Return to the Unfamiliar: Study Tour Reflections by Davis Smith
We moderns exist in a vacuous vault, floating about without roots in the tenuous, unanchored space of corporate life, entertainment culture, and the Internet. The Western world has succeeded in creating societies that are very efficient and very happy, but cut off from the lasting sources of meaning that have informed cultural awareness for the vast majority of its existence. Even as someone who tries my best to consciously resist this oppressive attitude of pragmatism, I find it increasingly more difficult to escape from. Oh sure, we can repeat comforting platitudes, such as that of Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Or more clichéd words about the value of kindness, empathy, and virtue as potent tools for doing our part in correcting the world’s waywardness. But repeat them until we’re blue in the face, and we still haven’t the slightest idea how to take any meaningful steps to implement these lofty ideals. How can I, a mere wanderer, personally connect with what matters most and spread this to others when everything around me seems to lack direction?
This was admittedly not the first reason why I chose to join BLC’s June 2023 study tour to England, led by the inimitable and all-around magnanimous Dr. David Reagles and Prof. Ben Faugstad. However, it was to be one of the profoundest and most lasting impacts of my experience abroad. My initial reasons for joining the tour were about the same as yours would probably be. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I get to go with dear friends and beloved professors! How glorious would it be to see all these immortal sights first-hand! Yet traveling has an uncanny way of upsetting expectations. And though I don’t wish to romanticize my experiences, in the weeks after my return I found myself routinely visited by a strange, lovely, wistful feeling that can only come from an exhilarating, perplexing, transformative encounter with beauty (I have previously written of the challenges and virtues of such encounters). For during these extraordinarily full 14 days abroad, I hardly had time to do any actual processing—contemplation, if you will—of what was before me. I simply tried my hardest to soak up the perceptions so that the memories would be as vivid and full-bodied as possible for later unpacking. This is my attempt to sort out those memories and the undefinable sensations which they created in me. Rather than painstakingly drag you, the reader, through every last memorable moment of the trip (which would create a small book), I instead offer you three choice reflections plucked from the manifold fruits of an adventure that may very well come to be a defining event in my long-term formation.
II. The Monstrous Ant-Hill
Within the first 24 hours of touching down in Albion (as, I hear, Brits refer to their country when they are in an especially grandiose, patriotic mood), I discovered that touring the Old World forces one to be much more receptive than many of us have ever had to be. In the U.S., buildings from the 1920s are considered “historical” and the oldest documents from our founding are from the 18th century. The past does not play an active role in our quotidian existences here; we can and do choose to ignore it. But the second that the modern suburbs surrounding Heathrow Airport give way to the outskirts of London itself, one finds oneself in an enchanted realm of hypnotically chaotic, strangely beautiful structures, from 16th century stone churches to endless stacks of Victorian townhouses. London is a city of endless, restless, entrancing patterns. Despite the immensity and bustle of the city, there is a paradoxical intimacy to it due to its sheer elfin charm and its magnificent arrangement. This, this is the city which Dickens used as a canvas to display the most curious and colorful specimens of humanity. This is the city where sparring generations of dukes and lords, Catholics and Protestants, heirs and claimants, Whigs and Tories, Churchmen and Dissenters, squabbled in plain sight on the streets. As we drove in, I felt as if I was inhabiting the universe of a painting—a dreamlike realm that rests mysteriously yet comfortably in between imagination and reality (that split between mystery and comfort, discord and rhyme, the overwhelming and the familiar, would come to mark the entire trip).
The initial arrival reached the peak of its grand crescendo when those oceans of venerable buildings gave way to the incomparable sight of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the Parliament Building blasting blinding sunlight off their glistering spires. Most of us know what these look like from photographs, but nothing prepares you for the gold filigrees, the spiraling columns, the wealth of intricate details studding these edifices from a time when beauty not only mattered, but was taken more seriously than just about anything else.
This also is the city of which that hopelessly starry-eyed tree-hugger Wordsworth wrote (in The Prelude):
“Rise up, thou monstrous ant-hill on the plain of a too busy world! Before me flow, thou endless stream of men and moving things! Thy every-day appearance, as it strikes—with wonder heightened, or sublimed by awe—on strangers, of all ages; the quick dance of colors, lights, and forms; the deafening din; the comers and the goers face to face, face after face; the string of dazzling wares…what a shock for eyes and ears! What anarchy and din, barbarian and infernal—a phantasm, monstrous in color, motion, shape, sight, sound!”
It is impossible to disagree with Wordsworth’s account of this exhausting, sprawling, fantastical, sleazy, sublime city. Walking its variegated streets across four days of touring it as I did, one encounters a dizzying onslaught of every possible shade of human passion and station, but there is also a lofty poetry—for Wordsworth, an “ennobling harmony”—buried amidst the madness. In the same way in which, in Aristotle’s conception of a tragic play, the viewer is moved to inner purification (catharsis) by contemplation of fear and pity, I found a sort of mad, unexpected solace in contemplating this wild, tragicomic thing we call the human condition. In this embodied painting of a city, I felt like I was inhabiting two worlds at once: an immediate, enrapturing one which put me into direct contact with the glorious heritage of Western culture; and an incomprehensible, intimidating one where the same senseless bustle and superficiality from which I sought to escape was magnified to the thousandth degree. Both the highest triumphs and lowest sloughs of experience are contained here, often within the same street. London is, then, a microcosm of the contemporary predicament. All of us who are living in America dwell amidst invisible remnants of a mighty past—of romanticized founding figures, defining historical moments, and the inescapable presence of the ardent faith that moved earnest sojourners to brave the wind-whipped seas in search of a world that many didn’t even think existed. In London one is faced with material and moral decay, but amid it all stands those mighty marks of civil and domestic grandeur from which we cannot escape, and which stand in defiance even to the great futuristic skyscrapers of the central business district. They are not only remnants, but hugely visible ones. We are perfectly free to deride or ignore the traditions that molded us, as are we to construct edifices that we believe to be superior to them. But our derision and our ignorance will always take place within the lived context of those traditions themselves, just as no one can exist in London without being overshadowed by the dome of St. Paul’s or the towers of Westminster.
III. The Aesthetics of the Everyday
Despite being in Great Britain for two whole weeks, I only spent parts of two days in the countryside, that mystic place for which the limpid pastoral poems of Spenser, Hopkins, and Hardy had whetted my appetite. The two days now tend to blend together in my memory so that I momentarily forget which sights belonged to which day. Thus, I shall exercise my prerogative as a purveyor of disjointed reflections (no writer of linear narratives, I) to splice the experiences together in the following.
Even in the outermost suburbs of the Twin Cities where I grew up, if you wanted to walk from your home in a subdivision into unspoiled rural land, it would take you at least an hour to get past all the strip malls, car dealerships, and under-construction townhomes ringing the edge of the city. But locate a certain sidewalk on the north side of Cambridge, take it through quintessentially charming apartment neighborhoods, cross the street at a busy intersection, and you will find yourself, within the almost literal blink of an eye, standing next to cows on the other side of a short fence, staring across a rolling series of fields with the babbling River Cam flowing down their flanks. Say what you want about the Brits’ preferred methods of handling their national affairs, but they sure do know how to preserve what makes their nation glorious. To be frank, the country’s scenery is nothing to write home about. I get the same rustic satisfaction of openness from cruising through Minnesota’s corn fields. But it is really the little pockets of civilization scattered around the drab downs and heaths (two peculiarly British geographical terms) that captured my aesthetic imagination.
I hold fast in my conviction that the small town has the potential to be one of the most moving of all art forms. It is entirely possible to over-correct from urban dystopia and give too much glory to the august serenities of nature. Man too needs an abode—a community in which to thrive. And I would put any English country village up there with the waterfalls and canyons of our National Parks in terms of the sense of sheer belongingness which they offer to the viewer. Perhaps the untranslatable German word gemütlichkeit—”warmth” or “coziness” or “hominess” or however you want to define it—comes closest to describing it. Whenever I have an encounter with a natural wonder, I am struck not by a sense of cosmic insignificance but awe at the privilege of sharing the world with such beauty. In the same way I marveled at the blessedness of those who live amidst these moss-carpeted stone cottages, who cultivate their meticulous gardens of riotous colors so that the eye is never uncaught by their splendors even on a walk to take the trash out, who live under the wise authority of the village church’s towering steeple and the hourly pealing of its bells. These communities are surely not arranged primarily for efficiency; they hail from a time when beauty was not considered dispensable. Even larger cities like the famous spa retreat (and now tourist hotspot) of Bath and the great epicenters of learning in Cambridge and Oxford were originally imagined as immense artworks woven into the fabric of the everyday. To walk the streets of these cities is enough to make you pledge never to consider a building or a street as meaningless ever again. It makes you be a little more intentional about how you set your dinner table, even when eating alone. It convicts you of the importance of dressing with respect. It makes you want to plant a garden and hang British Romantic landscape paintings on your walls and arrange your books to beguile the eye. In short, the Old World city introduces you to the meaning of everyday aesthetics. Why do we conventionally limit such pleasures to the museum, the gallery, the concert hall, the library? Why don’t we go out of our way to foster beauty, so that we don’t have to go out of our way to see it?
IV. Post Scriptum
This most slovenly and unorthodox of travelogues could theoretically continue, but as I meditate further on the broad brushstrokes of my trip that my memory was able to preserve, I struggle to think of any major takeaways that don’t have some connection to those discussed above—the surreal symphony of sublime and grotesque encapsulated by London, and the penetrating aesthetic education exemplified by the “quaint English city”. Of course there was an endless procession of immortal sights which I and my companions toured. Westminster. St. Paul’s. Ely Cathedral. The Bodleian Library. The National Gallery. The British Museum. Cathedral evensongs. A 13th-century castle. We also had several deeply stirring musical experiences and encounters with the manuscripts of geniuses of every shade from da Vinci to Bach. But many of these experiences are simply failed by the capacity of language, and even if words can approximate familiarity, my intention is not to give you a portrait of England, but a snapshot of one pilgrim’s post-adventure process of reckoning. Thus I gloss over the specifics of all these in favor of this summary statement which, above all else, is the lesson of the trip that will stick with me the longest: if we are to be anchored people—”men with chests,” as C.S. Lewis would say, stocked with treasure from the storehouses of culture and equipped with hearts to know and love the good—if we are to be such people, then for crying out loud, we’ve got to get outside of our bubbles!
I admit to having advocated for reading as a much less expensive substitute for travel; the inhabitation of imaginative realms and literary scenarios as a potent tool for building sympathy and acuity. So it is. But it doesn’t stack up to physically standing amidst the motley crowd of Trafalgar Square or the lushly ordered splendor of the country village. We must not let our studies turn us into smug gnostics who retreat into our heads for comfort and spend our leisure savings on entertainment to feed our wayward fancies. The second you have the monetary means to visit a place that is significantly closer to the fountain of our civilization than we are, do it. As a Westerner, this was an intra-cultural trip (which is certainly no more or less worthwhile than an inter-cultural one), meaning that the rewards of such a journey will more approximate deja vu than utter novelty. You may not have the same experience that I did. But you will have an experience. And if you are at all attuned to the sonorous voice of the ages and the multifaceted music of the present moment, you will return not only with an enlarged set of perceptions, but an enlarged conception of what it means to live well.