It is as if the old pleasures of the End of History world, the pleasures of the post-1989 world I grew up in—of Pax Americana and global connectivity and all that; that kind of fun, Millennial travel abroad world—are veiled by the optics of the semi-dystopian fan fiction wrought by the pandemic. The persistence of that naive, consumerist Americanized Europe is actually quite eerie; naive globalism seems like it may be the unkillable feature of this century, actually.
The espresso is the same, the trashy pan-Euro socialites the same, the fat Americans the same, the old Italian ladies on their way to church the same—but that sameness is marred, however slightly, by the feeling that the script is bugged, that everyone is playing roles that no longer quite make as much sense as they used to. It is as if we all collectively decided to pretend that this mode of civilization is eternal and fundamentally solid, even while it teeters on the brink of a kind of neurotic crack-up.
The other night I walked around Florence by myself for a few hours—and I was filled, by the end of the night, with a really wretched and almost unutterable sense of loneliness. I found that I had almost no ability to merely exist, merely be; that without artificial, pre-planned fun, I was at a loss as to how to enjoy myself. Even while I tried to write, I felt myself wanting to look at my phone, hoping for a message from someone, anyone at home—and I resented myself for wanting that. I realized, essentially, that the flaneur, my preferred role, was dead—absurd. I realized that I was being absurd.
The best things in ourselves—our capacity for self-reliance, inwardness, imagination—are not entirely compatible with the nervous, clingy style that is both forced and suggested by modern structures, habits, and mores. To simply be alone becomes impossible if you become addicted to predictability, automaticity. It’s too frightening.
Physical reality has become more like Internet reality: people are herded together—algorithmizingtogether, content producing together; chance meetings, romantic epiphanies, wandering, accidents, randomnesses of all kinds are reduced, or even elided altogether. On the grid of the Old World, the grid of the Ultra New World is imposed and inscribed and re-inscribed until it is the Only World.
Books always make uncanny travel companions and, to my mind, serve as corrective lenses for the digital lens, the phone lens.
Travel forces you to select your reading, to cull your library down to almost nothing, to figure out what you can read and reread over a certain period of time—to figure out what nourishes.
I wonder if a summer vacation is just a chance to be alone with a few books, a few minds, so that they have a chance to really work upon you.
The dead are very interesting people.