Etymology only takes us so far, and it frequently leads us astray, but let’s charge ahead and begin with the word pilgrim anyway—here we have a person traveling to a holy place, or, more generally, a traveler. It arrives in its current shape from Old French, though it still has a few close cousins in most romance languages today, and seems to have gained its rather unexpected m from a Germanic influence. A rather humdrum history at this point. However, if we return pilgrim back to the factory and bolt on age—to describe an act, process, function, condition—we get the much more useful pilgrimage, which, thanks to its existence, permits us to buy airline tickets.
And with pilgrimage, you’re quite close to the word story, it seems fair to conclude. Etymology won’t give you a solid link between those words, although, as concepts, you can’t really have one without the other. Lengthy journeys—whether grand pilgrimages or mere holidays—form much of literature’s foundation. Telling a story almost always involves talking about travel, even if the trip is metaphoric rather than literal. For countless fables and mythologies and adventures, there’s no evading the symbolism: the story ensues from a basic premise of departure, journey, and arrival, with some tales even including return fares. The examples are endless, and cover everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Kerouac’s On the Road.
Echos of a journey, one that’s intrinsically human, come through all of these narratives: take a cautious but decisive step away from the campfire and into the unknown, learn or discover or conquer, then, most crucially, bring back your story. If you can grab the attention of those around the fire—make them laugh, see their rapt eyes, help them sleep—then the job is complete.
One obvious yet unstated aspect for all of these stories is that what’s lugged back home must have required some effort. Whether it’s knowledge you’ve gained, an experience you’ve suffered, or a place you’ve discovered—the journey influences the endpoint. The impressive item you found wouldn’t be impressive if you didn’t travel to find it. To borrow and corrupt a metaphor that’s certainly a hundred centuries old: the top of a mountain is only notable because it’s atop a mountain.
The paragraphs above came after my eye caught an article in yesterday’s Corriere Della Sera, which detailed the potential for a hyperloop between Rome and Milan by bullet train at a rather alarming speed. Traveling between those cities hasn’t been adventurous for a rather long time, though there was a time when an Emperor might fight a few battles, struggle with indecision about crossing a notable river, and even find some time to write a short book of poetry on the journey. A hyperloop would, instead, give you just enough to time to finish a coffee.
What intrigues me—especially on a literary level—is how this advancement of speed changes our perception of distance. As the time between distances shrinks, our conception of a journey, of the trials and thresholds and transitions during a journey, will inevitably shift. The hardships of travel are frequently linked to the lessons of travel, yet those hardships only arise because of the difficulties of distance.
Keeping his ears exposed, Odysseus, in perhaps the best known journey in the Odyssey, has himself tied to the mast, which allows him to hear the enchanting, forbidden song of the Sirens while his crew, their ears blocked, continues to row. Interpretations of the scene have shifted over the centuries, but, almost always, Odysseus is seen with a conservative, or perhaps mature, nature while he crosses the sea. To hear the unhearable, he must restrain himself, and find a way to ignore his instincts. Long before he sails, he knows that he’ll face hardship during his journey when confronted with the Sirens, so he restrains himself against the desires he’ll have in the future. If you want a lesson about maturity, or about resisting your own destructive desires, it’s a reasonable start, and one with a tradition, but it also points—as does the entire Odyssey—to the milestones inherent in any journey, to the hurdles incurred during every long voyage.
Much later in the story, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, his appearance disguised. A scar on his leg, however, exposes him, his identity revealed by the everlasting mark of an early hunting lesson with his grandfather. Although he could disguise his appearance as a stranger, he couldn’t remold his flesh. Scars and blemishes and divots and wounds are one measure of life that linger, the gashes like tallies that help to count the years. And, in this story, the scar comes from a hunting trip, an early journey, its experience forever branded to Odysseus’ leg.
With the shrinking of every distance, nothing is lost in the potential for metaphoric journeys, the rites of passage for which every culture builds its traditions, norms, and customs. The trigger for those trials just won’t come from traversing a long distance, as distance doesn’t offer any threshold to cross if the journey is seamless. But the instinct to explore, to depart, won’t vanish, it will merely follow a different path, one that’s more internal. Finding a cocoon of comfort and staying forever near the fire where it’s warm will remain a most inhuman act, though the first steps away from camp won’t resemble our timeworn, fundamental tales. A long trip becomes an insufficient metaphor for literature once all trips are short. What remains, instead, is the cerebral, the internal, the transformation that occurs while the eyes are closed.