Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adventures of the Spirit

Avon Country Lane, 2002

The other night I started reading Look at the Birdie which, despite the title, is not a book about photography. Rather, it's a collection of previously unpublished short stores by the late Kurt Vonnegut. I’m a longtime Vonnegut fan and not above reaching into the grave, as it were, for more. Reviewers have questioned whether these stories went unpublished because Vonnegut didn’t think they were any good. I’m sure someone will also claim the book's a last ditch effort to make a little money off a dead author. (There's a similar posthumously published collection of work from William Styron also just out.)

I’m willing to take that risk. So far it's been worth it. I read Slaughterhouse Five in school and from there quickly worked through the Vonnegut oeuvre. I usually enjoy his work so much tha I ended up passing the books along to friends. I have no idea how many copies of Breakfast of Champions I’ve bought through the years to give away. (Not enough, it seems, to have a copy left for myself.)

I say Look at the Birdie isn’t about photography. But there on the first page of the first story (“Confido) is a reference to a character who “had been content with inexpensive possessions and small adventures of the spirit.”

“Adventures of the spirit.” I like that idea. In Vonnegut’s story the character so described lives a closely prescribed life. “Adventures of the spirit” is used almost to belittle that life. But doesn't every artist hope to create an unusual, possibly exciting experience?

For as long as I can remember I've been an armchair traveler. I poured through decades old encyclopedias when I was a child. Sure, some of the listings were outdated. Borders changed between 1942, when the encyclopedias were printed, and the mid-to-late 1950s when I was looking at them. But the pyramids are the pyramids, right? Later on I used Ordnance maps from Britain and Michelin touring maps to plot imaginary drives from the Highlands of Scotland down to Cornwall and across Europe from Brittany eastward to the edge of what was then known as the Iron Curtain. Armed with maps, red Michelin guides and the occasional National Geographic, I tasted the history, the culture and the food of all these places, if only in my mind.

These days, I can still be captivated for hours by Google Earth and Google Maps. The perspective's a little funky at times, but I can still see the Taj Mahal. I can see exactly where on the map some of my Flickr friends who live in little towns in faraway countries are. This may not fit the classic definition of a thrill. But it makes me feel connected to these people and places in a way that is exciting and real. If that's not an adventure of the spirit, I don' t know what it.

So what is it about adventures of the spirit that's cheap or worthy of ridicule? After a brief flirtation with a magical invention that connects her to a richer, fancier life, Vonnegut's character concludes that the device is really a pipeline straight to her worst impulses and settles happily back into her dowdy housecoat to fix dinner for her family.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post, Chris! I'm a huge Vonnegut fan. (Styron, too, for that matter.) And Breakfast of Champions is probably my all-time favorite. He has a quote I've loved forever: "I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center."

    I wasn't aware of his new book or Styron's, so I'll have to seek them out. The last Styron I read was his Darkness Visible.

    That photo is amazing. Armchair traveling is something I happen to be very practiced in as well--I do a lot of traveling, but since I was a kid, I've gone off to many places in my mind. (Or I suppose I've taken adventures of the spirit. ) As Vonnegut would say, "and so it goes."

    Or, for that matter, he might just say,