and there ideas as they occur to him. Hiss uses places with similar abandon for launching his insights: New Jersey swamps, NYC streets, Balkan Rivers, the primeval African savannah: so many references to place and ideas makes this into a buffet of ideas.

A lot of the latter part of the book concerns human origins and how we developed our brains that allows the psychology of Deep Travel to develop. Hiss argues that along with concentrated attention, daydreaming, and flow, humans developed a “wide-angle awareness” that allows us to scan and consider our environment with the use of our bi-pedal stance and stereoscopic vision. He relates this to the way cats can leisurely pause to wait for prey to place themselves in a position of exposure; that is, not ready to pounce and not indifferent, but widely alert, something called SMR (sensorimotor rhythm). (EEG leads on cat skulls first gave us this insight—I love the image.) One riff that Hiss takes on this is that exploring for knowledge, such as of place, has a built-in pleasure reward (like sex and food) that promotes such behavior.

It’s difficult to review this work because its ideas are so many and diverse as they array around this general topic. For some, this is a hindrance (see William Dalrymple’s critique in his NYT review), but for me, with Montaigne as a model and sufficient rewards for following Hiss’s curiosity, I really enjoyed the book. I highly recommend it to anyone who has the curiosity to follow him around in this journey of a book—and who has a yen to experience Deep Travel.

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