I: On Anticipation
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summer breaking down the usual boundaries between indoors and out and allowing me to feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.
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If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels.
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They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.
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Nature was at her most benevolent. It was as if, in creating this small horseshoe bay she had chosen to atone for her ill temper in other regions and decided for once to display only her munificence.
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‘the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience'.
II: On Travelling Places
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‘It always seems to me that I'll be well where I am not, and this question of moving is one that I'm forever entertaining with my soul.'
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The true desire was to get away—to go, as he concluded, ‘anywhere! anywhere! so long as it is out of the world!'
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Slough/the Caspian: the plane a symbol of worldliness, carrying within itself a trace of all the lands it has crossed, its eternal mobility offering an imaginative counterweight to feelings of stagnation and confinement.
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A great ship made him think of ‘a vast, immense, complicated but agile creature, an animal full of spirit, suffering and heaving all the sighs and ambitions of humanity'.
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And to think that all along, hidden from our sight, our lives were that small: the world we live in but almost never see, the way we must appear to the hawk and to the gods.
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The clouds usher in tranquillity. Below us are enemies and colleagues, the sites of our terrors and our griefs, all of them now infinitesimal, mere scratches on the earth.
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The twenty-four-hour diner, the station waiting room and the motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a home in the ordinary world—those whom Baudelaire might have dignified with the honorific poets.
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At this last stop before the road enters the endless forest, what we have in common with others can loom larger than what separates us.
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Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks—charged with listening to music, for example, or following a line of trees.
III: On the Exotic
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we may value foreign elements not only because they are new but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland can provide.
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What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
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For me, my native country is the country I love, meaning the one that makes me dream, that makes me feel well. I am as much Chinese as I am French, and I cannot rejoice about our victories over the Arabs because I am saddened by their defeats. I love those harsh, enduring, hardy people, the last of the primitives, who at midday lie down in the shade under the bellies of their camels and, while smoking their chibouks, poke fun at our good civilisation, which quivers with rage over it'
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Tm no more modern than ancient, no more French than Chinese, and the idea of a native country—that is to say, the imperative to live on one bit of ground marked red or blue on the map and to hate the other bits in green or black—has always seemed to me narrow-minded, blinkered and profoundly stupid. I am a soul brother to everything that lives, to the giraffe and to the crocodile as much as to man.'
IV: On Curiosity
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He can gaze at old buildings and feel ‘the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower and fruit, and that his existence is thus excused and indeed justified'.
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Having made a journey to a place we may never revisit, we feel obliged to admire a sequence of things which have no connection to one another besides a geographic one and a proper understanding of which would require a range of qualities unlikely to be found in any one person.
V: On the Country and the City
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The poet proposed that nature—which he took to comprise, among other elements, birds, streams, daffodils and sheep—was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.
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Natural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us—oaks dignity, pines resolution, lakes calm—and therefore may, in unobtrusive ways, act as inspirations to virtue.
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Their survival led him to argue that we may see in nature certain scenes that will stay with us throughout our lives and offer us, every time they enter our consciousness, both a contrast to and relief from present difficulties. He termed such experiences in nature ‘spots of time':
VI: On the Sublime
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If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising that things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains. Sublime places gently move us to acknowledge limitations that we might otherwise encounter with anxiety or anger in the ordinary flow of events. It is not just nature that defies us. Human life is as overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us. If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.
VII: On Eye-Opening Art
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As Nietzsche knew, reality itself is infinite and can never be wholly represented in art. What made van Gogh unusual among Proverai artists was his choice of what he felt was important.
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Art cannot single-handedly create enthusiasm, nor does it arise from sentiments of which nonartists are devoid; it merely contributes to enthusiasm and guides us to be more conscious of feelings that we might previously have experienced only tentatively or hurriedly.
VIII: On Possessing Beauty
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A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one's life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.'
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The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.'
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Drawing allows us, in Ruskin's account, ‘to stay the cloud in its fading, the leaf in its trembling, and the shadows in their changing'.
IX: On Habit
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‘The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room'—Pascal, Pensées, 136.
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There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their way through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed. Dressed in pink-and-blue pyjamas, satisfied within the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.