Using historical anecdotes and contrarian rhetoric, psychoanalyst Bayard (French Literature/Univ. of Paris 8; Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, 2008, etc.) argues that physical travel is unnecessary, and even inadvisable, when trying to understand faraway places.
Throughout the book, the author celebrates the “armchair traveler,” but he defines this person in several different ways. Bayard does not believe that Marco Polo actually traveled to China but instead stayed near medieval Venice and collected the stories of real travelers. Iconoclastic to the end, he criticizes the anthropologist Margaret Mead for failing to understand the Samoans she met firsthand, yet he praises Immanuel Kant for inventing modern philosophy without leaving his hometown. Bayard is fond of Phileas Fogg, the Jules Verne character who circled the globe but barely interacted with any part of it. Perhaps the book loses something in the translation, but Bayard makes few discernible points except that he doesn’t consider travel a worthwhile endeavor. “If you are obligated in spite of everything to travel,” he posits, “the best solution is to do it as quickly as possible, avoiding lingering anywhere along the way since nothing good can come of it.” His position is so bizarre as to seem satirical, but if he’s kidding, Bayard never winks. In the strangest chapter of all, he references the journalist Jayson Blair, who wrote about a war veteran in Texas, but the encounter was both made-up and largely plagiarized. Then he writes, “if we leave aside the moral dimension of journalistic trickery, Jayson Blair’s story does pose the almost philosophic question, already latent in our previous examples, of knowing what it actually means to be in a place.” Perhaps this “almost philosophic question” is almost valid and almost worth taking seriously. But in the end, the book feels like a pseudo-intellectual exercise. Bayard strives to applaud imagination and postmodern thinking, but his treatise comes off as stubbornly provincial, an overthought con game.
A jumbled collection of random stories and half-baked ideas.